Taking a pill to receive the benefits of exercise without actually having to workout may be a reality for obese patients in the near future. Researchers from the University of Southampton in Britain have created a new molecule that triggers a chain reaction in cells, mimicking the calorie-burning effects of exercise. The study, published in the journal Chemistry & Biology, demonstrates the compound’s potential in treating obesity and type 2 diabetes.

The molecule, labeled “compound 14,” works by turning off the enzyme ATIC, which plays a key role in regulating metabolism and insulin signals in the body. As a result, another molecule called ZMP starts accumulating within the cells, making the body’s energy sensor — AMPK — think the body has run out of energy. The cells try to make up for the feigned energy loss by speeding up metabolism and increasing glucose uptake, ultimately burning more sugar in the body to create energy.

"There is a lot of evidence from previous studies that if you could selectively activate AMPK with a small molecule, it could have potential benefits in the treatment of several diseases, including type 2 diabetes, by acting as an exercise mimetic and increasing the uptake and usage of glucose and oxygen by cells,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Ali Tavassoli, a chemical biology professor, in a press release. Our molecule, which activates AMPK by altering cellular metabolism, therefore holds much promise as a potential therapeutic agent."

The study’s co-author Felino Cagampang said that although the new molecule simultaneously reduces sugar levels and decreases body weight, it only works if the person is obese. When mice with a normal diet were treated with compound 14, their glucose levels dropped and remained normal. When they replicated the experiment with obese mice on a high-fat diet, their glucose levels dropped to near-normal levels. After seven days, the obese mice had improved glucose tolerance and lost five percent of their body fat (1.5 grams). Meanwhile, it had no affect on the normal mice’s weight.

Exercise’s Irreplaceable Importance

With 78.6 million obese adults in the United States, this new compound has the potential to help a tremendous amount of people lose enough weight to transition into the overweight category. By just shifting out of the obese weight category, people will lower their risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. After patients lose enough weight, exercise will need to substitute compound 14 in order to keep the body’s metabolism up while burning sugar and fats.

Exercise works in a similar way and has been shown to be beneficial for diabetics because muscle contraction increases glucose uptake. Weight loss occurs when the body runs out of sugar to burn so it turns to fat for energy.

Weight loss isn’t the only benefit of exercise, though. The body demands more oxygen, which is transported through the blood. As exercise increases heart rate to circulate this oxygen, the heart becomes more efficient, allowing you to work out harder and for longer periods of time. As a result of increased blood flow, brain cells begin to function at higher levels, making you feel more alert, focused, and awake.

Once a regular exercise routine is established, the brain becomes used to frequent surges of blood, and it operates at optimal efficiency, improving learning and memory. Studies have also shown exercise can turn certain genes on and off in order to protect the brain from diseases such as stroke and even Alzheimer’s disease — and the list of benefits goes on.

According to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition, less than five percent of adults engage in 30 minutes of physical activity every day, and more than 80 percent of adults do not meet the recommendations for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. Because more than 80 percent of children and adolescents also don’t meet physical activity guidelines, it is likely they’ll grow up to lead a sedentary lifestyle like their predecessors. By using exercise as a preventative measure, along with a balanced diet, you’ll give yourself the greatest chance at a healthy life.

So, while the possibility of an exercise “pill” is groundbreaking, you shouldn’t trade in your running shoes just yet.

Source: Tavassoli A, Cagampang FR, Asby DJ, et al. AMPK Activation via Modulation of De Novo Purine Biosynthesis with an Inhibitor of ATIC Homodimerization. Chemistry & Biology. 2015.