Sweating the Myth of the Exercise Pill

by Carol Torgan, Ph.D. on February 26, 2012

Exercise Pill myth

It happens almost every time a scientific study is published that shows a new substance appears to have a benefit similar to exercise. Some journalists seem unable to resist mention of an “exercise pill.” Most recently, an article in the journal Nature titled, “A PCG1-a-dependent myokine that drives brown-fat-like development of white fat and thermogenesis,” became “Discovery could lead to an exercise pill” in the MIT Technology Review.

Over the last several years we’ve had headlines such as Could a pill replace exercise? from Scientific American, Couch mouse to Mr. Mighty by pills alone from The New York Times, and Exercise pill hope for depression from BBC News.

These lines are the start of my guest post for HealthNewsReview.org, titled An “exercise pill”? Take two and call us in the morning. I go on to list 20+ criteria by which to assess whether any product or substance should be considered to have benefits similar to exercise. The criteria represent the health benefits of physical activity for which there are strong or moderate evidence, as documented in the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

In related commentary, First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Headline Writers, Rick Austin of Research Into Action highlights the issue of sensational headlines that are not in step with the accompanying article. He points out,

“There are two negative effects operating here. First, when a reputable publication like Scientific American or the New York Times makes a play for more reader’s eyeballs, uncritical readers take the headlines at face value and accept that there is a miraculous breakthrough. Second, readers who take the time to read the article and do some critical thinking are confused and put off by the gulf between the headline and the actual details.”

Scientific studies can be difficult to translate, let alone make relevant. It can be tempting to over-interpret them to the point of sensationalism. The use of “exercise pill,” whether by a headline writer, journalist, or scientist, is a particular pet peeve of mine because physical activity has so many amazing health benefits that can’t be bottled.

What’s your health-themed pet peeve?

Related posts
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Twelve Everyday Health Rules

‘Pill Bottle’ image courtesy of subsetsum at Flickr.

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Physical Activities That Give You The Best Burn For Your Buck
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