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Is Sestrin Really the Key to the Fabled ‘Exercise Pill’?

Workout pills have long been headline fodder, but the sad reality is: no pain, no gain

In early January, as hordes of people were reminding themselves that working out sucks, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan released a promising study proposing what could someday become a miraculous pill that mimics the effects of exercise. Naturally, much of the media heard “exercise pill” and ran freaking wild, suggesting that this product could erase the need to workout altogether, gyms be damned. 

Is that really the takeaway here, though? 

In short: Eh.

For one, this is nothing new. As we explained in an article over two years ago, “countless studies and trials are taking place all the time” to concoct a pill that “carries in it some or all of the benefits of exercise.” Moreover, as we concluded back then, “All of these drugs are still experimental, and it will be years, if ever, before they hit the market.” 

So yeah, people really, really want an exercise pill, but we’re really, really not getting one soon.

Now, as for this more recent study, before paying too much attention to the sensational headlines, we need to take a closer look at the findings. These focus on a protein called sestrin that accumulates in our muscles, helping them grow stronger and more resilient after we pump some iron. That being the basis for their study, the researchers genetically altered some flies to produce more sestrin than normal and found that they were more capable, and had higher endurance, than flies that had been forced to exercise on a sort of treadmill contraption for three weeks. (Despite the common belief that flies live for only a day, their lifespan can actually be up to a month long.) In simpler terms, extra sestrin made flies super fit without having to exercise, and the researchers found similar results in mice.

Now, if you’re not too distracted by the fact that someone invented tiny treadmills for flies (so many questions! What does it look like? Why would the fly run, instead of, y’know, flying???), the suggestion here is that, if we can pump up the sestrin levels in humans, we can become able-bodied without needing to sweat it out at the gym. The reality, however, is a lot less exciting, as reality often tends to be. 

“Sestrins are proteins synthesized within the cells, and we don’t have a way to deliver the protein into the cells,” says study co-author and University of Michigan physiology professor Jun Hee Lee. “Therefore, sestrins can’t be provided as a nutritional supplement at this time.” For now, Lee says he and his team are working to “understand how our cells synthesize sestrins and how we can facilitate this process, which could be more clinically applicable.”

All of which is to say, even if sestrins are the key to exercise-free fitness, don’t get your hopes up for a working exercise pill anytime soon. Furthermore, as Lee and his team explain in several other instances, a sestrin supplement would be more helpful for people who are bedridden — where the sestrin could help prevent wastage in incapacitated muscles — than for dudes hoping to get ripped from the comfort of their couches.

Plus, decorated personal trainer Jonathan Jordan reminds me, “There are many reasons to exercise besides just gaining muscle and losing a little bit of fat.” Working out can bolster your mental health, for example, or help you make some cool new friends. Or as Jordan emphasizes, “Much of the work I do is around improving posture, and dealing with aches, pains and problems. Sitting and being sedentary has lots of negative impacts on one’s health.” And while a sestrin pill might help negate some of that, humans will always benefit from getting up and moving around. “The body requires movement and exercise,” Jordan adds. “We’re designed to do it, and that’s not going to change. Our cells need it, our brains need it, our spirits need it and our souls need it.” 

I mean, agree to disagree, but I suppose he has a point.

As already discussed, Jordan adds, “I’d wager that the pill isn’t going to be able to build enough muscle to work on one’s aesthetic goals. So if you’re a bodybuilder, for instance, or just someone who wants to look sexy naked, I don’t think it’s going to push the needle that far.” After all, while the flies in the study had improved endurance, it can be assumed that they weren’t super buff or anything.

And so, in the end, while a sestrin pill might turn out to be a welcome relief for anyone who’s stuck in bed and needs a little help keeping their muscles alive, if we want to look and feel our best, we’re probably always going to need to put in at least some hard work.

In conclusion, the world is stupid.