A pill for everything
December 27, 2015
Robert Maynard Hutchins used to quip that he got his exercise being pallbearer for his athletic friends. Hutchins denigrated athletics as a distraction from academic pursuits. One of his first acts as chancellor at the University of Chicago in 1929 was to terminate the football team.
Hutchins would be overruled today because sports are sacred on most college campuses. But his resistance to exercise would be widely accepted by a population plagued by corporeal neglect.
Mortimer Adler, the philosopher laureate of Aspen, had the same mindset. During an interview I did with him in the late 1980s, Adler described his process for writing a book: He wrote a chapter a day until it was done. Adler said he worked from 5 to 11 a.m. and then rested.
When I asked how he rested, suggesting that he might go for a stroll in the West End, where he was living, he raised his eyebrows and humphed: "I wouldn't walk across the street if I didn't have to."
For many, just the thought of exercise is revolting, especially for urbanites accustomed to ease and instant gratification through the hypnotic allure of screens. Heaven forbid one should break a sweat or raise the heart rate by doing something physical.
No worries. A new pill is being developed that holds the promise of exercise, and all it takes is a swallow. Time magazine reports that eight new drugs are in the works that will attempt to mimic the benefits of exercise.
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The exercise pill will infuse molecular pathways with hormones, phytochemicals and pharmacological agonists. (An agonist is a muscle that is checked and controlled by an opposing simultaneous contraction of another muscle.)
Pop an exercise pill, and your muscles will push and pull against one another, furnishing the fibrous friction of fitness — even while you sleep! Wake up the next morning, look in the mirror, and see the new you: a well-toned physique via chemical transmogrification.
What a boon for slackers whose doctors and spouses pester relentlessly about burning calories. Now they can pop a pill, lie around all day watching the game de jour and feel their bodies tightening with agonistic stimulation.
Time predicts it may take 20 years for the pill to be marketable, so treadmills still have a place in urban life. One day, however, the exercise pill will add to an already vast array of fix-it pills that can cure all that ails you with a few gulps before bed — or before sex if you're into that little blue pill.
We live in a pill culture, driven by the logic that ingesting chemical compounds is all that's needed for a healthy, happy life. Uppers, downers, vitamins, laxatives, stimulants, psychotropics, pain relievers, sleep aids, statins, birth control — the pill is the answer to the challenges of mortality.
Can happiness be achieved with an array of pills? Not if you were to ask philosophers like Adler or Hutchins. They prefer Aristotle's belief that happiness is the pursuit of wisdom (not wisdom itself). So far, that pursuit is not available in a pill.
My guess, however, is that somewhere in a spotless pharmaceutical laboratory, a pale, flabby, overworked brainiac is laboring over test tubes and microscopes developing a chemical compound that will give us wisdom without the rewarding effort to pursue it.
Somewhere in that lab is a rat in a cage just brimming with intelligence, the harbinger of a brave, new world. Students of the future will swallow smart pills to ace their exams and gulp exercise pills to play football.
Colleges and universities will become dispensaries where students are prescribed pills to enhance prospects for their future success. For adult education, just take a smart pill and instantly digest the great books of Western civilization, followed by a chaser of Einstein.
One day, we will all be fit, healthy and smart — with no effort at all — thanks to a pharmacological paradise of pill-popping perfection. Imagine settling back on the couch and enjoying a fulfilling life with only one last effort: the eternal struggle with child-proof caps that we're still not strong enough or smart enough to open.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays when he's not on a vacation pill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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