Can exercise really be the best medicine?

Posted at Nov 7, 2013

We all know that regular exercise is good for you, but new research published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has found that in the case of some diseases, exercise can be more effective than certain medications.

Researchers looked at results from nearly 340,000 patients who had already suffered from heart disease and stroke to see how exercise compared to using prescribed drugs. In the case of stroke, physical activity was found to be more successful than some medication in preventing death. And exercise was found to be equally as effective as certain drugs for preventing people who had already suffered one heart attack from suffering another.

However, exercise was not universally found to be more effective. In the case of patients recovering from heart failure, a group of drugs known as diuretics were found to be better. Overall the study, which also examined patients at risk of developing diabetes, concluded that exercise was equally as effective as medication in preventing early death.

The researchers, from the London School of Economics, Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare Institute at the Harvard Medical School and Stanford University School of Medicine, published their findings in October 2013 after reviewing 305 randomized trials that compared the effects of taking pills and exercise. They acknowledge that there is less data examining the role of physical activity and have called for more studies to be carried out into the role of exercise in preventing early death.

Whilst the study may get patients thinking about the importance of exercise and get prescribing authorities to consider if savings could be made longer term, it is not a call to ditch the drugs altogether. Instead experts are recommending that both drugs and exercise need to work side by side, in combination with each other, for maximum benefit.

What sort of exercise brings these health benefits?

The studies reviewed looked at a variety of exercises, frequency and levels of intensity so no single advice can be given.  However, the NHS recommends that adults aged from 19-64 years old should be moderately active (eg swimming, cycling, fast walking) for at least two and a half hours a week or have at least one hour and fifteen minutes a week of intense exercise, such as running or racket sports. Muscle strengthening exercises, such as sit-ups or exercises with weights, involving all major muscle groups should also be done twice or more a week.

Aside from the study, exercise has been found to improve a sense of wellbeing and boost energy. Other lifestyle choices, such as eating a healthy diet and stopping smoking, were not considered in this study but are also known to be important in preventing disease and aiding recovery.

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