Is Exercise the Best Medicine? New Research Raises Questions

October 04, 2013 by NYRR staff

Doctors with patients at risk of dying from coronary heart disease, prediabetes, and stroke should prescribe two things: medication and movement.

So say researchers behind a study recently published in the British Journal of Medicine. The team found exercise to be as effective as drugs in preventing deaths from the first two conditions, and in the case of stroke, data suggests that it’s actually better at keeping folks alive.

Examining 305 previous studies—a body of work involving some 339,000 people—scientists focused on four common causes of death: the three aforementioned ones and heart failure. As Runner’s World explains, their focus was “secondary prevention”—in other words, steps people can take to treat themselves once they’ve been diagnosed with conditions likely to do serious harm.

While it’s not as good as medicine (diuretics in particular) in terms of preventing death from heart failure, exercise is a “viable alternative” to drug therapy when it comes to the other potential killers, the researchers wrote.

But that doesn’t mean that people should simply swap their pills for running shoes and head to the trails. In fact, much of the exercise that the researchers considered took place at rehabilitation programs, and it varied from patient to patient.

“The results of our study by no means imply that people should stop taking their medications, especially without consulting their doctors,” study author Huseyin Naci, a fellow at the Harvard Medical School, told the Los Angeles Times.

Still, Naci and his colleagues say a “blind spot” exists in medical literature on the subject of whether combinations of drugs and exercise might work better than medication alone.

The findings may be especially meaningful in England, where only one-third of adults get what doctors consider sufficient exercise, the Los Angeles Times reports. (Apparently, docs don’t count standing in line at the pharmacy as proper physical activity, as the average English citizen had 17.7 prescriptions in 2010.)

Whether Americans are more active is a subject for debate, but according to survey published this week by Kaiser Permanente, adults in the United States are at least clued in to the benefits of motion. More than 90 percent of respondents said walking is useful for losing weight and preventing heart disease, and 79 percent said they know they should walk more.

"The survey findings confirm that the public is aware of the health benefits of walking,” said Christopher Fleury, vice president of GfK Custom Research, the firm behind the survey. “The key, then, is to motivate people to fit more walking into their busy lives.”

Categories: Human Interest