A shocking 86% of us fail to exercise regularly. This figure has slowly increased over the past twenty years as more men and women are admitted to hospital each day with a primary diagnosis of obesity. At the same time, conditions such as diabetes and coronary heart disease are on the rise and prescription medication is naturally seen as the best solution. Yet some people argue that our heavy reliance on prescription pills is unjustified and doctors should start to focus more on prescribing simple diet and lifestyle changes.
Regular exercise should lead to weight loss and help those who are overweight become healthier overall, but could physical activity compete with standard medication when it comes to treating serious illness? And what about people with a healthy BMI? Is exercise as effective as medicine for people who are already at a healthy weight?
A study published in the British Medical Journal suggests this could be the case. In a review of 305 controlled trials involving 339 274 participants, researchers found regular exercise to be remarkably effective in the prevention and treatment of a number of chronic conditions. The study, involving researchers from the London School of Economics, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute at Harvard Medical School and Stanford University School of Medicine analysed the effect of exercise on mortality rates connected to four main areas; the prevention of diabetes, secondary prevention of coronary heart disease, stroke rehabilitation and treatment for heart failure.
The research showed ‘no statistically detectable differences’ between exercise and medication for the prevention of diabetes and heart disease, a higher success rate than medication in stroke rehabilitation and a slightly lower success rate than diuretics for treating heart failure. Considering that the drugs used in the study are considered the most effective around for the prevention and treatment of these serious conditions, the results are startling.
Exercise is beneficial for any person at any age. A combination of cardiovascular, strength training and stretching is recommended, but any form on exercise is better than nothing.
As you exercise more regularly, your heart becomes stronger. Doctors will usually recommend starting with light aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, swimming or cycling that will increase your heart rate over a sustained period of time. This will improve blood flow by helping your heart use oxygen more effectively.
During exercise, muscles use up glucose as energy, which helps lower blood sugar levels in the body and encourages your body use insulin more effectively. You may find that embarking on a regular exercise regime could lead to a reduction in the amount of insulin you need to take. Diabetics are usually advised to aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, although this can be broken down into shorter bursts.
Approximately 5-14% of stroke victims will have another within a year’s time. It is therefore essential to minimise this risk with regular exercise. An article published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke found that out of the 27,000 American aged 45 than older, those who did not do regular exercise had a 20% increased risk of stroke. This is because exercise reduces other factors such as weight and high blood pressure related to stoke incidence.
This condition is caused by the loss of tissue, possibly as a result of vitamin deficiency and can leave the bones very brittle. Regular exercise can help strengthen bones or at least help prevent your bones from becoming weaker. Bone mass and density can be maintained by weight bearing exercise such as walking or dancing, resistance training with weights and stretching.
Leading a sedentary lifestyle or spending too much time in one position is often the cause of back or joint pain, so exercise is naturally the solution. Stretching exercises in particular can help loosen the joints and muscles and reduce pain. Your doctor may recommend yoga, Pilates or the Alexander technique in addition to manual therapy performed by a physiotherapist, osteopath or chiropractor.
According to Asthma UK, eight out of ten asthma sufferers do not do enough exercise, partly because of fears that intense activity will trigger an attack. But exercise helps improve lung capacity and stamina, which could help improve the quality of life. If you find exercise continues to trigger attacks, visit a GP or physiotherapist for advice on planning a safe and effective regime. Exercise is a wonder treatment for those living with pain or chronic conditions that is hugely underexploited. Study author and Lecturer at the University of South Australia, Michelle McDonnell, has stated, “Exercise reduces blood pressure, weight and diabetes. If exercise was a pill, you’d be taking one pill to treat four or five different conditions.”
Some types of exercise may work better than others when it comes to treating specific conditions. If you have a chronic condition, remember to seek help from a healthcare professional to prevent injury and make sure you get the most out of your exercise regime.