What if there was a prescription your doctor could give you that would lower your risk of heart attack, stroke, and most cancers? What if that prescription could also prevent and treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes as well as reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, decrease depression, and improve cognitive function and memory better than any other available treatment? Would you be interested in that prescription?
Imagine that prescription could also help you maintain a healthy body weight, increase your strength, and improve your fitness. And provide all of these benefits without negative side effects. Are you interested now?
This “missing” prescription is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
That prescription exists, but it isn’t a drug or other medical treatment. It is regular physical activity! Research shows that if you have a low level of physical activity you are at greater risk of dying than if you smoke, are obese, or have high blood pressure or cholesterol. In fact, physical inactivity is now thought to be the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States.
If you didn’t know this, you are forgiven. Much attention is given to diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity—with good reason, of course—at the expense of focusing on health behaviors like physical activity. This is partly because of the “education” provided by pharmaceutical companies, who develop drugs to treat these conditions and advertise them widely. But physical inactivity has a huge impact on health, largely because a lack of regular exercise can cause or exacerbate these other diseases. Unfortunately, modern medicine tends to focus medications and surgical procedures, so a low-tech approach like taking a 30 minute walk every day is often overlooked.
Even if you do take medications to treat a chronic condition, regular physical activity is still beneficial. In fact, people who exercise are less likely to require medications for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, or high cholesterol. Many people find that they can rely on lower doses of some medications and may be able to stop taking some altogether if they exercise regularly (under the advice of a physician, of course).
May is Exercise is Medicine Month, a time to help everyone recognize the valuable health benefits of regular physical activity. Exercise is Medicine is an initiative focused on encouraging physicians and other health care providers to include exercise in health assessment and in treatment plans for all patients. Unfortunately, the benefits of physical activity and exercise recommendations are not emphasized in medical education. The result is that only about a third of US adults report having received exercise counseling at their last physician visit.
The amount of exercise needed for health benefits is lower than you might think. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that all adults participate in a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week. This can be met by going for a 30 minute brisk walk on five days each week. For children, 60 minutes or more of moderate or vigorous physical activity every day is recommended. For everyone, additional health benefits come from doing more, either higher intensity exercise or longer duration activity and limiting sedentary time.
The Exercise is Medicine initiative aims to increase physician awareness of the health benefits of exercise, but it will probably be some time before exercise counseling becomes the norm. In the meantime, you should ask your doctor about including exercise in your personal health care plan. Then, go for a walk!