What if I told you that there is a prescription your doctor could give you that would prevent and treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes as well as lowering your risk of heart attack, stroke, and most cancers. It can also decrease depression, improve memory and cognitive function better than any other available treatment, and reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. And it can help you maintain a healthy body weight, increase your strength, and help you live longer. You would insist your doctor prescribe this for you, right?
The good news is that this prescription exists. The bad news is your doctor may not tell you much about it. This is because it isn’t a drug or other medical treatment—it’s exercise!
Decades of research show that if you have a low level of physical activity or fitness you are at greater risk of dying than if you smoke, are obese, or have high blood pressure. In fact, physical inactivity is now thought to be the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States.
Becoming physically active can prevent and treat many chronic diseases. Commonly, people who exercise regularly are also less likely to require some medications or can rely on lower doses and may find they are able to stop taking others altogether (under the advice of a physician, of course).
In addition to clear benefits for “lifestyle” diseases like obesity and diabetes, exercise has been shown to help patients with diseases previously thought to be incurable. In one case, a patient with ALS—a condition with no real treatment, only palliative care—who began an exercise program was able to regain his ability to stand and walk with assistance. There is no other medical treatment that can achieve this outcome.
If you didn’t know this, you are forgiven. Much attention is given to treating diseases using medications and surgery at the expense of modifying on health behaviors like physical activity. This is partly because of the “education” provided by pharmaceutical companies, who develop drugs to treat common conditions and advertise them widely to physicians and 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.
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. Eventually, your doctor will be able to write you a prescription for exercise which you can fill at a fitness center, just like you fill a prescription for a medication at a pharmacy.
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!