Readers of our site have no doubt heard for years that regular exercise leads to healthier minds and bodies, but new research indicates that physical exercise on a routine basis is just as effective as prescription medications in treating chronic, sometimes deadly, diseases – and without all of the associated drug toxicities.
According to a study published recently in the British Medical Journal, scientists from the London School of Economics, Harvard Medical School and Stanford University School of Medicine wanted to see if the benefits of exercise and drugs from past clinical trials were comparable, in a bid to see if they could extend a person’s life.
Doctors should be discussing exercise as therapy with patients
“What we have is a body of research that looks at benefits of exercise alone and then a separate body of research that looks at benefits of drugs on their own,” lead researcher Huseyin Naci, a researcher at the London School of Economics and a pharmaceutical policy research fellow at the Harvard Medical School, told FoxNews.com. “There’s never been a study that compares these two together, so that’s the rationale for this research.”
Naci’s team examined four areas of health where the evidence suggests or has shown that exercise can have some lifesaving benefits. Those areas were secondary prevention of heart disease, prevention of diabetes, stroke rehabilitation and treatment of heart failure.
Researchers then compiled a list of the different classes of drugs people commonly take to manage these conditions, and ultimately came up with 305 randomized clinical trials to analyze. The study involved 339,274 people, 15,000 of whom received physical intervention for their health conditions while the rest were included in drug trials.
Overall, the researchers saw no significant difference between exercise and drug intervention for the secondary prevention of heart disease and the prevention of diabetes. And in the case of stroke patients, exercise was found to be more effective than drug treatment at extending a person’s mortality. However, diuretic drugs were found to be more effective than exercise and other drugs for the helping[sic] patients with heart failure.
Given the team’s findings, Naci says the study’s results indicate that heart disease and diabetes patients should not completely deviate from their current treatment standards.
“One thing that is very much not a takeaway is that patients should stop taking their medications without consulting with their doctors,” Naci said. “However, doctors do need to have really candid conversations with patients about the lifesaving benefits of exercise.”
Naci goes on to say, however, that therapies combining both diet and exercise might not be the answer either, because one might work against the other. He points to a recent study published by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology which found that statins, which are commonly prescribed to lower cholesterol, may actually block some of the health benefits of exercise.
Sports medicine should be the avenue of research
What patients really deserve, said Naci, is a better understanding of which are the best treatment options, and for that, more clinical trials would be needed in order to close the knowledge gap.
“We need a lot more research to really tease out the lifesaving benefits from exercise,” he said, “as well as which exercise works best for different types of individuals.”
The concept of using exercise to combat chronic illness isn’t new, according to a separate study published in the British Medical Journal in 2004. But it did not gain respect as a potential treatment modality until the 20th century.
“Today, exercise scientists are exploring the limits of exercise as a therapy – of exercise as a medicine,” write G.E. Moore. “Sports medicine doctors, the few physicians who actually know something about both exercise and medicine, ought to be leading this transformation. For every injured athlete, there are a score of patients for whom exercise prescription should be the cornerstone of their medical management.”
J. D. Heyes