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Exercise Rather Than Medication?

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Senior Fitness

We all know that exercise is good for us, but might it be possible that some prescribed medications could be reduced or eliminated altogether if we were to view physical activity as a form of active treatment for some long-term medical conditions? Recent research suggests that this may be so.

In a report published this week on bmj.com, the online version of the British Medical Journal, researchers suggest that physical activity is potentially as effective as many drug interventions for patients with existing coronary heart disease and stroke, and may prevent the onset or worsening of diabetes.

The researchers suggest that exercise "should be considered as a viable alternative to, or alongside, drug therapy."

Physical activity has well documented health benefits, yet in the UK, only 14% of adults exercise regularly, with roughly one third of adults in England meeting recommended levels of physical activity. In contrast, prescription drug rates continue to skyrocket, sharply rising to an average of 17.7 prescriptions for every person in England in 2010, compared with 11.2 in 2000.

Researchers based at the London School of Economics, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute at Harvard Medical School and Stanford University School of Medicine set out to compare the effectiveness of exercise versus drugs on mortality across four conditions (secondary prevention of coronary heart disease, rehabilitation of stroke, treatment of heart failure and prevention of diabetes).

"Secondary prevention" refers to treating patients with existing disease to reduce the risks of worsening health — for example, by reducing the likelihood of such patients experiencing a further stroke or heart attack.

They analysed the results of 305 randomised controlled trials involving 339,274 individuals and found no statistically detectable differences between exercise and drug interventions for secondary prevention of heart disease and prevention of diabetes.

Among stroke patients, exercise was more effective than drug treatment.

For patients with heart failure, however, diuretic drugs ("water tablets") were more effective than exercise and all other types of drug treatment.

Although much more research is needed, the authors of the study say that, based on the available data, physical activity is potentially as effective as many drug interventions.

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Important note: please do not stop or reduce any prescribed medication without consulting your doctor. Increasing your physical exercise should always be done carefully and gently in the first instance. Your doctor should be consulted for personal medical advice.

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