Forget the pills — there’s new evidence that exercise may be as effective as medications in treating heart disease and diabetes.
Doctors now advise everyone, from young children to older adults, to become more physically active. It’s the best way to maintain a healthy weight, keep the heart muscle strong, and improve your mental outlook. But can exercise be as good as drugs in actually preventing disease and treating serious chronic illnesses?
That’s what researchers from the London School of Economics, Harvard Medical School and Stanford University School of Medicine wanted to find out. They compared the effect of exercise to that of drug therapy on four different health outcomes: heart disease, recovery from stroke, heart failure treatment and preventing diabetes.
The scientists pooled the results of 305 trials involving 339,274 people who were randomly assigned to either an exercise program or a drug-based therapy and found that there were no detectable differences between the two groups when it came to preventing diabetes and keeping additional events at bay for heart patients. And the physical activity was most powerful for participants who experienced a stroke. The only group that didn’t benefit from the exercise over drugs were patients with heart failure, likely because the strain of the physical activity wasn’t recommended for their condition.
The findings involving diabetes patients confirmed previous trials that documented how effective physical activity can be in bringing blood sugar levels down.
So why do most doctors prescribe drugs over exercise? There are more rigorous studies testing the effectiveness of drug therapies to treat common diseases, say the study authors, than there are studies that test the power of exercise. With these results, however, the researchers hope to see more work on how exercise can be a significant part of a treatment program for diseases ranging from heart problems to diabetes.
Those studies will need to analyze physical activity in the same way that drugs are studied, to determine how much exercise is needed to trigger beneficial changes in the body that can treat or prevent disease.
Currently, to maintain optimum health, federal experts recommend that people exercise at a moderate intensity for about 2.5 hours a week. But fewer than half of Americans meet that recommendation, and a third of Americans don’t get any exercise at all. The latest findings should encourage even those who aren’t active, however, since research shows even just talking a brisk walk can help lower the risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, and be as powerful as medications in keeping the body healthy.