Exercise may be as good as drugs for treating some diseases

By Lesley Dobson , Wednesday 2 October 2013, source: SAGA

Could a brisk walk in the park one day take the place of a prescription drug?

Only around one third of adults reach recommended levels of activity Exercise is good for us – it’s well documented, and a message that is sent out loud and clear by health experts, websites, newspapers and magazines. Now new research has found that exercise is potentially as effective as drugs in dealing with some common diseases.

It’s news worth heeding, especially for the vast majority of people in the UK who don’t do enough exercise. Only 14 percent of UK adults exercise regularly, and in England only around one third of adults (aged 19 – 64) reach recommended levels of activity. These are to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity spread over five days of the week, and muscle-strengthening activity (heavy gardening and yoga for instance), on two days a week*.
To carry out this research scientists studied 16 meta-analyses (studies that have systematically evaluated information from a number of other studies on the same topic). This meant that they looked at information on 339,275 participants in 305 randomised controlled trials.

Couple walking physical active

The aim was to compare how effective exercise is compared to drugs, on death rates involving four specific conditions. These were:

  • Secondary prevention of heart disease (patients have the condition but it isn’t yet causing significant illness)
  • Rehabilitation of stroke
  • Treatment of heart failure
  • Prevention of diabetes

The researchers found that in stroke patients, doing exercise was more effective than drug treatment. However, for heart failure, diuretic drugs (these increase how much urine you pass, and help the body to get rid of surplus water) were the most effective treatment, better than other drug treatments, and exercise. There was no real difference between treating with drugs or exercise for secondary prevention of heart disease, and prevention of diabetes.

While this may not appear an entirely positive result across all the conditions, there may be a reason for this. The study authors have pointed out that there is more evidence on the mortality benefits from trials on drugs than there are on those of exercise.

This lack of scientific evidence, could, therefore, mean that doctors and patients are prevented from “understanding the clinical circumstances where drugs might provide only modest improvement but exercise could yield more profound or sustainable gains in health.”

The scientists involved in the study feel that “based on the available data, physical activity is potentially as effective as many drug interventions” and are calling for more trials to be carried out.

The research was carried out by scientists from the London School of Economics, Harvard Medical School, and Stanford University School of Medicine, and published in bmj.com.

* If you haven’t exercised in a while, or have an existing medical condition, talk to your GP before starting any new exercise regime.

Never too old

While some advice on physical activity stops at the age of 64 (see above), a new, albeit rather small, study has found that exercise is good for you right into your 90s. This study involved 24 people aged between 91 and 96, and was published in the journal Age, of the American Ageing Association.

Thirteen people were in the control group, and didn’t change their normal behaviour. Eleven were in the experimental group. For two days a week over 12 weeks, the members of the experimental group did multi-component training. This involved a programme of various exercises, designed specifically for this group, combining strength training and balance improving exercises.

Mikel Izquirdo-Redín, Professor of Physiotherapy at the Public University of Navarre, who led the study, explained, “The training raised their functional capacity, lowered the risk of falls, and improved muscle power.”

Physical inactivity is one of the main factors that contribute to the loss of muscular mass and functional capacity, a key aspect in frailty. “From a practical point of view, the results of the study point to the importance of implementing exercise programmes in patients of this type, exercise to develop muscle power, balance and walking.”

However, it is important to check with your doctor before starting to exercise. Your GP may be able to suggest suitable exercises, or perhaps a local group to join.

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