Prescription medications or work up a sweat – which should you choose? In some cases, you’d do just as well choosing exercise over a high-priced prescription. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal compared the benefits of prescription medications used to treat common health problems like heart disease and type 2 diabetes with good, old-fashioned exercise, something you don’t need to visit a drugstore for. The results may surprise you.
Health Benefits of Exercise: An Alternative to Prescription Medications?
In this study, researchers looked at over 300 well-conducted studies involving almost 340,000 adults in the U.S. and Europe. They wanted to look at the effects of prescription drugs versus exercise on mortality rates in people with some of the most common chronic health problems. In other words, they wanted to know whether exercise could prolong life in these diseases as much as a prescription drug. The chronic diseases they looked at included type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, stroke, and heart failure.
What did they find? In this study, exercise and prescription medications performed equally well for reducing mortality in people with heart disease or type 2 diabetes. Based on these results, exercise is as powerful as a prescription drug for reducing mortality in two of the most common chronic diseases. If you have these conditions, exercise could help to keep you alive longer.
How about stroke? Exercise actually performed better than any drug for reducing mortality in stroke patients. Exercise has other benefits for people who have had a stroke as well. It can help stroke victims recover some of their lost functionality. In addition, it has psychological benefits for stroke survivors. Research already shows vigorous exercise prevents strokes, but it’s also good therapy after a stroke. Vigorous exercise has favorable effects on blood pressure and lipid levels. This is important for reducing the risk of a recurrent stroke. According to the National Stroke Association, 24% of women and 42% percent of men will experience another stroke within five years after the first one.
Exercise and Type 2 Diabetes
If you have type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, exercise is the perfect prescription. Type 2 diabetics are at risk for a number of complications including heart disease, nerve damage, diabetic kidney disease, retinopathy, and peripheral artery disease. Factors that contribute to these complications include poor blood sugar control, uncontrolled high blood pressure and abnormal lipid levels. Exercise helps to lower blood pressure and lipids while raising levels of HDL, the “good” form of cholesterol. It also decreases insulin resistance and helps to lower blood sugar levels. Just as importantly, it helps with weight control and body composition. Most type 2 diabetics find their blood sugars improve significantly when they lose weight.
Exercise Versus Prescription Medications for Depression
Research comparing prescription anti-depressants to exercise for treating symptoms of depression shows exercise compares favorably to some prescription antidepressants. People tend to respond more quickly to prescription antidepressants, but the improvement is more sustained in people who treat depression with exercise. No wonder. Exercise promotes a sense of well-being, builds self-esteem and may positively impact “feel good” brain chemicals. Exercise is a good alternative for some people since antidepressants have a number of side effects. Of course, it’s important to consult with your doctor if you have depression but exercise can be part of the recovery plan.
The Bottom Line?
This recent study provides even more evidence that exercise is medicine. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to reach for a pill instead of a pair of exercise shoes or a barbell. People who do that will miss out on other exercise benefits-healthier bones, more favorable body composition and a greater sense of self-esteem. You can’t package all of those health benefits into a single pill. Medications have their place. Don’t attempt to treat a medical condition with exercise without seeing your doctor first, but if your doctor gives the okay, make it a part of your “treatment” and reap the rewards.
Medical News Today. “Regular, Vigorous Exercise May Lower Your Stroke Risk”
Diabetes Care December 2010 vol. 33 no. 12 e147-e167.
Harvard Health Publications. “Exercise and Depression”
National Stroke Association. “Recovery After Stroke: Recurrent Stroke”
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