Exercise 'can be as good as pills'

Man preparing to jog Short, regular bouts of exercise could add years to your life, say experts

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Exercise can be as good a medicine as pills for people with conditions such as heart disease, a study has found.

The work in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) looked at hundreds of trials involving nearly 340,000 patients to assess the merits of exercise and drugs in preventing death.

Physical activity rivalled some heart drugs and outperformed stroke medicine.

The findings suggest exercise should be added to prescriptions, say the researchers.

Experts stressed that patients should not ditch their drugs for exercise - rather, they should use both in tandem.

Prescriptions rise

Too few adults currently get enough exercise. Only a third of people in England do the recommended 2.5 hours or more of moderate-intensity activity, such as cycling or fast walking, every week.

In contrast, prescription drug rates continue to rise.

There were an average of 17.7 prescriptions for every person in England in 2010, compared with 11.2 in 2000.

For the study, scientists based at the London School of Economics, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute at Harvard Medical School and Stanford University School of Medicine trawled medical literature to find any research that compared exercise with pills as a therapy.

They identified 305 trials to include in their analysis. These trials looked at managing conditions such as existing heart disease, stroke rehabilitation, heart failure and pre-diabetes.

When they studied the data as a whole, they found exercise and drugs were comparable in terms of death rates.

But there were two exceptions.

Drugs called diuretics were the clear winner for heart failure patients, while exercise was best for stroke patients in terms of life expectancy.

Health benefits

Doing exercise regularly:

  • Can reduce your risk of major illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer by up to 50%
  • Can lower your risk of early death by up to 30%
  • Can boost self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy as well as keep weight off
  • Moderate activity, such as cycling or fast walking, gives your heart and lungs a work-out

Source: NHS Choices

Amy Thompson, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said that although an active lifestyle brings many health benefits, there is not enough evidence to draw any firm conclusions about the merit of exercise above and beyond drugs.

"Medicines are an extremely important part of the treatment of many heart conditions and people on prescribed drugs should keep taking their vital meds. If you have a heart condition or have been told you're at high risk of heart disease, talk to your doctor about the role that exercise can play in your treatment."

Dr Peter Coleman of the Stroke Association said exercise alongside drugs had a vital role that merited more research.

"We would like to see more research into the long-term benefits of exercise for stroke patients.

"By taking important steps, such as regular exercise, eating a balanced diet and stopping smoking, people can significantly reduce their risk of stroke."

"Moderate physical activity, for example, can reduce the risk of stroke by up to 27%."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 331.

    I'm convinced school P.E. lessons, with the weirdo teachers, lack of privacy in changing rooms at the ages you want it most + greater opportunities of feeling shamed, shunned or envied have acted as aversion therapy to an entire generation of British men & women.

    Nobody in my generation remembers them fondly, and they happen at the time our personalities & values are being formed & made for life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    Moaning at people to exercise is a great way to put them off.

    Being overweight and unhealthy tends to be a vicious cycle of self-esteem issues, and people making overweight folks feel bad about themselves makes them feel like they 'can't' make themselves better, like they are useless.

    Fat shaming makes the problem worse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    One thing that this article doesn't mention is diet. Exercise is not much use if you then go home and eat cr*p. I used to eat chocolate and drink lucozade every day until about 6 months ago and, even though I was exercising regularly, I felt pretty rubbish most of the time. I've since cleaned my diet up and now I have more energy, I sleep better and I'm less stressed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    I was once 18.5st, told I had high blood pressure. Rather than take the prescribed pills for hypertension, I bought an electronic blood pressure machine and took up running and cycling)
    . Within 6 months I dropped to 12st and there was a direct correlation between my weight loss and blood pressure reduction. My resting heart rate was 75 and is now 46. My only regret-not starting this sooner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Since most of the premature health issues concern over eating and under exercising this is not a big surprise. The question is why do we find exercise so difficult to do? and why do we find it so difficult to eat a balanced diet? and what are we to do about it?

    Compulsory exercise classes?
    Compulsory diets?

    In reality the above would be more expensive than drugs.


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