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 384.

    The statistic on prescription numbers is misleading - in 2000 I imagine doctors were giving a single prescription for 3 or 6 months supply of drugs if you were on a long term prescription. More recently this practice has been stopped, and now one or two months is the norm. This will equate to 'more' prescriptions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    331. Patrick

    Nail on the head. In my school us 'wimps' were hounded by our bully of a PE teacher and his henchmen pupils. He was a factor in my leaving school prematurely despite having the highest science grades by far.

    Decades later I'm now a fit runner and I did catch up with my education but the idea of compulsory physical education still makes me uneasy. Encouragement yes, compulsion no.

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.

    Running meaningfully 3-4 times a week is the best way to stay in great shape. We are all built to run; however, for some their bodies have ‘forgotten’ how to do it.
    Add some strength work and you’ve cracked it.
    No one is too busy to exercise; it’s simply a matter of priority and effort.
    Why wait for the Doc to give you bad news.

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.

    369.Jennifer - I was in the same boat re swimming but there is plenty info on the net and it is not that hard. I found the key for me was to gain confidence putting my head underwater (something instructors tend to take for granted!). After that it was easy to learn a couple of strokes and I preferred not doing it under the pressure of formal lessons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.

    351.Heisenberg - "What a waste of internet space this news is"


    It seems to have generated quite a bit of mainly sensible discussion, from which it is possible to learn from the ideas and experience of others

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.

    Cycle with the kids to school.
    Good for you, good for the kids, good for the environment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    Re: 373 ichabod
    How interesting!
    I was reading of a case of Dementia very recently where a mother was diagnosed as having that condition, aged 29. It is not limited 'only' to the elderly.
    I used to be as fit as a fiddle - until a disease and 'medics' destroyed my health & as a direct consequence, my lifestyle.
    Avoid heart disease!
    How, if it's caused by a disease you don't know you've got?

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    .Life used to be more physical for most so exercise was part & parcel of life. Now with so many gadgets there is a vacumm in natural exercise.

    Is spraying a fence really better than painting it.

    Many gadgets are fine for disabled, but overuse of them also actively disables.

    Pointless using them if their use equates to makeing more time for exercise & paying for it is pathetic/ridiculous

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    @ 354.Butter

    "Don't assume that all parents are rich enough for one to stay at home like you clearly did."

    Well if you can't look after your own child, why on earth did you have one? Ah, that's right - you want to have your cake and eat it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 375.

    Re: 366. poddington_pea
    You're just about wrong on everything, but I can see you're not the sort of person who might worry about that either.
    We are not all given the same standard of education, let alone on health.
    Health problems can cause a person to carry excess weight and others can contribute to being unable to get rid of it.
    Ever had a thought for anyone but yourself?

  • Comment number 374.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 373.

    Keep physically fit.
    Avoid heart disease.
    Thus live to 80+ and get dementia instead.
    And you get a fit person with dementia wandering around the neighbourhood, or else have to go into residential accommodation.
    Is this a good thing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 372.

    Most people know this already. Its just also happens that most people also find taking a pill a lot easier to do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 371.

    Re: 361. deleted (replying to 355. Essexbelle )
    "....Exercise is very beneficial for arthritis. It hurts at first but gets easier....."
    Oh goody!
    Someone who knows all about arthritis and the limitations it imposes on one's lifestyle.
    I fear not.
    More likely to have been listening to old wives tales, or arrogant doctors perhaps!

  • rate this

    Comment number 370.

    As a 51 year old who hit the menopause a couple of years ago I can only vouch that exercise has transformed my life. I found a personal trainer who has helped me get back into proper strength training and high intensity interval training. In my view exercise can replace HRT, Osteoporosis treatments and is a Natural anti-depressant. As you get older, exercise is even MORE important than before.

  • rate this

    Comment number 369.

    362.Trytastic - "swimming is the answer."

    I'd agree if only I could swim. In primary school "swimming lessons" when I was younger the kids who couldn't swim a bit already were essentially told to go to the corner of the pool and "kick". I was given a certificate saying I could "swim 5 metres" (total rubbish).

    I'm 26 now and I'd love to learn but adult lessons are harder to come by and expensive.

  • Comment number 368.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 367.

    342. farkyss

    Fine, let me see you go to your doctor with invasive cancer (of any sort). I would like to be there when refuse the 'laboratory-contrived chemicals'. Maybe you could walk it off.

    Exercise and diets are not CURES. They prolong and may prevent symptoms of disease pathologies and are good for maintaining a healthy balanced lifestyle. Not replacements for medicine altogether.

  • rate this

    Comment number 366.

    Why can't the government just let nature take it's course. We are all given the same education on health - everybody knows that if you eat unhealthy food and don't exercise you will get fat! For some that's their life choice. Stop giving these people excuses, and accept it, and move it on!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 365.

    Re: 357. ImARockChick.
    In full agreement, except that I'm male & a bit larger than the equivalent of a size 8. Blood pressure pills are designed to work in specific ways, so they are not exactly a "fit all" drug. In any case "they" don't know everything, not by a long way.

    One of the main reasons for that is the patient and his/her experience is often ignored - doctor knows best, they think!


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