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Is exercise really medicine?

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Free medicine: Physical activity is often as effective as drugs when it comes to preventing death from diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The many benefits of physical activity are continually backed by mounting research.

Exercise is medicine. The expression started as the name of a health initiative and is now a catchphrase used by doctors, fitness experts, and others who want to motivate you to move. But is physical activity really as effective as prescription medications? “Yes, I do think of it as medicine, and even better, it’s medicine that’s free and has very few side effects,” says Dr. I-Min Lee, a Harvard Medical School professor who studies the role of physical activity in preventing disease, promoting health and well-being, and enhancing longevity.

Mounting evidence

The health benefits of exercise have been noted since Biblical times. Modern science has confirmed ancient wisdom: physical activity can greatly reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, breast and colon cancer, depression, and falls. Physical activity improves sleep, endurance, and even sex. And scientists continue to learn more about physical activity’s medicinal qualities every day.

For example, an October 2013 BMJ study found that exercise is often as effective as drugs at preventing death from the most common killer diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. An April 2014 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. A May 2014 study in Circulation showed that even small increases in activity, such as a faster walking pace or more time spent gardening or doing other leisure activities, can improve heart function. The list from the past year alone goes on: post-meal walking helps regulate blood sugar levels; strengthening and flexibility exercises reduce pain from hip and knee arthritis; exercise programs can improve the cognitive functioning of people with dementia.

Is physical activity an effective treatment on its own? In some cases, yes. It can be all that’s necessary to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety. When combined with weight loss, it can help keep someone in the early stages of diabetes from needing medication. Does physical activity make medications more effective? “We don’t know that yet,” says Dr. Lee. “But physical activity should be regarded as a first-line therapy, together with pharmaceutical treatments.”

How exercise protects health

“The human body was designed so that all physiological functions are optimal when we move,” explains Dr. Lee, “and increasingly we are realizing it doesn’t take much activity.” Harvard scientists have discovered that when you exercise, your muscles release natural substances that help relax blood vessel walls, lower blood pressure, reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol, increase “good” HDL cholesterol, move glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells where it is needed, lower insulin levels, and reduce inflammation. All of these functions together help protect us against heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.

What you should do

Dr. Lee says it’s time to add physical activity to the list of daily health requirements, such as wearing a seat belt or brushing your teeth. “There really is nothing I can think of where physical activity will not help in terms of disease or function,” she says.

Take this prescription: Aim for half an hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week, or 150 minutes a week. If that seems daunting, start with a few minutes a day, and increase the amount you exercise by five or 10 minutes every week until you reach your goal.

If you don’t want to walk, consider other moderate-intensity exercises, such as swimming, stair climbing, tennis, or dancing. Don’t forget that household activities can count as well, such as floor mopping, yard work, or anything that gets your heart pumping so much that you break out in a light sweat.

Don’t have the discipline to do it on your own? Join a class, or work out with a friend who’ll hold you accountable. Or track your progress, which encourages you to reach a goal. Use a pedometer or a digital fitness monitor to count steps.

And if you aren’t able to perform moderate-intensity exercise, remember: even light activity can make a difference in your health. 

Posted by: Dr.Health

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