Exercise Is As Effective As Medicine For Treating Chronic Disease

By Perrin Braun, August 1, 2022


We all know the benefits of exercise: weight management, increased bone strength, greater flexibility…the list goes on and on. But there might be a new reason to get your daily dose of physical activity: according to a recent article in the British Medical Journal, exercise was found to be “potentially as effective” as many drug interventions for patients who suffer from common chronic diseases such as stroke, diabetes, heart failure, and coronary heart disease—which are conditions that can be prevented or delayed through proper nutrition and exercise.


A recent survey revealed that only about one in five American adults meet the recommended level of physical activity. In contrast, the number of people taking prescription drugs continues to grow. The percentage of people in the U.S. who reported taking at least one prescription drug in the past month increased from 44 percent in 1999-2000 to 48 percent in 2007-08. Prior to this groundbreaking report in the British Medical Journal, there had been very little research on how exercise compares with medication in reducing the risk of death from chronic diseases.

Researchers analyzed the results of 305 randomized controlled trials involving 339,274 people and found no statistically detectable differences between exercise and drug interventions for secondary prevention of heart disease and diabetes (secondary prevention refers to patients diagnosed with a disease before it causes significant damage). Statins, beta blockers, diuretics, andticoagulants, and antiplatelets were all examined in this study, and exercise was actually found to be more effective than drug interventions among stroke patients. However, the amount of available data on the effects of exercise on mortality rates is much smaller than that for the effectiveness of drugs, which researchers say may have impacted results. More trials are needed to fully understand the difference between physical activity and drug interventions on chronic disease outcomes.

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What we know for sure is that there are many important health benefits to being physically active. Getting regular exercise is a great way to have more energy and improve your stamina—regardless of your age, sex, or physical ability. In addition to controlling your weight, improving your mood, and promoting better sleep, the role that exercise plays in reducing your risk for chronic disease is difficult to ignore. If you’re hoping to prevent high blood pressure or avoid heart disease, being active has been shown to boost your HDL (or “good”) cholesterol and decrease unhealthy levels of triglycerides. This helps keep your blood flowing smoothly, which can decrease your risk for cardiovascular disease. In addition, physical activity can help you manage and prevent a wide variety of health problems, including stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression, arthritis, metabolic syndrome, certain kinds of cancer, and even help you avoid falls.

Simple lifestyle changes have been proven effective in treating chronic disease. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that deaths linked to stroke and heart disease would be reduced by 25 percent if people adopted healthy habits like quitting smoking and limiting salt intake. So, as a complement to, or instead of, taking pills (consult your doctor), consider that eating healthy foods, exercising, and keeping track of your health status can prevent chronic disease before it starts. InsideTracker helps you do just that by suggesting optimal exercise and food choices to fit your specific needs. Get moving!

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