A prescription dose of exercise is potentially just as good as many medications when it comes to treating common health conditions like heart disease and stroke, according to a study published in the BMJ.
The health benefits of physical activity are well known. How those benefits compare with medicines at reducing the risk of death from some common diseases is less clear, the study’s authors noted.
Specifically, the researchers wanted to look at which of the two was most effective at lowering the risk for premature death for people being treated for:
- Coronary heart disease.
- Heart failure.
- Pre-diabetes (high blood sugar levels that often lead to diabetes).
- Recovery after a stroke.
About the study
The researchers analyzed 305 previous randomized controlled trials involving a total of 339,274 people. Some of the studies looked only at the effects of exercise on mortality from these conditions. Other studies involved only medications. Some involved both.
Medications tested in the studies included statins, which are used to prevent heart attack and stroke; ACE inhibitors, which treat high blood pressure and heart failure; beta blockers, used to treat high blood pressure and heart problems; anticoagulants, used to prevent blood clots; and diuretics, used to treat high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and fluid build-up in the legs and feet.
Studies that involved exercise varied in terms of the type, intensity and duration of the activity.
Among the findings:
- There was no significant difference between exercise and medications in terms of preventing premature death from prediabetes or coronary heart disease.
- Exercise was significantly more effective in reducing the risk of premature death after stroke than any drug treatment when compared to no treatment or a placebo.
- Diuretics were more effective than exercise and other medications for reducing premature death from heart failure.
There were many more studies on the benefits of drugs than there were on the benefits of exercise, the authors noted.
“This blind spot in available scientific evidence prevents prescribers and their patients from understanding the clinical circumstances where drugs might provide only modest improvement, but exercise could yield more profound or sustainable gains in health,” they wrote.
The smaller number of exercise versus drug trials limited the strength of this study, the authors noted. Another consideration is that people may be less likely to follow exercise advice than they are to take medications.
|The take-home message|
|The existing evidence suggests that physical activity and drug treatment offer potentially similar benefits in terms of preventing premature death from some common chronic conditions, particularly during recovery from stroke.
“Exercise interventions should therefore be considered as a viable alternative to, or alongside, drug therapy,” the authors concluded—at least in cases where drug options offer only modest benefits.
However, they also noted that exercise can worsen some people’s symptoms. So anyone with a chronic health condition should talk to his or her doctor before increasing physical activity levels.