Exercise Matches Drugs in Fighting Certain Diseases


When it comes to treating diseases, exercise might too often be viewed as a preventative action. More and more information is showing that exercise might actually be a solution when it comes to specific types of conditions.

A new review of over 305 controlled studies indicates that people with certain common and potentially fatal diseases could benefit from exercise as much as they could from prescription medications.

The researchers behind the review looked at studies concerning the effects of exercise on the risk of death resulting from prediabetes, stroke, heart disease and heart failure, as well as studies examining how drugs affect these diseases. A total of 340,000 people participated in the studies covered by the review.

Exercise: An Overlooked Treatment for Diseases?

First, good news for everyone: the review found that both drugs and exercise lowered the risk of a person dying from one of the aforementioned conditions. Specifically, both forms of treatment reduced the risk of death for those with prediabetes and heart disease to approximately the same extent. However, exercise was actually found to be a more effective form of treatment for people who’d suffered a stroke. Meanwhile, medication – and diuretic drugs in particular – were found most effective for those who’d experienced heart failure.

According to the researchers, this is the first review designed to study how exercise measures up to medications when it comes to treating serious diseases, though many studies have shown that exercise in general reduces the risk of death for those with such conditions. However, they also said that the number of studies concerning exercise treatments pales in comparison to those concerning drug treatments, perhaps indicating ingrained bias in the medical community.

Since many patients could benefit more from exercise than prescribed drugs, additional studies looking at the exact relationship between physical activity and serious illnesses are warranted, according to the researchers.

Comparing Exercise to Drugs

The researchers found significant benefits in terms of death risk for stroke patients who exercised as opposed to those who neither took drugs nor exercised, and even those who took drugs but did not exercise. In other words, of all serious conditions, stroke patients can benefit from exercise the most.

Medications such as antiplatelets, beta blockers and statins were equally effective as exercise when it came to reducing death risk for those with heart disease.

Unfortunately, no change in likelihood of death resulted for prediabetes patients regardless of whether drug or exercise treatments were used.

Overall, the researchers said that patients, doctors and the medical community at large should start to look at exercise as a viable and prescribable form of treatment for serious diseases, either in addition to medication or as an alternative to medication which will only have limited effectiveness in its specific scenario.

The Bottom Line

A recent review indicates that for many serious illnesses, exercise may be just as effective a treatment as drugs, or even more effective in certain cases. The researchers behind the review hope that the effectiveness of new drugs will be compared to exercise before they’re brought to market.

The full text of the study is available online in the journal BMJ.

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