Can Exercise Replace Medication?

What if a walking routine could ease arthritis and a yoga class could soothe anxiety as well as medicine? According to some experts, fitness can cure much of what ails us. Read on for your prescription for a longer, happier and healthier life.

health and mental health benefits of exercisephoto credit: shutterstock

The health and mental health benefits of exercise

There’s no disputing it: Physical activity, from walking to weight training, is the key to good overall health, but it’s also a proven remedy for much of what ails us.

“If there were one drug that prevented and treated dozens of diseases and taking it had zero negative side effects, would you take it?” asks Dr. Bob Sallis, a family physician at Kaiser Permanente and founder of Exercise Is Medicine (EIM), an initiative launched by the American Council of Sports Medicine that works to elevate the role that healthcare providers play in promoting physical activity.

Do you talk to your doctor about exercise?

Despite the health and mental health benefits of exercise, few doctors are prescribing physical activity, and even fewer patients are aware that it can be as effective as what’s in their medicine cabinets.

“There’s definitely a disconnect when it comes to prescribing physical activity,” says Dr. Sallis. “Doctors are able to refer an obese patient to a specialist for bariatric surgery but not to a fitness professional. That doesn’t make sense to me. Doctors are required to talk to patients about their diet and smoking but not exercise.”

The amount of time allotted to each doctor’s visit is a factor, and so is traditional doctor training, says Susan Yungblut, director of EIM Canada. “Many of the physicians who are practising weren’t taught about exercise in medical school,” she adds. “Unless they have a personal interest in exercise, it might not be high on their agendas.”

“Doctors should enforce exercise prescriptions in their practices,” says Dr. Ali Zentner, a Vancouver-based specialist in internal medicine and obesity and medical director of Live Well, a group of medical-based exercise clinics in Lower Mainland, BC. Dr. Zentner believes that exercise has been marketed poorly, as simply the panacea for weight loss with calories in and calories out.

“This overlooks the most significant benefits of exercise, which are not just weight loss but also cardiovascular fitness, cancer prevention and overall health,” says Dr. Zentner. “This is one of the biggest misconceptions of our times. People start going to the gym and become demoralized when the scale doesn’t move. Meanwhile, they aren’t seeing the health benefits happening, mentally and physically.”

Is exercise better than drugs?

The health and mental health benefits of exercise are numerous, and health professionals who are interested in fitness are taking notice.

“We’ve had patients come off their blood pressure medications, stop taking insulin and go off antidepressants,” says Sara Hodson, president and founder of Live Well Exercise Clinic, whose 11-year career in chronic diseases led her to found the private clinic. It isn’t just about the amazing, long-term effects of exercise; it has an instantaneous effect on our health.

“We’ll have a client with a blood pressure of 140/90, but by the end of a 60-minute session, their blood pressure will be normal and stay that way for 24 hours. We have people with diabetes whose blood sugars stabilize over time. These are numbers, and they don’t lie.”

Exercise is powerful

Ann Done is a believer. The 52-year-old special-education teacher was referred to Live Well two years ago. Standing five foot four and weighing more than 200 pounds, she was considered prediabetic and had struggled with depression for most of her adult life. Done’s slow and steady weight loss journey has been championed by exercise, which she credits with helping her physically and mentally. Since lacing up her sneakers and shedding 40 pounds, she has navigated major emotional stress without the need for antidepressants, gone on to walk  two full marathons and 10 half marathons and even dragged her husband onto the fitness bandwagon.

“We now make better decisions about what we eat and how we move,” says Done. “Exercise changed our lives.”

Best Health Tip: Some insurance companies will reimburse you for exercise-related healthcare costs, such as gym memberships, equipment (including kayaks and bikes) and specialty classes. Contact your insurance provider to determine what you can write off.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada