If you are one of the many folks taking medications for cardiovascular disease or prediabetes, a new study has found that getting regular exercise is often as effective, or more so, than taking medications. Instead of adding insult to injury, as the saying goes, by pumping yourself with lab chemicals to keep your condition in check, just exercising could make you a lot healthier.
In a large review of studies, a meta-analysis, researchers from the London School of Economics, and Harvard and Stanford universities in the United States, found no statistical differences between doing regular exercise and taking drugs for coronary heart disease or for prediabetic conditions. For patients who had suffered a stroke, the study found that exercise was actually more helpful than pills in preventing death. The exception was heart failure, where diuretics were found to be more beneficial than exercise.
The review analyzed the results of 305 studies involving almost 340,000 participants; it was published online in October, 2013, in the British Medical Journal.
Cardiovascular disease, also called heart disease, kills more people worldwide than any other illness. In the United States, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 600,000 people die from heart disease in the U.S. every year — 1 out of every 4 deaths. Coronary heart disease, the most common type of heart disease, is responsible for almost 400,000 of those deaths. Stroke, which happens in the brain, kills almost 130,000 Americans a year.
Diabetes, meanwhile, is rising at levels never before seen. Close to 26 million Americans — more than 8 percent of the population — have diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Health. Another 79 million Americans 20 and older have prediabetes. Prediabetes is a condition where blood glucose levels are higher than normal, but are not high enough to be called diabetes.
Cardiovascular disease, diabetes and prediabetes are all associated with excess weight and physical inactivity, and many studies have shown that getting regular aerobic exercise is extremely helpful in preventing or improving heart and diabetic conditions, and in keeping prediabetic conditions from developing into diabetes.
The authors of the meta-analysis concluded that exercise should be considered a “viable alternative” to drug therapy or should at the least be used in conjunction with medications. The researchers also called for more scientific scrutiny on the benefits of exercise versus drug therapy, stating that while drug trials are abundant, these do not usually include exercise as a comparative alternative. They expressed the need for doctors to be better informed about the health benefits of exercise vs. drugs, so that patients can be told when exercise may provide greater or more sustainable results than medication.
In addition to the four illnesses examined in the study, regular exercise has been found to reduce the risk for some cancers, respiratory ailments, arthritis, and depression. Exercise can take many forms: housework, gardening and the like certainly count; but it’s even better for your health to do activities that get your heart rate up several times a week, such as speed-walking, cycling, hiking, swimming, dancing, or playing sports.
By Eirian Hallinan