Exercise is as effective as many drugs when it comes to cutting the risks of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, a surprising new analysis finds.
Although cardiovascular specialists often prescribe medicine to treat patients, an international team of British and American scientists has found physical activity is the better way to go for many people with coronary heart disease and stroke, and it can even prevent those conditions.
The findings, published in the British Medical Journal BMJ.com
, raises new questions about whether the U.S. healthcare system focuses too much on medications and too little on activity to combat physical ailments, according to a report on the study in The New York Times
For the study, researchers compared how well various drugs and exercise succeed in reducing deaths among people who have been diagnosed with several common and serious conditions, including heart disease and diabetes.
"In cases where drug options provide only modest benefit, patients deserve to understand the relative impact that physical activity might have on their condition," the researchers concluded.
For the analysis, lead researchers Huseyin Naci, a graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and John Ioannidis, M.D., of the Stanford University School of Medicine, examined 305 studies comparing the effectiveness of drugs and exercise in lessening mortality among 339,274 people who had been diagnosed with heart disease, chronic heart failure, stroke, or diabetes.
The results consistently showed exercise and drug treatment were equally effective in preventing heart disease and diabetes. Among stroke patients, the results showed exercise was more effective than drug treatment.
The investigators noted the amount of trial evidence on the mortality benefits of exercise is considerably smaller than that on drugs. But despite that uncertainty, physical activity is potentially as effective as many drug interventions — and more research is needed to compare exercise and drug-based treatment evidence.
Despite the well-known health benefits of exercise, most adults do not get the recommended minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, specialists note.
"We are not suggesting that anyone stop taking their medications," Naci said. "But maybe people could think long and hard about their lifestyles and talk to their doctors" about whether exercise could and should be incorporated into their care.
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