Exercise is as effective as many drugs when it comes to cutting the risks of heart disease 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 patients with existing coronary heart disease and stroke, and it can even prevent those conditions.
The findings, published in the British Medical Journal BMJ.com, provide compelling evidence that more clinical trials comparing the effectiveness of exercise and drugs are urgently needed to help doctors and patients make the best treatment decisions.
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In the meantime, exercise "should be considered as a viable alternative to, or alongside, drug therapy," according to researchers from the London School of Economics, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute at Harvard Medical School, and Stanford University School of Medicine.
"In cases where drug options provide only modest benefit, patients deserve to understand the relative impact that physical activity might have on their condition," they concluded.
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.
Yet prescription drug use continues to skyrocket in the U.S. and England, for obesity-related cardiovascular problems.
For the new analysis, researchers reviewed 305 clinical trials involving 339,274 individuals and found that 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. They argued this scientific "blind spot" may be keeping doctors and patients "from understanding the clinical circumstances where drugs might provide only modest improvement but exercise could yield more profound or sustainable gains in health."
Yet despite that uncertainty, the evidence shows physical activity is potentially as effective as many drug interventions — and more research is needed to compare exercise and drug-based treatment evidence.
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