Exercise is Medicine is an initiative launched on Nov. 5, 2007 by the American College of Sports Medicine that calls for physical activity and exercise to be standard parts of disease prevention and medical treatment. It urges healthcare providers to assess and review patients’ physical activity programs at every visit, with office visits that conclude exercise clearance and a prescription or referral to a qualified health/fitness professional. In addition, patients are encouraged to begin a conversation with their doctor about physical activity, and to learn how to best continue or improve upon their exercise regimens.
Exercise is crucial to the prevention, management, and treatment of numerous chronic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure and other medical problems. Although exercise clearly benefits the appearance of the body, the Exercise is Medicine program focuses more on the internal benefits of physical activity and how these benefits contribute to the longevity and quality of life. Exercise can even do things that regular medications can’t do.
The dictionary defines a prescription as “a written order, especially by a physician, for the preparation and administration of a medicine or other treatment.” Most of us associate a prescription with a slip of paper that your doctor gives you. You take that slip of paper to your local pharmacy and receive medications from the plethora of drugs that exist today for just about anything that ails you – from the common cold to heart disease. Drugs can eliminate a severe headache, bring relief from seasonal allergies, alleviate symptoms and in some instances, even cure illnesses. However, the word “prescription” is not limited to drugs; it applies to exercise as well. Many physicians who are knowledgeable in exercise science have begun to prescribe exercise routines in conjunction with or even instead of medications for their patients. While exercise is a key ingredient in disease prevention, it has also been proven in recent years that exercise also can play a major role in the treatment of many ailments that have previously been treated with medication alone. How does exercise fit into both overall wellness, and curing or controlling various diseases?
Dr. Jeremiah Stamler is an epidemiologist and world-renowned expert on cardiovascular disease. He is a major proponent of using diet and exercise in place of medication. In an interview a few years ago with Nutrition Action Magazine, Dr. Stamler asserted that the heart disease epidemic in the United States could virtually be ended. He maintains that following the “DASH” diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which includes a low sodium intake in conjunction with an adequate exercise program, can significantly lower one’s blood pressure and cholesterol. Dr. Stamler also maintains that diet, exercise and reduced smoking are enough to cut risk. He states that statin (cholesterol- lowering) drugs and blood pressure medications will not end the epidemic for the tens of millions of people suffer from the ailments.
These drugs are costly, have side effects and only ameliorate or improve – not cure – the underlying problem. Although these drugs are certainly a necessity in many cases, and their use outweighs any risk of NOT taking them, drugs alone are not the answer. Their popularity is a result of a society that wants its problems solved by pills. If your doctor prescribes medication for you, follow his advice, but at the same time, ask him about establishing a comprehensive plan which includes a change in your dietary habits AND exercise.
Hashem gives us the gift of a healthy body and expects us to do our utmost to maintain our health. The pasuk in Parshas V’eschanan, “V’nishmartem me’od l’Nafshoseichem” clearly states in Chapter 4 that a Jew is obligated to take care of his own body. The pasuk includes the word “me’od” or “very much.” The Ohr Tzadikim, in his commentary, says that this word is included because if one doesn’t take care of himself physically and becomes ill, his “nefesh” – his soul and spirit – will become weak, thus hampering his ability to serve Hashem. We can all exercise and be more active in order to be able to be healthy both physically and spiritually. Exercise paired with good nutrition is the best way to maintain both your physical health and your spiritual well-being.
In recent years, the incidence of what is know as Type 2, or non-insulin- dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM), has been steadily increasing. Specifically, Americans have been developing diabetes at an alarming rate over the past 10 years, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 16 million people in the United States currently have diabetes – about a third more than had the disease in 1990. Only 5 to 10% of these cases are insulin- dependent. While increases were reported among all adults, the most dramatic increase – a 70% jump – was seen in the 30-39 age group. Among those 40- 49, the rate of diabetes increased by 40%, and it was up 31% for those 50-59. The increases among the younger age groups are especially troubling, researchers say.
The instances of exercise acting to help or cure disease are countless. Let’s look at Type 2 diabetes, which is frequently manifesting itself in all ages of the population and is quickly spinning out of control both in the United States and Israel. Diabetics are at risk of developing cardiovascular disease 15 years earlier than the general population, according to a study released this past summer by the Institute of Clinical Evaluation Sciences in Toronto. Diabetics also are at risk for kidney disease nerve disorder and blindness, and are at a particularly high risk for limb-threatening infections. Yet we see from a study published through Medscape in June 2006 that a diabetic who performs four moderate aerobic sessions and does 2-3 resistance training sessions per week, significantly cuts his risk of cardiovascular disease. A more intense program may reduce the need for medication or even eliminate it altogether. Exercise may actually prevent this illness from developing in the first place. Active individuals have a 50% lower risk of ever developing diabetes. If you currently have a borderline glucose reading, you can avoid drugs and possibly insulin by beginning an exercise program now.
Just a word to the wise… It is important to consult with your physician prior to beginning any an exercise program. It is also important to get advice from an exercise specialist on how to start and build a well-rounded exercise program that takes into consideration your level of fitness, your age and your goals.
In next week’s column, we will look at the ways in which exercise can help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol.