Exercise as Disease Treatment?

Exercise is potentially as effective as drug treatments for certain diseases

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D. Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Going for a run, swimming laps, or riding a bike can be a healthy way to feel better and stay at a healthy weight. But can it be a treatment plan for disease as well?

A recent report looked at hundreds of clinical trials to compare how well drug treatments and exercise treatments prevented death from certain diseases.

They found that in many cases, exercise plans were as effective as prescribed medication.

The researchers emphasized how exercise can help to prevent and treat certain health problems — sometimes along with a prescribed drug plan, and sometimes without.

"Talk to your doctor about a healthy exercise regimen."

Huseyin Naci, a researcher at the LSE Health department of the London School of Economics and Political Science and fellow at the Drug Policy Research Group of Harvard Medical School, led the review to see how exercise compared to medicine as a treatment for various illnesses.

Previous studies have demonstrated the health benefits of physical activity. Previous clinical trials have shown that exercise can help prevent or treat arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses.

However, few studies have shown how drug treatments compare to physical activity treatments in terms of reducing the risk of death from heart disease, stroke, heart failure and diabetes.

In other words, studies rarely compare a drug treatment course to a physical activity treatment course.

This report reviewed 16 meta-analyses, or articles using several trials, to reach a conclusion. Specifically, the researchers looked at meta-analyses dealing with the effectiveness of exercise or drug treatment versus normal care or a placebo, or exercise versus drug treatment.

They also looked at three recent exercise trials that had not been included in any of the meta-analyses.

Altogether, the report accounted for 305 trials with 339,274 participants. Fifty-seven trials looked at exercise interventions for health problems, and 14,716 people participated in those trials. The exercise interventions that the different trials used varied in their frequency, intensity and duration.

The researchers compared the death outcomes for both the drug and exercise meta-analyses.

A typical drug treatment course for heart disease was as effective for preventing death as an exercise intervention, according to the authors.

For patients who had had a stroke, exercise was significantly more effective than drug treatments like anticoagulants (which prevent blood clots) and antiplatelets (which prevent platelet clumping) in reducing post-stroke mortality.

For heart failure, drugs prevented more deaths than exercise. For people with prediabetes — or the health state between normal blood sugar levels and diabetes — exercise was as effective as a drug intervention in preventing death.

The researchers concluded that the findings emphasize the necessity of exercise and physical activity in preventing and treatment health problems. They suggested that doctors should recommend physical activity to healthy patients and include exercise as part of a treatment plan for patients with disease or illness.

The authors noted that the report does have limitations. Because the clinical trials that they examined had different circumstances and different sets of participants, comparisons may not be consistent. Additionally, the exercise interventions in the trials varied, and different exercise treatments may produce different results.

The researchers emphasized the importance of future trials to compare exercise interventions to drug interventions for various illnesses.

"Exercise is medicine, both in treatment and in prevention. It affects almost every system in your body in a positive way. Always choose exercise as a way to fight disease, it's cheaper and has fantastic side-effects, unlike it's prescription and OTC drug counterparts," Rusty Gregory, a certified wellness coach, personal trainer and dailyRx Contributing Expert, told dailyRx News.

The report was published in BMJ on October 1.

The researchers reported no funding sources and disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
September 27, 2013
Last Updated:
October 1, 2013