As a whole, Americans are pretty sick. Many of us, including our kids, are struggling with obesity, diabetes, and high blood sugar. Add heart disease, cancer, depression, chronic fatigue, and lots of aches and pains, and its no wonder that drug companies are constantly hocking a new pill to combat our list of ailments.
Many of these drugs are commonly served up with a multitude of side effects so awful that TV announcers speed through them faster than an auctioneer on Adderall. But what if there was a drug that could reduce your risk, minimize symptoms, and in some cases, eliminate or reverse the disease—without making you more likely to lose your hair, feel nauseous, or experience any other awful side effects?
The amazing news: It already exists, says Robert E. Sallis, MD, FACSM, a family physician at Kaiser Permanente in Fontana, California. Its generic name is physical activity. “There is evidence to prove that exercise is a powerful drug, even without weight loss,” says Dr. Sallis. "Studies show that it works to both prevent and treat virtually every chronic disease, from diabetes to heart disease to cancer to Alzheimer's disease.”
The problem: Physicians aren’t prescribing it. “The medical community chooses to largely ignore the studies on exercise, whereas when a new pill or procedure hits the market it becomes the standard of care even if its only been shown to have minimal benefit.”
And while pills and drugs are certainly needed, it’s surprising to see how much more effective exercise can be for certain conditions. "When patients are asked directly what works, rather than as part of an industry-sponsored drug study, the results always seem to favor the more conservative treatments like exercise over pills and procedures," says Dr. Sallis. Take curetogether.com, a website that allows the average person to rate the effectiveness of hundreds of medications and procedures. The two most helpful treatments for back pain are pilates and yoga, which beat out 61 other treatments, including pain medications and spine fusion, by a landslide. (If your back and neck ache, try these 5 Yoga Fixes for Bad Posture.) Out of 117 treatments for depression, exercise was rated number one.
To be clear, we aren’t telling you to toss your medications in the trash. But if your doctor hasn’t discussed exercise as a medically proven way to reduce, alleviate, or prevent symptoms and disease—without side effects—it’s time to ask why.
What do you want to work on—your belly, thighs, arms, all of the above? We've put together the 5 Best Workouts For Each Part Of Your Body.
“I’ve seen exercise work with my patients over and over,” says Dr. Sallis, recalling a particularly moving story of a woman who was in the end stages of Parkinson’s disease. “She came into my office with a walker, extremely depressed, and ready to end her life. But I convinced her to try one last thing: to meet with a trainer at a local gym. She agreed, and started going three times a week. At first, she could barely walk. Two trainers had to hold her up as she slowly inched along the treadmill at 1 mph. But little by little she improved, until she was walking unassisted. A month later, she walked into my office, with energy and a big smile—and without a walker. It was amazing! She had a completely new take on life. Now, if there was a pill that could do that—wow. It would be all over the news. So why aren’t we seriously talking about exercise as medicine?”
PLUS: A plan can help you stick to a walking routine, so try one of our 14 Walking Workouts To Burn Fat And Boost Energy.
Since 2007, Dr. Sallis has been on a mission to change the way doctors think about and talk to their patients about exercise. He finds it so important that he's taken on the role as chairman for the American College of Sports Medicine's (ACSM) Exercise Is Medicine Advisory Board, and has convinced Kaiser Permanente to include an “exercise vital sign” on each patient’s electronic chart. Now, doctors and nurses are prompted to ask patients how much activity they’re logging, and if they’re doing less than 150 minutes per week, to encourage them to move more.
“As a physician, I have an ethical responsibility to give my patients the best care. If there is a pill, drug, or procedure that has been shown to reduce the risk of a heart attack and I don’t prescribe it to a patient who winds up having a massive heart attack, I can be sued for malpractice,” says Dr. Sallis. “The same should be true for doctors who aren’t talking to their patients about exercise.”
RELATED: If it's been a long time since you had any fun while exercising, check out these 5 Fun Fat-Blasting Workouts.
Everyone knows exercise is good for you, but most people fail to do the recommended amounts—which is why the majority of doctors don't prescribe it. “But the same is true for medications,” counters Dr. Sallis. “Research shows that very few patients take medication exactly as prescribed by their doctor, if they take it all. And yet we still continue to scribble out prescriptions.”
“Doctors, including me, often underestimate the influence we have over patients,” Dr. Sallis adds. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought a patient completely blew off my suggestion to start exercising, only to have him show up three months later completely transformed. I’ll say, ‘I thought you didn’t listen to me.’ And then he’ll say something like, 'Well, the first few times you told me to exercise, I didn’t. But then my good buddy had a heart attack and I knew I needed to do something.’”
So will it work the first time a doctor tells a patient they should move more? “Probably not,” says Dr. Sallis. “But on the second, third, fourth, or tenth try, it might. And it’s our ethical responsibility to keep trying.”
To score the "miracle drug" benefits of exercise, aim for at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week.
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