When it comes to common diseases, might exercise be the best medicine? Researchers from the London School of Economics, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute at Harvard Medical School, and Stanford University School of Medicine designed a study to find out. They aimed to discover whether exercise or pharmaceutical treatments were better for treating certain common diseases. Their results showed that for many ailments, exercise is as effective as or more effective than drug treatments.

Although exercise has well-documented health benefits, many people do not exercise as much as they should. Only about 14% of adults in the United Kingdom exercise regularly; meanwhile prescription drug rates are on the rise, with an average of 17.7 prescriptions per person in England in 2010, compared to only 11.2 in 2000. As such, there is a need to understand the relative effectiveness of drugs versus exercise or alternative treatments so doctors and patients can make appropriate decisions.

The researchers focused on comparing exercise and drugs in four areas: secondary prevention of coronary heart disease (treating patients with an existing disease before it becomes serious), rehabilitation of stroke, treatment of heart failure, and prevention of diabetes. The team evaluated data from 305 randomized controlled trials with information from a total of 339,274 people.

The results revealed no significant difference between exercise and drug treatments for secondary prevention of heart disease and the prevention of diabetes. Exercise was more effective than pharmaceutical treatments for rehabilitation of stroke, but for heart failure, diuretic drugs were the most effective, beating out other drug types as well as exercise.

The researchers contend that there exists in the body of research a “blind spot [that] prevents prescribers and their patients from understanding the clinical circumstances where drugs might provide only modest improvement buy exercise could yield more profound or sustainable gains in health.”

This research is published in the British Medical Journal.

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