Exercise IS medicine. Start taking the pill !

Physical inactivity (not reaching the recommended exercise levels per week) is a bigger risk factor to health than smoking, obesity or high blood pressure. The Aerobics Centre Longitudinal Study (ACLS) showed that low cardiorespiratory fitness was the biggest risk factor for all-cause mortality. This is really an incredible statistic- think of all of the great anti-smoking public health work that has been done- but as a previous GP I know that many health professionals have not been aware of this statistic relating to exercise. There has been some educational change in recent years but certainly when I was at medical school none of this would have been taught or discussed. We know that getting enough exercise provides a huge number of health benefits. This includes but is not limited to reduction in some cancers, heart attacks, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and many benefits in mental health as well. If we view exercise as a pill- a medication- shouldn’t we all be wanting to take it to live longer and in better health?
If we agreed we should take this preventative medicine then how much do we need to take ? There are various guidelines around but the consensus is that 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week plus 2 days of resistance/weight training will provide these health benefits. Resistance training does not necessarily mean that we have to start going to the gym and lifting heavy weights- although that’s fine if you can ! Doing bodyweight squats, press-ups or even climbing stairs 1-2 at a time can all count. In terms of aerobic activity- 150 minutes- can be broken down as it fits into your lifestyle. 5 days per week of 30 minutes is not too much- we can all fit this in! The advice is that the minimum per session should be 10 minutes. I look at it like a health bank- add your sessions and try to get to the 150 mark each week. Of course if you fall short one week its no problem- try and make it the week after. Also doing more than the 150 is likely to add even more benefits. Aerobic activity can include brisk walking, swimming, cycling, running etc.. Anything that gets you a little breathless is the aim. If fit to do so- more vigorous exercise such as circuits can give you the benefits in shorter amounts of time. It is all about what works for YOU- walking instead of taking the tube or driving etc…There are very few reasons that people cannot exercise- but if you have a medical condition and are not sure you should always check with your GP.
As a Consultant in Sport and Exercise medicine I see patients who start to exercise regularly and massively improve their health- often they can come off medications for diabetes or high blood pressure. Medications that often have side effects and can affect quality of life.
Exercise provides huge benefits in mental health also- it reduces anxiety and lowers depression- often meaning patients do not need anti-depressant medications.
In summary whatever you are able to do- get moving! Take the medicine- the best prevention that there can be !

Dr Michael Burdon 16th April 2020

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