Exercise may be ‘as effective’ as drugs for treating common diseases

Routine exercise has long been touted as a preventative lifestyle choice that can help lower an individual’s risk for developing health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

But now, new research has shown that exercise may be equally as effective as certain prescription medications at treating these chronic – and sometimes deadly – diseases.

In a study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers from the London School of Economics, Harvard Medical School and Stanford University School of Medicine were interested in comparing the benefits of both exercise and drugs from past clinical trials, to see how they measured up in terms of extending a person’s mortality.

“What we have is a body of research that looks at benefits of exercise alone and then a separate body of research that looks at benefits of drugs on their own,” lead researcher Huseyin Naci, a researcher at the London School of Economics and a pharmaceutical policy research fellow at the Harvard Medical School, told FoxNews.com. “There’s never been a study that compares these two together, so that’s the rationale for this research.”

Naci and his team looked at four areas of health where evidence has shown that exercise can have lifesaving benefits: secondary prevention of heart disease, stroke rehabilitation, treatment of heart failure and prevention of diabetes.

Researchers then compiled a list of the different classes of drugs people commonly take to manage these conditions, and ultimately came up with 305 randomized clinical trials to analyze.  The study involved 339,274 people, 15,000 of whom received physical intervention for their health conditions while the rest were included in drug trials.

Overall, the researchers saw no significant difference between exercise and drug intervention for the secondary prevention of heart disease and the prevention of diabetes.  And in the case of stroke patients, exercise was found to be more effective than drug treatment at extending a person’s mortality.  However, diuretic drugs were found to be more effective than exercise and other drugs for the helping patients with heart failure.

Given their findings, Naci argued that the study’s results should not dissuade heart disease and diabetes patients from changing their current treatments.

“One thing that is very much not a takeaway is that patients should stop taking their medications without consulting with their doctors,” Naci said.  “However, doctors do need to have really candid conversations with patients about the lifesaving benefits of exercise.”

Naci also said that combination therapies utilizing both diet and exercise may not be the answer either.  A recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that statins, commonly prescribed cholesterol lowering medications, may actually block some of the health benefits seen from exercise.

Instead, Naci said that patients deserve a better understanding of which treatment option is best and that more clinical trials are needed to address this knowledge gap.

“We need a lot more research to really tease out the lifesaving benefits from exercise,” Naci said, “as well as which exercise works best for different types of individuals.”