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Exercise as Medicine in Preventing and Treating Disease

There’s a powerful treatment available that can provide patients with remarkable results, and it is available for free. A growing body of evidence tells us that exercise, in addition to helping ward off a variety of serious conditions, can even help treat or reverse them. This is on top of helping us control our weight, look good and feel strong. That’s is not to say you shouldn’t visit a doctor when you are ill, but a good exercise programme should be part of any prescription for both healthy people and those with even serious medical conditions. Here are some common diseases and conditions, and how exercise can help prevent or treat them:

Heart Disease

Exercise strengthens the hardest-working muscle in your body, the heart. Maintaining a healthy weight is an important factor to preventing heart disease, because it also improves a variety of risk factors including blood pressure, lipid profiles (cholesterol and triglycerides) and blood sugar levels. In fact, several studies recently presented at the European Association of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation meeting recently held in Barcelona, Spain, showed that exercise reduced the markers of heart disease in patients after coronary artery bypass surgery. It also improved indicators of heart failure, a condition once thought to be untreatable and that usually requires a multitude of drugs to manage. What’s more, there is evidence that exercise improves cardiac survival in heart patients better than angioplasty with stents.


Nearly 700,000 Australians have diabetes, the vast majority Type II, yet experts say at least a third don't know it is silently in their bodies. Type I diabetics cannot make insulin, a hormone necessary to converting glucose into energy. Type II diabetics' bodies gradually lose the ability to use insulin properly. Diabetes is a leading cause of blindness, kidney failure, limb amputations and heart disease. Exercise improves insulin resistance, which can help prevent the onset of type I diabetes and help control type II diabetes and high blood sugar. In fact, people at high risk of developing diabetes may cut their risk by 50% simply by walking 30 minutes a day. A common diabetes medication, known as metformin, has a similar effect, but only reduces the risk by 31%.


Research studies have shown that cancer patients who add exercise to their treatment regimens experience significant benefits and improved quality of life. IN particular, exercise reduces the fatigue associated with chemotherapy treatment. Exercise has a positive effect on physical and psychological functioning in these patients, and provides additional benefits including increased functional capacity, decreased body fat, increased lean muscle, decreased nausea, and improved self-esteem. Even more amazing is that a recent study presented at the American Association for Cancer Research suggests that regular exercise with proper rest can lower women’s overall risk of cancer. Men benefit too; new research published in the British Journal of Cancer shows that the more active men are throughout their lifetimes, the less likely they are to get prostate cancer.

Depression and Dementia

There is a new weapon against depression and dementia, conditions commonly treated with pills and therapy: regular exercise. Current research shows, without a doubt, exercise helps reduce anxiety, improve mood, and ward off mental decline.  It probably achieves these goals by releasing endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals in the brain, reducing immune system chemicals that can exacerbate depression, and increasing body temperature, which is calming. Depression is also reduced by the feeling of confidence gained by getting stronger through exercise, taking your mind off your troubles, and by coping in a healthy way with stress.

The data regarding exercise and Alzheimer’s disease are even more amazing. In the elderly, regular exercise may reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s by as much as 40%. The more frail the person, the greater the benefits. The benefits are hypothesised to be due to a reduction in vascular disease and improvements in blood flow to the brain, due to regular physical activity.


The message is clear: add regular exercise to your medications for whatever conditions you may be facing. Again, it is important to discuss your exercise programme with your physician to ensure it fits with your specific needs and limitations. Everyone can add some form of exercise to their lives, but not everyone can do every kind of exercise there is. A doctor or a personal trainer can help you design a programme that’s appropriate. Then they should follow through and make adjustments to your programme over time, just as they would make adjustments to your medications depending on how well they are working.  Even if you are not suffering from any of the above conditions, exercise will be a critical factor in preventing them from developing, so don’t wait another minute to get started.

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