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Why Exercise is the Best Medicine Ever!

Author: Stan Reents, PharmD
Original Posting: 10/19/2012 11:41 AM
Last Revision: 11/15/2016 08:08 AM

"Lifestyle"-related illnesses now represent the largest percentage of health care expenses in the US. Yet, despite all the new and impressive drugs and procedures that our health care system and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) currently offers, nothing -- absolutely NOTHING -- can beat exercise as the best "medicine" available for lifestyle-related health problems. Here's why we think so:


The December 1, 2008 issue of Time magazine contained an evaluation of health care in various countries: They reported that the US spends $7,026 per capita per year on health care....far more than any other country:

(1) USA $7026
(4) Switzerland $5878
(7) France $4056
(8) Canada $3912
(9) Britain $3361
(10) Japan $2690

Yet, despite these expenditures, we aren't producing the best results. (That explains the title of the article: "The Sorry State of American Health.")

Additional research supports the Time report:

Obesity: World Health Organization data from 2005 revealed that the US represents only 4.6% of the world's population, but 23% of the world's obese! A 2012 report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ("F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2012") projects that by 2030, obesity rates will exceed 44% in all 50 states and will add another $48-66 billion to the cost of treating obesity-related disease (Voelker R. 2012).

Cardiovascular Disease: A separate analysis of the management of cardiovascular disease in 661 medical centers in 15 countries revealed that the country with the worst blood pressure control, medication compliance, and follow-up rates was.....the US! (Black HR, et al. 2005.)

Why haven't we had better success in managing cardiovascular disease in the US? For example, cigarette smoking has been declining steadily and is now down to 19%, its lowest level in decades. LDL-cholesterol levels and the death rate due to cardiovascular disease (CVD) have both declined steadily during the past 2 decades in the US. Yet, CVD is still the #1 cause of death of adults.

Many patients who have a myocardial infarction (heart attack) or have very poor coronary perfusion undergo a procedure where a stent (tube) is placed inside the coronary artery to keep it open. Medical terms for this include "intracoronary stent implantation" or "percutaneous coronary intervention" (PCI). Some research shows that performing a PCI procedure isn't very effective:

• The January 23, 2012 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine published a study showing that nearly 1 in 10 cardiac patients who undergo a PCI required readmission to the hospital within 30 days (Khawaja FJ, et al. 2012).

• In 2007, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published a report stating "...PCI did not reduce the risk of death, myocardial infarction, or other major cardiovascular events when added to optimal medical therapy." (Boden WE, et al. 2007).


Regardless of the effectiveness of the drugs listed below, patient compliance is poor:

Antidiabetic Drugs: A study of 6090 newly-diagnosed diabetics revealed that 37% had stopped taking their antidiabetes medication 12 months later (Hertz RP, et al. 2005.)

Antihypertensive Drugs: An analysis of 4783 patients receiving treatment for high blood pressure revealed that almost half had discontinued their medication at the end of the first year (Vrijens B, et al. 2008.)

Lipid-Lowering Drugs: Numerous studies have documented poor long-term compliance with statin drugs. In one, only 25-40% of patients took their drugs as prescribed during the 2 years they were monitored. (Jackevicius CA, et al. 2002.)

Post-MI Drugs: 12% of post-MI patients discharged on aspirin, a beta-blocker, and a statin drug had stopped taking all 3 drugs within the first month (Ho PM, et al. 2006.)

People with diabetes, hypertension, or elevated cholesterol often have more than one of these problems. Thus, they need multiple drugs. To solve the poor drug compliance problem, some clinicians are very interested in the "PolyPill". The PolyPill combines 4-5 drugs into a single capsule:

THE PolyPill FOR
THE PolyPill FOR
• elevated cholesterol a statin a statin
• elevated blood sugar (none) metformin
• hypertension • a diuretic
• a beta-blocker
• an ACE inhibitor
• an ACE inhibitor
• to lower thrombotic risk aspirin aspirin
REFERENCE: Yusuf S, et al. 2009. Kuehn BM. 2006.

We aren't as enthusiastic:

First, combining multiple drugs into a single formulation doesn't represent a better therapeutic strategy. Prescribing the PolyPill in lieu of exercise is like treating the symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia without replacing iron stores, or, treating the symptoms of hypothyroidism without prescribing levothyroxine. It is illogical to treat the symptoms of a problem without first fixing the cause of the problem!

Second, concerns have been raised regarding the efficacy of 2 of the 5 drugs in the PolyPill with regards to preventing heart disease:

Statins: An analysis of 137,000 patients who sustained their first myocardial infarction revealed that 41% had an LDL-cholesterol level of < 100 mg/dL, a value that is generally considered acceptable (Sachdeva A, et al. 2009).

Beta-Blockers: The October 3, 2012 issue of JAMA reports that beta-blockers fail to offer any benefit in patients with stable coronary artery disease (Bangalore et al. 2012).

Because of less-than-adequate results, continuing to attack lifestyle-related health problems with drugs and complex (and expensive!) procedures doesn't make much sense. The way we see it, prescribing drugs for lifestyle-related disease is about as silly as a dentist prescribing a drug to prevent cavities! A lifestyle-related health problem requires a change in behavior, not drug therapy.

Cardiovascular disease and obesity affect millions of Americans. Health care expenses for both are projected to continue to rise during the next several decades. (EDITORIAL NOTE: We are working on an extensive review of the impact of exercise on health care costs. Stay tuned!...)


One glaring deficit in the health care system in the US is how little time, money, and effort is placed on preventive care. The Time magazine review from 2008 gave "Preventive Care" in the US a grade of D+.

Instead, we pursue a strategy based on drug therapy and expensive procedures which only address the symptoms of the problem.

Professor Steven Blair has recently concluded that "physical inactivity is the biggest public health problem of the 21st century." After analyzing over 40,000 patients, he shows that:

"Low cardiorespiratory fitness" was the biggest contributor to death than any of the other traditional risk factors that clinical medicine currently monitors.

In fact, "low cardiorespiratory fitness" was a substantially higher determinant of death than risk factors that currently get most of the attention such as obesity and high cholesterol (Blair SN. 2009.) What he is saying here is that your fitness level is more important than your cholesterol level!


Illnesses that arise as a result of a sedentary lifestyle reflect an imbalance of normal physiology. Thus, it is more logical to base the treatment of these conditions on a physiologic approach, not a pharmacologic one.

People who are sedentary suffer from a process known as "atherosclerosis." This leads to cardiovascular problems such as myocardial infarctions ("heart attacks"), strokes, hypertension (high blood pressure), and even erectile dysfunction. Hyperglycemia (elevated blood sugar) also occurs and further complicates the problem.

"Statin"-type cholesterol-lowering drugs (eg., Crestor, Lipitor) have become one of the most widely-prescribed types of drugs in the world. However, John Ioannidis, MD, from Stanford University, has recently questioned the new guidelines recommending the use of these drugs in an editorial in the February 5, 2014 issue of JAMA titled More Than A Billion People Taking Statins? He feels that too many people will be given these drugs (Ioannidis JPA, 2014).

The fundamental defect causing atherosclerosis is a lack of aerobic, it is an "exercise deficit," if you will. Therefore, the primary therapeutic agent should be exercise, not a complex array of drugs that serve only to treat the various manifestations of that process.

Even if all patients took their drugs as prescribed, the health benefits that exercise offers far exceed what drug therapy can provide (Green DJ. 2009). While metformin does lower blood sugar and ACE inhibitors do lower blood pressure, aerobic exercise does that, too, but, in addition, improves aerobic fitness, bone density, muscle strength, weight loss, flexibility and joint stiffness, cognitive function, mood, sleep quality, balance, etc. all at once. No drug, or group of drugs can match that. Nothing even comes close!

Many studies have shown that exercise can match and even exceed the therapeutic power of drug therapy. Here are several:

Running: Twenty-four of 47 patients with hypertension were able to discontinue all drug therapy after running 2 miles per day for 3 months (Cade R, et al. 1984.)

Cycling: Thirteen of 24 chronic renal failure patients receiving hemodialysis required less intensive drug therapy for hypertension after riding a stationary bicycle for 6 months (Miller BW, et al. 2002.)


A striking example where exercise is a more effective therapeutic option than a medical procedure is the setting of coronary artery disease:

Researchers in Germany have shown that it is more effective to put patients who have had a heart attack on an exercise program, than to perform a PCI procedure:

• Patients were given 1 of 2 different treatments after routine coronary angiography: One group rode a stationary bicycle for 20-min per day, combined with one 60-min group exercise session per week, and the other group underwent a PCI. After 12 months, the group that exercised had a higher "event-free survival" rate than the group that received the PCI. Further, health care costs in the group that exercised were half the costs in the group that received PCI (Hambrecht R, et al. 2004).


The title of an editorial by William Roberts, MD, in the American Journal of Cardiology illustrates how versatile exercise is:

“An agent with lipid-lowering, antihypertensive, positive inotropic, negative chronotropic, vasodilating, diuretic, anorexigenic, weight-reducing, cathartic, hypoglycemic, tranquilizing, hypnotic and antidepressive qualities.”

That's pretty impressive, isn't it? The "agent" he is describing here is aerobic exercise. The only problem with the title is that it doesn't also include: "memory-enhancing," "cancer-preventing," "anti-arthritic," and "clot-preventing" as well!

What's more impressive is that this paper was published in 1984.... that was 30 years ago! Since then, a great deal of research now documents the effectiveness of exercise in a very wide variety of human diseases (Pedersen BK, et al. 2006):

Cardiovascular diseases: coronary artery disease, hypertension, stroke, heart failure, intermittent claudication.

Metabolic diseases: metabolic syndrome, type-2 diabetes, elevated lipids, obesity.

Musculoskeletal diseases: osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia.

Mental health: dementia, depression, mental performance at work and in the classroom.

Various forms of cancer.

Virtually all major medical advisory groups now endorse exercise as a viable health-promoting strategy:

November 2007: The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Medical Association (AMA) jointly launched the “Exercise Is Medicine” initiative. This campaign calls on all physicians to “prescribe” exercise as they would for other traditional therapeutic agents.

June 2008: The US Government's Dept. of Health and Human Services issued its first set of Physical Activity Guidelines.

May 2010: The National Physical Activity Plan was released.

Healthy People has been providing exercise / physical activity recommendations for decades.


Exercise is one strategy that could make a huge impact on the health of Americans, and, in turn, health care costs, particularly for chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease, etc.

Research studies that assess the cost-impact of an exercise program often show dramatic results. Consider the following:

• Men and women who walked briskly on a regular basis reduced their need for antidiabetic, antihypertensive, and lipid-lowering drug therapy by roughly half (Williams PT. 2008.).

• In another study, a daily 3-mile walk was estimated to lower annual drug costs in diabetics by roughly $600/yr per person (DiLoreto C, et al. 2005.)

• In the study mentioned above of dialysis patients who rode an exercise bike, the cost savings on drug therapy for hypertension was estimated to be $885/patient-year (Miller BW, et al. 2002.)


What would happen if we focused more attention on exercise as a therapeutic agent in health care? Answer: We might have a better impact on cardiovascular diseases, obesity, type-2 diabetes, the general health of our entire population, and, in turn, a reduction in health care expenses!


So, what can you do with all this information? The bottom line: Exercise or do some form of physical activity every day!

But, first, a couple precautionary statements:

1) Check with your personal physician before beginning any new exercise routine.

2) If you are taking medications, do NOT stop taking those medications without conferring with your personal physician.

Then, consider starting by going for a walk....if not every day, then, 3-5 days per week. But, try to do it every day. Walk briskly and swing your arms. Try to push your heart rate up a bit. Slow down if you get out of breath, and, certainly, stop immediately if you develop chest pain! Learn how to monitor your heart rate while you are exercising and, periodically, assess your resting heart rate first thing when you wake up.

That's it! Yes, it really is that simple to improve your health. You may find that your blood pressure and your cholesterol start to improve, and, you just might lose a little weight.


An entire chapter in Reents' text Sport and Exercise Pharmacology is devoted to the concept of prescribing exercise to "treat" health problems. (That book was published in 2000!)

Readers may also be interested in these reviews:


Stan Reents, PharmD, is available to speak on this and many other exercise-related topics. (Here is a downloadable recording of one of his Health Talks.) He also provides a one-on-one Health Coaching Service. Contact him through the Contact Us page.


American Heart Association. Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics - 2010 Update. American Heart Association, Dallas, TX, 2010.

Bangalore S, Steg PG, Deedwania P, et al. Beta-blocker use and clinical outcomes in stable outpatients with and without coronary artery disease. JAMA 2012;308:1340-1349. Abstract

Black HR, Elliott WJ, Grandits G, et al. Results of the Controlled ONset Verapamil INvestigation of Cardiovascular Endpoints (CONVINCE) trial by geographical region. J Hypertens 2005;23:1099-1106. Abstract

Blair SN. Physical inactivity: the biggest public health problem of the 21st century. Br J Sports Med 2009;43:1. Abstract

Boden WE, O'Rourke RA, Teo KK, et al. Optimal medical therapy with or without PCI for stable coronary disease. N Engl J Med 2007;356:1503-1516. Abstract

Cade R, Mars D, Wagemaker H, et al. Effect of aerobic exercise training on patients with systemic arterial hypertension. Am J Med 1984;77:785-790. Abstract

DiLoreto C, Fanelli C, Lucidi P, et al. Make your diabetic patients walk. Diabetes Care 2005;28:1295-1302. Abstract

Green DJ. Exercise training as vascular medicine: direct impacts on the vasculature in humans. Exercise Sports Science Reviews 2009;37:196-202. Abstract

Hambrecht R, Walther C, Mobius-Winkler S, et al. Percutaneous coronary angioplasty compared with exercise training in patients with stable coronary artery disease. Circulation 2004;109:1371-1378. Abstract

Hertz RP, Unger AN, Lustik MB. Adherence with pharmacotherapy for type 2 diabetes: A retrospective cohort study of adults with employer-sponsored health insurance. Clin Ther 2005;27:1064-1073. Abstract

Ho PM, Spertus JA, Masoudi FA, et al. Impact of medication therapy discontinuation on mortality after myocardial infarction. Arch Intern Med 2006;166:1842-1847. Abstract

Ioannidis JPA. More than a billion people taking statins? Potential implications of the new cardiovascular guidelines. JAMA 2014;311:463-464. Abstract

Jackevicius CA, Mamdani M, Tu JV. Adherence with statin therapy in elderly patients with and without acute coronary syndromes. JAMA 2002;288:462-467. Abstract

Khawaja FJ, Shah ND, Lennon RJ, et al. Factors associated with 30-day readmission rates after percutaneous coronary intervention. Arch Intern Med 2012;172:112-117. Abstract

Kuehn BM. "Polypill" could slash diabetes risk. JAMA 2006;296:377. Abstract

Miller BW, Cress CL, Johnson ME, et al. Exercise during hemodialysis decreases the use of antihypertensive medications. Am J Kidney Dis 2002;39:828-833. Abstract

Pedersen BK, Saltin B. Evidence for prescribing exercise as therapy in chronic disease. Scan J Med Sci Sports 2006;16(suppl. 1):3-63. Abstract

Roberts WC. An agent with lipid-lowering, antihypertensive, positive inotropic, negative chronotropic, vasodilating, diuretic, anorexigenic, weight-reducing, cathartic, hypoglycemic, tranquilizing, hypnotic and antidepressive qualities. Am J Cardiol 1984;53:261-262. Abstract

Sachdeva A, Cannon CP, Deedwania PC, et al. Lipid levels in patients hospitalized with coronary artery disease: an analysis of 136,905 hospitalizations in Get With The Guidelines. Am Heart J 2009;157:111-117. Abstract

Voelker R. Escalating obesity rates pose health, budget threats. JAMA 2012:308:1514. (no abstract)

Vrijens B, Vincze G, Kristanto P, et al. Adherence to prescribed antihypertensive drug treatments: longitudinal study of electronically compiled dosing histories. Br Med J 2008;336:1114-1117. Abstract

Williams PT. Reduced diabetic, hypertensive, and cholesterol medication use with walking. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2008;40:433-443. Abstract

Yusuf S, Pais P, Afzai R et al. Effects of a polypill (Polycap) on risk factors in middle-aged individuals without cardiovascular disease (TIPS): a phase II, double-blind, randomised trial. Lancet 2009;373:1341-1351. Abstract


Stan Reents, PharmD, is a former healthcare professional. He is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and holds current certifications from ACSM (Health & Fitness Specialist), ACE (Health Coach) and has been certified as a tennis coach by USTA. He is the author of Sport and Exercise Pharmacology (published by Human Kinetics) and has written for Runner's World magazine, Training and Conditioning, Club Solutions, and other fitness publications.

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