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Editorial: Physical Therapy; Exercise May Offer Alternative to Drugs

If you’re sitting down, we suggest you stand up. Get those legs moving and that heart pumping. Keep going. You’ll feel better, and you may even live longer.

Hardly a day goes by without further confirmation of the benefits of regular exercise. Physical activity not only helps to maintain muscles and a healthy weight; it has also been shown to improve brain function, regulate sleep patterns, elevate mood and stave off depression, among other things. Now comes a report that exercise may be as effective as prescription drugs in treating or preventing several common and often lethal diseases.

Writing in the British Medical Journal last week, researchers from Harvard Medical School and the London School of Economics concluded that exercise should be a viable alternative to drug therapy, or a complement to it, in the treatment of coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke and in the prevention of diabetes. Exercise was found to be even more effective than drugs for rehabilitation from stroke, according to the researchers’ review of trials involving almost 340,000 patients.

Assuming the findings of this study hold up, the ramifications could be significant. These particular diseases are not only common; they are also enormously costly. Currently, one in three Americans has some form of heart disease, including high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association. That alarming proportion will only increase as baby boomers age. Costs to treat heart disease in this country will almost treble over the next 20 years, from $273 billion a year to $818 billion, the association reports. If exercise regimens were used successfully to supplement or even supplant prescription drug regimens, which obviously contribute to the high cost of treatment, the savings would be significant. (Sorry, Big Pharma.)

Of course, we’d all be better off if heart attacks, strokes and the like could be prevented in the first place. Unhealthy behaviors and unhealthy environments have led to an epidemic of heart disease, as well as to Type II diabetes and other ailments associated with Americans’ high-fat diet and sedentary life style. As the heart association points out, early intervention and evidence-based public policies are needed to reduce rates of obesity, hypertension and high cholesterol, all risk factors for heart disease.

So, as evidence mounts that exercise may be key to both the prevention and treatment of heart disease, it would seem logical to promote more rigorously routine physical activity. Schoolchildren should sit less and run around more. Office workers should be allowed ample breaks during the day to walk or participate in exercise classes. Family members should get off the couch, step away from their screens and devices, and move — even during baseball playoffs.

All easier said than done, of course. A survey released last week by Kaiser Permanente found that most Americans know that walking is good, but nearly 80 percent said they don’t do enough of it. And other forces, from budget cuts in schools that curtail gym classes to the lengthening of the eight-hour workday, conspire against exercise.

Although many of the benefits of exercise appear to be well documented, the Harvard researchers said that the value of exercise intervention in the treatment of disease requires more investigation. This would seem to be a worthwhile line of inquiry, even an urgent one considering dire trends in public health, increases in drug prices and the relentless pressure to curtail rising health-care costs.