There is a saying that if exercise was a pill it would be the most highly prescribed medication in the world.
The benefits of positive lifestyle modification (LM) have been established by decades of evidence and no one could argue that regular exercise forms part of a healthy life. However it is becoming increasingly evident that exercise also forms a huge part of preventative medicine.
Numerous studies point to a lower incidence of heart disease, cancer and dementia in the healthiest populations of the world – ones that are constantly active and follow a Mediterranean or plant based way of eating. It has long been known that the effects of regular exercise far outweigh the efficacy of Prozac on managing depression. Manipulation of the major food groups is sometimes used by oncologists to ‘starve’ cancer cells, and supplementing Omega 3 into the diet of maximum security prisoners dramatically decreases incidence of inmate aggression (which begs the question that if they had better nutrition would they even be there in the first place?).
As evidence of the need for preventative medicine, there an undeniable escalation of microbial resistance (meaning antibiotics will no longer work on the simplest of ailments) and a statistic that predicts 80 percent of Kiwis will be morbidly obese by 2060. The effects of climate change, resource rivalry, the refugee crisis and unchecked population growth (in certain areas), is further fostering the development of disease, including triggering some long dormant diseases like polio.
Issues like these are increasingly forcing the health and medical professions to focus on how to prevent illness rather than just continuing to treat symptoms as post-disease treatment alone is failing to stem the flow.
A comprehensive employer sponsored lifestyle program targeting diet, exercise, behaviour modification, and stress management was initiated with twelve employees between 2006 and 2010 at a rural university in Ohio in the United States. The intervention program was effective in reducing cardiovascular disease risk factors after just one year of treatment (which says something about investing in keeping employees well rather than paying out loads of sick pay).
Closer to home, the Green Prescription program attempts to use the power of a doctor’s advice to initiate lifestyle changes. To make regular exercise part of the ‘medication’, patients are paired with exercise educators via Sport Waikato. And in a throw-back to primary school drama lessons, a 2016 program helped children manage stress by imitating interesting plants and animals, such as sunflowers, pine trees, sleeping lions and deer.
Getting up and walking is one of the first rehabilitative exercises after heart surgery, training with weights has been proven to increase bone density in many cases of osteoporosis, a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes can be overturned through regular exercise and a reduction of body fat, and lung damage from smoking can be reversed through exercise interventions.
In the prevention of disease, new findings in 2017 studies showed that engaging in even minimal amounts of exercise can be protective against breast cancer. The effect of exercise on hypertension (high blood pressure) has been well researched and the lowering/stabilising of blood pressure is one of the first positive effects of an appropriate exercise program.
With hypertension and high cholesterol being stroke risk factors, there is a link between regular exercise and a decreased risk of stroke.
Funny thing is, this is not a new concept and in pre-antibiotic times, exercise was almost always included in wellness and healing alongside herbal remedies (and strangely, things like arsenic and copious quantities of wine).
In around 100 BC the philosopher Galen promoted fresh air, daily exercise, healthy food, and sleep as the foundations of good health.
Medicine balls were invented by the Roman gladiators to get back to strength following injury and kettlebells were so commonly used by the Russians to improve ballistic and functional strength it became a sport. In recent times the ever-present-in-a-gym stability ball morphed over from occupational health.
A change of scenery and fresh air were some of the simplest forms of restorative medicine in the early century and many were sent to the mountains in search of nature’s cure (think de-stress/tropical holiday in the modern age).
Optimisation of body weight, a healthy diet, regular exercise and quitting smoking, have always been cornerstone strategies in the prevention of chronic diseases from heart and metabolic conditions to cancer.
In the predicted incoming perfect storm of antibiotic resistance and escalating chronic disease, it seems essential that exercise needs to play a much bigger part in population health as the foundation of preventative medicine.
Survival of the fittest may be an impending reality. Galen (influential physician and philosopher, 129BC-c.200)
Laws of Health
1.) Breathe fresh air
2.) Eat the proper foods
3.) Drink the right drinks
5.) Get adequate sleep
6.) Have a daily Bowel Motion
7.) Control your emotions