The CFA Perspective

Is Exercise a Cure?

Posted by John Meyer, FACHE

9/14/16 6:00 AM

Is_Exercise_a_Cure.jpgIn the September 12/September 19th issue of Time Magazine (available to Time subscribers), there is a fascinating cover article on exercise.  Not the typical article extolling the inherent virtues of exercise because it is “good for you,” but the increasing evidence that exercise can be used as medicine for even the sickest patients.  The magazine cover refers to it as “The Exercise Cure.” I will admit, I have never thought of exercise as anything other than what many others believe:  it inherently improves quality of life, but there is no real evidence that it has a material impact on longevity, physical function, or is a “cure” for anything.  Now, according to researcher Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, “…paper after paper shows that the most effective, potent way that we can improve quality of life and duration of life is exercise.   I have blogged on exercise before, but never from the perspective that exercise may work like a “miracle drug.”

An Important New Study

Next year the NIH will launch a six-year, $170 million study with a group of about 3,000 sedentary people ranging in age from children to the elderly.  They will start an exercise program and donate blood, fat and muscle to be examined to collect clues as to how the body changes with physical activity.  What actually takes place at the molecular level under exercise?  There will be a control group and tissue samples will also be taken from animal brains and lungs that would be too dangerous to take from humans.  This first-of-its-kind study could give doctors the evidence they need to start treating exercise like a miracle cure.  The bet is that exercise will be prescribed to people like physicians prescribe drug therapy – not unlike cardiologists prescribing cardiac rehabilitation, only from a more preventative perspective.

What We Know about Exercise is Changing

The science surrounding exercise continues to change drastically.  The amount, intensity, frequency and type (for example, aerobic versus anaerobic) of exercise that was believed to be therapeutic in the past is changing.  The grueling, aerobic workout of a youthful person isn’t appropriate for an older person with different needs.

Research is also finding out that:

  • Exercise is not an effective way to lose weight (disappointing, but no surprise)
  • Exercise is also now believed to not only be preventative, but restorative – fixing things that are wrong with the body by increasing blood flow, generating new brain cells and producing restorative proteins the body needs to heal itself
  • Some of the best exercise doesn’t require a gym membership, but can include walking, yoga, cycling, light weight training, running, tai chi, or simply working in the home garden, and at much lower levels than previously thought to be effective


We have said before, that while heart disease still kills one in four Americans, regular, routine exercise and improved diet can make a significant difference.  Given new research, maybe that’s understated.  Factor in the industry-wide focus of population health and you have a potentially powerful prescription for the prevention and treatment of heart and vascular disease.  As more becomes known about the true clinical benefits of all types of exercise, it is hoped that physicians will routinely prescribe appropriate exercise, with a detailed exercise plan customized to each patient.  Maybe by then, exercise will truly be a cure.     

As always, CFA invites your comments, suggestions and questions.

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