Ask the Expert: A Prescription for Exercise?

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Q: Until several years ago I worked in a physically demanding trade and managed to stay fit just doing my job. After being seriously injured, I changed trades and now find myself sitting in front of a computer eight hours a day. During my annual medical, my doctor noted I had put on nine kg (20 lb) and I admitted I was doing nothing to stay fit. After discussing how important exercise was for my health, he handed me a written prescription with an exercise plan for me to follow. This really got me moving. I was wondering if prescribing exercise is something new to the field of medicine.

 —Frank

A: Dear Frank:
Bravo for getting back to being physically active. We have known for many years that regular physical activity is important to staying healthy, but we have only recently started referring to exercise as a medicine and encouraging doctors to start prescribing it. Doctors tend to be very busy people and so when you ask them to add something more to their workload it had better be important. Here are some important reasons why your physician took the time to encourage you to be more physically active:

  1. Physical inactivity has become a public health epidemic and the World Health Organization ranks it as the fourth leading cause of illness and death worldwide;
  2. 80 percent of Canadian adults don’t meet the physical activity recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week;
  3. The medical consequences of physical inactivity costs Canadians over $30 billion a year;
  4. Studies have shown that regular physical activity will reduce the risk of over 30 major chronic diseases, including depression, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and high blood pressure;
  5. Physical activity can be as effective as medications in the treatment of depression and more effective than medications in the treatment of stroke; and
  6. Research shows that a doctor counselling you to exercise is up to 10 times more likely to get you to change your behaviour than counselling you to quit smoking.

The bottom line is regular physical activity is extremely important to your long-term mental and physical health. You are very fortunate to have a physician that recognizes this and is taking the time to prescribe you a way to better health. You may not realize it, but by becoming more physically active, you will also inspire others to discover for themselves that exercise truly is medicine.

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