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Rx for Heart Disease: Take 2 Walks and Call Me in the Morning


A major new study finds that exercise is as good - or in some cases better - than prescription drugs in protecting against future heart attacks, stroke and diabetes.

The study, conducted by researchers from Harvard and Stanford universities, is among a very few trials that have directly compared an exercise regimen with medication. Researchers compared their effectiveness for patients with heart disease, heart failure and pre-type 2 diabetes, and recovering from stroke.

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The researchers culled data from more than 300 clinical trials involving nearly 340,000 participants. The result: "No statistically detectable differences" were found between medication and exercise at preventing either diabetes or future heart attacks for heart patients, while exercise outperformed drugs at avoiding additional strokes for stroke survivors.

The only group that benefited more from drugs than from physical activity were the patients with heart failure, a condition where the heart gradually becomes too weak to pump blood to the rest of the body. Those patients did better with drugs, specifically diuretics, the scientists said in a statement.

The fact that few studies have looked at the effectiveness of exercise versus medication is a "blind spot" in research, coauthor Huseyin Naci, a fellow in pharmaceutical-policy research at Harvard Medical School, told the Wall Street Journal. Exercise, Naci added, "should be considered as a viable alternative or in combination with drug therapy."

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In their study, Naci and coauthor John Ioannidis, M.D., a professor at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, recommended that exercise be included in any discussion doctors have with patients, especially those with chronic disease. "In cases where drug options provide only modest benefit, patients deserve to understand the relative impact that physical activity might have on their condition," they wrote.

Obviously, more studies are needed to determine how much and what type of exercise is best for patients, but previous studies have already shown that just taking a 30-minute walk several times a week can help improve memory, blood pressure and diabetes, and even prevent cancer.

Now it appears we can add heart disease and strokes to that list.

Photo: Bill Branson/Wikimedia

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