Around 30 minutes a day of moderate intensity exercise, on most days of the week, can prevent many health conditions, but it can also help treat them — even if you’re at a healthy weight or already prescribed medicines.
Here are some common conditions that exercise can help you manage.
High blood pressure and cholesterol
Exercise can improve high blood pressure (a reading of 140/90 mm Hg or greater) and high cholesterol, two conditions that can lead to other health problems including heart disease and stroke.
Losing weight and exercising (along with watching your salt and alcohol intake) are some of the best ways to lower your blood pressure. Regular exercise has the added benefit of raising HDL, or “good” cholesterol levels, while lowering your LDL (“bad” cholesterol).
Clinical advisor at NPS MedicineWise, Dr Philippa Binns, says that exercise is well worth the effort. “Physical activity can reduce blood pressure by 4 to 9 mmHg and losing weight can lower it further by 1 mmHg for every 1% reduction in your weight”.
“This may be enough to bring your blood pressure and cholesterol back into a healthy range so you can avoid certain medicines, or enable your doctor to lower the dose you already take to keep them under control”, says Dr Binns.
Heart disease and stroke
As well as reducing high blood pressure and high cholesterol, exercise can help you prevent and recover from a heart attack or stroke, and even reduce the risk of you experiencing another one.
“It’s never too late to start exercising. People who are physically active after having a heart attack are at a 27% lower risk of death after 5 years than those who are inactive”, says Dr Binns.
Being inactive and overweight can make heart failure worse, and exercise-based rehabilitation programs have been shown to reduce the chance of being hospitalised with heart failure.
“Exercise can make your heart stronger, work more efficiently, and function better as you age, even before you begin to lose any weight. Remember to speak to your health professional about a program that’s right for you and your health condition though”, says Dr Binns.
Type 2 diabetes
Almost one million Australians have type 2 diabetes which can cause other health complications, including nerve damage, kidney failure, vision problems, heart disease and stroke.
The top risk factor for type 2 diabetes that you can change is being overweight or obese, which is one reason why exercise is such a powerful tool in preventing it in the first place.
Apart from the benefits of exercise for reducing weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, exercise in itself helps people with diabetes manage blood glucose (sugar) levels. Studies have found that aerobic exercise and building muscle through resistance exercises (e.g. lifting weights with your arms and legs) helps reduce blood glucose levels and the risk of diabetes complications.
Dr Binns also reminds people with diabetes that managing your blood pressure and cholesterol is just as important as managing your blood glucose. “Research has shown that lowering blood pressure and cholesterol can prevent 3 times as many heart attacks and strokes compared with lowering blood glucose alone.”
While age, menopause and genetics have a lot to do with whether you’ll get osteoporosis, you can help prevent and manage this condition with exercise.
You can gain bone mass with regular weight-bearing exercise (especially high impact activities such as football, running, and aerobics) and resistance training.
There is greater protection from osteoporosis and fractures later in life the more bone you build early (ideally in childhood and adolescence) and preserve through adulthood and old age.
If you already have osteoporosis, low-impact muscle strengthening, balance and stability exercises such as Tai Chi are also beneficial — helping prevent falls that can lead to fractures.
Some people, including those with osteoporosis, can’t safely undertake some weight-bearing activities or resistance exercises, so check with your doctor whether they’re suitable for you.
Exercise and team sports can be of additional benefit to standard treatments for depression (such as psychological therapies and antidepressant medicines). Exercise can boost your mood, help you stay connected with others and get the support you need from them.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to choosing which sport or exercise. “The most important thing is that you choose something you enjoy. If you’re unsure which exercise is best for you, talk it over with your GP,” says Dr Binns.
When it comes to depression, there doesn’t seem to be a big difference between the effects of aerobic exercise (such as walking or running) compared with anaerobic exercise (like weight lifting). Whatever exercise you choose, you may find joining a group physical activity more helpful than exercising on your own.
To find out more about how exercise can affect your health and medicines, talk to your doctor, pharmacist, or call NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) for information about your prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (herbal, ‘natural’, vitamins and mineral supplements).