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Exercise may be as effective as drugs — or even better — when it comes to certain health issues.

That includes high blood pressure, according to the findings of a recent meta-analysis, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, of 391 randomized controlled trials, involving 39,742 par­ticipants. People with high systolic blood pressure are at elevated risk of cardiovascular disease and death.

In sum, the studies found that among hypertensive populations, there were “no detectable differences” in the systolic-blood-pressure-lowering effects of angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitors (ACE-I), angiotensin-II-receptor blockers (ARBs), beta-blockers, and diuretics compared with endurance or resistance exercise.

Another recent meta-analysis, published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, examined 2,515 long-term randomized controlled trials and similarly found that exercise was more effective than drugs in reducing visceral fat. Carrying excessive belly fat has been linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, insulin resistance, and even cancer.

These new studies suggest that exercise is medicinal. And in certain cases, exercise can be more effective than drugs — causing fewer detrimental side effects, or even offering beneficial ones.

“Exercise has multiple additional benefits beyond medications, such as improving physical fitness, creating a sense of well-being, strengthening muscles, and keeping the heart healthy,” says adipose-study lead author Ian Neeland, MD, a cardiologist and assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “It’s a powerful medicine that has myriad benefits over both the short and long term.”

Yet, Neeland adds, “Exercise takes time and effort, and medications are easier to take, so ­unfortunately there’s less interest in exercise interventions.”

Still, the idea of prescribing exercise is gaining traction. For instance, the American College of Sports Medicine’s Exercise Is Medicine initiative (www.exerciseismedicine.org) encourages doctors to include exercise prescriptions with treatments.

This originally appeared as “Exercise = Medicine” in the November 2020 print issue of Experience Life.

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