Study: docs can influence patients to exercise

So, what if your doctor told you to take a hike? What if he wrote it down on a prescription pad? Would you follow directions daily?

A new program recently launched by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Medical Association is based on the premise that many Americans would exercise if their doctors told them to -and steered them toward finding a routine that's right for them.

The goal is to get your doctor to record physical activity levels as a vital sign right along with temperature and blood pressure during every office visit.

A survey done for the American College of Sports Medicine found that about 65 percent of patients would be more interested in exercising to stay healthy if advised by to by their doctor and given additional resources.

It also found that just over 40 percent of physicians talk to patients about the importance of exercise, but don't always offer suggestions on the best ways to be physically active.

The program, called Exercise is Medicine, is aimed at giving docs and patients practical material about starting an exercise program, with a goal of getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity and 10 minutes of stretching and muscle training five days a week.

"We already advise against smoking, so recommending exercise should be no different," said Dr. Robert Sallis, president of the American College of Sports Medicine. "Physicians can support the program by prescribing exercise and offering patients basic exercise materials."

More than 25 percent of Americans - more than 55 million - are obese, and at significantly higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and even depression and anxiety as a result.

"More than half of Americans don't get nearly enough exercise and would be astounded to see how much difference a brisk 30-minute walk a few times a week makes in their overall health,'' said Dr. Ronald Davis, president of the AMA.

For instance, one study presented at the American Heart Association's annual meeting last week found that people who reported getting in at least 30 minutes a day of exercise like jogging, bicycling or swimming were more than twice as likely to maintain a stable body mass index (a measure of body fat based on height and weight) as those who didn't exercise.

And, the researchers at Northwestern University found that even those highly active people who did gain weight put on an average of 14 pounds less over 20 years than those with consistently low activity levels.

The study involved more than 2,600 young adults (age 18 to 30 when the study started) who were tracked for 20 years.

Take that exercise up a notch or two to a level that achieves a "runner's high" through the release of natural morphine-like substances called opioids, and you may enjoy still more protection.

Another study out last week from researchers at the University of Iowa found that the opioids produced by exercise appear to have a direct impact on strengthening the heart.

The study compared rats that exercised versus couch potato rats, and found that the exercising animals sustained much less damage from a heart attack than did the sedentary rodents. But they found that this benefit was erased when they blocked opioid receptors in the active animals.

The Iowa researchers suspect that exercise boosts expression of several opioid system genes in heart muscle and changes in other genes that are linked to inflammation and cell death in the heart.

Despite the benefits, just as with those ads for drugs on TV, it's important to consult with your doctor to determine if and how exercise may be right for you. A gradual buildup is necessary for most of us if we haven't been "out there" for a while.

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