Exercise as Medicine
By David Drinks
Exercise is medicine - it’s time to start treating it that way.
Exercise is the one intervention that has consistently been shown to deliver the same or better results over the long term than almost any medication.
Few people think of exercise as something they should take in a daily dose, similar to a medication prescribed by their doctor, but that’s exactly how we should think of it. Exercise is medicine, but it must be taken in a regular dose if you want the benefits.
According to the Harvard Medical School, “Exercising regularly, every day if possible, is the single most important thing you can do for your health. In the short term, exercise helps to control appetite, boost mood, and improve sleep. In the long term, it reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, depression, and many cancers.”
Exercise clearly has a powerful and long-term impact on your physical and mental health.
Part of treating exercise as medicine is simply being aware of the impact exercise has on your health and well-being. However, the other part of treating exercise as medicine is realizing that – just like any medication or medical treatment – there is a proper way to prescribe, dose, and implement exercise…and there is an improper way.
I think we understand the importance of the proper prescription of pharmaceuticals, medical tests, and medical procedures (or we wouldn’t pay doctors so much money to get it right!). Do we understand just how important it is to properly prescribe exercise?
Let’s explore this for a minute to understand the ramifications of improperly prescribed exercise:
What happens when we don’t exercise enough?
When you don’t exercise enough, you don’t get all of the health benefits that I referred to above, simple as that. While we do derive some immediate benefits from almost any dose of exercise (no matter how small), almost all of the health benefits attributed to exercise are a result of performing the minimum amount of recommended exercise.
For adults, the minimum effective dose of exercise to receive all of the associated health benefits is 150 minutes/week of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise. Add to that the recommended minimum of 2x/week strength training for all major muscle groups.
A prescription of exercise - whether that’s from an exercise professional or self-prescribed - that doesn’t meet this minimum standard is improperly prescribed exercise, and likely won’t result in the desired health benefits.
What happens when we exercise too much?
While it’s not as common, there is such a thing as too much exercise. On an extreme level, too much exercise can lead to death or severe injury. Did you know that sudden cardiac death during exercise (while extremely rare) is actually more common in those who exercise the most at a vigorous level of cardio intensity? Yeah, more isn’t always better…
Other extreme cases of too much exercise involve those who push their muscles too hard without enough recovery. On a minor level, this leads to extreme soreness. On a more severe level, it can lead to serious medical emergencies like Rhabdomyolysis.
Overtraining is also a negative side-effect of overextending yourself in an exercise routine without allowing sufficient recovery. Overtraining leads to a decrease in strength, possible loss of muscle, lowered immune function, extreme soreness and joint pain, difficulty sleeping, and negative psychological effects and mood swings.
All of these negative side-effects of too much exercise are not as common as the effects of too little exercise but they are certainly serious. How important is it properly prescribe exercise without allowing overtraining? It could be a matter of life and death.
What happens when we don’t prescribe the right exercises?
Exercise is always good for you…except when you’re doing the wrong exercises!
Sometimes, the wrong exercise for you simply means that it’s not going to help you achieve your goals in the most efficient manner. For example, compound strength training exercises (e.g., squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, etc.) are always more efficient at building strength and muscle mass than performing exercises that only focus on one joint or one muscle group at a time (e.g., quad extensions, biceps curls, etc.)
While improper exercise prescription usually just means that you’re not maximizing the benefits of your exercise routine, there are also many cases where you can injure yourself by doing the wrong exercise for your body.
An example of this is a person performing abdominal crunches when they have a spinal disc bulge or herniation. This improperly prescribed exercise seeks to strengthen the abdominal muscles to protect the low back…all the while, repeated flexion of the spine that occurs in abdominal crunches is the exact mechanism that leads to disc bulges and herniations.
There are many other examples of a person with previous shoulder injuries, or hip pain, or knee problems, performing exercises that feed into the problem instead of helping to resolve the problem.
Being aware of how each exercise affects the body, and how previous injuries or surgeries will be impacted, is crucial when choosing the right exercises for you.
What happens when exercise is not monitored by a professional?
Lastly, when exercise is done outside of being monitored by a professional, problems can arise. When doctors prescribe treatment paths for an illness or injury, it’s being done under their supervision. How about exercise?
When exercise is done unsupervised by someone who has not learned proper technique, there’s a very high likelihood that something will be done improperly. They might get away with poor technique for a while, but eventually, it will catch up to them.
All of this demonstrates just how important it is to treat exercise like it’s medicine. When it is prescribed, dosed, or performed improperly, there are real side effects. Problems may not show up right away, but eventually, they’ll show up – whether that’s in the form of an injury from improper technique, overtraining due to excessive exercise prescription, or developing a health problem from under-prescribed exercise.
At The Med Gym, we believe that exercise should be treated as medicine (thus, the name Med Gym!). We believe in exercise being prescribed by qualified exercise professionals. We believe in giving folks the proper dose of exercise. We believe in monitoring exercise routines so that they are performed properly and in the proper amount (i.e., don’t do 15 reps when it says 8 reps on the paper!).
We approach exercise in this manner because we’ve seen the powerful effect it can have on the lives of individuals, and on a population of people when it’s done right.
We hope that you’ll start to see exercise this way too if you haven’t already! It just might change your life…
P.S. If you're ready to get your proper exercise prescription started with one of The Med Gym's exercise professionals, then contact us here!