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What if your doctor prescribed exercise instead of medicine?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Doctors prescribing exercise instead of medication

How would you feel if your doctor wrote a prescription for exercise instead of handing you one for medication? You might be surprised to learn that's exactly what more physicians are doing and there is good reason your doctor's thinking may be changing.


In a recent article CBS, New York highlights several doctors who are telling their patients to go to the gym to treat their health conditions. What's especially interesting is that they are also making it easy for that to happen by offering gym access at $10 a month, including free child care and children's programs.

Why exercise is better than medicine

Exercise is good preventive medicine. It's also good for what already ails the body. There may be no health condition that exercise won't help.

Dr. Michelle Johnson who practices at the Whittier Street Health Center in Boston is one doctor that writes gym prescriptions for her patients.

According to Johnson, there isn't anything new about exercise being good medicine. We are just beginning to understand just how important it is, she adds.

Ordering up some exercise for patients simply makes sense and is better than medicine because:

  • Exercise helps lift mood
  • Helps with weight loss
  • Raises our good cholesterol level
  • Is essential for controlling blood sugar levels
  • Helps us maintain a healthy weight
  • Boosts immunity
  • Can help manage chronic pain
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Prevents heart disease
  • Lowers our chances of developing some types of cancer
  • Keeps health care costs down
  • Lowers rates of hospitalization
  • Helps keep our brains sharp
  • Can help postpone the need for joint surgery

Dr. Geovanni Espinosa, a naturopathic physician recommends exercise for cancer patients. In a 2015 press release Espinosa highlights a study showing men with prostate cancer were less likely to die if they exercised.

Dr. Espinosa cited the study as another reason "...why more American doctors need to put down their prescription pads and get with the program."

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Barriers to prescribing exercise

The Canadian Medical Journal Association also just published a review of studies showing how exercise can help a variety of health conditions, but there are barriers to clinicians when it comes to prescribing.

The study authors point out there might be reasons a person should not exercise, but there are no "absolute contraindications".

Many physicians are uncertain about what exercises are best for their patients with specific health conditions and how to prescribe to help clients obtain the same positive results shown in clinical trials.

They also point out finding the right exercises is more challenging that prescribing the right medication for patients.

"Exercise prescription also requires clinicians to be able to manage patients’ misconceptions,fears and motivation, particularly for those who are unwell," the study authors write.

How would you respond if your doctor wrote a prescription for exercise instead of medication? There is evidence that more doctors are doing just that. There is also the suggestion that getting patients on the right type of exercise can be a challenge for physicians.


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