Exercise is medicine – and not just preventive medicine. For many conditions – including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and mild-to-moderate depression – exercise can be as effective a treatment as some types of medications.
“Exercise is very beneficial for people with chronic conditions,” says Debbie Childerhose, registered physiotherapist with the Women’s Cardiovascular Health Initiative at Women’s College Hospital. “At present, most disease guidelines presently have exercise as a component of their treatment.”
Research has shown the benefits of exercise for managing chronic conditions:
Exercise is a pillar of cardiovascular rehabilitation, which reduces risk of death or future heart attack. It’s now recommended for all patients after a heart attack or other cardiovascular event.
Exercise helps people with diabetes and pre-diabetes manage their blood sugar levels, among other benefits.
Regular exercise is effective in managing anxiety and mild-to-moderate depression, and in preventing recurrences.
Exercise is recommended for people with musculoskeletal conditions such as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.
“It’s really important that people get exercise in their lifestyle no matter what their chronic condition is,” Childerhose says.
Some people with chronic conditions may need individual instructions or supervised programs to begin an exercise routine safely. That’s one of the advantages of cardiac rehab: it’s a specialized, supervised program for people with heart disease. People with other conditions – such as osteoarthritis – may feel they can’t exercise because of pain. However, the right exercise program can actually help manage pain, which in turn improves things like mobility and independence.
“At the Women’s Cardiovascular Health Initiative, we have a lot of women who come because of a heart condition, but also have underlying musculoskeletal issues such as arthritis or osteoporosis,” Childerhose says. “After they’ve been doing regular exercise over time, they start to see the benefits in those areas as well as their heart health.”
It’s understandable for people with a chronic condition to have concerns about physical activity, but Childerhose stresses the importance of seeing exercise as part of a treatment plan, rather than a potential risk.
“I get a lot of questions from people who are worried about exercise: worried about the right amount of exercise, worried about getting injured, worried something might be too strenuous on their heart,” she says. “I tell them they’re actually doing more harm to themselves by not exercising. That’s how important it is to get some type of healthy exercise into your lifestyle.”
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