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Can I use exercise as medicine?

Exercise benefits both the mind and body, but can it also be a form of medicine? Some doctors are prescribing their patients fitness routines, which can supplement traditional medications or even replace them.    

“We want people to think of exercise as preventive medication,” says Inbar Naor-Maxwell, ASCM, EP-C, EIM2, an exercise physiologist at the Piedmont Atlanta Fitness Center. She helps people develop fitness routines tailored to their needs and abilities.

Exercise isn’t a singular cure, but it can boost your health and reduce the need for expensive medicines or doctor’s appointments.

Who benefits most from exercise?

Exercise can help improve a diverse array of conditions, including:

New fitness routines may also be useful for some neurological disorders (such as Parkinson’s disease), depression and anxiety.

A prescription for exercise

Naor-Maxwell works with patients in Exercise Is Medicine (EIM), a program that prescribes workouts for better health. Doctors refer patients to EIM, which is free and offers two weeks of fitness center access.

Founded by the American College of Sports Medicine, EIM is now a worldwide initiative. Piedmont’s EIM program encourages patients to enjoy exercise on their own terms.

What kind of exercises are prescribed?

At Piedmont, every EIM prescription starts with a consultation about patient history and interests.

“We want to see if they have any experience with exercise, and if so, what they’ve done in the past,” Naor-Maxwell says. “What do they like to do? What do they hate to do?”  

Physiologists check patient vitals, and they do assessments for body composition, muscle, cardiovascular health, and flexibility. The consultation also includes a review of patient medical history.  

Then a physiologist designs a personalized routine for the patient. Everyone’s workout will be different, but each incorporates core elements: cardio, strength, flexibility and balance. Once they understand the basics of their routines, patients start working out at the fitness center.

Although they work with physiologists, patients generally perform their routines by themselves.

“We’re trying to teach them how to work out on their own,” Naor-Maxwell says.

What improvements do patients see?

If patients commit to EIM, they can see drastic results, Naor-Maxwell says.

Some older people report feeling more independent. Common effects include weight loss and improved mood, while some people decrease their medications for conditions like high blood pressure or depression.

“It can’t get any better than that,” Naor-Maxwell says. Some patients offered testimonials about their own experiences:

  • “My symptoms have improved dramatically. My blood pressure is down, BMI is down, body fat is down, and I’ve lost 24 pounds.”
  • “My diabetes has become more manageable, and my HbA1C level has decreased from 9.5 to 5.6.”
  • “Because of the great support of the fitness team at Piedmont, I was able to discontinue one of my blood pressure medications and reach my fitness goal!”

EIM can be both preventive and interventional, Naor-Maxwell says. Once patients complete the initial program, they can continue developing their fitness routines and set new goals.

“Exercise has so many good side effects,” Naor-Maxwell says.

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