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Study: Exercise Effective as Drugs After Stroke, Heart Attack

Nanci Hellmich, @nancihellmich, USA TODAY
 October 3, 2013


Exercise may be as effective as medication in preventing early death in people who have had heart attacks or strokes, a new study suggests. 

“Doctors should give their patients advice about the lifesaving benefits of exercise, and when possible, they should refer patients to rehabilitation programs with exercise programs,” says the study’s lead author, Huseyin Naci, a fellow at Harvard Medical School and a graduate student at the London School of Economics. 

This adds to a large volume of research on the benefits of regular physical activity. Exercise has been shown to lower the risk of early death, help control weight and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression, some types of cancer and a host of other conditions. Yet only about 21% of adults in the USA meet the government’s recommendations for physical activity, recent data show. 

Naci and a colleague at Stanford University School of Medicine analyzed the results of 305 studies involving 339,274 people. They looked at early death in patients who had had strokes, heart attacks or heart failure or were at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Only about 14,700 people participated in exercise trials. Exercise interventions varied among studies. 

Among the findings reported in BMJ, a British medical journal: 

Among stroke patients, exercise was more effective than drugs. However, stroke patients who are capable of exercising may have been healthier to begin with than those who couldn’t exercise, Naci says. 

For people who had heart failure, diuretic drugs were more effective than exercise and all other types of drug treatment. 

For patients who had had heart attacks, exercise appeared to be as effective as drugs in preventing early deaths, Naci says. 

He says more trials comparing the effectiveness of exercise and drugs are needed to help doctors and patients make the best treatment decisions. “Exercise should be considered as a viable alternative to, or in combination with, medications.” 

New York cardiologist Richard Stein, a spokesman for the American Heart Association, says, “We are left with the same message we had before: Exercise therapy works. Drug therapy works. The combination of the two is the most reasonable approach.” 

Timothy Church, a physician and director of preventive medicine research at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, says the latest findings make “sense to me when you consider that exercise strengthens all parts of the human machine — the heart, the liver, the brain, the blood vessels, the muscles. The most powerful thing you can do for your health is to become active.”