Physical Activity Is Medicine!

Have you ever thought about how much money you spend on medicine each year? Have you ever done the math? Perhaps the money is not coming directly from your pocket as the insurance company eats a large chunk of the costs. Either way, I want to challenge you to add up what you have spent on medicine this year and keep track of it until the end of this year and see where you end up.

On average, each American spends about $1,000 per year on pharmaceuticals. This puts the United States in first place in the world for usage of pharmaceuticals. In fact, it is 40% more than what the next country (Canada) spends. America also ranks number one in usage of antipsychotics, drugs for dementia, respiratory problems, and rheumatoid arthritis. One of the reasons for this could be that rates of chronic disease, such as heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease are greater than in other developed countries due to high levels of obesity, lack of physical activity and poor nutrition.

The chart below showcases how much different countries spent on pharmaceuticals in 2013:



It is amazing how willing we are to spend tremendous amounts of money on medication and yet, we are so unwilling to consider alternative ways to treat and prevent disease. One of the cheapest and most effective forms of medicine is physical activity! A very wise philosopher once said:

“Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.” – Plato

Movement of the human body is extremely powerful and provides so many physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual benefits. Research proves that not only can physical activity prevent chronic disease and illness; it can actually assist with treatment of disease and improve quality of life. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), regular physical activity can provide the following benefits in relation to chronic disease:

  1. Lower the risk of stroke by 27%
  1. Reduce the incidence of heart disease and high blood pressure by approximately 40%
  1. Reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by approximately 40%
  1. Reduce mortality and the risk of recurrent breast cancer by approximately 50%
  1. Lower the risk of developing Type II Diabetes by 58%
  1. Lower the risk of colon cancer by over 60%
  1. Active individuals in their 80’s have a lower risk of death then inactive individuals in their 60’s
  1. Can decrease risk of death by 40%
  1. Adults with better muscle strength have a 20% lower risk of mortality (33% lower risk of cancer specific mortality) than adults with low muscle strength.

These are powerful statistics to showcase how physical activity can play a key role in preventing the development or recurrence of chronic diseases. Other benefits of physical activity include:

  • Improved cardiorespiratory functioning
  • Improved cellular metabolism
  • Better control of body fat
  • Improved sleep
  • Increased energy levels
  • Improved immune function
  • Improved psychological and emotional well being
  • Improved mental functioning
  • Increased muscular strength & endurance
  • Increased flexibility
  • Better joint health
  • and many more…

Physical activity and Depression.

One of the most powerful benefits of physical activity is its ability to decrease depression. In fact, it can do this as effectively as Prozac or behavioral therapy![1] Over the last few decades, the usage of antidepressant drugs has increased significantly. One in ten Americans uses medication for depression and when narrowing the demographic, one in four women in their 40’s and 50’s take these drugs. Without going into detail, medication to treat depression can have detrimental and long-term side effects.

Considering that regular physical activity can have such a positive impact on people suffering from depression, why can exercise not be an alternative treatment for this disease? The side effects are positive no matter where you start and no matter what ailments your body might be experiencing.

While working with severely obese patients and treating them with lifestyle medicine (physical activity, healthy nutrition, stress management, etc.), I have witnessed many people suffering from chronic disease and their symptoms improve health conditions, reduce medication intake and improve their quality of life many times. Patients are able to get off blood pressure medication, cholesterol medication, inhalers, and many other drugs that, although they help the symptoms, can be detrimental to the person’s overall well being.

One key lesson to learn is that most medications treat the symptoms (which is sometime necessary); however, they DO NOT usually treat the cause of the ailment. Using physical activity as medicine can treat symptoms AND it can treat the cause of the ailment. Movement of the human body is powerful! The body was designed to move and be in action to function to the best of its ability!

I want to encourage all of you to recognize the power of motion; that physical activity truly can be medicine! If you suffer from chronic disease or illness, consult with your physician and request information on how alternative treatment through physical activity in addition to other lifestyle behaviors could improve your condition and assist in treating the cause and symptoms of your disease!



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Dominique Wakefield MA, CPT

is the Director for University Health & Wellness and Adjunct Faculty in the Department for Public Health, Nutrition & Wellness at Andrews University in Michigan. She is also a Certified Personal Trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and a Certified Wellness Practitioner through the National Wellness Institute (NWI). In addition to university teaching, Dominique has worked extensively, as a manager and personal trainer, in the health and wellness sector. Dominique is a PhD candidate in Health and her research centers on physical activity, motivation for exercise, and behavior change strategies. Dominique is a passionate, energetic, and innovative health, wellness, and fitness expert and regularly contributes articles to Life and Health Network and to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). In October 2011, Dominique Wakefield was awarded "Top 11 Personal Trainers to Watch in the U.S." by Life Fitness and the American Council on Exercise.

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