What if there were a pill that could combat all of today’s chronic illness, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and even breast and colon cancer? And what if this pill had mountains of data and literature backing its effectiveness to help every patient? Surely everyone in the United States would be taking this drug, either to treat an existing illness or to prevent one.

The Exercise is Medicine initiative (www.exerciseismedicine.org) is a collaboration of the American College of Sports medicine, the leading authority on physical fitness as it relates to health, and the American Medical association, the largest association of physicians in the United States. Their goal is simple: to encourage physicians to treat exercise as a vital sign by assessing every patient’s physical activity program at every visit. If the initiative is successful and physicians begin to expect their patients to be more physically active, this will produce the expectation among patients that they will be asked about their physical activity levels. This, in turn, will encourage patients to be more active on a daily basis and lead to better health outcomes. Sounds simple right?

However, it’s no secret that physicians are pressed for time, and many may be reluctant to take chances with their patients if they are not sure they will see positive outcomes. It’s also well known that many American’s don’t like to exercise. In fact, a little over half of all Americans surveyed admit they don’t meet the current recommendation of 150 minutes per week of moderate activity (i.e. brisk walking). So how do we reconcile some of these differences?

Randy Glasbergen

Randy Glasbergen (2005)

It is essential that physicians initiate the Exercise is Medicine campaign. Research shows that when a patient has “Doctor’s Orders” to exercise rather than a recommendation, he or she is much more likely to comply with an exercise program. To help doctors tackle the lack of time barrier, a physician can assess their patient’s physical activity status by asking one quick question: “How many times in the last seven day’s have you exercised for thirty consecutive minutes?” If the patient answers less than or equal to twice, the physician can write a prescription for exercise using the prescription form found on page five of this document. Doctors who prescribe exercise can expect to see their patients lose weight, have lower systolic and diastolic blood pressures, higher HDL and lower triglycerides, and lower fasting blood sugar, to name just a few. If there is any concern over the patients’ safety while exercising, a prescription to a health and fitness facility with a qualified staff may be advisable.

From the patients’ perspective, those who have “Doctor’s Orders,” to exercise are much more likely to do so. Therefore, those patients begin to take an active part in owning their health — a foreign concept to many with chronic disease. And aside from better lab reports and happier physicians, the benefits of being a physically active patient could mean having less pain and taking less medication to control high blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes.

Exercise truly is medicine. There are mountains of research showing its ability to treat and even reverse many of today’s chronic conditions. Physicians and patients can visit ExerciseIsMedicine.org to find out about the appropriate dosages. Finally, physicians who assess physical activity levels and prescribe exercise can enjoy improved patient outcomes, and help patients begin to take ownership of their health.

Feature image by C.Y.Li via Flickr