Could you use an exercise prescription?

It’s no secret that breaking a sweat is good for you. But research is showing that we may have underestimated the potential of physical activity to prevent heart disease and other serious conditions.
Young woman sitting on grass in sport clothes cityscape in background v2

A growing body of evidence shows that when exercise is prescribed to treat patients, it’s often as good as medication.

The benefits reach far beyond prevention, says Dr. Paul Oh, medical director and GoodLife Fitness Chair of the Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation Program at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and Peter Munk Cardiac Centre.

A leading expert in lifestyle and behavioural interventions, Dr. Oh is also a Foundation-funded researcher who prescribes exercise to help patients recover. Here’s how it can help:

After heart attack or heart surgery: Patients who exercise regularly can improve their survival rates between 25 and 50%. “That’s as strong as any medication that we can offer, whether it’s Aspirin, a cholesterol-lowering medication, or a blood pressure pill,” Dr. Oh explains.

For people with diabetes: Exercise can improve blood sugar control by 10%. Controlling diabetes can help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

For people with high blood pressure: Combining physical activity with good eating is an effective way to lower high blood pressure, the number one risk factor for stroke.

For anyone who wants to reduce their risk of heart disease, stroke and other chronic conditions: Making healthy lifestyle changes that includes getting 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a week can cut your risk of developing premature heart disease, stroke and other chronic disease by as much as 80 per cent.

What is YOUR exercise prescription?

Whether you’re just starting or want to reach your next fitness goal, Dr. Oh shares ways you can get active.

If you’re starting from sedentary:

Find simple ways to build more activity into your day.

Over time, you’ll work up to 30 minutes of daily physical activity at a moderate intensity. Repeat five days a week to meet the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines. When you’re doing that pretty well, you’ll want to layer on a couple days of resistance activities using bands or weights to build your muscle strength.

If you’re recovering from heart disease or stroke:

It’s important to factor in limitations you might be experiencing. Are you facing a strength or balance issue, where you need to be a little bit more careful? Pay attention to what your body is telling you. If an exercise is painful or too hard, don’t force it. If you have a weakened limb, bone or joint problem, you might need to adapt exercises so you can do them. Every exercise has a modification; if you’re not sure what’s right for you, ask your doctor, physiotherapist or exercise specialist.

If you’re moderately active:

At this point you’re getting 15 or 20 minutes of physical activity regularly on most days. Next, you want to focus on making it a daily habit or working toward a new goal, like completing your first 5 km race. Look for new ways to build physical activity into your life more often and aim for 45 to 60 minutes of daily physical activity. Repeat five days a week.

So what’s holding us back?

For all the benefits physical activity promises, most of us still aren’t getting enough. The most recent Canadian Health Measures Survey found that 95% of Canadians don’t get the recommended 150 minutes of weekly physical activity.

A prescription will only work as long as the patient remembers to take it. Dr. Oh finds his patients don’t always follow the treatments he prescribes. The barriers he hears about most often fall into three types:

  • lack of time
  • lack of resources
  • lack of confidence to get started.

It’s critical that you identify what’s been holding you back, says Dr. Oh; that’s the first step to making any exercise prescription stick.

Overcoming the barriers

Here’s how Dr. Oh counsels his patients to help them get past their challenges.

  • “I’m too busy to work out.” If you can’t find 30 minutes to get active during the day, it’s not the end of the world. Try breaking those minutes into 10-minute blocks. It might be 10 minutes before work, 10 minutes over lunch and another 10 on the way home.
  • “I can’t afford a gym membership.” It’s a common misconception that you need to spend money to get active. A good pair of running shoes and access to outdoors are all you really need to get a dose of healthy activity into your day.
  • “I’m not sure I’m strong enough for this activity.” Even if your doctor has given you the all clear, it’s normal to feel hesitant about beginning a physical activity routine, especially if you’re recovering from a heart attack or heart surgery. Research shows that it’s far riskier to stay on the couch and not move.

Keep in mind that getting active can be as simple as getting off the couch and taking a walk at a comfortable pace for 10 or 15 minutes a day.

Having a workout buddy or a friend you can reach out to for support can help you reach your goal, especially in the early stages. That person may be a family member, a trainer at the gym, or even an online support group.

Get ready for relapses

Dr. Oh also urges his patients to accept that relapses are going to happen. It’s key to treat a setback not as a sign of failure or lack of willpower, but as something most of will experience, especially when routines are disrupted on special occasions or vacations. The trick is to plan for these little slips, so you’ll have an easier time restarting.