Exercise as medication?

On December 1, U of T students and members of the larger community gathered at Isabel Bader Theatre for a symposium entitled “Physical Activity: The Best Medicine?”.


The emcee of the event, Michelle Brownrigg, is the director of physical activity and equity at the Faculty of Physical Education and Health. Brownrigg began the symposium by citing that two thirds of all deaths are the result of non-communicable diseases.


Canada’s guideline for physical activity recommends that adults should accumulate 150 minutes of physical activity each week, in sessions of at least 10 minutes. Only 15% of adults currently meet those guidelines. Brownrigg went on to say that while most people say that they don’t have enough time to exercise, the reality is that most people spend two to three hours every day doing leisure activities.


Professor Jack Goodman, a cardiac researcher, told the audience to imagine if we could put exercise into a pill. There are so many benefits to exercise, including decreased risk of heart disease and increased heart function, that the appeal is obvious. Like medication, exercise also comes with risks and side effects, such as an increased risk of heart attacks and possible dehydration. He added that exercise is addictive, but jokingly remarked that this “side effect” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

After comparing exercise to medication, they mentioned that study after study has shown that increased exercise decreases the risk of coronary heart disease. Not only that, but amazingly, vigorous exercise decreases all causes of death by 20–60%.

Goodman spent some time discussing the risks of exercise in terms of hidden heart defects. When exercising, a person’s risk of a heart attack increases by 50–60%. But what scientists have discovered is that over time, and with more regular exercise, the risk of a heart attack decreases.


Goodman then gave suggestions for what kinds of exercise could fit the recommended 150 minutes per week. He suggested walking briskly for 15 to 17 kilometres every week, or participating in four days of aerobic classes that make you sweat and breathe hard.


He ended his brief address with a humorous yet thought-provoking rhetorical question: “What fits your schedule better: exercising one hour a day, or being dead 24 hours a day?”


Professor Guy Faulkner, who researches the psychological benefits of exercise, then asked, “Is sweat the best anti-discussed the question?” He discussed the poor state of mental health in the Canadian population, and how problems can be curbed through greater physical fitness. The Canadian government released figures in 2002 from the Ministry of Health saying that one in five Canadians suffer from mental illness. Worse, that number is increasing over time. It also puts a huge drain on the healthcare system; in 1993, $7.3 billion was spent on mental health. That number has increased since then.


Faulkner highlighted that we can impact the way we think and feel by increasing physical activity. He cited numerous studies that have proven that exercise leads to reduced depression, and conversely, those who exercise less have a greater risk of developing depression. While exercise cannot fully replace medication, the positive effects of taking medication and exercising are comparable.

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