Exercise Is an Extraordinary 'Drug,' So Why Aren't Physicians Prescribing It?

Heather Hausenblas

What contributes to our overall health? What might surprise you is that our behavior -- what we're doing (or not doing) -- accounts for 50 percent of our overall health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this is more than our genetics (which account for about 20 percent of our overall health), our environment (20 percent) and our access to medical care (10 percent).

And if we break our behavior down even further, physical activity has one of the biggest impacts on our overall health. The science is clear: Every system of the body benefits when a person exercises. A daily dose of physical activity is highly effective for preventing and treating many of our most prevalent chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease, hypertension, heart failure, obesity, depression and diabetes.

The bottom line is that physical activity is very ( very) good for our health. In fact, people who are regular exercisers can expect to live an average of seven years longer than their physically inactive friends.

So why are physicians, regardless of their specialty, not prescribing exercise to their patients? An initiative called Exercise is Medicine® that focuses on encouraging health care providers to include physical activity when designing treatment plans for their patients is trying to change this.

A key component of Exercise is Medicine is to have all health care providers assess their patients' physical activity at every visit. The Exercise is Medicine initiative aims to have physical activity recorded as a vital sign during patient visits and to encourage able patients to meet the physical activity guidelines. The goal is that inactive patients should be given exercise counseling or an exercise prescription to either a health or fitness professional or program.

Unfortunately, research published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health reveals that more than 50 percent of the physicians trained in the U.S. in 2013 received no formal education in physical activity, and they are likely not prepared to help their patients with their exercise plan.

In his Huffines Presentation in 2013, Dr. Bob Sallis stated that exercise is a wonder drug. If it was listed in the Physician's Desk Reference (the largest compendium of drugs), it would be the most powerful drug currently available. And it would be malpractice not to prescribe it. These are powerful words that make a lot of sense.

So why has the medical community neglected this information? Partly because it's easier to prescribe a pill or surgery. We are a prescription nation. According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center, almost 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug -- costing us $374 billion in 2014.

It's time for our health care providers to start prescribing exercise as a drug. In fact, regular exercise is likely the single best prescription people of all ages could take for a huge host of health benefits. Simple stated, exercise is medicine. And we all need to adopt this mantra, because our health depends on it.

Heather A. Hausenblas, PhD, is a faculty member in the Brooks Rehabilitation College of Healthcare Sciences at Jacksonville University. She is an internationally renowned physical activity and healthy aging expert, researcher and author. She is an award-winning researcher, an author and a regular contributor to both local and national media outlets. Her research focuses on the psychological effects of health behaviors across the lifespan. Dr. Hausenblas is the co-author of five scientific books, and she has published more than 90 scientific journal articles. Her most recent book is titled "The Truth about Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark side of Thinsperation." She is a mom to three young boys, and she enjoys exercising outdoors, spending time with family and friends, and coaching and watching her sons play sports. She resides in Jacksonville, Florida, with her husband and boys.