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posted: 2/17/2014 5:45 AM

Sometimes lifestyle changes are as effective as medicine

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You will often read that lifestyle changes are important for your health. However, in the traditional medical arena, lifestyle changes seem to take a back seat to medications.

It is more common for a physician to reach for a prescription pad in the treatment of high cholesterol than it is to recommend physical exercise, dietary changes and stress reduction.

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As physicians we tend to believe that the medications are more effective than lifestyle changes and should take priority in the treatment of common medical conditions, but this may not be true.

For example, are lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise, as effective as medications?

In a recent medical study, for most medical conditions regular exercise was as effective as medications.

We know that most chronic medical illnesses are strongly linked with lifestyle. Specific lifestyle choices such as regular exercise, good diet, regular sleep and stress reduction are associated with significant reduction in the risk of developing any chronic medical condition.

In contrast, a lack of exercise, poor diet and chronic stress are strongly associated with increased risk in all chronic medical conditions, especially heart disease, Type II diabetes, stroke, many cancers and Alzheimer's disease.

A 2013 study published in the medical journal BMJ compared the effects of exercise to those of medications on reducing mortality. The study was a compilation of the data from a number of different studies. It is called a meta-analysis.

The study combined a total of 305 randomized control trials involving over 300,000 participants. What they found is that the benefits of medication and physical exercise were identical for the prevention of death in many illnesses including heart disease and diabetes. Interestingly, exercise was more effective than medication in preventing death in stroke and medications more effective than exercise for congestive heart failure.

As an example of simple lifestyle changes that are as effective (possibly more effective) than medications, I would like to present the history of one of my patients.

This patient presented me with joint pain but in talking with the patient I discovered that for years the patient complained of constipation. In addition the patient stated that energy levels were quite low and that sleep was unrefreshing. The patient also complained of gastric reflux and did not want to be put on medications.

A number of medications could have been prescribed to treat the constipation, reflux, low energy and joint pain. However, what I recommended was a change in lifestyle including increasing physical activity, specific diet changes and a variety of dietary supplements that were to be taken for a limited period of time.

After several months on the new lifestyle protocol, the patient stated that energy levels were the best they had been in years. Most of the joint pain had resolved. The chronic constipation and reflux were no longer issues.

Simple changes in lifestyle prevented a lifetime of expensive medications.

There are times when medications are absolutely necessary, but from my perspective, lifestyle changes yield better and lasting results at a fraction of the cost.

Patrick B. Massey MD, Ph.D, is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village. His website is www.alt-med.org.

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