Exercise vs Drugs to Treat High Blood Pressure and Reduce Body Fat

Exercise can lower blood pressure and reduce visceral body fat at least as effective as many common prescription drugs, according to two important new reviews of relevant research about the effects of exercise on maladies.

Together, the new studies support the idea that exercise can be considered medicine, and potent medicine at that. But they also raise questions about whether we know enough yet about the types and amounts of exercise that might best treat different health problems and whether we really want to start thinking of our workouts as remedies.

But while drugs face extensive testing before they can be approved and prescribed, exercise studies, even those examining exercise as a treatment for illness, have tended to be relatively small and short-term. They also rarely compare exercise, head-to-head, with drugs to treat the same condition.

The researchers now gathered 391 randomized, controlled trials – the accepted gold standard for testing treatments – that looked at either a drug or some form of exercise to lower blood pressure. Together, the experiments included almost 50,000 volunteers, with more than 10,000 of them in the exercise studies.

The researchers then summed the data from the drug or exercise tests and found that, in aggregate, all of the drugs and any type of exercise lowered blood pressure, although drugs generally achieved slightly greater reductions. That extra bump downward from drugs may have been a result in part, the researchers believe, to a reliance on relatively healthy volunteers in the exercise studies; their starting blood pressures tended to be lower than in the drug trials, so the drop by the end was slighter.

The methods in the exercise studies also often were less tidy and precise than in the drug tests, the researchers point out. Volunteers in the exercise studies rarely were blinded, for instance, since it’s hard to prevent people from knowing whether or not they are working out. There also was a little long-term follow-up of exercises.

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