Massachusetts Medical Society: Physician Focus: Exercise as a Prescription

Physician Focus: Exercise as a Prescription

Physician Focus: December 2012
By Stuart Chipkin, M.D. and Barry Braun, Ph.D.

We need to get moving!

Research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that fewer than two in ten Americans get the recommended levels of exercise and more than a quarter of adults don't spend any time in physical activity. Young people don't fare much better: less than one-third of high-school students attend physical education classes.

Yet the research is clear: inactive people have greater risk for early death and disease. Conversely, the benefits of exercise and physical activity on health are well documented and widespread.

So the obvious question is this: If it's so good for you, why don't more people do it?

The fact is that we're in a 'perfect storm' - we consume a diet high in calories and live a lifestyle that's more sedentary than ever before, with automobiles, computers, remote controls, video games, and other electronic devices that have become so much a part of our lives and that prevent us from moving as much as we should.

We are physically doing less and less, and that inactivity, combined with a high-fat and high-calorie diet, has led to high rates of such conditions as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Consider that heart disease is the nation's number one cause of death, that diabetes affects nearly 26 million Americans; and that obesity reaches more than one in three adults and one in six children in the U.S. and is associated with more than 30 medical conditions.  

Exercise and physical activity have enormous advantages for our health. They benefit the heart and circulatory system; improve lung function, muscle mass, and bone density; and keep cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels in check. They can even help with depression, enhancing mood and self-esteem. People who are more active are also more productive and spend less time being sick. And while exercise can help to control weight with proper diet, losing weight should not be thought of as a main benefit; the greatest advantages accrue far beyond the waistline.

Some may ask if there's a difference between exercise and physical activity. Anything that involves expending energy - running, walking, mowing the lawn, or gardening - can be considered physical activity. Exercise can be defined as the purposeful activity to improve health.

Both are good for you, and a person doesn't have to reach Olympic levels to reap the gains. While time periods of 30 minutes or more a day may offer greater benefits, the energy you expend in being physically active, regardless of the length of time, is good for you. Even ten-minute walks throughout the day are beneficial. 

Remember, too, that the 'best' exercise is one you like to do and will continue doing, whether it's walking, biking, or the treadmill at the fitness club. Strength training to maintain muscle mass, should also be considered, particularly as we age. 

Because of its widespread benefits to health, we should begin to think of exercise differently:  we should regard it as a prescription drug. The dosage - vigorous or moderate intensity, the  frequency - how many times per week, and the duration - short bursts or longer bouts - will vary according to the individual. If you haven't been active for some time, check with your physician first before beginning any exercise program.

Including exercise in your life will take time, but it's time well spent. So to those folks who say they never have the time (perhaps the most often-used reason why people don't exercise), we say people need to make time, whether it's in ten-minute chunks throughout the day or one-hour sessions throughout the week. We believe it's that important to health.

We invite you to watch a video presentation at And for more information on what exercise can do for you, on ways to increase your physical activity, and on physical activity guidelines for children, adults, and older adults, visit   

Stuart Chipkin, M.D., a physician with Valley Medical Group in Amherst, Mass., and Barry Braun, Ph.D., both specialists in endocrinology and metabolism, are research and associate professors, respectively, in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts School of Public Health and Health Sciences. Physician Focus is a public service of the Massachusetts Medical Society. Readers should use their own judgment when seeking medical care and consult with their physician for treatment. Send comments to 

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