Exercise is Medicine

Is it possible that there is a hugely under-recognized and under-utilized tool that could be key in the prevention and treatment of rising chronic disease in Canada? According to Acadia Kinesiology professor and National Chair of Exercise is Medicine Canada, Dr. Jonathon Fowles, there is, and it’s a relatively simple one: exercise.

According to a Statistics Canada report using data from a 2012-2013 Canadian Health Measures Survey, physical activity has been shown to lower the risk for chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, depression, stress and anxiety. These conditions are so common that almost every Canadian knows someone affected. The report goes on to say that regular physical activity can have a hugely protective effect on these conditions, reducing the risk for some of them by as much as 50%. Many Canadians would probably admit they are not getting the physical activity they need and the statistics reflect this. According to a 2013 report by the Canadian Chief Public Health Officer, just two in ten adults and one in ten children and youth met the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for that year. These guidelines were relatively modest, recommending at least a weekly goal of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity. According to Dr. Fowles, inactivity is a huge problem as humans are designed to move, meaning that all our body systems have evolved to support intense energy expenditure and movement. It’s also not just about the exercise you’re not doing but the sedentary activity you are doing as well. The Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology has updated their recommendations for children and youth to actually limit sitting time and recreational screen time due to the unhealthy consequences of physical inactivity which affects everything from cardiovascular health to mental health.

Not only does physical inactivity cause a lot of problems at an individual level, but it can have huge economic and ecological burdens. In Canada, Dr. Fowles estimates that direct healthcare costs of physical inactivity amount to about seven billion a year plus about thirty billion a year in indirect costs (such as in reduced workplace productivity, the effects of poor mental health etc.). He estimates that if we were to increase the population’s physical activity by only 10%, we’d save Canada about two billion dollars a year. The ecological impact of inactivity refers in part to our complete reliance on cars. Many people agree that it would be better for their health to exercise more but simply don’t feel they have the time for it in their day to day life. A good way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase physical activity could be to build infrastructure that allows for safe and reliable active transportation like cycling.

Exercise is Medicine Canada aims to help Canadians increase their daily physical activity by encouraging healthcare professionals to do more to address the importance of physical activity to their patients. They want to encourage physicians to incorporate it as a key health indicator and as a “vital sign” of a patient’s health status. Also, they’d like to see certified exercise professionals have a more significant role as healthcare resources.

Some of these goals are not far off from being attained. Currently, in Ontario, there are 184 Family Health Teams which are groups of health care professionals working together to provide a wide range of health services to their patients. These collaborative teams include family physicians, registered nurses, nurse practitioners, dieticians, mental health professionals, and pharmacists. About 20% have registered kinesiologists on staff already. Dr. Fowles says interest in this collaborative approach to healthcare is growing in Nova Scotia. At the Wolfville Professional Centre for example, patients can see family physicians, a psychologist or a nurse practitioner. They can also receive referrals to see a physiotherapist or kinesiologist. Across the country, physicians are even starting to prescribe exercise to their patients. This is most prolific in B.C. as it is subsidized so physicians get reimbursed for participating. In Alberta, the Prescription to Get Active program involves around 3000 physicians that refer their patients to over 90 fitness centres that in turn provide those patients with two weeks to a month of free membership to get started. This exciting model of care has recently been launched in Truro as well.

The main goal of Exercise is Medicine Canada right now is to seek to work with physicians by fostering education and awareness through newsletters, workshops and presentations. Exercise is Medicine clubs are also appearing at university campuses all across Canada. Here at Acadia, the Exercise is Medicine club started in September 2015 and has been growing rapidly since. The club maintains strong ties with the community and has organized several fun runs with participants from seven to eighty-seven years old participating! They are also looking forward to organizing a Walk with the Docs event March 11th 2017 from 1-3 pm which will give the opportunity to Acadia students and members of the community to connect with local physicians and talk about the importance of physical activity. Acadia students who are interested in finding out more are encouraged to find the Facebook group or to email [email protected].


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Great post! I agree that exercise is a form of medicine and something severely underestimated by people. Thanks for sharing!

Great article. I have been in the physical activity field for many years and educating the public is a slow process. Keep up the good work!