The weight loss — which is approaching 100 pounds since last July — is great, Brenda Morsey says.
But to her, the benefits of exercising and becoming more active go beyond that.
Morsey, who is in her mid-40s, has discovered what health care experts have been confirming through studies and their patients’ experience: Exercise can be as beneficial as medicine.
Morsey now takes just one medication for her blood pressure, down from three, and the dose of the remaining medicine has been cut by half. By going through physical therapy and exercising, she was able to avoid surgery on her foot. She no longer takes medicine for high cholesterol. She uses the stairs at work about half the time now, something she never would do before she started exercising.
“To me, the big thing was being able to have the functional ability to move and do things,” she said.
And one other point: She has gone from wearing a size 28 to a size 12.
Morsey’s physician, Dr. Susan Keasling, said physical activity plays a large role in the treatment and prevention of chronic health conditions. Someone with diabetes or high blood pressure who is taking medications to control those conditions, she said, may find that “adding in exercise as well often will prevent having to add another medicine.”
Keasling said she tries to get some patients to take even a 10-minute walk twice a day, adding that people should check with their own doctors before starting an exercise program.
If you go from being totally sedentary to being even somewhat active, she said, “you’re going to notice a really big difference in how you feel.”
Keasling, who practices in an Alegent Creighton clinic, said she has prescribed exercise for patients through a program called Healthy Transitions. “If you have a health condition that could be improved with exercise but you need help in getting started, the doctor can fill out a referral form,” she said. Patients then take the forms to one of Alegent Creighton’s wellness centers to get a health assessment, a personalized fitness program and a coaching session with a personal trainer.
Other health systems offer similar programs.
Exercise conditions the body to handle stress, said Dr. Dan Anderson, a cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “What happens in exercise is you upregulate a whole bunch of cellular pathways and a whole bunch of mechanisms to protect the body from the stress of the exercise,” he said. “Your body adapts to handle more and more of those kinds of stresses.”
If someone gets sick, which Anderson said can be a major stress on the body, “the body will respond more effectively if it’s been conditioned with exercise than if it isn’t.”
Exercise won’t necessarily reverse the damage a disease has wrought, he said, and one’s diet matters, too. But there’s no question, he said, that exercise can help slow the progress of a disease.
“So even if you have diabetes or if you have heart disease or heart failure,” Anderson said, “people who exercise to the amount that they can, based on the disease they have, do better than if they don’t.”
A study that will be published Tuesday in the journal Radiology found that moderate-intensity exercise reduces fat stored around the heart, in the liver and in the abdomen of people with Type 2 diabetes, even in the absence of any dietary changes. Such fat deposits, the authors said, have been shown to be associated with increased cardiovascular risk.
Larry Durstine, a past president of the American College of Sports Medicine and chairman of the department of exercise science at the University of South Carolina, said exercise isn’t a cure. But in those cases where people have risk factors or the genetic makeup to develop a disease, he said, “it will perhaps set back the time of the onset of the disease and then likely reduce the severity of the disease” when it does develop.
With Type 2 diabetes, he said, exercise activates pathways to help move blood glucose into cells for the cells to use, so someone is less likely to have high blood sugar. “All diabetics should be exercising,” Durstine said. “In fact, we find out that less than 15 percent of diabetics exercise.”
Mark Johnson is one of the people with Type 2 diabetes who exercises. Johnson, 54, is on three diabetes medications. He gets regular calls from the office of his physician, Dr. Steven Bailey of Methodist Physicians Clinic, to make sure he’s taking his medicine, checking his blood sugar, eating right and staying active. A few months ago, Johnson bought a refurbished elliptical machine for his house; he uses it every day for 10 to 20 minutes. “I did it just because I didn’t think I was getting enough exercise,” he said.
Johnson, of Omaha, said he has noticed that he has more energy and better control of his blood-sugar levels since he started using the elliptical. He has also cut back a little on what he eats, he said, and he has lost 12 to 15 pounds over the past three months.
Brenda Morsey said her biggest challenge before getting healthier was reducing the pain level in her Achilles tendon enough that she was able to exercise. She credits her physical therapist at Lakeside Hospital, Carrie Smith, for helping her with that.
“I feel physically wonderful,” she said. Exercise, she said, should help “make the next 30, 40 years very enjoyable.”
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