Why Exercise is Medicine

Physical activity is “any body movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in a substantive increase over the resting energy expenditure.” – ACSM’s Exercise is Medicine

For some people the word ‘exercise’ incites a sense of dread or a feeling of guilt, whereas for some people it can become an obsession.  What is ubiquitous is that most people feel better when they have engaged in some form of activity. Whether you are feeling stressed out, tired, unhappy or anxious, being physically active can quell some of those emotions. If exercise can be used to improve your psychological state, can it be used as a form of medication to manage health conditions? The short answer is most definitely yes.

In fact, the American College of Sport’s Medicine (ACSM) formed a multi-organizational initiative termed Exercise is Medicine™. The goal is to provide tools for clinicians to help them educate patients on the benefits of incorporating regular exercise into their lives. Exercise is written as an actual prescription, enhancing the power of physical activity, while remaining mindful of physical restrictions and existing health conditions.

What is the basis of an exercise prescription?

From ACSM’s Exercise is Medicine, a Clinician’s Guide to Exercise Prescription, first is setting “SMART” goals with “FITT” in mind. To clarify:

– SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound.

– FITT refers to the details of the prescription where frequency, intensity, time, and type of activity are considered.

As well, the focus is on a gradual change that will lead to regular activity, while keeping in mind any activity is better than no activity.

If exercise is medicine, what is the dose?

The ACSM physical activity guidelines address the quantity and quality of exercise, but it can still be difficult for you to sort out what is best for “you”. In general, adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiorespiratory exercise per week as well as the addition of resistance training and flexibility training. The idea behind Exercise is Medicine™ is that it allows more individualization of a physical activity program that addresses your specific needs and interests.

When I first read about the Exercise is Medicine™ initiative it really spoke to me as a physician. I believe it is one thing to advise a patient to change their lifestyle, such as increasing physical activity, but it is another thing altogether for them to implement it. A written goal formulated specifically for you can be a very powerful tool to helping you incorporate exercise into your lifestyle.

The best part of an exercise prescription is that you don’t actually have to be a physician to write one for yourself and you don’t need a pharmacy to fill it. However, before embarking on a new form of exercise you should consult with your physician especially if you have any health concerns. As with any form of health behaviour change, you must take the first step and be in charge, however, you may need to seek some help along the way.

“If we are creating ourselves all the time, then it is never too late to begin creating the bodies we want instead of the ones we mistakenly assume we are stuck with.” – Deepak Chopra



  1. 1

    This was another meaningful post for me. I appreciated the FITT information as well as the quality and quantity guidelines. I am unfortunately an exercise-avoider (I’d almost rather clean my fridge than exercise!). However several months ago I spoke to my physician re discontinuing a bone density medication and replacing it with regular exercise. She agreed that exercise-as-medication was definitely worth a try. So now when I revert to my sedentary ways I keep telling myself that I am choosing NOT to take my ‘medication’, and usually (operative word) that little bit of self-talk works. Thanks again.

  2. 2

    I agree that too many people equate exercise with drudgery when it can be so much more. When exercise becomes a part of one’s every day life, it becomes as natural as breathing. It may take time to get to that point but, once it does, the benefits, both physical and mental, can be life changing.

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