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Exercise as Medicine

Assistant Professor of Nutrition Rachele Pojednic says the benefits of “exercise prescriptions” remain largely untapped.

Physicians and fitness professionals should collaborate more to help people achieve and maintain good health. That’s a core finding of a study that sheds light on the gap between the health-care and fitness industries.

“At a time when research shows conclusively that physical activity is a major determinant for all major noncommunicable diseases, it is concerning that the results of our study show a mistrust of the fitness industry by physicians,” says Assistant Professor of Nutrition Rachele Pojednic. “Once we figure out how to get everybody in the same room and talking to one another, we’re going to see some serious movement for the patients.”

Pojednic collaborated on the study with representatives of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Exercise Medicine Research Institute at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia. 

The authors sent an electronic survey to 412 responding primary care and sports medicine specialty physicians during 2011-2012. The results? Only 41% would recommend a health club to their patients, and only 21% would recommend a personal trainer. Physicians’ top ranked concerns about health clubs were expense and convenience.

“The results of our study show a mistrust of the fitness industry by physicians,” saysAssistant Professor Rachele Pojednic.

“The idea of accessibility is definitely a barrier, but I think it is a solvable issue if we look at it at the community level,” says Pojednic. For example, according to the study, among doctors who would send their patients somewhere for exercise, the first place they thought of was YMCAs, which Pojednic notes are widely accessible across the United States. Pojednic also cites another possible model in Boston: a collaboration between the Codman Square Health Center and a Healthworks right next door; patients can get an exercise prescription and a free, three-month membership at the fitness center.

Pojednic says patients can play a role in building bridges between health-care and fitness providers. “The first question patients could ask if they have a diagnosis of something like insulin resistance, high blood pressure or high cholesterol is, ‘what are the complementary therapies like exercise and nutrition that work as well as or in concert with the pharmaceuticals that are being prescribed?’”

“At the end of the day, I think we as professionals have a responsibility to make sure we are creating a system that works best for the patients,” says Pojednic.