Why Movement is NOT Medicine



It’s easy to see why people might think movement or exercise could be considered medicinal, as it can reduce the risk of many illnesses. A review by Booth et al. (2012) concluded that exercise can help to prevent 35 diseases, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis and depression. I am a huge proponent of the health-giving benefits of exercise, and believe that almost anybody can benefit from moving their bodies within the parameters that are appropriate for them. That being said, I don’t think movement is synonymous with medicine, because medicine is defined as the ‘treatment for illness or injury’ (Cambridge University Press, 2022), and movement cannot treat illness or injury in the way that pharmaceutical agents can.


Let me explain. I’ll start small; imagine you have a cold. Your throat is sore and scratchy, your tonsils are swollen and your head aches. Do you need: a) A quiet day in bed with paracetamol and plenty of hot honey and lemon? or b) A run? Hopefully you answered a because you know that when you’re unwell you need rest and pain relief, and that putting more stress on your body when you’re already dealing with the physical stress of fighting an illness is a sure-fire way to make yourself feel worse. So in this case, the only medicine is the paracetamol.


Moving on to a more serious medical condition, I’m going to talk about my dad. My dad has what’s known as familial hypercholesterolemia. This is a genetic disorder (which I have also been tested for, and fortunately don’t have) where levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol are dangerously high. Unlike most cases of high cholesterol, familial hypercholesterolemia cannot be reduced by lifestyle factors alone. This means my dad must take daily statin medication to keep his cholesterol levels within a healthy range. Simply exercising regularly and eating healthily, both of which he does, are not sufficient to manage this condition, which if left untreated can lead to early heart disease. So this is an example of a situation where movement alone cannot treat a medical condition.


I’ll give you another example. My boyfriend’s mother has osteoporosis, a condition where bones are weak and susceptible to fractures. We know that weight-bearing exercise, particularly resistance training, can significantly help to prevent developing osteoporosis later in life. However, once somebody has already developed the condition it is necessary to take medication to prevent deterioration, by slowing the rate that bone is broken down in the body. Exercise, although beneficial, is not the only thing required at this stage.



Finally, let’s consider the case of somebody with Type 1 diabetes. People with this condition need to inject themselves with insulin throughout the day, because their bodies are unable to make it themselves. Insulin helps to control blood sugar after we eat, so without it people experience extreme highs and lows in blood sugar, which can lead to confusion, unconsciousness and in severe cases, death. Although regular exercise is beneficial for people with type 1 diabetes, as it is for most people, it is ABSOLUTELY NOT the same thing as an insulin injection. In fact, too much or too intense exercise can actually be harmful for people with type 1 diabetes if it’s not controlled for with carbohydrates and insulin, because it can cause blood sugar to drop too low. So again, here is an example of a medical condition that requires far more than movement to manage it.


I could go on – there are literally thousands of diseases that require prescription medication to control them rather than a walk. I’m certainly not disputing that movement can be a helpful way to both prevent and manage a myriad of chronic conditions, but we have to remember that it is just ONE tool in our toolbox alongside others such as sleep, a balanced diet, social support, stress-management, therapy and medication. Movement is no more a medicine than eating healthily or getting enough sleep is. For this reason, I don’t think we can put movement on a pedestal and dress it up as a cure-all for disease, because that is simply unethical and wrong.




References


Booth, F.W., Roberts, C.K., & Laye, M.J. (2012). Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases. Comprehensive Physiology, 2(2), 1143-211. doi: 10.1002/cphy.c110025. PMID: 23798298; PMCID: PMC4241367.


Cambridge University Press (2022). Medicine. In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved April 25, 2022, from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/medicine