Doctors prescribe exercise as medicine

Here are five tips on how to exercise your way to better health

Photo: Jacob J. Buchard
“Exercise as medicine is well documented over time. There are a ton of benefits to exercise,” says Marius Bakken, former elite runner in Norway, who more than happily prescribes exercise programs at his office in Kristiansand.

Åge Harald Drangshold
Translated by Andy Meyer

Primary care doctors Marius Bakken and Ole Petter Hjelle want to give certain types of patients exercise instead of medicine. “Exercise is the most effective treatment we have for a whole lot of illnesses,” Hjelle says.

Everybody knows that exercise is good for one’s health. Nevertheless, many of us are inactive. That’s what two Norwegian physicians, Marius Bakken and Ole Petter Hjelle, are trying to do something about.

“Exercise as medicine has been well documented over time. There are a ton of benefits to exercising,” says Bakken.

Sleep disorders, obesity, dementia, depression, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, muscular and skeletal problems are among the conditions that the doctors point to that can be cured or relieved by exercise.

“No pharmaceutical medicine comes close to matching exercise as medicine,” says Hjelle, who practices in Åsgårdstrand in Vestfold.

“It costs nothing and is risk-free”

“We have good documentation that physical activity is the most effective and best treatment tool we have for a whole lot of diseases. Exercise is effective both in reducing the risk of getting sick, but also treating illnesses. Moreover, it costs almost nothing and is nearly free of side effects,” says Hjelle.

Both he and Bakken emphasize that, to be sure, they are not opposed to the use of conventional medicine.

“Many drugs are vital; nothing has improved human health globally more than antibiotics and other medicines. But we doctors prescribe a lot of drugs that aren’t necessary. When you exercise regularly, you reduce the risk for at least 20 to 30 illnesses. No drug comes close to matching that,” says Hjelle.

“Exercise as medicine is well-documented over time. There is a ton of benefits to exercising,” says Bakken, who is a former elite runner in Norway, and who more than happily prescribes exercise programs at his doctor’s office in Kristiansand.

Photo: Jacob J. Buchard
Exercise works as well as many pharmaceutical medicines to improve issues like high blood pressure.

“The effect is well documented”

That’s why both Hjelle and Bakken are passionate about developing exercise programs instead of writing prescriptions formany of their patients.

While Bakken prescribes individually tailored exercise programs to his patients in Kristiansand, Hjelle and his medical colleagues are instructors for a group of 50 older patients in Åsgårdstrand who exercise together for an hour three times a week.

“We warm up for 10 to 15 minutes. After that, we do about 30 minutes of uphill intervals at moderate intensity, when people can either walk or run. Then we finish with 15 minutes of strength, balance, and coordination exercises,” says Hjelle.

The trio has systematically followed up with patients over five years.

“We’re seeing that they have a much better everyday life. They have reduced their blood pressure and cholesterol such that the risk of diseases later in life is clearly reduced. Furthermore, we have gotten rid of more than half of all the drugs that these patients relied on. The biggest surprise has been the mental effects, like better quality of life, memory, attention, and mood,” says Hjelle.

Photo: Private
Vibeke Schanche has experienced many positive ripple effects after she began exercising to overcome her weight problems.

Improvements in blood pressure

Two of the participants are Thor Åmodt, who suffered of high blood pressure, and Vibeke Schanche, who was overweight.

“Already after one year, my blood pressure was fine. In my experience, there are big possibilities here. I have seen what it has done for the participants when it comes to physical form. And since my wife bought a treadmill, I almost don’t recognize her. Both her mood and physical form are much improved,” says Åmodt, who has participated for five years.

“I have lost 15 kilograms [about 33 pounds], I have better balance, I’m in better condition, and my mood is better. I’ve accomplished this by exercising weekly for two years. Often when I meet people who are sick, I think to myself that the problem would have been solved if they only had begun to exercise,” says Schanche.

Reduce the risk of cancer

Sports doctor Terje Halvorsen is the director of “Exercise is Medicine Norway,” a global health initiative with the goal of integrating physical activity into prevention and treatment of illnesses.

He especially emphasizes one illness that exercise has a positive effect on, along with all the other benefits mentioned in this article.

“What we see is that regular physical activity reduces the risk of cancer by 20 to 40%. We have the best documentation of its effects on colon cancer, breast cancer, and prostate, ovarian, and uterine cancers. Moreover, physical activity increases the chance of survival by 50 to 60% after one has been diagnosed with breast cancer or colon cancer. Cancer must also be treated by surgery or chemotherapy, for example, but being physically active is unquestionably positive,” Halvorsen says.

He defines physical activity as either 150 minutes per week of moderately intense exercise or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise.

He believes that physicians should be a lot better at prescribing exercise as medicine.

“A study from 2016 showed that 25% of patients had spoken with their doctor about physical activity, but in only 7% of cases, it was the doctor who brought it up. I think the reason is that medical students learn very little about the positive effects that exercise can have on one’s health,” says Halvorsen, who has challenged the Norwegian Directory of Health to put this on the curriculum.

This article first appeared in the Norwegian newspaper Fædrelandsvennen.

This article originally appeared in the February 7, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.