Harvard Women's Health Watch

Exercise as medicine

In the 19th century, most work involved physical activity; in the 20th century, exercise became a leisure pursuit; today, it's an urgent medical necessity.

Exercise: It's cheap, readily available, and the single most effective step nonsmokers can take to avoid chronic and potentially fatal diseases. If it were being hawked on late-night television, you'd think the phone lines would be tied up for hours.

But regular physical activity remains a hard sell. Despite mounting evidence that it lowers the risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and many forms of cancer, the average citizen is increasingly sedentary. Still, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) isn't giving up on us. In 2007, the agency convened an expert committee to evaluate a decade of scientific evidence on the benefits of physical activity. Committee member Dr. I-Min Lee, who also serves on the Harvard Women's Health Watch advisory board, said she and her colleagues found an "impressive range of health benefits coming from being physically active." They submitted their findings, and in the fall of 2008, the government issued a detailed exercise prescription for the nation.

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