Harvard Men's Health Watch

Supplements vs. exercise for nine health issues: The ''vitamins'' in your legs

Supplements vs. exercise for nine health issues: The ''vitamins'' in your legs

Can you find good health in a bottle of supplements? Many people seem to think so, or at least have enough hope to spend billions of dollars a year on supplements. In view of the constant drumbeat for vitamins, minerals, and herbs — and the scant FDA oversight — you can hardly blame people for embracing supplements. Indeed, objective scientific studies are needed to learn which claims are valid and which are not. But while research goes forward, we should all look for other natural ways to improve our health. Good nutrition is one essential, exercise another.

When comparing the effects of supplements and exercise on heart disease and cancer, exercise comes out on top. Now, let's see how the two compare on nine other health issues.

1. Muscles and bones. Strong muscles are important for health — and they are also important for athletic performance and for the muscular physique that is particularly valued by young men. Vitamins have no role in making muscles stronger or bigger, but vitamin D may help reduce falls by improving neuromuscular function. And other supplements may work, at least to some extent. Chemicals that are related to the male hormone testosterone are the best example, which is why androstenedione (Andro) and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) have become best sellers. Trouble is, they can also have side effects; most experts strongly discourage their use, explaining that the potential harm far outweighs the possible gain. Creatine and various protein supplements have a less toxic potential, but they are also much less likely to enhance muscular function. All in all, there is little to recommend supplements for muscles.

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