Physical Activity – The Miracle Drug

Physical activity is great for our health. We keep hearing this mantra, the evidence is overwhelming and yet we are in the midst of an inactivity epidemic!

A vast number of people are suffering from preventable conditions and, most of the time and in most cases, are being treated with drugs that don’t work well. In many cases, providing an effective physical activity intervention could reduce or remove the need for these drugs, their negative side effects and their price tag.

Dr Chris van Tulleken has decided enough is enough and taken to BBC prime time TV to have his say.

As anyone who watched The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs will know, Dr Chris van Tulleken worked with patients in a GP surgery in east London to offer drug-free treatments instead of their prescriptions. He prescribed physical activity with some astonishing results.

Thousands of patients at the surgery were taking drugs to reduce their risk of heart attack or stroke and as part of his experiment he began working with a group who wanted to stop. They were prescribed a 30-minute brisk walk, five times a week for eight weeks. Those who adhered improved their blood sugar levels more than would be expected when taking a new drug (much to the surprise of the initially skeptical nurse). They also had massively improved moods, better sleep and reduced aches. The surgery continues to supports the walking group (the number of patients in the group is growing) and the patients in the original walking group have stayed off their statins. The programme also documents the success achieved by patients suffering from depression and chronic pain, who were weaned off their drugs with the help of different physical activity interventions.

Prior to establishing the walking group Dr van Tulleken clearly identified that, in the current health system, exercise is just something that people are told to do. This paternalistic view is ineffective, but even in a supported walking programme there are still limitations. Whilst patient adherence to the programme was not mentioned, motivation and engagement was shown to be an issue and the human resource needed to remedy this is not insignificant. Health care professionals simply don’t have enough time to engage, motivate and empower every patient. Let’s not forget that there were thousands of others at the surgery who could have benefited from a physical activity intervention and multiples of that across the country. What if there was a clinically proven and scalable programme for delivering sustainable physical activity behaviour change – wouldn’t that be great? One that provided digital support, encouraged family participation, and appealed to people with no interest in exercise – even better.

It is important to also understand that walking, be it in a group or on your own, isn’t the only type of activity that benefits health – there are different ways to harness the benefits of physical activity because it has multiple independent biologically-important dimensions. Focusing on one dimension alone, like walking, creates a danger of developing a false picture of activity. The personalised multidimensional physical activity profiles visualised in the KiActiv® system are crucial for the accurate evaluation of an individual’s physical activity and the creation of bespoke strategies for successful change. Through this we have evidenced an enhanced understanding and inspired confidence to change and optimise individuals’ physical activity for a longer, healthier life.

We share Dr Chris van Tulleken’s vision for a health service, rather than “prescription service”, which can offer effective lifestyle solutions alongside or instead of drugs. The power of physical activity is there for everyone to see, and through our years of R&D we’ve developed a programme that can be prescribed just like a drug to prevent and treat a number of chronic diseases. KiActiv® programmes combine the latest technologies with cutting edge academic understanding to empower self-management and support self-endorsed lifestyle change. This not only moves us away from paternalistic healthcare, away from the culture of telling or compelling, but by getting people to take responsibility for their health and lowering the burden on GPs, emergency care and hospitals we can also have a huge impact on the costs.