A new large study has found that exercise may be just as effective as drugs at treating common diseases.
The research, on more than 339,000 people, found being active was just as good as medicine for those with existing heart disease and in the prevention of diabetes.
It also appeared to be a more effective treatment than drugs for people who had suffered a stroke.
North East NHS organisations have been doing their best to promote the benefits of getting fit and active, with the desire to improve the health of the region through exercise.
For the new research, experts at the London School of Economics, Harvard Medical School and Stanford University School of Medicine in the United States examined the findings of 305 trials on four conditions: pre-diabetes, heart disease, stroke and heart failure.
Of the studies, 57 looked specifically at the effect of exercise and included 14,716 people.
More than 200 trials examined drug treatment for the conditions, such as the effects of statins, beta blockers and antiplatelet therapy on preventing significant illness in those with heart disease.
The results showed that exercise was just as effective as drugs in treating people with heart disease and whose blood sugar control suggested they were at high risk of diabetes.
The results on heart failure were more unclear, with diuretic drugs being found to be more effective than exercise and all other types of drug treatment.
Findings of the study were most impressive for stroke, with exercise found to be more beneficial than drug treatment.
The Gateway to a Healthier Lifestyle Weight Management and Exercise Referral Programme is a partnership between Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust and Gateshead Council, and has encouraged many to turn their lives around.
Launched in 2009, the programme is designed to help local residents improve their physical health by promoting healthier lifestyle changes.
Since the scheme began there has been thousands of overweight men and women accessing the 13-week programme.
It is a free course involving dietitians, community nutrition assistants and exercise specialists providing personalised, practical nutrition and physical activity advice.
Exercise specialists promote increased physical activity and encourage people to use local NHS gym facilities in a variety of locations.
Ann Coleman, community nutrition assistant team leader at Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust, said: “The scheme has been very, very successful and it has had fantastic results.
“Education about healthy eating and exercise is incorporated into the programme and some of those who attend make really good friends through the scheme.
“We have had people who have lost six, eight, 10 stones and it is common to see people lose between one and two stone in 13-weeks.
“Often we get people on the scheme who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and the onset of diabetes, as well as movement problems and arthritis.
“As the scheme is an NHS programme it means that we can address these issues and help deal with them in a safe environment.
“Keeping motivated is a key issue for maintaining weight loss and we concentrate very much on behaviour change and getting participants’ weight stabilised.”
The Gateway to a Healthier Lifestyle Weight Management and Exercise Referral Programme looks at issues such as food portion sizes, menu planning, food labelling, and exercise levels.
Men have historically been more reluctant to access weight management schemes in the North East than women.
But for Gordon Harding the programme has been invaluable in helping him to shed the pounds and get his blood pressure and cholesterol back to safe levels.
Over the years, the former coach driver had seen his weight balloon to 21st 1lb and he was wearing clothes that were size XXXL.
Gordon, of Blaydon, Gateshead, was recommended to go on the programme by his doctor and since starting in February this year he has never looked back.
The 60-year-old, who is married to Ettie, 62, has lost almost 4st and is delighted that he now can fit into size XXL clothes.
“When I was heavier my knees were crippled with pain, I was tired and got out of breath just tying my shoelaces,” the grandfather-of-two said.
“My weight gradually crept up over the years and, as I was a coach driver I would be driving for nine hours a day and when I had a break I would eat fast food and grab things on the go.
“I was shocked when I was told I was 21st and my doctor recommended that I try the weight management and exercise programme.”
Gordon’s downfall was bread and he admits that he could eat a whole loaf of bread in just one sitting, with his food portion sizes being too large.
“The Gateshead programme has been invaluable in re-educating me about what foods to eat and the importance of portion sizes,” he explained.
“I don’t deprive myself of any foods, but I now eat things in moderation.”
Gordon spends two hours each day in the gym - something he never could have imagined he would ever be prepared to do.
“I go on the exercise bike, treadmill, rowing machine, cross-trainer and I do weights too,” he added.
“I never thought that I would go to the gym but my attitude and mind-set has completely changed.
“I feel loads better since losing the weight and doing more exercise. I am not out of breath as much and I feel a lot healthier.”
The large study conducted by the health experts adds further weight to studies suggesting that exercise is crucial in helping deal with a variety of serious medical problems.
Writing online in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), the team concluded: “Our analysis suggests that exercise potentially had similar effectiveness to drug interventions with two exceptions.
“In the case of stroke rehabilitation, exercise seemed to be more effective than drug interventions.
“In heart failure, diuretics outperformed all comparators, including exercise.”
The experts said their findings suggest “exercise interventions should therefore be considered as a viable alternative to, or alongside, drug therapy.”
“Indeed, an increasing number of experts recommend prescribing an ‘exercise pill’ as a preventive strategy to reduce morbidity and mortality.”
The team said in the UK only 14% of adults exercise regularly at a time when prescription drug use has risen sharply.
An average of 17.7 prescriptions for every person were dispensed in England in 2010, compared with 11.2 in 2000.
The authors point out that the amount of trial evidence on the mortality benefits of exercise is considerably smaller than that on drugs, and this may have had an impact on their results.
Amy Thompson, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “An active lifestyle brings many health benefits. These researchers suggest doctors should think more about prescribing exercise to ward off heart disease and stroke.
“However, there is limited evidence comparing the effect of exercise to that of drugs. Further research is needed to contrast the two treatments before we can draw any firm conclusions.
“Medicines are an extremely important part of the treatment of many heart conditions and people on prescribed drugs should keep taking their vital meds.
“If you have a heart condition or have been told you’re at high risk of heart disease, talk to your doctor about the role that exercise can play in your treatment.”
Dr Peter Coleman, deputy director of research at the Stroke Association, said: “We know that exercise, as well as intensive physiotherapy, can have a vital role in helping patients recover after a stroke.
“Moderate physical activity for example can reduce the risk of stroke by up to 27%. However, exercise alone should not be considered an alternative for patients taking prescribed medication, as advised by their GP.
“This study suggests that exercise could be beneficial in increasing life expectancy compared to blood-thinning drugs. We would like to see more research into the long-term benefits of exercise for stroke patients.”
Dr Matthew Hobbs, head of research at Diabetes UK, said: “We already know that the best way to reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes is to maintain a healthy weight by combining being regularly physically active with eating a healthy balanced diet.
“NHS guidelines for the prevention of Type 2 diabetes already reflect this, so these findings, which show that increased physical exercise is at least as good as drugs in preventing Type 2 diabetes, simply reinforce what should already happen in practice.”
More than two years ago, The Journal joined forces with Nova International to launch our Great North Fitness Revolution to help encourage as many people as possible to engage in physical activity.
The Great North Fitness Revolution is challenging everyone to make a pledge to get active and make the positive changes that will lead to a better quality of life.
Our campaign has received the backing of many famous faces, including TV presenter Ben Shephard, boxer Tony Jeffries, former athlete Steve Cram and former Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn.
To find out more about The Gateway to a Healthier Lifestyle Weight Management and Exercise Referral Programme visit www.qegateshead.nhs.uk/adultweightmanagement . Referral can be from any health professional or people can refer themselves to the scheme.