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When Doctors Prescribe Exercise, Patients Get Moving

April 17, 2009 -- The next time you see your doctor, he or she might do more than just tell you to get some exercise -- they could pick up their prescription pad and prescribe exercise.

Exercise prescriptions get inactive adults moving, a new study shows.

The study, published in this week's Archives of Internal Medicine, is a "milestone" because it proves that exercise prescriptions work, says Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP.

Peeke, who is the spokeswoman for the American College of Sports Medicine's "Exercise is Medicine" campaign, says it's "quite rare" for U.S. doctors to prescribe exercise, but that's changing.

"It's just in its embryonic phase," Peeke tells WebMD. Here's a look at the new study and the fledgling trend in exercise prescriptions.

Exercise Prescription Study

The new study comes from Spain, where researchers trained family physicians in how to deliver custom-made exercise prescriptions for inactive adults during a 15-minute doctor visit.

Those doctors gave more than 2,200 inactive adults exercise prescriptions that were tailored for each patient. For comparison, they didn't give exercise prescriptions to nearly 2,070 other sedentary adults.

Six months later, the patients who had gotten the exercise prescriptions reported more physical activity than those who hadn't received exercise prescriptions.

The effects were "clinically relevant," write the researchers, who included Gonzalo Grandes, MD, MS, of Spain's Basque Health Service-Osakidetza.

Specific Prescriptions

Just giving vague advice to get some exercise didn't cut it. For the patients to benefit in the Spanish study, they needed a specific exercise prescription written just for them.

That rings true to Ann Yelmokas McDermott, PhD, MS, LDN, who directs the Center for Obesity Prevention and Education and is an associate professor in the kinesiology department at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

"Advice alone does not do it," McDermott says. "It must be a customized and personalized prescription in order to get the best benefit."

McDermott says exercise needs to be prescribed as thoroughly as a pill.

Doctors "would never say [to a patient], 'This medication is good, end of story.' You have to give the details for it to be valued. Why is it good? What's it going to do? How do I take it?" McDermott says.

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