01.03.2024

Our expert weighs up the evidence for the wonder drug EVERY GP should be prescribing

Billions upon billions have been spent trying to find that dream drug; one that cuts the risk of heart disease, helps prevent cancer, treats depression, massively cuts your chance of getting ill from Covid, reduces the risk of dementia, improves sexual function and, crucially, has no side-effects.

A drug which, the more you take of it, the greater the benefits.

With this drug we could start to tackle the overwhelming crisis that all healthcare systems are facing.

It would be an instant blockbuster but, of course, we’d need this new drug to be as cheap as possible — and be able to be taken by everyone without having to wait to see a doctor to get it prescribed.

For those sceptical about this wonder drug, we need solid evidence that it works — quite rightly so, because it sounds too good to be true.

A major review of 17 studies showed that just a small dose of exercise significantly reduced the risk of premature death

A major review of 17 studies showed that just a small dose of exercise significantly reduced the risk of premature death

Amazingly, this drug exists and has done so, basically, for ever.

The problem is that no one is really taught about it at medical school, and so few of us medics have ever tried to get our patients to take it (my peers and I were too busy being wooed by pharmaceutical company reps and their free meals and goodies).

But the past few years have seen some amazing evidence for this wonder drug; most notably, in the past few weeks, with two significant studies — one looking at its impact on adults; the other on children.

A major review of 17 studies, involving more than 225,000 patients and published two weeks ago in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, showed that just a small dose of the drug significantly reduced the risk of premature death. And, for every small increase in the ‘dose’, the impact became greater still.

Less well-publicised was another study published a fortnight before, in the journal Family Medicine, but its impact in the long run could be greater still.

This looked at 60 children given this drug on a daily basis for three months and compared their outcomes to 30 children who didn’t.

The children prescribed this drug had significantly improved lung function, in terms of how much air they could breathe out in one second. Low levels are an indication of asthma; higher levels reflect healthy lungs.

Do I really need…

This week: Roleo tennis elbow trigger point massager, £88.07, amazon.co.uk

CLAIM: A table-top device, this consists of a metal stand and two rubber-coated rollers. You place your hand or arm between the rollers and move it back and forth to ease the pain of tennis elbow, carpal tunnel (pain due to pressure on the nerve in the wrist) and arthritis, the maker says.

EXPERT VERDICT: ‘This looks like a useful device for conditions such as tennis elbow or carpal tunnel syndrome, as simply rolling your arm along the rollers will provide a firm massage to the tissues and muscles, and can lead to some therapeutic relief from pain,’ says physiotherapist Tim Allardyce, of Surrey Physio. ‘However, I don’t see this having any significant impact on arthritis, as that is primarily a joint problem.

‘It’s quite expensive compared with some massage products, but tennis elbow is incredibly annoying and can last for up to two years, while carpal tunnel often ends in surgery, so it might feel cost effective if it helps.’

Although the impact on the kids at this point in their lives is not majorly significant — affecting their sporting prowess — if they kept taking the drug daily for the next 50, 60, 70 or so years, then their lung function would remain good and their chances of experiencing respiratory illnesses would be so much smaller than their peers not given the drug.

I’m sure, by now, you will know which wonder drug I’m talking about: it’s exercise.

Not costly, gym-going, weight-pumping, body-beautifying, sweat-inducing, social media-sharing, iron man, triathlete exercise.

Simply walking or jogging in any clothes and shoes, not for Instagram, and not costing a penny.

And just about anyone, whatever your health or age, can do it — it’s as easy as putting one foot in front of the other, and it genuinely has the most amazing outcomes.

The problem with singing the virtues of exercise is that it’s traditionally done by the super fit and super beautiful — often advocating amounts and types of exercise that would put anyone normal off doing any exercise at all.

But as a middle-aged man whose pre-exercise and post-exercise body is the least likely ever to be shared on social media, I can assure you that the benefits of exercise are for everyone — and that, crucially, even small amounts have massively beneficial effects, especially as you get older.

I didn’t always think like this so emphatically — in fact, when I started out as a medical student in 1995, we were taught that most illnesses were due to bad luck and that operations or drugs could cure the problem.

However, with the passage of time and the experience of treating thousands upon thousands of patients, I’ve realised how wrong this is: lots of illness is not just due to luck, but to poor diet, smoking, poverty — and a lack of exercise.

The treatments I give patients are mostly sticking plasters — the only sustainable treatment for many kinds of disease is prevention (‘sustainable’ because it has no side-effects and improves life quality — and is free!).

And exercise is one of the keys to a healthy life.

The study I mentioned in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology is a case in point.

Researchers from the Lipid and Blood Pressure Meta-analysis Collaboration — an international group of researchers on cardiovascular illness — looked at all the studies published on the impact of daily walking.

Most people think that you need to do 10,000 steps a day to improve your health. The problem is that this seems like a lot and it discourages people from even walking a couple of thousand steps a day because they don’t think they could ever do 10,000.

In fact, as many of you may know, the magic 10,000 is a marketing gimmick, devised in the 1960s by a company in Japan that invented the pedometer. It happens that the Japanese character for ‘10,000’ looks like a person walking, and so they called the device the ‘10,000-step meter’ and said 10,000 steps was the golden number. It stuck and became accepted ‘wisdom’. But true wisdom is found in the data and scientific studies.

The steps study looked at data where people had recorded their steps for a minimum of a week: their analysis showed that just 4,000 steps a day reduced your chances of dying over a seven-year period. For every 1,000 steps on top of that, there was an additional 15 per cent reduction in mortality risk.

But the benefits didn’t hinge on the exercise being more intense, it’s about the number of steps.

In addition, the benefit was greater as you age.

Not costly, gym-going, weight-pumping, body-beautifying, sweat-inducing, social media-sharing, iron man, triathlete exercise (File image)

Not costly, gym-going, weight-pumping, body-beautifying, sweat-inducing, social media-sharing, iron man, triathlete exercise (File image)

So the advice really is, whatever your health is, just go for a walk, jog or run. While the more you walk, the better, you don’t need to be doing loads.

There is just so much evidence for the benefits of exercise as I set out at the beginning, but let’s take just a few key findings.

In 2020, a review of 150 studies by the authoritative Cochrane Library found that exercise can reduce your risk of dying by an average of 13 per cent (during the length of the studies reviewed, which varied). They also found that exercise significantly improved quality of life for those with mental health conditions, respiratory problems and cancer.

A 2018 study, published in the journal Sexual Medicine Reviews, showed that women experience improved sexual arousal after exercise — both immediately and with long-term exercise.

And a study published last year found that people who exercised regularly had an 11 per cent lower chance of dying from Covid and a 36 per cent lower chance of being hospitalised if they caught the infection.

You only need to be doing a moderate amount of exercise — equivalent to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity such as fast walking a week — to experience these benefits.

As for children, the latest study (as mentioned and published in the journal Family Medicine) was based on kids doing the ‘daily mile’, an initiative devised by Elaine Wyllie, the headteacher at St Ninian’s Primary School in Stirling, Scotland, in 2012.

Despite the school excelling in sport, only the few sporty kids actually did any exercise. So she encouraged the teachers to take all the kids out for 15 minutes a day — when the weather was good, and without any need for sports equipment or a change of clothes — to walk, jog or run to improve their overall fitness.

The impact was immediate. Not just on their physical health, but also on their educational achievements and mental health.

Other schools in the area took notice and started to adopt the same ideas — and The Daily Mile was born.

The benefits were proven beyond all doubt by an Edinburgh University study in 2020, which showed that The Daily Mile significantly improved the children’s thinking skills, reaction times and memory, as well as how they felt about themselves.

If your children or grandchildren are not doing this at school, ask their teacher, why not?

But let me leave you with this extraordinary fact: in the last few years, study after study has shown that people who don’t do any exercise have a five times greater risk of dying in that year than those who exercise regularly.

That risk of dying is three times higher than the damaging impact of smoking. That’s how important it is to exercise.

So please get out there and walk or jog, and do the best thing you can for your health.

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