Why Doctors Should Prescribe Diet and Exercise
‘If it was a pill, exercise would be a trillion-dollar moneymaker prescribed to everyone’
This story is part of Exercise Is Medicine, a special report from Elemental that covers the incredible healing benefits of exercise, why doctors are prescribing workouts, the science of exercise for depression, and expert-designed exercises anyone can do.
One night back in 1978, as a medical student at George Washington University Hospital, Dr. Neal Barnard was changing the IV for a woman with Type 2 diabetes who’d been told her foot would have to be amputated. She grumbled to him about the misery of her hospital stay and ultimately refused the amputation, leaving the hospital with her foot intact. Only later did Barnard realize just how wrong he and the rest of the woman’s clinical team had been.
“Although the roots of Type 2 diabetes are in the everyday food choices that lead to obesity and insulin resistance, we were ready to amputate but never started a discussion about improving her diet,” wrote Barnard, who is now president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, in a commentary last summer in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Barnard never heard from the woman again, but he assumes she ultimately lost her battle. Now he’s concerned that, four decades later, clinical physicians and the rest of the U.S. health care system continue to frequently fail patients on a range of health crises — from obesity to heart disease to depression — by focusing on treatment rather than prevention. He’s part of a growing chorus of experts who argue that diet and exercise should be the primary focus for preventing the onset of many debilitating and deadly conditions, and that actually prescribing both should be part of the strategy.
Poor diet, particularly not enough plant-based foods and too much salt, is now the leading root cause of death globally — exceeding smoking, high blood pressure, or any other single risk factor, according to a study published earlier last year in the journal Lancet. Heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and many forms of cancer are driven by unhealthful diets, Barnard says.