Exercise is good for our health — we know that. But could it be as powerful as medication?
A new study published last month in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that exercise could be as effective at lowering blood pressure as common drugs.
Angela Epstein spoke to five people who took up exercise to try to beat their health conditions — with surprising results — and asked a panel of experts to explain the science behind their achievements.
Running trimmed my fatty liver in six months
Deb Watson, 40, a housewife, lives in Sunderland with her husband, Alan, 47. She went down to 10st was astonished to learn my liver was back to its normal size
Deb Watson, 40, a housewife, lives in Sunderland with her husband, Alan, 47, who works in retail.
In 2017, a consultant told me my liver was so fatty and inflamed it was no longer functioning properly. If I didn’t change my lifestyle, in six months I’d either be dead or waiting for a liver transplant. I couldn’t believe it.
This was the year I married Alan — it should have been the happiest of my life. I’d previously been healthy and active, but had begun to feel tired, which I attributed to putting on 3 st in recent years.
Then the whites of my eyes started turning yellow. Blood tests and scans revealed I had non-alcohol-related fatty liver disease, probably caused by my weight. I had to have my stomach drained — fluid builds up because of the disease — and I was sent home with a restrictive diet (including no fatty or salty food).
I knew I had to lose weight and get fitter. I went with my husband to his running club and was thrilled when I managed to walk their 2 km route. After that, I walked regularly, gradually building up to running.
The weight dropped off — 2 st in two months. By the time of my six-month liver check-up, I was running three to five miles twice a week, and going to the gym five times a week.
I’d lost 3st — down to 10st — and was astonished to learn my liver was back to its normal size.
I was no longer at risk — if I stayed healthy. Exercise has given me back my life.
Expert comment: The main cause of fatty liver is too much weight, explains Rajiv Jalan, a professor of hepatology at University College London.
‘Exercise is a terrific way to combat this. But there are many other benefits — and any kind of exercise helps: it improves the muscles all over the body and alters our response to hormones such as insulin [resistance to insulin contributes to the development of a fatty liver].
‘Studies suggest exercising several times a week can significantly reduce the amount of fat in liver cells.’
Penny Weston 34, a director of a spa, lives in Staffordshire. She now exercises five times a week — a mixture of HIIT, yoga classes and the treadmill
I beat asthma with gym classes
Penny Weston (pictured right), 34, a director of a spa, lives in Staffordshire with her husband, Andy, 38, a businessman, and son, Teddy, two.
Three years ago, I had a check-up with my asthma consultant who was amazed at my near-perfect lung function. Yet in my late 20s, I couldn’t even run upstairs without being breathless.
This change came about simply because I built exercise into my life.
I was diagnosed with asthma aged five, but it became chronic in my 20s. My consultant warned me I’d be on daily medication — a steroid inhaler and steroid tablets to clear my lungs — for the rest of my life.
Then I suffered a collapsed lung. I was out of breath even lying down and it took weeks to recover as the lung slowly healed itself.
It was a wake-up call — I was fed up with asthma, medication and being unfit.
A friend suggested trying a circuit class at the local gym; there was a little time between each activity which meant I got a short rest and could manage it.
It gave me an amazing feeling of achievement, so I started going every week, building up to more strenuous exercises such as star jumps. After several months, I progressed to high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
I never had an asthma attack (though I continued taking my medication and seeing my GP every six months). After two years, I could run 5 km.
Now I exercise five times a week — a mixture of HIIT, yoga classes and the treadmill. I’ve been able to stop most of my medication, keeping only a reliever inhaler with me just in case I get breathless — for instance on a cold morning.
Asthma sufferers are often told to accept their condition, but exercise gave me a great way out.
Expert comment: ‘Exercise improves your overall health and can be very helpful for asthma,’ says Dr Edward Nash, a consultant in respiratory medicine at University Hospital Coventry, who recommends it to all his patients.
‘A lot of asthma sufferers breathe too quickly. Exercise regulates this by making you breathe regularly and more deeply, which also strengthens respiratory muscles, helping to reduce wheezing.
‘But exercise can make asthma worse for some. For example, cold weather can cause narrowing of the airways, making it harder to breathe [airways are already narrowed owing to inflammation].
‘Patients should start exercising slowly, doing something enjoyable.’
Psychologist Lee Chambers, 35, lives in Preston. He says exercise has given him back his mobility and has energy to play with his children
The walks that ended years of arthritis pain
Psychologist Lee Chambers, 35, lives in Preston with wife Louise, 36, a teacher, and their two children.
The decline in my health was rapid. Overnight my left wrist became swollen and painful. Two days later, my right knee started to swell.
I was just 29, and fit and active, but the pain was so bad I went to A&E, where I was given steroids that helped slightly with the swelling.
But the next day my right shoulder began to swell, as did my right knee again so I returned to A&E. I’m 6 ft 2 in tall and had to be dragged into the car as I couldn’t walk. I spent a month in hospital as doctors treated me and tried to establish what was wrong. I was diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis, when your immune system malfunctions, causing swelling in the joints.
I was prescribed drugs for the swelling, pain and to suppress the immune response and given a regime of intense physiotherapy.
Much of the next year I was in pain and could not walk unaided. My son was a toddler and my wife six months pregnant. I felt helpless and feared I’d never improve.
My daughter was born soon after I left hospital in 2015 — but I struggled even to push the pram. I realised I had to reclaim my life so joined a gym and a football team for people with disabilities — we played ‘walking’ football for 60 to 90 minutes each week. As my stiffness reduced, I increased my gym sessions to three times a week.
The more I exercised, the more I reduced my medication, supervised by my doctor. I was thrilled when, last June, I no longer needed to take them.
Now I go hill walking five times a week and do weights. Exercise has given me back my mobility and I have energy to play with my kids. I feel back in control of my life.
Expert comment: ‘It’s really important for people with arthritis to be as active as possible,’ says Robert Moots, a professor of rheumatology at Edge Hill Medical School in Ormskirk, Lancashire.
‘With inflammatory joint problems it’s crucial to have conventional medical treatment to reduce inflammation and prevent more damage, pain and immobility.
‘Once inflammation is controlled, exercise can keep joints working so you can return to fitness. Exercise helps prevent muscle wasting, minimising risk of recurrence.
‘It’s best to be assessed for suitable exercises by a physio. Swimming and walking are beneficial — but build up gently, for at least 30 minutes, three times a week.’
Yoga banished my nightmare migraines
Sonya Barlow, 28, is a diversity coach and author who lives in London. She banished her migraines through yoga
Sonya Barlow, 28, is a diversity coach and author who lives in London.
Sometimes my migraines were so intense it felt as though someone was banging a hammer against my skull — and they lasted for 12 hours or more.
I was often sick in the loo at work and felt dizzy and tired.
When the migraines started, six years ago, my GP prescribed various medications, including triptans, but nothing worked.
There were no clear triggers that I could identify to try to avoid an attack. Scans to detect underlying problems came back clear. All that helped was sleeping for hours after work.
Two years ago, at the end of my tether, I decided to try half an hour of yoga a day, as I wondered if stress was the problem. I also went for daily walks to get some fresh air. I loved being outdoors, so I took up jogging, too.
I was hoping this would help me cope, and didn’t expect it to reduce my migraines.
But within a few months, I went from having crippling attacks three times a week to just one a month, which could be controlled with painkillers.
It brought such a change I decided to set up my own business. As my own boss, I can fit exercise into my day whenever I choose.
Every aspect of my life is happier now, and I’m no longer dependent on medication. Exercise has liberated me from migraines.
Expert comment: ‘Research shows moderate exercise can reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks in some people,’ says Dr Andy Dowson, clinical lead for the East Kent Headache Service.
‘Regular exercise can also be effective in preventing migraine. It’s not clear why, although regularising your lifestyle — by eating regularly, being well-hydrated and having a regular sleep pattern — is known to help.
‘I often suggest exercise to patients — a cardiovascular workout, such as jogging two to three times a week to the point of sweating, seems to help most.’
Jogs reversed high blood pressure
Eugene Kongnyuy, 48, is a consultant obstetrician who works for the UN. He reversed his high blood pressure through jogging
Eugene Kongnyuy, 48, is a consultant obstetrician who works for the UN.
He lives in Salisbury with his wife, Yvette, 44, an accountant, and their three children.
I was first diagnosed with high blood pressure at a routine work medical ten years ago. At 5 ft 7 in, I weighed 12 st 7 lb, so I was only slightly overweight. I was shocked.
A normal blood pressure level is less than 120/80 mm Hg. Mine was 150/95.
I had a busy lifestyle and not much time for exercise. I tried dieting and was also given the blood pressure medication ramipril, but it didn’t have much effect.
I tried walking for an hour a day, but my blood pressure remained elevated, so I pushed myself harder, running instead. After six months the difference was incredible — my blood pressure dropped to below 95/56. I felt great.
As a doctor, I could stop my medication and monitor my own blood pressure, which has remained normal. Now I run every morning.
High blood pressure is caused by a sedentary lifestyle. It can be so dangerous and I’m glad I could do something about it.
Expert comment: ‘Exercise is multifactorial in terms of how it helps blood pressure and heart health,’ says Dr Glyn Thomas, a consultant cardiologist at the Bristol Heart Institute. ‘Reducing weight by 10 kg can reduce high blood pressure by about 10 per cent.
‘High blood pressure occurs when blood passes through arteries at high pressure — caused by stiffness of these blood vessels and a high pulse rate. Exercise encourages the blood vessels to relax and slows heart rate. It’s also great for relieving stress, which has a positive impact on blood pressure.
‘The best type of exercise is any that causes breathlessness, but you can still hold a conversation. Keep it up for about half an hour, three or four times a week.’
No Pills, No Needles by Eugene Kongnyuy is published by Hammersmith Books Limited.