Coming soon: a prescription for exercise

jprice@newsobserver.comJanuary 8, 2012 

Evidence of exercise's range of health benefits has become so overwhelming in recent years that the American College of Sports Medicine created a major outreach program called "Exercise is Medicine" that's aimed at making exercise a central part of disease prevention and treatment.

Researchers don't have enough data yet for doctors to write exercise prescriptions with the kind of precision that may one day be possible. On a parallel track to the research into the optimal dose of exercise for each illness and each patient, some scientists are already studying the best way to deliver those future prescriptions of exercise.

At UNC-Chapel Hill's Get Real & Heel program for breast cancer survivors, trainers coach breast cancer survivors through workouts using simple methods because they are developing exercise regimens that are practical for patients and trainers to use in standard workout gyms. The yardstick used to set the intensity of exercise sessions is simply heart rate.

Claudio Battaglini, a researcher with UNC's Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and co-director of the program, said in some ways it's out ahead of the science, since data on how to set a precise dosage is far from complete. There is already enough information, though, to create regimens that help patients.

The program has been spreading its knowledge about exercise to health care providers and patients in more than a dozen counties around the state.

Other UNC-CH researchers have been studying balance exercise programs for the elderly. After settling on an effective "dosage" - at least 50 hours spread over a few months - they have started spreading programs around the state, too.

Even if precise exercise dosage for various health problems becomes possible, there will still be the problem of how to get sedentary people to actually put in the work. Humans can be notoriously difficult to get moving. And some have barriers that go beyond the psychological ones, such as living in rural areas without exercise facilities and not having the time or money to drive to a distant gym.

Battaglini is among the researchers studying how to leap those barriers. He has just started a new study looking at how to deliver effective home exercise programs to sedentary African-American breast cancer patients.

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