September 16, 2011

Alternative / Complementary Medicine and Exercise: Two New Studies

On September 14, while I was perusing the latest medical developments online, two items caught my attention on WorldHealth.net, the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine’s online journal:
  • A study that focuses on the popularity of complementary / alternative medicine (CAM) with healthcare workers, and
  • Another new study reporting that 15 minutes of moderate exercise daily may add three years to your life.
That first study supports what I’ve recently found from personal experience: alternative therapies have helped me occasionally when more traditional approaches did not. That second study reconfirms everything we know intuitively – and have read in countless studies – about the benefits of exercise (a common theme on this blog). And it certainly makes me feel good about my early morning walks and afternoons in the garden.

Popularity of Complementary / Alternative Medicine with Healthcare Workers
According to Pamela Jo Johnson from Allina Hospitals and Clinics in Minneapolis, and colleagues in Health Services Research, 76% of healthcare workers said they used at least one form of CAM, compared with 63% of the general population. Those stats beg the question: do these industry insiders know something the rest of us don’t?

To evaluate the use of these CAM treatments by healthcare workers, the researchers used data from a 2007 National Health Interview Survey of 14,329 adults employed in the United States, 1280 of whom were healthcare workers.

CAM therapies can be provided by a practitioner, or administered by the patient. They include:
  • Biologically-based methods: diet-based therapies, vitamins
  • Energy methods: energy healing, reiki
  • Manipulative and body-based methods: Alexander technique, massage, Pilates
  • Mind-body methods: biofeedback, hypnotism, tai chi, yoga
  • Whole medical methods: acupuncture, naturopathy
Even when Johnson and her team excluded the most common types of CAM (vitamins, diets, and herbal supplements – all of which are used regularly in traditional medicine), they found that healthcare workers were still 11% more likely to use other CAM therapies than their general population counterparts (41% v. 30%). Maintaining a sense of general well-being, reducing anxiety, and dealing with neck, back, and joint pain were the most commonly reported reasons for using these approaches.

The study’s authors explained that the popularity of CAM with healthcare workers may help explain why these techniques are inexorably working their way into mainstream practice. Increasingly, insurance companies cover “nontraditional” therapies, like visits to the chiropractor.

While the study may be flawed because of “self-reporting,” and although physicians continue to question the efficacy of alternative medicine, I’ve had my own “ahHA!” moments with CAM. I wrote about one of them on September 14; my delivery from the agony of insomnia and depression came not from traditional medicine, but from meditation and muscle-relaxation exercises.

Want to Live Three Extra Years? Exercise 15 Minutes a Day!
Can’t find the time for that hour-long workout? Can’t afford to spend 30 minutes on a morning walk? How about 15 minutes? This study -- published in medical journal The Lancet on September 13 -- is apparently the first to show that such a minimal effort can yield such significant results.

Lead researcher Chi Pang Wen of Taiwan’s National Health Research Institute said, “It’s for men, women, the young and old, smokers, healthy and unhealthy people. Doctors, when they see any type of patient, this is a one-size-fits-all type of advice."

By any standard, Wen’s study is LARGE. He and his colleagues tracked 416,000 participants for 13 years, and evaluated their health and activity each year. After accounting for age, weight, sex, and health, researchers determined that just 15 minutes a day of moderate exercise – like brisk walking – boosted life expectancy by three years, compared to the inactive participants. The data also showed that participants from the active group were ten percent less likely to die from cancer.

Sounds good, right? Just a quarter of an hour a day! Who can’t do that? When I mentioned this study to a neighbor who is an exercise BEAST, he smiled and asked: “If you could gain three years with 15 minutes of exercise a day, would you gain six from 30?” Hmmm. I like the way he thinks!

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