Exercise is Medicine Program helped get back on track

Exercise truly is medicine for Mary Ellen Buckley, who avoided taking blood pressure medication by joining FirstHealth of the Carolinas Exercise is Medicine (EIM), a physician-referral program she also credits with increased protection from potential complications from illnesses like COVID-19.

Buckley was referred to EIM by her physician for a knee and rotator cuff injury. She was scheduled for surgery in the summer but had to cancel because of coronavirus. Unable to do her usual walking routine, she started gaining weight and experiencing other issues. So, she gave EIM a chance.

The program provides participants with medically based exercise routines designed to complement current medications and treatment plans. FirstHealth Fitness Program Manager Tim Smith says exercise plans include significant medical history and are tailored to meet the needs of the individual, which Buckley has appreciated.

“Almost every single exercise we learn can be adapted,” Buckley says. “It’s helping me understand what my limits are, how to work around it and still be able to get the exercise I need.”

In just one month, Buckley lost six pounds and lowered her blood pressure by eight points, which allowed her to forego medication. She was initially concerned about joining a group course during the pandemic but says she felt comfortable in the small, socially distanced classes with participants wearing masks.

During a time that places a high premium on wellness, she was happy to feel healthier and safely return to her daily step count.

Regular exercise has been shown to improve immune function and inflammation response, both of which can improve the body’s reaction to illnesses. Research by University of California, Los Angeles revealed exercise can help cells replicate a vaccine when fighting a virus. Physical activity can also extend the effectiveness of vaccinations. In one study, older adults took three different influenza vaccinations and one group was instructed to do moderate exercise. Those who paired exercise with a vaccine were 30 to 100 percent more likely to have an antibody response sufficient to protect from infection when compared to the control group.

Despite significant benefits, maintaining healthy routines hasn’t been easy in a time of stay at home orders and gym shutdowns.

Physical activity levels dropped 39 percent as a result of pandemic lifestyle changes, a study by Evidation Health found through analyzing data from more than 68,000 fitness trackers. Smith says working out is not only important for physical health but mental health, too.

“Just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated, fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming. Social distancing can cause people to feel isolated and lonely, contributing to stress,” he says. “Healthy coping is essential. Regular exercise has been shown to offset the weight of psychological stress, while also contributing to better sleep.”

Buckley can attest to improved rest. “Part of my issue was not being able to sleep,” she says. “This is helping me not only move more, it’s helping me sleep better, which I think is also related to your immune system.”

Buckley’s physician recommended two months of EIM, but she plans to continue with the program longer. She says using exercise as medicine and food as fuel helped get her back on track.

Exercise is Medicine is hosted by FirstHealth Fitness and offered at our fitness centers in Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Sanford, Richmond, Raeford and Troy. To learn more about the Exercise is Medicine program and how to join, visit www.firsthealth.org/fitness or call (910) 715-1800.

Feature photo: FirstHealth Fitness Program Manager Tim Smith leads a small group of Exercise is Medicine participants in stretching exercises at FirstHealth Fitness-Pinehurst. (Courtesy photo)




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