Exercise is good medicine - keep at it

I had the rare opportunity to attend the Ironman Sports Medicine Conference two weeks ago in Kona, Hawaii, held to coincide with the annual Ironman World Championships. At the end, we were given the option to volunteer in the medical tent during the race.

As this was the first medical conference I was attending as a National University Hospital orthopaedics surgery resident, I was extremely eager and keen for it to start. After all, how often does one get the chance to learn from acclaimed physicians and interact with like-minded professionals from across the globe?

The 51/2-day conference covered a wide variety of topics, including concussion in sports, hip injuries in triathletes and ethical considerations in managing elite athletes.

But the most prominent theme which transcended them all was that exercise is truly a form of medicine. It was reiterated countless times throughout the conference that there is insurmountable evidence that exercise, no matter how little, is beneficial to one's well-being.

The first study on physical activity was conducted by Professor Jerry Morris, who died aged 99 in 2009, with the results published in a scientific paper in 1953.

It was a simple study, yielding profound results. In essence, it compared the rates of heart disease between London bus drivers who sat the whole day while driving, and London bus conductors who stood the whole day collecting tickets.

The conductors had lower rates of heart disease than the drivers did - simply because the conductors were up and about more.

The results were replicated in a comparison of post office receptionists and postmen. What a world of difference being physically active makes to your health.

There were also huge personalities in the triathlon community in attendance, with six-time Ironman world champion Dave Scott sharing his experiences with high-intensity interval training (HIIT). This sparked a huge debate on the effectiveness of HIIT versus the conventional moderate intensity of exercise. It was thought-provoking to hear from both camps, who had their own resolute beliefs, and it allowed me to fortify my knowledge.

Former Olympian Joanna Zeiger also lectured on The Champion's Mindset, which gave physicians a rare glimpse into the minds of elite athletes. With this invaluable insight, we physicians may be more mentally equipped to relate to them and may then be better positioned to dispense medical advice to such athletes.

This conference has indeed altered my perception of sports medicine; there are so many facets to it that it is not just about treating an injured athlete.

Education on health and fitness is a huge factor to get people up and moving. Perhaps more can be done to encourage people to cultivate physical activity as a habit and to integrate it into their lifestyles. For one thing, physical education classes should be accorded the same importance as academic ones so children will learn to give each an equal emphasis in their lives.

I am grateful to have made staying active (by running, no less) both a habit and a priority in my life. You should too.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2017, with the headline 'Exercise is good medicine - keep at it'. Print Edition | Subscribe