The Exercise Program That Failed
Terri came to my gym 17 months ago, after I gave a talk on fall prevention at a local theater. She arrived with an all-too-common list of maladies that are grouped under the heading of metabolic syndrome: hypertension, congestive heart failure, diabetes, fatigue, weakness, joint pain. She also has a low resting heart rate, known as bradycardia.
Terri asked me if my fitness program could help her, and I assured her that it could. I told her with absolute certainty that if she showed up consistently and followed the program, I could guarantee positive, measurable results. She had just listened to me preach the fitness gospel for 90 minutes. Now I challenged her to put that gospel into practice. And so she did, in earnest.
Terri was committed to the program. She was diligent, consistent, compliant, and devoted. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and months to seasons. Last September, Terri walked into the gym and made her way to my desk. We both knew it was her one-year anniversary, and I was beaming with pride as she approached to give me her victorious progress report.
“Andy, your program—(I was trying to remain humble in anticipation of her praise, at the same time getting ready to jump up and give her a big hug to congratulate her on her success)—is not working. My blood panels have shown NO improvement, I’m in pain, I’m tired all of the time, and I feel weak and depressed.”
Oh, shit. What?
Exercise is known to have a positive, even profound impact on many conditions: metabolic, neurologic, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal. I’ve been working with people like Terri for 20 years. She just devoted a full year to this effort and had nothing to show for it. How could that be?
I’m not an MD, so I typically do not get into the nitty-gritty of my clients’ medicine cabinets. But something was so powerfully wrong that I switched to a different tack. “Terri, let’s take an inventory of your medications.” I was feeling defensive. Then I got mad.
Terri was on a statin for her cholesterol, Carvedilol for hypertension and congestive heart failure, and Pioglitazone for diabetes. She was taking exactly what her doctor had prescribed. What could possibly have gone wrong? Well, it turns out, a whole hell of a lot.
Statins are used to control cholesterol levels to prevent heart disease, and that would make perfect sense if there were a clear correlation between cholesterol and heart disease, especially for older women. There isn’t. Statistically, 20 people have to take statins for five years to prevent one heart attack, and the overall mortality rate remains the same whether or not people take the drugs. The bottom line is that the pharmaceutical industry makes gobs of money on statins, and 95% of people taking them only get the side effects: muscle pain and damage, elevated blood sugar, diabetes, weakness, fatigue, and depression. Statins are contraindicated for people with diabetes.
Carvedilol is taken to treat hypertension and congestive heart failure. Side effects include drowsiness, weakness, fatigue, joint pain, and bradycardia. It is contraindicated for people with bradycardia.
Pioglitazone is taken to “treat” diabetes. Its side effects are weight gain and muscle pain. It is contraindicated for people with congestive heart failure.
Wow. I mean WOW.
Terri’s medications not just failed her, but sabotaged her, at three distinct levels: treatment, compounding side effects, and contraindications. Simply put, statins are stupid. And despite what you may hear from Dr. Oz, there is no pill that can cure diabetes. Furthermore, the compound side effects of Terri’s three medications were blocking the success of the one treatment that would have made a positive impact on all her conditions—exercise. In fact, her medications were preventing her from getting better! And finally, the contraindications could have been disastrous.
So Terri switched doctors. She stopped taking her meds. She embraced a Paleo-style diet and cut out newly identified food allergies. I told her that, while not a physician and certainly not pretending to be one, I supported her decision 100 percent and would be happy to oversee her exercise program. She rededicated herself to a schedule to come in to the gym and meet with me three times per week, and stuck to it. Five months later, her new doctor did a full-on happy dance in the examination room.
Terri’s cortisol is now normal. Her insulin is down. Her urinalysis is now normal. Her blood sugar is down. Her body composition is changing for the better: body fat down, muscle mass up, body weight down. And medications? Her new doctor recommends a multivitamin, omega 3’s, and a probiotic. Now that is powerful medicine.