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University of Hong Kong fitness month aimed at showing exercise is medicine

“If exercise could be packed into a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation,” said the late Dr. Robert Butler, former director of the US National Institute on Ageing.

Alas, we all know that getting a dose of exercise is not as simple as just swallowing a pill – but there are ways to incorporate physical activity more easily into our daily lives.

The University of Hong Kong’s recent Exercise is Medicine (EIM) Month is a great example. For almost every day in October, there was at least one free activity for the campus community to participate in, such as outdoor yoga, boot camp, skipping clinics, a lacrosse lesson and fitness assessments. About 1,700 people participated in nearly 30 different fitness events and seminars, according to Dr Michael Tse, chairman of the university’s EIM on Campus organising committee.

“I think it’s a really good future direction to expand this further in HKU and other universities in Hong Kong and all around the city, because I think that’s going to have an impact on long-term health care,” says Tse, assistant director of the university’s Centre for Sports and Exercise, which collaborates with the University Health Service to organise wellness activities on campus.

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Tse and colleagues believe providing such opportunities for physical activity, creating a culture on campus that embraces movement as a daily facet of life, and providing the behavioural tools necessary to enact that change are key to helping students develop a lifelong affinity for physical activity, which is integral to disease prevention and treatment, and vital for meeting public health goals.

Their efforts have earned them the prestigious EIM On Campus silver level recognition award from the American College of Sports Medicine – the first university in Asia to win this award, and only the fourth campus outside the US to be recognised with a gold, silver or bronze status (awarded based on activities and level of engagement).

“Emphasising exercise as medicine, educating the campus community, and providing opportunities to be physically active are essential to HKU’s success and serve as a model for other institutions to follow,” says Dr Carena Winters, a member of the EIM advisory board.

Recent reports show that one in five Hongkongers are overweight and nearly one in two considered physically inactive.

According to the World Health Organisation, lack of physical activity is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality, responsible for six per cent of deaths globally. Physical inactivity is estimated to be the main cause for approximately 21 per cent to 25 per cent of breast and colon cancers, 27 per cent of diabetes and approximately 30 per cent of coronary artery disease.

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Earlier in July, a study published in The Lancet put a figure on the enormous economic burden of the increasingly sedentary world: US$67.5 billion globally in health care expenditure and lost productivity in 2013. Lead researcher Dr Melody Ding of the University of Sydney reached this estimate by examining the direct cost of health care, productivity losses, and disability-adjusted life years for five major non-communicable diseases attributable to inactivity (coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and colon cancer) using data from 142 countries.

“Physical inactivity is recognised as a global pandemic that not only leads to diseases and early deaths, but imposes a major burden to the economy,” says Ding.

The EIM initiative was launched in 2007 by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Medical Association to encourage primary care physicians to prescribe exercise when designing treatment plans for patients. To foster greater community involvement, EIM On Campus aims to recruit and utilise the resources within university communities to support this global health initiative.

There are nearly 90 US schools and 11 international schools registered with the EIM on Campus programme. In Hong Kong, apart from HKU, City University is also on the list, albeit with no recognition status yet. It’s not just about preaching the benefits of a regular active lifestyle, but actually providing suitable recreational opportunities and access to recreational equipment and facilities, and actively prescribing exercise during health consultations.

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Across different faculties in HKU, researchers collaborate in studying the effects of exercise as medicine, Tse says. For example, one ongoing study looks at people (from students to elderly) at risk of having diabetes and the effect on their risk factors of thrice-weekly 60-minute exercise sessions.

“We’re about halfway through the 12-week study at the moment and the results have been pretty significant already. We’ve seen changes in body shape, body composition and blood factors,” says Tse.

Another study involves putting retired people through a 100-hour coaching course to train them to become exercise coaches to frail compatriots. With just six weeks of exercise, Tse says some frail elderly actually grow taller by an inch simply from having a better posture.

Tse is also finishing a two-year study that evaluates the benefits of traditional Chinese movement exercise and aerobic and resistance exercise for addressing the physical and psychological problems facing men with prostate cancer. “It has been very positive. Often, people with prostate cancer suffer loss of muscle mass and fitness, but we’ve found in this study the training helped not only maintain their muscle mass and fitness very well, but also has had a very good impact on their quality of life,” says Tse.

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The EIM on Campus Month may have ended but Tse is confident the momentum will keep going with activities organised for all ages. The belief that “physical activity is the medicine of life”, after all, was fundamental to the establishment of the Active Health Clinic in 2008 as part of HKU’s Centre for Sports and Exercise (which until recently was known as the Institute of Human Performance).

“Our mission has been to promote healthy and active lifestyles through proactive screening, assessments, education and tailor-made health and fitness programming for the HKU and surrounding communities,” Tse says.

“To further our own mission and motto that physical activity is the medicine of life, bringing the Exercise is Medicine on Campus global initiative to the doorstep of HKU was the next strategic step in internationalising our development and efforts.”

Find out more about HKU’s Exercise is Medicine On Campus activities at eim.ihp.hku.hk