In classic #slatepitch fashion, Emily Oster argues that calls for people to exercise to improve their health ignore the problem that most of us find exercise unpleasant. As an economist, she feels that public policy should factor in the costs of exercise, not just in gym memberships but in time that we could spend on more enjoyable activities.
She’s responding to media coverage of a recent meta-analysis showing that exercise and drug treatments are equally effective for preventing diabetes or heart attacks. Exercise was more effective than drugs for stroke patients, but less effective for patients with heart failure.
The Slate headline is golden clickbait (“Taking a Pill While Watching TV Just as Good as Exercise, Study Finds”). I fell for it, even though I’d already seen the study. But it’s wrong in one important way: no single pill can substitute for the broad benefits of exercise. Instead we’re talking about different medications to prevent or treat heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and so on. Most of the seniors I know are taking handfuls of pills every day. Not to mention that exercise lowers the risk of getting some diseases of aging that can’t be cured, like Alzheimer’s disease. There’s no pill for that.