After more than 15 years as a chronic disease specialist, Dr. John Duperly, M.D, Ph.D., knows first-hand that exercise is very powerful medicine.

He had a patient with heart failure, who couldn't get dressed or breathe on his own, slowly build the strength to run a marathon just three years later. He's seen a woman with severe diabetes, who had lost her lower legs to the disease and was nearly blind, turn her life around right in his office—doing her first set of leg lifts and push-ups in her wheelchair. After a few years of regular workouts, she reduced her insulin intake and began living a healthier lifestyle.

"I've seen exercise do incredible things during my career, and it's all backed by research," says Duperly. Studies show exercise can reduce the risk of breast cancer and colon cancer by 20 to 30 percent, heart disease by 50 percent or more, and diabetes by up to 60 percent.

Doctors in Dr. Duperly's workshops learn that a patient’s fitness level is just as important as their blood pressure.

Vanessa Collazos MD / @DrVanne

“Exercise could be the single most important thing you can do for your health, and it costs nothing," says Duperly. "But still I see patients suffering from chronic diseases every day—diseases that could be prevented.”

That's why Dr. Duperly has dedicated his career to helping people prevent or treat disease through fitness. Not only is he a leading physician and professor at the medical school at the Universidad de los Andes - Fundación Santa Fe de Bogotá in Colombia, he also directs the Latin America chapter of Exercise Is Medicine (EIM)—a global health-based partnership that is pushing to make exercise therapy part of routine patient care worldwide.

As the first founding corporate partner of EIM, The Coca-Cola Company has helped further this mission since 2007, providing support funding grants and helping to raise public, private and professional awareness support to fuel the organisation’s rapid growth. Today, EIM is in 43 countries and continues to expand globally.

Doctors to Prescribe Exercise

Dr. John Duperly
Dr. John Duperly

Guided by the American College of Sports Medicine, EIM educates health professionals and local populations around the world about the value of physical activity when it comes to managing chronic illnesses such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease. EIM also helps create the infrastructure to support exercise therapy on a community and clinical level, in locations where medical practices may not be as advanced as they are in the United States. "We're focused on helping communities where most doctors and nurses do not have formal exercise training," says Duperly. "We teach them about the benefits of physical activity, we can then train them on how to counsel patients and prescribe it as part of an ongoing treatment and health plans."

One of Dr. Duperly’s biggest challenges is making sure that local clinics in Latin America are prepared to execute and sustain an exercise program. "We noticed that in our communities, medical programs were not teaching exercise science for either health promotion or chronic disease therapy," he says. "So we needed to.”

To help bridge that gap, Dr. Duperly and his team created a one-day workshop that covers the basic skills every doctor needs to measure and promote physical activity, including how to build customized fitness plans and how to motivate patients to be active. Doctors learn that a patient’s fitness level is just as important as other vital signs, such as pulse and blood pressure.

"Doctors are busy—they need something very practical in a very short time," says Duperly."We designed this course so that in just one day, they gain significant knowledge and can immediately apply it. And, it's scalable, so other communities can adopt similar programs."

In the three years the workshop has been running, more than 3,000 doctors with varying specialities in Latin America have attended. They’ve spread the word to thousands of patients that a healthier, longer life can be achieved by incorporating just minutes of physical activity into their lives. "We're grateful that we've been able to offer this program in many countries, which is largely paid for by the support of our partners," he says. “This course is just one example of the huge impact we can make on the world when the community-at-large—including all sectors, public and private—work together."

The Domino Effect 

Though the primary focus of EIM is patient care, Dr. Duperly has found that the physical, social and emotional benefits of being active also have a positive impact on the local doctors they're training.

After debuting his course, Duperly conducted a study assessing the exercise knowledge, counselling skills and personal fitness practices of fifth-year medical school students in Bogota. Students who demonstrated a deeper knowledge of exercise benefits and patient counselling were often more likely to exercise regularly themselves. These doctors were also more likely to include physical activity in treatment plans for patients in the future. When patients realise that their own physicians exercise regularly, and doctors set the example that exercise is crucial to good health, the doctor-patient relationship strengthens, and both sides benefit, says Dr. Duperly.It's a win-win on all counts.

"The goal is to empower regions and train leaders to follow our path," says Dr. Duperly.By prescribing exercise, “we can spread the passion for helping others live happier, healthier and more active lifestyles," he says.

To learn more about the Exercise is Medicine® global health initiative, visit their website.