Scientists are still in the process of discovering how exercise delivers these results. Exercise aids circulation and decreases weight, but some of its effects are more subtle. The latest science centers on Interleukin 6, a glycoprotein that increases in response to muscle contraction and is secreted into the bloodstream. IL-6 stimulates an immune response that has extensive anti-inflammatory function, suggesting that general body inflammation, a factor in almost every chronic disease, is reduced by regular exercise.
Despite overwhelming data on the preventive and therapeutic value of exercise, doctors and medical students receive minimal formal education on effective prescription. Medical schools and residency training programs should include a formal curriculum to teach students how to prescribe exercise, much like those afforded other treatments.
How can we motivate Americans to exercise? The American Journal of Preventive Medicine recently published a meta-analysis of 11 studies of exercise programs in previously sedentary adults. The authors asked: "What does it take to make inactive people move?" Their conclusion: "Financial incentives increase exercise adherence."
Humana and Kaiser Permanente are health insurance companies that encourage prevention through financial reward; participants who exercise and make healthy lifestyle choices receive lower insurance premiums. Both programs provide incentivized rewards based on collective health improvements. Participants are assessed by body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and smoking rates. Activity is strongly incentivized, and it is measured with tracking devices: The more people move, the less they pay. With millions now enrolled in these incentive-based wellness programs, data suggests that health behavior among enrollees is rapidly changing for the better.
This model can be applied on a broader scale to the U.S. government, other health insurance companies, and private companies. Each of these entities can use similar incentive programs — including tax incentives — to encourage health and prevent disease.