Exercise is medicine: Nova Scotia Health affiliate scientist, Dr. Jonathon Fowles shines light on physical activity counselling

Dr. Jonathon Fowles

Dr. Jonathon Fowles is a professor in the School of Kinesiology at Acadia University and for decades has been an advocate of exercise and physical activity for overall health and wellness.

An avid cyclist, Dr. Fowles not only promotes exercise through his work, but also enjoys it as a way to stay fit. 

He encourages others to be physically active and has volunteered with several community initiatives including Valley LifeCycle, a community event that had been hosted by the Valley Regional Hospital Foundation, aimed at celebrating health and active living. 

“Health care providers can apply their knowledge to their own active lifestyle and can, through first-hand experience, share the benefits of exercise with their patients as a part of their work,” said Dr. Fowles.

As chair of the National Advisory Council for Exercise is Medicine Canada, he has seen first-hand the benefits of fitness for those with a chronic disease, such as diabetes. 

Evidence shows that regular physical activity plays a critical role in improving health and reducing risks associated with diabetes and other chronic diseases. This inspired Dr. Fowles to develop tools and guidelines to increase the capacity of health care providers in the delivery of physical activity counselling .   

In 2005 he and a colleague from Acadia University, Dr. Chris Shields, began working with cardiologist Dr. Howard Wightman to develop a diabetes exercise program at Valley Regional Hospital, which was based on the classic cardiac rehab program Extended Warranty II.

The goal of this collaboration was to help patients improve their overall health and potentially reduce their medication. 

“The results were clear; this program was making a difference and improving patient outcomes,” said Dr. Fowles. “Seeing first-hand that a supervised exercise and health education-based program, like those used for cardiac patients, was well accepted was encouraging.”

At the time, internal medicine specialist Dr. Lynne Harrigan had a number of patients with diabetes in the exercise program.

She was also the medical director for the Diabetes Care Program of Nova Scotia, and with the success of the initial findings, wondered if this program could be adapted to the other Diabetes Centres in the province.

Dr. Fowles worked with the Diabetes Care Program to develop the physical activity and exercise toolkit in 2007, which was later implemented as a standard resource for diabetes education in Canada.

“By improving the knowledge of health care providers, their confidence in delivering physical activity education to their patients has grown over time,” said Dr. Fowles. “Knowledge translation initiatives have been key in changing the culture of health care to include physical activity as not only a preventative disease measure but a disease management tool.”

As an affiliate scientist with Nova Scotia Health, Dr. Fowles continues to share the findings of his research, taking part in a parliamentary panel discussion earlier this year. It focused on the progress and future of diabetes care in Canada.  

In that discussion, he noted that having more diabetes educators effectively supporting their patients through physical activity leads to better self-management of the disease and improved health.

 “While exercise doesn’t completely eliminate the need for prescribed medicines, it has allowed care providers to reduce medications in a number of cases.”

Dr. Fowles now leads a provincial Exercise is Medicine initiative to help support physical activity counselling in health care and create supports for exercise prescription and referral in communities.

His research develops and evaluates the effectiveness of innovative models of service provision.