EXERCISE: THE MAGIC PILL
If the health benefits of exercise could be bottled and sold as a drug, it has been said by many health professionals, it would fly off the shelves. There would be no negative side effects, no one would be allergic to it, it would not be expensive, anyone of any age could take it, and overdoses would be almost non-existent. Heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and obesity would be the exception rather than the expected. Diabetes and other chronic conditions would be much less common. Depression, insomnia, chronic pain and fatigue would be greatly reduced.
So why doesn’t everyone sign up for these health benefits without a drug simply by exercising? Why aren’t more people taking the time and making the effort to make themselves healthier by exercising? Because it is the path of most resistance. Humans are wired to take the path of least resistance, and this is not it. It takes time, effort, and energy; three resources most people are short on. It is easier not to.
Ask anyone who has dramatically improved their health through exercise, and they will swear by it. Ask anyone who exercises regularly and they will tell you that without it, nothing else works quite like it should. It is a priority for them; they choose to spend their time, effort and energy on exercise because they know that without it, they don’t feel good. With it, they generally feel great.
*MOVE IT OR LOSE IT*
It is good for the body; those benefits are the most obvious. Research shows, however, that it is just as beneficial for the brain as it is for the body:
- Cognitive test scores are higher in the subjects who exercise regularly vs. those who do not. Vocabulary skills are stronger among those who exercise.
- Learning at all ages throughout the life cycle is enhanced by exercise, as brain cells are stimulated through exercise. This positive stress helps them develop their potential, just as muscles are stimulated by the exercise.
- Among those who are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s disease (as established through testing), studies suggest that those who are active are far less likely to develop the disease, or show a much slower progression of the disease after onset as compared to sedentary peers.
- Exercise lifts depression and enhances mood, self-esteem and body image. It may also create feelings of euphoria; the “runner’s high” is not a myth. This euphoria can be achieved through other forms of sustained exercise as well.
As a nation, our sleep patterns and habits have been observed, researched, studied, reported upon and tested. By and large, the results suggest that Americans don’t get enough quality sleep. This comes as no surprise to most of us, as most of us struggle to maintain efficient and adequate sleep patterns. Exercise has been noted to improve this as well, creating more quality and sound sleep. Paradoxically, many people state that lack of time is one of the primary reasons why they don’t exercise. Exercising in the early morning hours is highly recommended by experts and veteran exercisers, but this requires sacrificing sleep. The need for sleep can be decreased by regular exercise, as many people report that they need less sleep when they become active, and their sleep is more sound and of greater quality. Our brains and our bodies work better. In addition, early morning exercise fuels the body for the day, providing a higher level of energy to enhance all other activities throughout the day. When exercise is performed early, the “obligation” is met first thing, and it is less likely to feel as if it is just another task that must be performed before the long day is done, when other pressing duties may take precedence over exercise.
*MOVE IT AND LOSE IT*
The human body is designed to move. Every muscle, ligament and joint is part of a well-oiled machine, ready to engage in whatever action its owner wills it to—except when it doesn’t have the energy to do so because of excess weight.
Obesity is a national health crisis. Our bodies were created for motion, and for the most part, our lifestyles do not let it move like it should. Prior to the information age we all now live in, most people had to perform strenuous physical labor in order to earn their keep, or just to survive. The agricultural and industrial ages required that most people move their bodies all day as part of their work. Few people now perform these physical acts as part of their jobs. We are, primarily, a sedentary society at work.
Most obviously, physical activity typically decreases weight. It also will likely decrease the appetite, thus taking fuel away from the fire that overeating causes. In addition, metabolism typically increases, thus burning more weight long after the exercise period is over. It is a win-win-win situation.
ACTION BEGETS ACTION
Congratulations to you if you already maintain a regular exercise plan. You know the health benefits, and you make time to exercise. It is a priority. Keep up the good work. May you live long and continue to exercise.
If you are one who is not committed to regular exercise, there is hope. Your body is designed to move, and it will respond to any regular exercise, matter how much or how little. Before you start a regular exercise routine, it is a good idea to contact your physician to make sure there are no specific health risks for you.
For many people, getting started is the hardest part. It is likened to rolling a wheel up a hill. It is hard work for a long time, but if you stay with it, you will become stronger, the task becomes easier, it becomes a habit and you have created momentum with a regular exercise routine. You will reach the top of the hill where the wheel’s movement will be almost self-sustaining with much less effort than it required when you started. You may even have to run to catch up with it if its momentum carries it down the other side of the hill. By this time, you might even be enjoying it.
Thinking of an exercise program as a one-day-at-a-time proposition may help as well. If you tell yourself that this “drudgery” is something you must continue to do for the rest of your life, you will likely not succeed. Telling yourself “just for today” is a better mindset. Once you have a few days under your belt, you will likely realize that action begets action, and you will be motivated to continue. Psychology suggests that it takes about 21 days for a daily habit to be formed. Sticking with it for 2-3 weeks will change your mindset, and you will undoubtedly be feeling better both physically and mentally, which will motivate you to continue. Action begets action.
Exercise need not be an expensive venture. The most basic form of exercise—walking—requires only a good pair of shoes. If you own a dog, your pet is great incentive to get out and walk—they know the benefits of walking. Running requires a good pair of shoes as well. Both walking and running can be performed on a treadmill indoors if it is accessible, or when it is not possible to exercise outdoors. As with all outdoor exercises, it is imperative to remain visible with bright colored clothing, and reflective tape on your clothing if you exercise before sunrise or after dark. Dressing in layers will allow you to remain comfortable as your body heats up, allowing you to remove layers if necessary.
Aging slows the body down, making the movements less fluid. This can be used to argue against exercise as we age, or it can be seen as the reason why we should exercise as we age. Metabolism decreases, making it more difficult to maintain a trim physique. Flexibility decreases, balance is compromised and movements become more forced and less smooth. Several specific exercise types address this:
- Yoga: This ancient practice incorporates deep breathing and relaxation with stretching. There are many types of yoga, and many levels of difficulty. There are yoga DVD videos available to guide you through routines. Some PBS television stations offer yoga shows from 6-6:30 a.m.
- Pilates: This focuses on strength for the core/trunk. It also exercises the hips and thighs.
- Tai Chi: Specific and measured poses/movements that target stress reduction and strengthening . This is a popular practice in many retirement homes, with classes offered for seniors.
- Swimming: When available, a swimming pool is an excellent place to engage in no-impact exercises. This is important for those with joint pain and problems.
Accountability is a powerful force. Finding an exercise buddy whom you can commit to exercising with is another way to ensure that you will maintain your program. Standing someone up when you have committed to meeting them at a specified place and time is not a good feeling. This is a mutually beneficial relationship if you can find someone else who is trying to start an exercise program, as the encouragement goes both ways.
Team sports are an excellent way to remain accountable. The team depends on you to show up, practice and perform in matches against other teams that are typically similar in composition to each other. Leagues for volleyball, basketball and softball are offered in many locales. The social aspect reinforces the desire for many people to participate. The age-old grade-school sport of kickball is making a comeback in some areas, with leagues formed for adults.
Another social benefit of exercise can be found at the gym. You will meet others who are striving to improve their health, perhaps others who struggle as well. You will likely be motivated by others who are working hard to meet their fitness goals, and you will see that exercise really does produce results. You may even see someone who has to work harder than you do to achieve their goals. There are friendships to be formed as well if one is open to that.
Many workplaces have realized the importance of having healthy and fit employees. Incentive programs are offered for exercise programs being completed, pounds being lost, as well as other measures taken to increase health, such as screenings for various conditions. Employers know that healthy and fit employees are more productive and happier which increases the workplace morale, typically increasing the bottom line. All employees of the Stevens County Hospital are offered a membership to the local health club free of charge.
The fabled tortoise knew that slow and steady wins the race. Humans, as a group, tend to compete with one another and compare our progress to that of other people. This is not a bad thing, but keep in mind the overall goal of any fitness program is to compete with and improve yourself for the long-term. This broad focus will allow you to suffer through the “bad days” that every active person experiences, and get back in the groove of regular physical activity so that the lifelong goal of health and fitness can continue to be realized. There will likely come a point as age affects performance, that maintenance of one’s fitness level is the goal, and the urge to push beyond previous fitness levels will no longer be the focus. Instead, keeping fit for one’s later years can be the primary goal in order to prevent or minimize the effects of disease and aging. Most importantly, feeling good, remaining healthy and having a full reserve of energy to engage in daily activities to enjoy your life to the fullest should be the focus for anyone of any age. May you live long, exercise and prosper.