Better to hunt in fields, for health unbought,
Than fee the doctor for a nauseous draught.
The wise, for cure, on exercise depend;
God never made his work, for man to mend.
John Dryden, 1631-1700
Every time we pick up the newspaper or turn on the television another health-related study confronts us. One recent news story stated that the person of average health might coast comfortably into his or her fifties — with a little luck, even into the early sixties. Beyond that, the study found, those who retain physical health are those who obey a few common sense rules pertaining to a healthy lifestyle.
We all know most of the rules, we’ve heard them often enough. Stop smoking, eat sensibly, drink alcohol in moderation if at all, develop a healthy detachment from stress, and the one we all dread — exercise regularly.
And yet, according to a Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System prepared by the Centers For Disease Control and the American College of Sports Medicine to track those at risk for developing coronary heart disease, “… the U.S. remains predominantly a sedentary society.”
In other words, we Americans tend to sit around a lot more than adults in the rest of the developed world. Our technological age encourages inactivity. We have become an indoor people. Even when out of doors, we’re most often on wheels; enclosed in our transportable living rooms complete with surround sound stereo system, cellular telephone, year-round climate control and Corinthian leather bound easy chair. The longest walks we take — or are capable of taking — are the short walks from a parking lot to some nearby commercial destination.
The CDC’s 87,000-participant Behavior Risk study found that nearly 60 percent of all Americans are classified as sedentary — sedentary being defined as a person reporting no or only irregular physical activity. The numbers are higher for minorities, even higher among those in low-income brackets, and highest for those with less than a twelfth grade education. As age increases, the level of structured physical activity decreases; and beyond the age of 55, women become more sedentary than men.
Even if we admit that we don’t exercise enough, is exercise really beneficial? Will a regular workout contribute to a healthier life? Will a structured exercise program help us to keep disease and morbidity at bay?
The United States Public Health Service notes that regular physical activity is beneficial for the prevention and management of coronary heart disease, hypertension, non-insulin dependent diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity, and as a treatment for some mental health problems — including the clinical depression that we hear so much about today.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has found that regular physical exercise, at any age, is associated with lower blood pressure; that people who exercise vigorously are more likely to cut down or stop cigarette smoking; people at normal weight who exercise regularly are much less likely to develop adult onset diabetes; exercise also decreases a diabetics’ insulin requirements; and exercise can help the overweight lose extra pounds.
Add to all of the above an increase of energy level; a greater capacity for both work and leisure activities; greater resistance to stress, anxiety and fatigue; a better outlook on life; and increased stamina and strength, and we begin to wonder why more of us don’t exercise. In fact, the National Institute on Aging, in Don’t Take it Easy - Exercise! states that “… if exercise could be packed into a pill, it would be the single most widely-prescribed, and beneficial, medicine in the nation.”
But there are so many kinds of physical activity - which exercise is best for us? Which exercise “pill” will serve our individual health needs?
First understand that, to some degree, we already exercise. All movement is physical exercise. However, in today’s world of sedentary employment, labor saving devices and early retirement, it’s important to establish a certain level of conscious, structured movement — an exercise regimen — for fine tuning the physical body on a daily basis.
The traditional level of movement our ancestors experienced, the level of physical activity evolution has prepared our bodies to exist at, is no longer a daily element in our lives. And without a traditional level of vigorous movement the human body fails to adjust, lubricate, fuel and heal itself properly, effectively and efficiently.
Some of us object that we are too tired or too exhausted to exercise. In modern humans, exhaustion seldom originates in an excess of physical activity. More often the condition is one of lowered vitality due to a lack of physical conditioning. Simply put, we rust out from inactivity long before we wear out from excessive activity.
Conscious and measured exercise complements any lifestyle; but taking control of the natural movements we experience in our daily lives is an essential element in smoothing out the rough edges that lend to exhaustion. Vigor injected into movements that are often performed listlessly and carelessly establishes a positive psychological foundation upon which we can build a successful exercise routine.
According to A. H. Ismail, M.D., of Purdue University, “The personality in adults is a dynamic thing, not a static thing. There can be changes, and the changes that are produced through a fitness regimen are in a positive direction.”
Those who exercise perceive their own capacity for positive change. They develop a sense of success and mastery. As positive habits take root, patience naturally grows and, according to John Greist, M.D., a University of Wisconsin psychiatrist, they begin “… to substitute exercise for more negative and neurotic defenses and habits such as smoking, drinking, overeating and non-productive arguing.”
Perhaps most important, with coronary heart disease listed as the leading cause of death in the United States today, exercise reduces the risk of heart attack. According to the CDC, “The sedentary lifestyle is the most prevalent (58 percent) modifiable risk factor for coronary heart disease.” In other words, the single best thing that we can do for our hearts is to get up and move.
The National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute reminds us, however, that for any exercise to strengthen the cardio-vascular system it must be brisk, sustained, and regular. A brisk exercise raises the heart and breathing rate; sustaining an exercise requires that it be done at least 15 to 20 minutes without interruption; and regularity requires that a routine be practiced a minimum of three times each week.
The Institute also recognizes three distinct types of physical activity.
* Type 1 represents vigorous exercises that do condition the heart and lungs when done at least 15 minutes and at least three times each week; they include jogging, rowing, cross-country skiing, running in place and stationary cycling.
* Type 2 exercises can condition the heart and lungs if done briskly for 30 minutes at least three times each week; these include bicycling, swimming and walking.
* Type 3 exercises do not condition the heart and lungs. They include sports such as baseball, bowling and golf. Though these activities are not vigorous or sustained, they are still beneficial activities that improve coordination and muscle tone while helping to relieve tension.
Of course, ask anyone who exercises regularly and they will tell you with a certainty that their activity and their routine is the elixir leading to a long and a healthy life. Can so many be so right about so many different forms of activity?
Whatever exercise regimen you choose, there are common sense suggestions for those just beginning to a regular exercise program. First, check with a physician before beginning any exercise routine - especially those over the age of 60, those who have an existing disease or disability, and those who are taking maintenance medications.
Second, choose an activity you will enjoy. Performing an exercise routine only for its health benefits, but that you will not enjoy, only sets you up for failure.
Third, be sensible and begin slowly, being especially alert to unusual symptoms such as chest pains, shortness of breath, aching joints or muscle cramps. Call a doctor if any of these symptoms appear.
Warm up and cool down with stretching exercises. Stretching before exercise improves flexibility, a wise practice for the physically active at any age.
As strength and endurance improve increase your time, vary your routine and strive for a balanced program combining strengthening, stretching and aerobic exercises.
Finally, don’t wait. 2014 is a new year. It’s a great time to decide to take better care of yourself; and in the process become a health role model for friends and family. While you’re at it, enjoy yourself.