Making exercise a regular habit was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It is right there behind marrying my husband…or more specifically, saying yes to that first blind date when I wrote my phone number on a Gap coupon I dug out of my purse. Number two would be having my kids during medical training (I’ve blogged about this before. Learning to doctor while learning to be a mom helped me define my career and personal goals before accepting my first “real” job in a way that protected me against burnout).
Lacing up my sneakers and setting out for my first run in 2006 definitely ranks third on my list of best decisions ever. Despite growing up in an athletic family, sports were never my thing, not that it stopped me or my parents from trying to find a good fit. Santa’s list wouldn’t be long enough to document all the sports I tried and failed: baseball, soccer, softball, floor hockey, softball again, swimming, tennis and basketball. In college I even had a brief stint as a division 1 NCAA athlete. I joined the crew team in an attempt to make friends and get in shape. This adventure lasted about eight months; I only accomplished my first goal and the college weight gain came anyway.
Eighty percent of American adults are “insufficiently active,” according to “The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans” released in the November 12, 2018 issue of JAMA. The authors give guidance on the minimum amount of exercise weekly for each age group: young children, school aged children and adolescents, adults, older adults and pregnant woman. They recommend adults get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, along with 2 days of muscle-strengthening activities weekly. Think walking for an hour five days or doing a long run three days weekly plus a day or two of yoga or weights.
Exercise has huge health benefits independent of its impact on weight loss. Actually, exercise alone is not a great way to lose weight unless you are truly starting from scratch. Along with a balanced diet, exercising regularly helps you maintain a healthy weight. As a primary care doctors, I talk about eating patterns and exercise routines daily, doing my best to inspire all my patients to add more physical activity into their lives.
For me, I found my sweet spot in running. Twelve years ago, I was spending all day studying for a big med licensing test called “Step 1.” This test is akin to the biggest regents exam, testing us on everything we learned in med school in the first two years. A friend I studied with would take break to run midday. I thought, “Why don’t I try running?” And I did. I ran to our local cemetery, chest tight, breathing heavy and convinced that I had asthma. Over the next decade, I went from huffing and puffing after a mile to running half marathons. I run because I love it. I love it so much that I actually get jealous when I see other people running on beautiful days, even if I’ve already done my run. I love running new cities, with favorite routes on DC’s National Mall, along the stunning rivers in Pittsburgh, on the Vegas strip and traversing Toronto’s gorgeous waterfront.
Parent with young kids? Again, go back to #1. Marry someone for whom exercise is as important to them as it is to you. Or embark on a journey together, supporting each other with dedicated time to exercise. Just like we discuss with smoking cessation or healthy eating, when your spouse adopts the same habit, you are more likely to be successful in your health promoting endeavor. Single, no kids at home or retired? Please look for time in your day to add in exercise. Like it or not, you are stuck in this body you have for the rest of your life. Treat it well. Preserve it. You will be a much happier camper decades from now if you establish a strong exercise routine now. Start small. I’d like to leave you with this quote from the JAMA commentary on “The Physical activity Guidelines for Americans.”
“Probably the most important message from the 2018 guidelines is that the greatest health benefits accrue by moving from no, to even small amounts of, physical activity, especially if that activity is of moderate (eg, brisk walking) or vigorous (eg, jogging and running) intensity. Multiple studies demonstrate that the steepest reduction in disease risk, such as for coronary heart disease, occurs at the lowest levels of physical activity. Patients need to understand that even small amounts of physical activity are beneficial and that reductions in the risk of disease and disability occur by simply getting moving.”