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Thursday, October 1, 2020

Marginal exercise advice from a newbie

I have lots of patients who are incredibly fit. I have patients who have run marathons. I have a patient who rides in rodeos. I have patients who have completed Ironman Triathlons. And I have lots of patients for whom exercise has always been a part of their routine, a lifelong habit. Though I hope they still enjoy it, this post isn’t written for them.

This post is for people who don’t exercise, for people who either hate exercise or have never done it with any regularity. This post is for people who haven’t made the leap from exercising zero times a week to exercising a couple of times a week. In short, this post is for people just like me until about a decade ago.

I’m going to try to get you off your couch.

If you’re anything like me you don’t care your biceps or abs look like. You don’t particularly pay attention to your body, and you assume that your body will return the favor. You make a living with your brain, which means that you drive a desk or a laptop all day. As a kid you never fell in love with sports and you were never much of an athlete.

Now, if you have some chronic medical problems, like diabetes, or high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, then your doctor has already harangued you about exercising to get your sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol down. But let’s assume you have the luxury of good health (for now).

I believe that what will get you exercising regularly are the mental benefits of physical activity. If you’re a pointy-headed geek like me you need to know that exercise will help you concentrate better and think more clearly. It will improve your sleep and your energy. If you do cognitive work for a living, the improved efficiency will more than compensate for the time spent exercising.

If you have psychological illnesses, you should know that exercise will lower your anxiety and stabilize your mood. That doesn’t mean it’s a substitute for medications, but it means that it can help the medications work. I’ve had countless patients tell me that they rely on exercise to help lift their depression, blunt their mania, and calm their anxiety. I know myself that there’s no better way to silence pointless ruminations about an unpleasant event than to climb a hill on my bike.

The only challenge is getting started and persevering until exercise becomes a pleasant habit. I promise you that it will happen. To that end, I have two bits of advice. But remember, I’m not a coach or a personal trainer. Most of my posts are full of links to double blind studies and reviews of data. This post is just the musings of a middle-aged guy who grew up not exercising and now actually likes it.

My first bit of advice is to find the cardiovascular exercise you hate least. Walking is a terrific choice. You can do it almost anywhere, and Los Angeles has gorgeous hikes and walks within short drives from almost anywhere. I love biking and swimming because I can do them alone or with friends. I don’t enjoy running (yet) but some patients and colleagues persuaded me to give running a try. I love the efficiency of it; you can put your shoes on, leave your front door, and have a very hard work out in 30 minutes.

My second bit of advice is to do some kind of exercise almost every day. Doctors will tell you to exercise three times a week to get the cardiovascular benefit. But it’s hard to have a three-times-a-week habit. We don’t do things three times a week. It’s much easier psychologically to do something every day, or at least every weekday. Then, it’s just like brushing your teeth or getting dressed or going to the office. It’s routine.

I know you don’t think you have time. I know when you have a stressful week you’ll be very tempted to skip exercise. But I also know that after a month you’ll look forward to it, you’ll feel better after you do it, and you’ll realize that the rest of your day is calmer, more focused and more organized because you force yourself to elevate your heart rate for 30 minutes daily.

Last weekend I ran my first race, a 10K. My time was abysmal, but my goal was only to run the whole thing without walking, and by that measure I succeeded. This is not bragging. Any serious runner has a much faster time on a 10K race than mine. It’s the opposite of bragging. It’s insisting that if I can do it, you can too.

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