Life Balance Check, Part 3: Exercise
September 24, 2019
by Peter Amsterdam
Life Balance Check, Part 3: Exercise
I’d like to address the subject of exercise. I know this is not a new topic; there’s been a lot of buzz about exercise for the last few decades, and we have addressed it in earlier posts and publications. But recently, one of my coworkers did some research on exercise, and some of the points in that material were helpful for me. It gave me some new insight and boosted my conviction about exercise. So I’d like to share some of that with you, quoting a few articles and adding a bit of commentary.
The many benefits of exercise
We know exercise is good for us. Check out these comments:
Of all the things we as physicians can recommend for health, few provide as much benefit as physical activity. In 2015, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges put out a report calling exercise a “miracle cure.”1
Regular exercise is the only well-established fountain of youth, and it’s free.2
Over the past two decades, research has shown that exercise reduces the risk of heart attack, helps control weight, decreases inflammation, lowers the risk of developing diabetes and certain cancers, increases the chances of survival after a heart attack, lifts mood, slows the decline of sexual performance and prolongs independent living in the very old.
“It’s really hard to find something that is not improved with exercise,” said Michael J. Blaha, a preventive cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a researcher in the field. “Everyone can benefit from it. Even at higher age, when you’re at increased risk of dying, exercise is able to add time to your life.”3
The excerpts above provide a hefty list of the benefits of exercise. And there are more. Articles cite other medical studies that suggest that exercise can also:
- slow aging
- lower blood pressure
- improve sleep quality
- improve mental health, help relieve depression and anxiety
- help older people maintain short-term memory
- strengthen bones, reduce or even reverse bone loss
- contribute to a more attractive physique
- ease the pain and stiffness of arthritis
- reduce chances of heart attack or stroke
- boost work performance
This next article is particularly interesting:
When we think about the value of exercise, we tend to focus on the physical benefits. Lower blood pressure, a healthier heart, a more attractive physique. But over the past decade, social scientists have quietly amassed compelling evidence suggesting that there is another, more immediate benefit of regular exercise: its impact on the way we think.
Studies indicate that our mental firepower is directly linked to our physical regimen. And nowhere are the implications more relevant than to our performance at work. Consider the following cognitive benefits, all of which you can expect as a result of incorporating regular exercise into your routine:
- Improved concentration
- Sharper memory
- Faster learning
- Prolonged mental stamina
- Enhanced creativity
- Lower stress4
Not exercising is dangerous
Along with knowing how important exercise is and how many benefits it brings us, we also know there can be serious repercussions if we don’t exercise:
Chronic diseases and conditions—such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and arthritis—are among the most common, costly, and preventable of all health problems. …
Health risk behaviors are unhealthy behaviors you can change. Four of these health risk behaviors—lack of exercise or physical activity, poor nutrition, tobacco use, and drinking too much alcohol—cause much of the illness, suffering, and early death related to chronic diseases and conditions.—Chronic Disease Overview, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
If there are so many benefits to exercising and so many serious health risks from not exercising, and we have to admit this is not new information to us, then why do so many of us not exercise more and more regularly?
“How do I find the time?”
I’d say probably the number one excuse is that we think we don’t have time. We’re all busy. It can help to reframe it from a broader perspective:
What prevents us from exercising more often? For many of us, the answer is simple: We don’t have the time. In fairness, this is a legitimate explanation.
But let’s be clear: What we really mean when we say we don’t have time for an activity is that we don’t consider it a priority given the time we have available.
Instead of viewing exercise as something we do for ourselves—a personal indulgence that takes us away from our work—it’s time we started considering physical activity as part of the work itself. The alternative, which involves processing information more slowly, forgetting more often, and getting easily frustrated, makes us less effective at our jobs and harder to get along with for our colleagues.
Regardless of how you go about incorporating exercise into your routine, reframing it as part of your job makes it a lot easier to make time for it. Remember, you’re not abandoning work. On the contrary: You’re ensuring that the hours you put in have value.5
Those are helpful concepts. If we can reframe exercise as part of our job and realize that it helps us to do a better job, we will probably feel better about taking the time for it.
“I don’t like to exercise!”
Besides not having time, another thing that might keep many of us from exercising is that we just don’t like it. Maybe it’s boring. Or it could be that we’re out of shape, so it’s pretty miserable and not at all enjoyable. Naturally, if this is our frame of mind, we’re going to dread exercise. That leads to procrastination, excuses, and delays.
I found the following excerpt very encouraging. It provided new information for me that is motivational, and also some new ideas that made this challenge seem a lot more doable.
Michelle Segar directs the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan. …
Though it seems counterintuitive, studies have shown that people whose goals are weight loss and better health tend to spend the least amount of time exercising. Rather, immediate rewards that enhance daily life—more energy, a better mood, less stress and more opportunity to connect with friends and family—offer far more motivation, Dr. Segar and others have found.
“I like to think of physical activity as a way to revitalize and renew ourselves, as fuel to better enjoy and succeed at what matters most,” she said. …
Also important is giving oneself permission to make self-care through physical activity a priority. Dr. Segar wrote: “When we do not prioritize our own self-care because we are busy serving others, our energy is not replenished. Instead, we are exhausted, and our ability to be there for anyone or anything else is compromised.”
People who make physical activity a priority don’t necessarily have more time than others. Rather, they make sure to schedule time for it because they know it enhances their performance and the quality of their daily lives.
Citing a “paradox of self-care,” Dr. Segar wrote, “The more energy you give to caring for yourself, the more energy you have for everything else.”6
Everything counts, and it all adds up
Thinking of exercise as a means for revitalizing and renewing myself was motivating and invigorating. This next part of the article was also helpful, as it introduced a new concept that I had not considered—“everything counts, it all adds up.”
Instead of the recommended half hour a day or 10-minute doses of moderate exercise three times a day on most days, Dr. Segar suggests focusing on the idea that “everything counts”—taking the stairs instead of the elevator, weeding the garden, dancing, even walking to the water cooler.
“We should count any and every opportunity to move that exists in the space of our lives as valid movement worth doing,” she wrote.7
Let’s consider another person’s advice on the concept of “it all adds up”:
Here are five simple “Easy Wins” to be more active at work with little to no extra effort:
—Park your car as far away as possible in the morning (or if possible, walk to work).
—Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
—Ditch phone, email, and IMs, and actually walk to speak to your colleagues in the office.
—Walk during phone calls (I’ve gotten 7500+ steps on a single call).
—Step away from your workstation every hour and take a five-minute activity break.8
I think we could all think of various ways we could incorporate more “movement” into our daily activities. Let’s take some time to consider these ideas and make a plan that sounds practical and doable. It’s okay to start slow—just start! Don’t push it so much that it’s miserable or you risk injury. And remember, it will get easier. Then you’ll start to enjoy it.
And if you have a friend who can be your accountability partner, all the better. You could consider joining a team sport. Sometimes scheduled events with others create deadlines which make it easier to follow through. Or you can follow the principle that “whatever you put first gets done” and exercise first thing in the morning.
Sitting is the new smoking—the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle
One last bit of information that was eye-opening to me was about how dangerous a sedentary lifestyle can be. I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time sitting—working, reading, praying, studying, talking to others, watching movies, etc. You might have heard the term “sitting is the new smoking.” Here is a bit of information on this:
From the driver’s seat to the office chair and then the couch at home, Americans are spending more time seated than ever, and researchers say it is wreaking havoc on our bodies. The Los Angeles Times recently interviewed Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative and inventor of the treadmill desk. Levine has been studying the adverse effects of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles for years and has summed up his findings in two sentences.
“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.”
Levine is credited with coining that mantra—“sitting is the new smoking”—but he’s not the only one who believes it. Researchers have found and continue to find evidence that prolonged sitting increases the risk of developing several serious illnesses like various types of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Another reason the smoking analogy is relevant is that studies have repeatedly shown the effects of long-term sitting are not reversible through exercise or other good habits. Sitting, like smoking, is very clearly bad for our health, and the only way to minimize the risk is to limit the time we spend on our butts each day.9
There is much information available about the problems of sitting too much, and consequently I understand that standing desks are rapidly growing in popularity. That’s probably a good switch, although I haven’t tried it myself (yet) and it seems there is not conclusive evidence about how much better standing for long hours is than sitting, but many have concluded that the advantage to a standing desk is that when standing to work, you are more likely to move around, even just small movements.
Research findings indicate that excessive sitting is bad and even worse if it is accumulated in lengthy, uninterrupted bouts throughout the day. Any extended sitting—such as at a desk or behind the wheel—can be harmful. Spending a few hours a week at the gym or engaged in moderate or vigorous activity doesn't seem to significantly offset the risk. The solution seems to be less sitting and engaging in more movement overall.
You may be thinking, “But I work out several times per week.” The research shows that though exercise is good for you, it doesn’t negate the damage done by extended periods of sitting.
Professor Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center tells Men’s Health, “We see it in people who smoke and people who don’t. We see it in people who are regular exercisers and those who aren’t. Sitting is an independent risk factor.”
He further explains, “The cure for too much sitting isn’t more exercise. Exercise is good, of course, but the average person could never do enough to counteract the effect of hours and hours of chair time.”
As Katy Bowman, a scientist and author of the book: Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement, told Reuters: “You can’t offset 10 hours of stillness with one hour of exercise.”10
Here is another article about how regular movement is the key:
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women's heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York said, "The more we sit the worse it is. The longer the duration of sitting, the more negative the impact on our cardiovascular health."
Steinbaum said moving around every 30 minutes is recommended.
"The first time we do this, the positive effects are immediate," she said. "We need to pay more attention to moving.”
“If you have a job or lifestyle where you have to sit for prolonged periods, the best suggestion I can make is to take a movement break every half hour," said Keith Diaz, an associate research scientist in the Columbia University Department of Medicine. "Our findings suggest this one behavior change could reduce your risk of death.”11
Exercise and movement is a challenge for many of us, but for numerous reasons it is important that we do it. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The first wealth is health.”
If you have everything else but you are in poor health, due largely or in part to neglecting to take care of your physical well-being, it can spawn a number of problems over time, and then it diminishes your ability to enjoy life’s other blessings. Health is one of those blessings that requires that we intentionally invest in it. Granted, we are all getting older, and age is often accompanied by illness or health challenges. But we can do our part to keep ourselves strong and healthy, and we will benefit from that investment of time, energy, and discipline with an improved quality of life.
1 Aaron E. Carroll, “Closest Thing to a Wonder Drug? Try Exercise,” The New York Times, June 20, 2016.
2 Jane E. Brody, “Even More Reasons to Get a Move On,” The New York Times, March 2, 2010.
3 David Brown, “We all know exercise makes you live longer. But this will actually get you off the couch,” Washington Post, February 22, 2016.
4 Ron Friedman, “Regular Exercise Is Part of Your Job,” Harvard Business Review, October 3, 2014.
5 Friedman, “Regular Exercise Is Part of Your Job,” HBR, October 3, 2014.
6 Jane E. Brody, “Rethinking Exercise as a Source of Immediate Rewards,” The New York Times, July 20, 2015.
7 Brody, “Rethinking Exercise,” The New York Times, July 20, 2015.
8 Zach Arnold, “Sitting Is Killing You, But Standing Isn’t the Answer (And Neither is Exercise),” Optimize Yourself, https://optimizeyourself.me/sedentary/.
9 Diana Gerstacker, “Sitting Is the New Smoking: Ways a Sedentary Lifestyle Is Killing You,” The Active Times (Huffington Post), September 29, 2014, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-active-times/sitting-is-the-new-smokin_b_5890006.html.
10 “Sitting Is the New Smoking,” Start Standing (blog), July 7, 2019, https://www.startstanding.org/sitting-new-smoking/.
11 “Study: Sitting too long could lead to early death,” CNN, September 13, 2017, https://kdvr.com/2017/09/13/study-sitting-too-long-could-lead-to-early-death/.