Visit Sally Dick, a naturopath and physician in Windber, Pennsylvania, and you’re more likely to get a prescription for exercise than one for a pill. She’s among a maverick group of physicians who not only are convinced that regular exercise may be the most important thing you can do for your health, but who make that belief a cornerstone of their practice.
“I tell all of my patients that without a lifestyle that includes exercise, nobody can truly be well,” says Dick, who is staff physician at Windber Medical Center’s integrative medicine department. She sits down with every single patient who comes to see her and, after diagnosing any particular problems, comes up with a lifestyle plan in which exercise is a major component. “I try to get a feel for what each patient is all about and how they can incorporate some form of exercise into their life,” she says. “Then I send them off with a plan and we reconnect in a week or two to see how it’s going.”
An exercise plan? Reconnect in a week or two? My own doc recently sent me off with a Lipitor prescription for my high cholesterol without even mentioning the word exercise. And the only time I will be reconnecting anytime soon is to see if the drug he prescribed is wreaking havoc with my liver.
My experience with mainstream medicine is not unusual in a country where 3 billion prescriptions were dispensed last year, up from 2 billion a decade ago. As Steven Findlay, a health policy analyst in Washington, says, “We love our medicines.” So much so, he says, that we use them as a substitute for a healthy lifestyle. “Most of us don’t routinely eat wholesome foods, manage our weight, or stay active.” This, even though reams of studies have piled up to show that such choices can help prevent or treat most of the biggest causes of disease, disability, and death in this country.
Exercise, in fact, can stave off heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, for starters, not to mention less dire but still troublesome conditions like arthritis, PMS, depression, and memory problems. When you exercise, everything works better: Your heart pumps faster and you breathe more rapidly, delivering oxygen-rich blood throughout your body and toning up your organs for optimum performance. Weight-bearing exercise not only builds muscle, it jump-starts metabolism, which can help keep weight and blood sugar in check. It can also stimulate bone growth and strengthen connective tissue, thus reducing the chances of osteoporosis.
“Exercise is, hands down, the single best thing you can do for your health,” says Sally Dick. If it’s so important, why aren’t more doctors pushing us to do it? After all, studies have shown that a nudge from someone in a white coat can make a big difference.
Unfortunately, most mainstream doctors are just as harried as the rest of us. “During any patient visit, most of us are really pressed just to address what the patient came in for,” says Rebecca Meriwether, a physician in the department of family and community medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans. “It’s often the preventive advice, like exercise, that gets left out.” Then, too, doctors get weary of recommending something that many patients have a hard time following through on.
If your doctor is alternative-minded, like Sally Dick, you’re much more likely to get help in making exercise a priority. But in the absence of such a physician, you have to take matters into your own hands. Easier said than done, of course. But if you talk to people who’ve managed to make exercise a regular part of their lives, over and over you’ll hear the same story: The key isn’t to suddenly join a gym or invest in thousands of dollars’ worth of exercise equipment and hope for the best. You have to do some hard thinking about why you haven’t been able to make exercise a habit, and what you could do to address your particular obstacles.
Any five people who asked themselves these questions would likely come up with different answers—and that’s the point. No single approach does the trick for everyone. “Everybody has his or her own prescription for exercise,” says Dick. “Some people need a friend, some need the exercise to be competitive, and some need a solitary walk around the block. Finding the right activity for you is half the battle.”
I’ve seen this firsthand with my daughters, both of whom exercise regularly in spite of their sedentary mom. For my 13-year-old, who is an introvert, walking on the treadmill is just what she needs to refuel after a day spent navigating the social pressures of middle school life. On the other hand, my 11-year-old spends six days a week in the company of 25 other children who are part of a dance ensemble that performs all over the world. She thrives on the camaraderie, the connections, and the energy of it all.
In the face of such inspiring role models, I find that I can’t stay a slug any longer. I have decided not to wait for my doctor to discover the health benefits of exercise and to write my own prescription instead.
My biggest hurdle is a lack of time, followed closely by my own laziness. But modern life also conspires against me. Being the mother of two busy kids puts me behind the wheel of the car for a big chunk of each day, and unfortunately, my neighborhood has no walking-friendly sidewalks.
After much searching, I have found two promising possibilities. The first is that I’ve decided to join Curves, a national chain of women’s health clubs. The “no men, no mirrors” atmosphere is very appealing, and the 30-minute workout is a quick combination of strength training and individualized aerobics that’s interesting and challenging enough that I might even be able to stick with it.
I’m also starting to count the number of steps I take during my regular daily activities. This is one time I can be thankful that my washer and dryer are in the basement, because the trip up and down makes my pedometer keep on clicking. I’ve already walked 6,000 steps today and I haven’t even left the house! (A sedentary person takes an average of 3,000 steps a day; 10,000 steps, which is about five miles, is considered moderate to vigorous exercise.) I am concentrating on Dick’s advice to start small and let things go from there. I’m hoping that as I continue, exercising won’t feel like such a huge effort on my part, that it will become self-sustaining.
What’s motivating me? My active daughters don’t know it, but my vision is to become one of those annoying mothers who later in life is often mistaken for their sister. Well, older sister. It’s a dream anyway. And there’s nothing wrong with a little fantasy if it keeps you counting the steps.
How Much Exercise is Enough?
As with many good things, more is better than less, and a little is much, much better than none at all.
To reduce your risk of many chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, most experts agree that you need to move around for 30 minutes most days of the week. Whichever aerobic activity you choose—brisk walking, swimming, cycling—it should be vigorous enough to make you a little breathless, so that it’s an effort to talk. Happily, you don’t have to do it all at once to reap the health benefits: Three ten-minute bouts a day yield equally positive results.
The Surgeon General also recommends you do some sort of strength training at least twice weekly, including one or two sets of 8 to 12 repetitions for the major muscle groups. Stretching should also be part of your regimen, to stave off injury and keep you supple.
As you get fitter, you’ll be able to push your limits. A daily 60-minute workout that mixes aerobic, strength, and flexibility exercises is recommended for optimal health by the Institute of Medicine. But there’s really no upper limit. You may be surprised at how far your body can take you.
By Anne Krueger