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, sends them off with a plan and we reconnect in a week or two to see how it’s going.
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.
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. The biggest hurdle to exercise that most people face is a lack of time, followed closely by your own laziness.
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Start by counting the number of steps you take during your regular daily activities. 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. So put some practices in to adding some teps.
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