Ask Not What Exercise Can Do For You
A stubborn mind bows to the weight of the evidence.
Photo by Aan Nizal for Unsplash
Let me start by confessing that I harbor a number of deep-seated prejudices against exercise. At some point during elementary school – probably about the time I got eyeglasses – I did an analysis of my assets and liabilities. It was clear that my main asset was my intellect, and my physical talents were two degrees north of hopeless. I wasn’t very good even at the sports I liked best, baseball and tennis. On that basis, I made the rational decision to go to my strength and concentrate on brain over brawn. I was that kid who, when others were outdoors running around and screaming, was content to stay in bed reading mysteries.
To this day I will not willingly set foot in a swim club, fitness center, or gym. This is undiagnosed PTSD that stems from traumatic events that occurred in boys’ locker rooms during darkest adolescence, and there is no more to say about that except that it demonstrated first-hand the terrors of Anarchy. The smell of musty jock straps still triggers me. Thus began a successful practice of avoiding athletic injuries by avoiding athletics. Also athletes.
On and Off the Record
Officially, my attitude toward exercise echoes the 19th century university president who said, “Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes away.”
But unofficially, having read the science, and with my imminent decrepitude just over the horizon, I have been forced to revise my opinion.
Just the Facts
It is hard to separate fact from hype, particularly on the Internet, but here are bits of scientific evidence that strike me as compelling:
1. An active lifestyle – walking, climbing stairs, movement – promotes an active, high-functioning mind. Exercise reduces memory loss for patients with Alzheimer’s. A six-month program of aerobic exercise significantly reduces cognitive decline.
2. Exercise involving the legs – walking, running, cycling, or weightlifting – is especially important, because the largest pump in the body is not the heart but the legs.
3. At a molecular level, exercise grows telomeres, the caps at the tips of chromosomes, which protect DNA from damage but shorten and fray as a cells age. In other words, exercise keeps cells more like those of younger persons.
4. Some studies find that both aerobic and resistance exercises have benefits. Others find aerobic exercise more beneficial. Some assert that strength and resistance exercises are key to guard against muscle loss, which may contribute to balance issues.
5. Moderate-intensity walking and vigorous-intensity walking are effective in reducing risks for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.
6. Owing to a slower metabolism and an unabated appetite, regular exercise for me is the difference between being slightly overweight and being mistaken for Jabba the Hutt.
My personal regimen is to ride an exercise bike for 45 minutes, six times a week. I also walk, except on days when it’s too hot, too cold, too humid, too rainy, or I just don’t feel like it. I’m averaging 5 to 8 miles per week on foot.
I’m also thinking about adding one feature to the routine: squats. One physician makes the case that the best defense against falls is a strong lower body. Falls are the leading cause of injuries after age 65, and especially after age 80. His recommendation is to practice standing from a sitting position without using your arms, and also practice sitting down (a controlled sit, not a collapse) without the arms. A few squats daily seems a small price to pay for avoiding spills.
So reluctantly I have come around to seeing the need to physical movement. But I urge you to cheerfully ignore all that pseudo-scientific garbage out there that says you must do at least xx minutes of cardio and xx repetitions of sit-ups to be fit. Relax. The science on this is very clear: Whatever you do helps. As the wise Texas musician Doug Sahm put it, “A little bit is better than nada.”
New Podcast Today
In other news, today I launched our latest podcast, an interview with Steven Petrow, the author of Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old. Bonus feature: Susie Kaufman offers an essay imagining her city-dwelling, middle-class father as a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer. Check it out!