Exercise to Extend Your Healthy Years

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Today, I’d like to ask you to do me a favor. As tempting as it may be to avoid any discussion of exercise, I’m asking that you hang in there and read the rest of this newsletter. One of my highest priorities as a physician is to dispel the myths and excuses that keep people from exercising, so they can discover one of the most powerful health improvement tools we have.

A vast body of research shows that movement is the closest science has come to finding the Fountain of Youth. Exercise helps us maintain a healthy weight; improves circulation; and fights depression, stress, anxiety, and so much more. Despite all that, too many people avoid exercising. As a result, experts estimate that sedentary lifestyles are responsible for about the same number of deaths each year as smoking. Imagine having a way not only to extend your healthy years, but to improve quality of life right at your fingertips — and not using it. That’s what happens when we choose a sedentary lifestyle over being active.

But I’m not here to guilt trip you into training for a marathon. In fact, the news I have to share is quite the opposite. Research is showing that you can be in shape and healthy with a very small investment of time and effort.

Russ is an excellent illustration of how a small amount of activity can change a person’s life for the better. I met Russ several years ago, when he was a fit and trim 64-year-old. Russ was looking forward to retiring from his job as a financial planner so he could spend more time sailing and playing golf and tennis. Russ came in with a minor digestive problem, which we took care of easily. But the next time I saw him, Russ hobbled into the examining room with a walker, clearly in pain.

As it turned out, Russ had been involved in a serious car accident right after retiring. Although he survived, his pelvis and several ribs had been broken, one lung was punctured, and he had a concussion. Months later, the bones had healed and the lung was functional, but Russ was a disaster. His muscles had atrophied from spending so much time in recovery, to the point that he was weak as a kitten. In fact, he was so weak, he needed help lifting himself onto the examining table.

For a man who was accustomed to playing a few games of tennis, plus 18 holes of golf two or three times a week and taking his sailboat out on weekends, his condition was devastating. As Russ told me, “I’ve gone from a dynamo to a dud. I feel so old and burned out now. My boat’s for sale, and I’m giving the golf clubs to my son-in-law. At least they’ll get some use with him.”

Russ had come to see me because all the pain medication he was taking caused stomach problems. We talked about how he could wean himself off of the pain meds. But that was a relatively easy fix compared to the real problem Russ was facing. “You said your orthopedic surgeon gave you a clean bill of health. Why don’t you start working out again?”

“Working out? I can barely walk across a room,” he complained.

I know how Russ felt. Having had surgery a few times myself, I’m well aware of the helpless feeling that comes during the healing phase. But that was over, and it was time for Russ to get up and get moving again. Convincing him was another matter. But finally, after I told him about new research on the most effective exercise methods, Russ agreed to at least give it a try. Here’s a summary of what we discussed. Maybe you’ll find it as motivating as Russ did.

No Time is No Excuse

One of the most exciting areas of research these days is the focus on high-intensity interval training (HIIT). In spite of the technical sounding name, HIIT is based on a simple premise — alternating short, fast bursts of activity with slower paced movement to get fit with very little time and effort.

Interval training has been around for many years, but recent developments have sparked interest among health professionals. That’s because interval training has been shown to increase the levels of hGH. Levels of hGH diminish as we age. A few years ago, hGH was in the headlines because some celebrities and athletes were using injections to counteract the effects of aging. But injections are not only controversial and risky — they’re expensive. Supplements are another option, but hGH can also be produced by the body during exercise, specifically by short, intense interval training sessions and resistance exercise.

In an earlier newsletter, I wrote a bit about two new studies showing that even very short exercise sessions — 10 minutes three times per week, with brief bursts (10, 20, or 30 seconds) of going “all out” — were beneficial. Those results are supported by other clinical trials with similar results. In one, researchers compared the effects of high-intensity cycling (five one-minute “all out” bouts with three minutes to recover between each one, for a total of 20 minutes) with 45 minutes of non-stop cycling. The results showed that the very short, intense bursts were just as effective as one long session in terms of improved fitness markers.

I’m thrilled with this research, because so many patients dismiss exercise suggestions with justifications like, “I’m too busy,” or “I don’t have time.” We’re all busy and strapped for time, but if you can’t find a few minutes every other day to provide your body with all the benefits of exercise, then maybe you’re not looking hard enough. Even with my full schedule of 10- to 12-hour days, I manage to squeeze in 20 minutes of high/low intensity “jogging” on my mini-trampoline most mornings, and I’m certain you can do it, too.

Ten Thousand Steps to a Healthier You

Obviously, Russ was not ready for high intensity workouts, even brief ones. Like many sedentary individuals, he needed to work his way up to that level of activity. That’s why I suggested he buy an inexpensive pedometer and begin a walking program. The ultimate goal would be for him to take 10,000 steps each day. Studies have shown that 10,000 steps is an achievable, effective goal for most people. Meeting that goal not only provides many of the exercise benefits of more challenging workouts, but also helps otherwise inactive people get moving. As someone who had spent decades meeting goals in the financial arena, Russ liked the idea of using a goal-measuring gadget to track his activity level. “Now this I can do,” he said proudly. “I may not get very far, but it’ll be better than nothing.”

Resistance is Not Futile

If you’re really serious about improving your overall health, I highly recommend adding a couple days of resistance training each week. Interval training and/or walking are excellent ways to get activity into your day, and resistance training is the best way to take fitness to the next level.

Resistance training is similar to working out with weights in that it builds muscle. Don’t worry about turning into a Schwarzenegger clone; it’s not going to happen with resistance bands or five-pound weights. But there are a few good reasons to strengthen your muscles. Firstly, strong muscles help protect against the frailty that comes with age. Muscles provide support for your bones, decreasing the risk of falls and broken bones. Between the ages of 50 and 80, the average person loses 30 percent of his or her muscle mass each year, and, typically, that lost muscle is replaced by fat. But that process can be countered with resistance training.

The second reason to take up resistance training is this: muscle burns more calories than fat, even at rest. Of course, muscle also weighs more, so don’t be surprised if weight reduction seems slow. But keep in mind that 30 minutes of weight training jumpstarts your metabolism for hours afterward and interval training has similar results. Aerobic exercise, on the other hand, burns calories only while you’re doing it.

Just keep in mind that, as your muscles strengthen, weight will be redistributed. As muscles develop and your shape changes, you may notice that your snug clothes fit better, a welcome change for many of us! So don’t get hung up on what the bathroom scale tells you, because that’s only part of the story.

Using resistance bands is an affordable, low-tech method of building strength. If you search online for “resistance bands,” you’ll find plenty of choices. Most of these come with an instructional DVD or booklet, showing you how the bands work. They take up almost no room and weigh next to nothing, so you can easily take them on trips. I have two sets, one for home and one in my suitcase, ready to go, so I never have an excuse to avoid exercising. Other good choices for resistance training are strap-on weights for legs and free weights for building the arms.

Whey To Go

Whey protein is a blend of several proteins derived from milk. It’s an inexpensive ingredient to add to things like smoothies, with the added bonus of being easily and quickly digested. I often recommend whey protein to patients interested in reducing weight, because it can be blended with juice or a plant-based “milk” (like almond, coconut, or rice milk) to make a delicious, filling smoothie that many people say dampens their appetite.

In addition, when taken after a resistance exercise session, whey protein improves muscle strength. If you’re interested in rebuilding your body with stronger muscles and less fat, whey protein is worth a look.

Creating Better Muscles with Creatine

If you’ve ever spent time in a store that sells vitamins, you’ve probably noticed that there are literally dozens of products designed for body builders and athletes. One of the few I would recommend is creatine. This compound has proven itself in hundreds of studies. It’s safe, reasonably priced, and known for enhancing muscle in conjunction with resistance training. As a bonus, creatine also improves cognitive performance in older individuals, making it a real win-win nutrient. Follow the dosage instructions on the product you choose.

There’s so much more to say about activity and health, so I’ve barely scratched the surface. In future newsletters, we’ll talk about how to stay motivated, avoid injuries, move beyond plateaus, and maximize results. I’ll also bring you breaking news about developments that can improve your experiences. For now, I’ll just say that I hope you’ll explore one or more of the many activities that are available to new and seasoned fitness enthusiasts alike. I promise you there is something you’ll enjoy and once you find it, you’ll be glad you did. As Russ mentioned the last time I spoke with him, “I’m really glad you convinced me to get going again. It took a while, but it was worth it. You should see the expression on those young guys’ faces when I go out on the links and show them how it’s done!”

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