Tuesday, March 07, 2006

To Exercise or Not to Exercise

Why do some people exercise? Why don’t most people exercise? I have long contemplated these questions because I’ve been on both sides of the issue.

My Sojourn to Fitness
I spent my childhood actively trying to become the poster child for couch potato syndrome. I started dabbling in exercise as an overweight teen. In my early 20s I had some fairly long stints where I was relatively dedicated to exercising. After ballooning to epic proportions during my first year of marriage (well, I got up to over 30% body fat), I began exercising in earnest. For the past 18+ years I have rarely missed a day in my six-day-per-week routine.

My routine has taken different variations over the years. I spent over a decade doing 45-60 minutes of daily aerobic cardio training. I started out by doing fitness walking (basically, walking at a good clip). Eventually I transitioned to using a Nordic Track cross-country ski machine. I woreout one of those tough pieces of equipment. Then I was introduced to strength training. I have spent over six years doing strength training three times weekly and high-intensity cardio interval training on offsetting days. I change my strength training routine every two weeks and take various approaches to my cardio training.

What Kind of Exercise to Do
I’m not a fitness guru. I find something that I can live with and then stick with it. Jack LaLanne, now over 90 years old, advocates 2-3-hour daily routines as well as a complete makeover of your exercise routine every two months, because the body adapts to any routine. I suppose that’s fine if you can spend 100% of your time paying attention to your personal fitness. Can you say narcissism, children?

There has been a lot of discussion over the past several years regarding several studies showing that long aerobic routines actually weaken the heart. It’s not the 5K runs that cause the damage; it’s the ones in excess of 10K. Marathon runners are particularly susceptible. Our society has come to believe that marathon runners are incredibly healthy. Studies are showing that avid marathoners’ hearts are weaker than those of couch potatoes.

Other studies have revealed that low to moderate aerobic routines of 30-60-minute duration lower the body’s fatigue point, cause grumpiness, and coupled with a low calorie diet actually make it harder to lose fat. Bodybuilding advocates like touting the studies that show that strength training and shorter high-intensity cardio workouts optimally strengthen the heart and enhance lean body mass (see here and here for examples).

Why Do People Exercise?
But the major question I have is why some work out while most do not. Haven’t we all been told for years that we need regular exercise? This article suggests something that I have come to believe over the past several years; that any exercise routine must be something that the individual can live with. I do not believe that there is any one-size-fits-all routine.

Experts have told me that you’re headed for total failure if you don’t work out at a commercial gym. I hate going to commercial gyms. Exercise is a very personal experience for me, not a social one. Other people I know need to have the camaraderie of others to maintain any kind of regular routine.

The article I cited also suggests looking at exercise like a normal health routine, kind of like brushing your teeth. Nice analogy, except that tooth brushing is not nearly as onerous to most people as is exercising. I think that to make exercising work, you have to derive some kind of enjoyment from it. Exercise has become such a routine part of my life that I really feel strange if I miss a workout. I also believe I’m somewhat hooked to the release of endorphins I get when I work out. Still, there’s a Mr. Hyde part of me that sometimes makes me hate the idea of working out. But I never regret the workout when I’m finished.

I enjoy elements of strength training, but I hate the idea of running. If I have to think about running I get the same feeling most children get when thinking about eating Brussels sprouts. But I have friends who love running daily. Some of the most enjoyable workouts I have had were when I used to go fitness walking with my kids in our double jogger stroller through the roads in our local cemetery. (Yeah, I know that sounds weird, but there are some really cool headstones up there).

Why Don’t People Work Out?
But why don’t most people work out? Well, it’s a pain in the tail. It’s not seen as tremendously enjoyable. It takes time—preparation, working out, cleaning up, and maybe travel time as well. Many of us don’t know how to start or what to do. Most of the time, however, I think we’re not going to upset the status quo of our life unless something comes along and whacks us between the eyes. That is, I think we lack sufficient motivation.

I started working out because I gained a lot of weight over a short period of time, and the trend didn’t appear to be slowing down. I remained dedicated to working out, partially because of the endorphin fix I get from it, and partially because I developed Multiple Sclerosis. My theory is that being in better shape will diminish the deleterious effects of the disease. It’s great motivation. It’s amazing how the diagnosis of a serious disease can reorient your priorities.

I think that the medical industrial complex hasn’t helped either. The promotions of medical vendors and the medical technological advances of the last few decades make us feel that there will be some drug or miracle treatment available when some inactivity related malady eventually hits us. Never mind the cost or effectiveness of these treatments. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. No need to worry about it now.

Are Fitness Freaks Better Than Others?
Another odd thing is that despite my dedication to exercise, I don’t feel particularly superior to those that do not exercise. I see pros and cons to both ways of life. Sometimes I’m like a slave to my exercise routine, sacrificing important life moments to the god of physical health. The drive to focus on one’s individual health can prevent focusing on things that probably matter more. Sometimes the pursuit seems absurd. I’m reminded of the line in The Princess Bride where the evil Count Tyrone Rugen tells the murderous Prince Humperdinck, “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” Maybe I’ll have better ‘quality of life’ in my old age, but at what cost?

Obviously I believe that exercise is worth it, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. But would I do it if I weren’t dealing with a serious chronic illness? I’m not sure. I do believe that we all ought to make reasonable efforts to take care of physical health, but does that require regular workouts? If you’re among the great non-exercising hoard, there are ways to break into the ranks of the physically fit—if you want. But if you don’t want to, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.


Terrier Gal said...

If you are looking for information on walking for fitness check out http://walking-for-fitness.com

Anonymous said...

Funny, in a perfect world if I owned my own business I would hire only runners and the fitness-minded. If you go to any road race you will find a very small number of people who have had trouble with the law, use drugs, take welfare and other handouts, etc. Just the people I would want working for me.