EXERCISE: A PROGRAM YOU CAN STAY ON By Brian Northgrave (Article)


Brian Northgrave

Only since WWII have the benefits of exercise started to be understood. It has now been proven to prevent heart attacks, to prolong life, to prolong quality of life, to reduce risks of cancer, diabetes, depression and more. An expert recently said that exercise is the best treatment for, or to defer, dementia.

We know all this, but we know that we now have, for the first time, a society that is fundamentally sedentary.

Beginning in fairly recent times, people do not have to exercise in their daily lives, so the problem becomes, "how do you get people to do "gratuitous" exercise".

Governments should be interested in encouraging people to exercise. We read about "an epidemic of childhood obesity" and that investing in increasing sports facilities, exercise programs, could save public health service dollars. In these harder economic times, however, such expenditures face considerable opposition, so people are basically on their own when it comes to having an exercise program.

I will argue the benefits of doing strenuous exercise. But any exercise program is good. In fact, the best line I have read is that "the best exercise program for you is the one you can get yourself to do." One reason I like that quote is that it captures the idea that an exercise program is not something we "like" to do, it is something we have to get ourselves to do."

But why is that? Why should exercise not be fun? Are all those advertisements of the fitness centres, those smiling girls on the treadmills, are they misleading? Frankly, yes. The managers of those centres will admit that the clients, who expect exercise to be fun, disappear soon after they start their programs.

We are not programmed for "gratuitous" exercise. Our ancestors survived because they were programmed to hunt, to protect their offspring, to procreate. But if Grog, instead of going out to kill a deer, or throw a spear into an attacker, told the members of his tribe that he was going out to for a run, "just to keep in shape", they would have kicked him out of the cave. If you can only hope to live to 40, physical exercise not related to survival would not enter your mind, or your genes.

So, if you take up an exercise program, your body will be fighting you every step of the way, every day. Your body will never stop telling you "you should be using what energy you have to kill that deer or to procreate." We are much more ready to play sports, because they are similar to the contests that allowed our ancestors to survive. Running is a good example. We have the big buttocks, unlike our cousins the chimps, because our hunting ancestors were used to running down game. So it seems more natural for us to go out for a run, than pump on an exercise bike.

Perhaps recognizing how un-natural it is for us to have an exercise program will make it easier to face up to our natural resistance to do gratuitous exercise.

So, hopefully you will be encouraged to take up an exercise program. If you do, keep telling yourself that "the best exercise program for me is the one that I can make myself do." Don't be too ambitious, start modestly. One friend limited himself to just ten minutes on an exercise bike a day, and rejoiced in the benefits, even with more than just the occasional day off.

But this is an article on the benefits of vigorous exercise, a program that makes you sweat. It was Jerry Morris who first proved that vigorous exercise had major health benefits. As a health researcher after WWII, he studied how health outcomes were related to occupations. The break-through came when he studied London busmen. Whether they were drivers or ticket collectors on the double-deckers, they came from the same economic, social backgrounds. But Morris, who had studied postmortem portfolios of the London Hospital from 1907 to 1949, found that health outcomes, the longevity, of the bus drivers and the ticket collectors, varied markedly. The sedentary bus drivers were, for example, twice as likely to have an early heart attack as the ticket collectors who were climbing between 500 and 750 steps each day. The findings were confirmed with postal workers, the healthier postmen, compared to the clerks who sat all day. But it had to be vigorous exercise. When Morris looked at the statistics of retired bureaucrats, he found that the active gardeners' health outcomes did not differ from the non-gardeners. When Morris finally published his studies in the early 1950's they were disputed, but since then more and more benefits are attributed to vigorous exercise.

Morris, in a 2009 interview (he was to have his 100th birthday later that year), pointed to the main problem. We know now of the importance of exercise, but how to get people to do it, how do we make it easier to start and stay on a program. Certainly the great majority of people are not on a regular program.

After you get your exercise shorts and shoes, then buy a heart monitor (only the ones with chest straps seem to work well). Then, googling heart rates/ages, and talking to your doctor, get an idea of what should be the heart rate range that you would like to exercise in. Perhaps it is between 110 and 120 beats per minutes.

Then decide the exercise activity that will get your heart beating in that range. Maybe gradually you will be able to jog, or spin, and get in that range. I, at my advanced age, harken back to Morris' ticket collectors and do something that is now called "interval training". I do sets of runs/jogs of one or two minutes on a treadmill, with intervals of walking. I gradually increase the speed of the treadmill to get my heart rate to the top of the target range. At the beginning, there might be just a few seconds between sets, but at the top of the target range it will take 30 or 40 seconds for the heart rate to fall to the lower level of the range. A great benefit of this approach is that, as you get your heart rate up higher, you "win" more of the easier walking time - the prize - before you have to start the next set of runs/jogs.

Some closing points to re-enforce. Never forget that "the best exercise program for you is the one you can get yourself to do - whatever it is!" And remember that the biggest challenge is to get yourself back on the program when, inevitably, for whatever reason, you fall off it. So always set modest objectives, so that it is easier to re-start your program.

Tags: Brian Northgrave