BY FREYA Q. SCHAFER, PH.D
Do you feel anxiety or dread about the upcoming holidays? Does holiday shopping and preparation fill you with stress?
But one of the most potent forms of medicine isn’t something you can buy at a pharmacy or get at the doctor’s office. No one else can give you this medicine or perform its magic for you. It’s movement, simple physical activity, that can have profound healing effects. And it’s something only you can do for yourself.
“Exercise is medicine” has become a popular slogan among health and fitness professionals. In Healing Moves: How to Cure, Relieve and Prevent Common Ailments with Exercise, we explore the latest scientific findings about exercise’s therapeutic power and present nine programs to help treat a wide range of common medical conditions, including diabetes, depression, asthma, arthritis, high cholesterol, heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer.
In many ways, movement is an ideal medicine. It’s extremely effective, free (or at least inexpensive), low risk, abundantly available, socially acceptable, and simple to do. When compared to traditional treatments, such as drugs and surgery, it’s generally safer—and has no negative side effects.
Unfortunately, most adults approach movement with the same aversion they express towards a hypodermic needle or the awful-tasting medicine we sometimes have to swallow to “feel better.” As children we didn’t feel this way about moving our bodies. Kids typically view physical activities like skipping, jumping, and running as exciting play to be enjoyed.
That’s why we emphasize the importance of making movement fun, taking the “work” out of workout and viewing exercise as enjoyable play. But even with this attitude adjustment, becoming active in our sedentary society can be a challenge. In our hyper-busy, car-oriented culture, barriers to exercise abound. It’s not uncommon for neighborhoods to have no sidewalks or bike paths, for buildings to prohibit the use of stairs, for parks and playgrounds to be unsafe, and for electronic devices to automatically do everything from open doors to compact trash. Long workdays, difficult commutes, and family obligations leave many Americans chronically exhausted, with little energy for anything more demanding than channel surfing.
We’re not saying that becoming fit and healthy is easy. But with the right attitude and the proper information, it can be fun. In fact, the time you spend moving is generally repaid in full by the energy, relaxation, and pleasure that physical activity brings. Daily movement is much more than a health responsibility, like brushing your teeth. It’s a pleasurable, precious gift that you can give yourself. Taking 30 minutes each day to be present in your body, to breathe deeply, and to propel yourself through space is one of life’s great joys, enriching body, mind, and spirit.
To help you become—and stay—physically active, here are nine simple steps.
1. Recognize that your body needs movement to be healthy. We know that when we’re hungry we should eat, and when we’re tired we should sleep. But when we get stiff, achy, and sluggish, we generally don’t recognize these signals as cues that our body craves movement. Instead, we misinterpret them as a need for rest, which makes us stiffer, achier, and even more sluggish. In our sedentary society, many adults have smothered their body’s natural “move me!” impulses and have forgotten that exercise is essential to health. So instead of always living in your head, learn to take your awareness of out your mind and into your body, so you can recognize the signals it sends you.
2. Make the active choice. In general, when you’re faced with the choice of moving more or moving less, move more. For example, if you approach an escalator alongside a staircase, choose the stairs. If you have a choice between a leaf blower or a rake, choose the rake. Get rid of the negative mindset of trying to expend as little energy as possible and adopt a “pro-active attitude” that eagerly looks for opportunities to move: Park in the farthest spot, walk to the store, turn off the TV and dance.
3. Make a commitment to movement. Design your own personal physical activity program, based on movement you enjoy, and schedule it into your week.
4. Understand the importance of attitude. If you say, “I can’t,” you won’t. Belief in your ability to achieve your goals is one of the most important predictors of success.
5. Avoid sitting for prolonged periods. Whenever you must sit for an extended length of time, take regular stretch breaks and quick “walk-abouts.”
6. Consider an exercise buddy—human or canine. People who exercise with a partner are more likely to stick with their program. Friends and family members make great activity buddies, or you can avoid the “human hassles” by walking with a dog.
7. Strive for balance. While it’s important to keep moving, it’s also crucial to strike a healthy balance between exercise and rest. As with any medicine, it’s possible to overdose on movement by doing too much. How much is too much varies widely, depending on your health status and fitness level. In general, it’s better to do a modest amount of movement daily rather than knock yourself out with a big bout of exercise once a week.
8. Remember that doing something is better than doing nothing. Many people think that if they don’t have at least 30 minutes to exercise it’s not worth moving. Not true! Five minutes of calisthenics, three minutes of stretching, a two-minute walk, even a 30-second deep breath all can contribute to better health.
9. Find the joy. Let go of thinking how you’re going to look from the exercise you’re doing today, and just go outside—or inside—and play.
“If exercise could be packed into a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed, and beneficial, medicine in the nation.”
—Report from the National Institute on Aging