Making It Easy to Get Fit

By: David A Fein, MD
Medical Director

We throw all sorts of obstacles in our own path that can make it hard for us to stay fit and healthy. Two of the most common mistakes we make are choosing the wrong kind of exercise and then setting rules for ourselves about when to exercise that make it almost impossible for us to fit regular activity into our daily lives.

Go into most fitness centers and you will see almost everyone doing the wrong thing. The twenty year olds are at the weight machines pumping iron to try to look buff on the beach. The 50+ crowd are on the treadmills and elliptical trainers running for their lives and trying to keep their cardio-fitness high. In fact, they should each be doing exactly the opposite.

When we are young it is relatively easy to maintain a high level of muscle mass. As we get older, the effects of declining hormone levels and increasingly sedentary lifestyles lead to gradual but steady loss of muscle mass. The average adult loses about 1/2 to 1 pound of muscle mass each year. By the time we reach age 60, many of us have lost almost half the muscle mass we had at 20. Don’t be fooled when the scale says you are the same weight you were when you got out of school. It is very likely much more fat and much less muscle.

Loss of muscle is a major contributor to the changes we perceive as aging. It is a major factor inthe difference between being 80 years old, still active and independent or shuffling down the hall with a walker to help hold you up. Loss of muscle mass leads to increased frailty, risk of falls and fractures, weight gain, diabetes and many other chronic illnesses.

So, as you get older, resistance exercise to build or maintain muscle mass becomes increasingly important. By the time you are in your 40’s, you should be starting to shift from aerobic exercise to about an even mix of resistance and aerobic activity. By your 50’s, you should be concentrating more on resistance exercises to build muscle than on aerobics.

You also need to beware of the unnecessary rules about exercise that prevent many of us from getting started on a fitness program.

Travel to many other parts of the world and you hardly ever see fitness centers outside of hotels that cater to Americans. For much of the rest of the world, walking is a major part of each day and physical activity is just a part of their lifestyle. Here, we rely on cars and other machines to get us to our destinations and once we get there we tend to sit down. The fitness center is mainly an American invention designed to give us a specific time and place to go for a dose of physical activity that is no longer a routine part of our day.

While a fitness center can be a very effective and enjoyable way for many of us to stay fit, for many more of us it becomes an obstacle to physical activity. Using a fitness center often entails spending time getting there, changing clothing and cleaning up afterwards in addition to the time spent actually exercising. Many of us just do not have the time available to spend an hour or more several times a week visiting a fitness center. Fortunately, it turns out there is no physiologic reason why exercise needs to be done 30 or 60 minutes at a time. The effects of physical activity are cumulative. For most people, aiming for about 150 minutes per week is a good guideline. But this can be done in any size increment. If you find it easier to exercise for an hour 2-3 times a week, then keep doing that. But if you think your schedule is too hectic to find that big a block of time, you can do just as well with 5 or 10 minute intervals of activity sprinkled throughout the day.

You can do 5 minutes of exercise before you get in the shower in the morning without losing much sleep time. Take a brisk walk in the middle of the day for 10 minutes. It will help to clear your head and reduce your stress. Very likely, you will find you are more productive for the rest of the afternoon which will more than make up for the few minutes of lost time. Find another 10 minutes in the evening to be active. Fitting 10 or 15 or 25 minutes of activity into each day can easily add up during the week. Combine it with a more extended period of physical activity on the weekend and you could see a significant difference in your overall fitness and health.

If you need to get more resistance exercise into your schedule, you don’t need fancy equipment. Push-ups can be an excellent and quick way to build upper body strength. Leg squats, lunges and wall sits can improve lower body muscle mass. For an even greater benefit you can use inexpensive and lightweight Resistance Bands. These are essentially short pieces of elastic cord with handles at each end. Resistance Bands provide the same effect as weight lifting but can easily fit in a carry-on bag or your office drawer.

Being physically fit also doesn’t have to take time away from your family. Get your spouse and your kids involved. There is nothing about exercise that requires using fancy equipment or expensive machines. Take everyone with you for a walk or a quick sports game outside after dinner. It’s an opportunity to get them off the couch, away from the computer or TV and help encourage a healthy lifestyle for everyone.

For more suggestions on fun activities that you can easily do while at home, work or in a hotel room, read The No Time, No Equipment Workout.