We ask too little of our bodies

DEBORAH_044_sm.jpgGet moving! Or risk being “convenienced” to death.

For primitive man, constant motion from dawn until dusk was a way of life. Survival depended upon the ability to hunt, gather together as a clan, and to move with the seasons from one watering hole to the next. No debate raged over how much to rest, sleep, or not “wear your self out.” For every generation preceding the last two or three, existence has involved much more necessary movement than now—whether it meant mowing the lawn, bailing hay, walking across the country behind a Conestoga wagon, bringing in wood to heat the house, or scrubbing clothes in the basement and then carrying them out to hang on the backyard clothesline.

Modern life asks far too little of the body. The Industrial Revolution, with its factories, freight trains, and the automobile itself, brought about a slow but insidious decline in movement. Radio, television, and then cell phones and the Internet all lined up to hasten that slow decline into an all-out free-fall.

Babies and toddlers are as energetic as puppies, yet the primary goal of preschool seems to be teaching children to sit still so that they’ll be dutiful, focused students later on. Training for a seven-hour school day begins early. It takes a lot of work to retrain the body—wired as it is for movement—into inactivity. And unless we do something to reverse this, the scope in which we move will become smaller still as the years add up. As we age, there are no young children to run after, and many of us hire someone to cut the grass and shovel the snow. An entire day's work can be accomplished by moving only the fingers over a computer keyboard.

We get ... not lazy, but “convenienced” to death.

It will take discipline and effort to bring movement back into your life. We'veknown for decades how important movementis to health, yet some of us still think of ourselvesas exceptions to the rule. Hardly a day goes by without a startling new statistic confirming that exercise is the cure we'veall been waiting for. Personal experience has taught me that this one choice confers countless benefits, but I shall also cite some of the most recent studies in my attempt to persuade you. At my age I particularly enjoy using science as an opportunity to crow, "I told you so!"

One example comes from a January, 2010, article in The Wall Street Journal, summarizing data on the projected benefits of regular moderate exercise: diabetes would drop 50 percent; high blood pressure 40 percent; stroke 27 percent; recurrent breast cancer 50 percent; colon cancer60 percent; the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease 40 percent. And exercise can decrease depression as effectively as Prozac or behavioral therapy.

Art Kramer, a researcher whose studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign concluded that exercise improves memory, planning, dealing with ambiguity, and multitasking, says, "A year of regular exercise can give a 70-year-old the brain connectivity of a 30-year-old." Now that's a goal worth working for!

And the part I like the most? The cells of those who enjoy moderate exercise five times per week showed slower rates of aging compared to people of similar ages who were not as active. "Just 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week," asserts the May, 2010, issue of Consumer Reports on Health, "can help you lose weight, sleep better, ease hip and joint pain, have better sex, boost your mood, strengthen bones, prevent falls, ward off cancer, improve cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure." In other words, exercise does everything except turn the color of your hair dark again!

* * *

Enough said about exercise? I admit that the word exercise is a lot like the word dietloaded with prejudice and expectations of failure. This is what I do: Every time I hear the word exercise I replace it with the word oxygen. Oxygen is the key, enabling physical stamina, mental alertness, healthy cell composition, and a strong immune system. Oh, not to mention life itself. Depending on variables like altitude and temperature, you can live for several weeks without food and for days without water, but you can't live three minutes without oxygen. Most Americans are oxygen-deprived and become increasingly so as they age; studies abound on the connection between oxygen deprivation and dementia.

This is non-negotiable. Walk, cycle, swim, garden, play ball, lift weights or take tai chi, Pilates or aerobics classes—it makes little difference which you choose. Seek the exercise to which you are least allergic. Make it a habit, a reflex, something you do daily without question. Set your alarm clock thirty minutes earlier if you must. A half-hour spent exercising does far more for you than the last half-hour spent sleeping. And if, like me, daily movement doesn't come easy to you, sign up for a gym class or make a pact with a friend to go walking regularly.

What matters is that you get at least one hour of movement daily, which includes a half hour of accelerated exercise no less than three times a week. I don't have the guts to look at myself in the mirror when I'm washing my face and brushing my teeth before bed if I have failed to find one hour out of twenty-four to devote to movement. The investment of that hour is so small and the returns are so great.

Regular activity sends the message to my body that I'm still capable of doing what I did at 60 at age 92. Age is reflected in lifestyle. In fact, if you were to give me a running list of all of your physical activities for one week—and the speed at which you do them—I could probably guess your age.

Walking speed alone is an excellent predictor of longevity. "To find out how long you'll live, find out how fast you walk," was the lead in a January, 2011, article in Consumer Reports on Health. Try it: The next time you're walking down a busy street, notice how many people pass you by. If almost everyone is walking at a faster pace, it's time to step it up. I did this recently, and now make a concerted effort to keep up with the crowd. And I can.

In fact, the next time I’m walking down a sidewalk, I’m going to pass more than my fair share, and I hope you will too!

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