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How I Exercise

With a title like that, I fully understand if you have an urge to hit the delete key. You endured a health tip a few weeks ago about my colonic, and I do applaud your strength for that. But now, having read in this week’s American Medical News that the US is the unhealthiest among 17 affluent countries (a situation caused by obesity, lack of exercise, and lack of access to health care), I sense there’s an opportunity for me to do some serious badgering while you’re enjoying your coffee.

Since the article was directed to physicians, there were some (pretty lame) suggestions about what the profession could do to “advocate for wellness.” Leaving colorful brochures for patients to read and take home, one doctor’s idea of supporting good health, is unlikely to affect longevity. After decades as a primary care physician, I can attest that when a doctor hands a patient instructions with suggestions for weight loss, the only thing that’s usually lost are the instructions.

Not long ago I wrote a health tip on the supplements I take daily. As you may surmise, regular exercise is (a) definitely more challenging than swallowing supplements and (b) long proven to be truly beneficial in preventing chronic illness and promoting longevity. Supplements, useful as they are, simply can’t hold a candle to exercise.

After reading the grim statistics about our national health I said to myself, “By golly, I’m going to encourage readers by example.” Why not? If I, alter kocker that I am, can exercise, then surely so can you!

Start by understanding how much exercise is needed for good health. Obviously, a little more is better than less, but you don’t want to get too obsessive. Life offers other pleasures, like reading and eating. The current recommendation is simple enough. Here’s Mayo Clinic: 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity (brisk walking, swimming) or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity (jogging, aerobics), preferably a combination, with some weight training (free weights, weight machines).

I’ve now been exercising regularly for over half my life. I know this because my wife pointed out that I’d started when I was 33. I was astonished she knew the exact number. I began exercising when I discovered I was getting seriously out of breath on the rare occasion I raced up some stairs or ran to catch a bus. (Chess was my sport, people.) I was also fat and my body image disorder issues were acting up. Time to change. So I joined a nearby health club and enrolled in an aerobics class, suddenly finding myself the only man in a class of women right-left step-kicking like the Radio City Rockettes. At best I lasted about ten minutes before nausea, lightheadedness, and breathlessness stopped me cold. My complexion matched the grey of my sweat suit. The instructor hand-signaled me to wait at the back of the class, showing me some simple stretches I could do until the session ended. Humiliation is an understatement.

However, I swallowed the teaspoon of remaining pride I had and persevered. Within a couple of months (at three times a week), I could actually keep up with the women. Even more remarkable perhaps is that within a year, this same instructor and I actually owned two aerobic fitness studios together, and while they never made me a dime I’ve never regretted the loss of my investment which, as they say, I took out in trade.

If I can do it, so can you
Move the calendar forward three decades or so, with a few changes in routine, and here’s my current program:

  • Up at 5 a.m. as I need coffee before I can even find the health club, much less exercise in it. I arrive about 5:30 (“do it early and get it over with” is my motto) and start with 45 minutes of high-resistance elliptical, followed by 15 minutes of weight training. Sixty minutes. Not one minute more, ever.
  • When weather allows (30 degrees F or higher), I replace the health club with a 90-minute, five-mile power walk, moving literally as fast as I can walk. I used to jog, but knees and hips…you know the story.
  • I also try to walk or bicycle everywhere, but I don’t regard either as exercise.

Useful hints learned over three decades:

  • If you’re a health club person, find a health club geographically nearby. Mine is halfway between my home and WholeHealth Chicago. If a piece of architecture is capable of inducing guilt, the Ray Meyer Fitness Center sneers its contempt if I’ve missed an exercise day.
  • Starting early in the day makes a real difference. If this isn’t possible for you, go immediately after work. Evening exercise can interfere with sleep.
  • Some readers may disagree with me on this one, though I suspect they’re already exercising regularly and enjoy it: accept the fact that exercise is intrinsically boring. Consider the original dictionary definition of “treadmill.” It was a “prison punishment,” and also “a wearisome and monotonous routine.”
  • So make your exercise routine interesting. Instead of listening to health club music (the musical version of a root canal), listen to your own music or an audiobook. Or, if you can manage while on an elliptical, read a book. It took three months of power walking for me to finish the audiobook of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, truly a wonderful experience. Take one of the terrific Great Courses. Change something basically dumb (walking on a treadmill) into something that will make you very smart. You’ll be able to impress your friends with phrases like “I’ve finally gotten the hang of postmodern theory by listening to lectures from this Harvard guy. Let me tell you all about Derrida!”
  • Go with a friend. You’ll have someone to keep you honest…and berate you when you don’t show up.

My only anxiety about all this exercise is that someday clinical research will discover (or I’ll learn in the afterlife) that exercise only extends your life the precise number of hours you’ve actually exercised and not one minute more.

“Let me see here…” St. Peter will say, stabbing at his calculator. “You’re saying you exercised five hours a week for 60 years. Hmm..I see plenty of four hour weeks, even some threes.” “Hey, not many of those” I argue. Peter checks his records. “What about vacations, and your hip surgery? You didn’t exercise then. Still we’ve got you here at 10,400 hours of exercise. I’m impressed. Just to let you know, you received 433 extra days of life. Too bad you spent them being such an argumentative kvetshing misanthropic curmudgeon.”

“Are you telling me God keeps track of how many hours I exercise?”


Oh, for Heaven’s sake, just,
Be well,

David Edelberg, MD


Leave a Comment

  1. Betty Hollander says:

    Maybe my favorite letter of yours ever. Thank you:)

  2. Jeanmarie DiNoto says:

    Hmmm. I always thought my regular bicycle riding was exercise. As long as it isn’t stop and go, isn’t it considered exercise?

  3. Mery Krause says:

    After reading your latest words on exercising, I think you could give Seinfeld a run for his money. Both of you make me laugh a lot and that’s a form of exercise, isn’t it? Seriously, you’ve given me even more motivation to exercise on a daily basis. Love your articles. And I never remember your being overweight, but that’s a topic for another day, aye?

  4. Addie says:

    Longer life is a great motivation, but immediate benefits are more effective in getting me going. Like for me exercise is a fabulous digestive aid. It brightens my skin (need less makeup), makes me sleep better, and deepens my meditation. I can read longer, think better, and accomplish more at work. For me exercise is more important for maintaining weight than diet. I can stop eating, and if I don’t exercise, I’ll still gain weight.

  5. Dr E says:

    Bike riding is a great exercise if you go reasonably fast, wear a helmet, and travel down a bike path rather than a city street. Also, you need to set your gears so that you do the work, not your gear system. If you use a bike for transportation in an urban area, speed kills

  6. Robert W. Boxer, M.D. says:

    Good advice, well written. Thanks!

  7. Brad says:

    Dr E.

    In my little town 32% of adults are obese, and 45% of the third, firth and ninth graders are over weight or obese. These facts are hard to get your head around.

    I’m on the board of the local YMCA, and we’re embarking on a “Building a Strong Community” campaign to battle this problem by raising funds to help over 3,000 individuals who otherwise couldn’t afford the YMCA. It’s a good prescription for those who can’t afford a health club, but also can’t afford the consequences of the extra inches on their waist line.

    Just thought you should know.


  8. Angela Massey says:

    Thanks Dr. E for another great article…very informational and motivational! I always look forward to reading your newsletters.

  9. jeanne mcmahon says:

    hello, could do you recommend a facility that perform colonics? thank you.

  10. Lester Basso says:

    Been exercising all my adult life. Keeps me in good shape, plus the other benefit is mental well being. The feeling after is relaxing.
    Keep up your excellent writing, its enjoyable and informative.


  11. Dr. R says:

    Partners in Wellness; 773-868-4062; http://www.gutwisdom.com



  13. Val Wilson says:

    In spite of that bit of dark humor at the end of your letter, I WILL keep walking daily – my dog will see to that. Also my knowledge that life without yoga is, for me, a half-life full of pain. Gotta keep moving!
    By the way, I cannot even picture you “fat”.

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