"Opportunities are usually disguised...so most people don't recognize them."
- Ann Landers
"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
Physical activity is the best first step to health. It is the most direct way for you to discover, or rediscover, the wonder of your body. It allows you to experience vitality and provides an immediate sense of control of your body's health and well-being. In addition to having its own inherent benefits, physical activity is a great physical and mental health facilitator, and wonderfully regenerative. Your senses come alive and are attuned more delicately when you engage in regular physical activity.
There is good news about actually doing physical activity. Research has shown that one can obtain its major health benefits with a minimum amount of effort and a minimum amount of time. The old myth of "no pain, no gain" and of long-distance jogging as the only way to achieve meaningful health results have been put into perspective. The evidence is clear: you can enjoy the benefits of physical activity with the equivalent of walking a half an hour a day, four or five days a week.
The Institute for Aerobics Research in Texas evaluated the fitness levels of more than 3,000 people and followed their progress for eight years. While the sedentary did have a mortality substantially higher than the more fit, the principal benefits of physical activity came even after very little physical activity. Those who simply walked an average of 30 minutes a day decreased their risk of heart disease by almost half.
The American Heart Association has stated that a sedentary life-style is a risk factor for heart disease comparable to smoking, cholesterol abnormalities, and high blood pressure. It also pointed out that low-intensity physical activity, performed regularly, can lower the risk of heart disease.
Any physical exercise is better than none! Housework, gardening, shuffleboard--anything that causes us to move--is beneficial. And, the benefits are not limited to heart disease alone. Physical exercise reduces stress, improves eating habits and weight control, increases good (HDL) cholesterol, and decreases triglyceride levels.
When beginning an exercise program, choose an activity that you think will be fun. Try walking, cycling or doing aerobics with a friend, a family member or as part of a class. The company may reinforce your commitment. If exercise is new for you, begin slowly, and keep in mind that there are a host of activities that you can try.
And, for those of you who have been sedentary most of your lives, the good news is that you have the most to gain from even the simplest physical activities. Gradually work them into your daily life. Start with small, comfortable activities, for instance:
- Walking to your destination whenever feasible
- Taking the stairs rather than relying exclusively on elevators and escalators
- Doing more physical tasks around the house or yard.
- Strolling around the block, around your neighborhood, in the park, at the mall. Keep your activity comfortable, keep it easy, and above all, keep it a part of your life.
Richard Helfant, MD, a Harvard-trained cardiologist. Courageous Confrontations