Your Health Checkup: Changing Your Behavior Could Save Your Life

If you were given the opportunity to commit 150 minutes a week to something that could make many aspects of your life better, and even save your life, why wouldn’t you do it?

People playing pickleball, a variant of tennis
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“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

Order Dr. Zipes’ books, Bear’s Promise and Damn the Naysayers, A Doctor’s Memoir, and check out his website

As a practicing cardiologist for more than 50 years, I have often tried to get patients to change their behavior. The behavior pattern I would choose for them that would significantly improve their health is exercise. I have written many Post articles on this topic because I consider it to be so important. In fact, I practice what I preach, exercising each morning.

Sadly, only about a quarter of Americans aged 25 and older meet the aerobic and muscle strengthening guidelines for good health. The proportion increases as the education level increases, so that about 15 percent of high school graduates exercise, compared to 30 percent who graduated college and 35 percent with advanced degrees.

I think some people stop exercising because it fails to meet their expectations. For example, many people start to exercise to lose weight. That can happen if the exercise program is vigorous and the hours long, but not with the usual half hour or hour daily sessions. Depending on your weight and type of exercise, an average individual burns 6 to 13 calories per minute. Since you have to burn about 3,500 calories to lose one pound, if you averaged 10 calories per minute you would need to exercise 350 minutes or almost six hours for that to happen. Exercise accompanied by dieting is the only sure way to lose weight.

You also cannot lose weight from specific body areas by exercising those body parts. So, for example, if you have a pot belly (like I do!) performing sit-ups to tone abdominal muscles will not reduce that girth.

So why exercise? Exercising enables you to take control of your own health and well-being, reduce stress, maintain mental acuity and productivity, decrease the risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer, and helps you live longer. In one study of over 5,000 middle-aged men, investigators found that those with the highest cardiorespiratory fitness levels lived five years longer than peers in the bottom five percent of fitness.

If you’ve not exercised before, I would recommend picking an activity you enjoy and are likely to repeat, such as a particular sport — pickleball has become very popular, particularly for older folks. Go dancing or whatever you like to do. Stretching before you begin, and after you finish, is probably a good idea. Begin gradually, maybe ten minutes a day, and progressively increase the time and difficulty. Exercise with a friend to make it more enjoyable. You might considering hiring a fitness coach to start, but one is not necessary once you’ve learned the fundamentals. Keeping a diary is a way to encourage sticking to the regimen. If you have a health issue, consult a physician before you begin.

Especially now that the pandemic is coming under control in the U.S., and places and events are opening up, if you’ve been vaccinated consider going to a fitness center where many types of equipment are available such as free weights and exercise machines. If that’s not in your budget, check online for many sites that offer free workout regimens to help you get started, learn proper techniques for maximum results, avoid injury, and track your progress.

Cross training is a good idea. By that I mean working different muscle groups in different fashions. I’ve found that my body is not very forgiving. If I’ve worked my biceps in a particular exercise, using them in a different regimen is almost like starting from scratch. Becoming fit on a treadmill does not transfer to being fit on a bike.

There are some things NOT to do. I would strongly advise NOT using energy drinks. They often contain caffeine at significantly higher concentrations than coffee and tea, along with other energy-boosting substances, such as guarana, sugar, ginseng, yohimbine, and ephedra-type drugs that can be harmful. Protein bar supplements are probably not helpful to gain more energy or muscle mass.

What should you do? The World Health Organization recommends that adults perform at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity weekly (or half that time if the aerobic activity is vigorous) and muscle-strengthening exercises at moderate or greater intensity, involving all major muscle groups, two or more times each week.

That is basically what I do. Change your behavior and join me!

Featured image: bhpix / Shutterstock

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