How To Get The Health Rewards Of Exercise

Exercise Step by Step

From too many superhero movies, the ubiquity of the fashionable ‘six pack’ or the success of “The Paleo Diet” and “Train Like a Caveman,” we seem to think health consists in being able to run miles, bench press our car and to have the capacity to rip a lion’s heart out with our teeth.

Whether such a person is healthy is an interesting question but not relevant for most of our attempts to be healthy.

In this note I will outline the steps necessary to reap the health rewards of exercise. I mean almost all such rewards without dedicating every waking moment to peak fitness.

From baseline couch potato, do the following:

Step One.

Do something. Anything. Just move. Don’t ask the kids for the remote; find it yourself. Stand up. Sit down. Get half a glass of water and then go back for another half; again and again. Walk to the post office; don’t wait for the mailman to mail something. Write letters rather than emails – I’m only partially kidding – and ‘walk to the post office.’ Your correspondents will be flattered by a real letter too. Add to this list with hundreds of your own opportunities to move, just move. Every day, all day.

Step Two

Big leap here. One of my favorites: take the stairs. Always, every time, don’t miss an opportunity. In medical school, I decided to always take the stairs up to 8 floors. I picked 8 as it covered most occasions of need and was not so many as to consume too much time. Look for stairs, climb stairs. Lift your knees, mimic a sprinter: head up, arms and legs driving; even if you need to go slow. No stairs; find a hill. Go up. Even if you take an elevator down; go up. The ‘up’ part is the health part. No hills, no stairs? Move! I hear even west Texas has some canyons you can hike.  OK, not for you, then jump rope.

Step Three

Play a sport. I know golf is a good game and you can always carry your bag and walk the course, but it doesn’t count for this step. Volleyball, basketball, badminton, horseshoes, Frisbee, Bocce. The idea here is bending, throwing, jumping, pushing, pulling, twisting. Don’t start this step until you have routinely pursued the first two steps. Step Three is the beginning of you the athlete, of you the predator, the hunter. You don’t need to join the NBA to play a sport. One that is available to even the lonely, shut-in is boxing. Get a speed bag and hit it; lightly at first as you build the tendon/ligament/bone/muscle infrastructure but dance around it as you let out your frustrations. Rollerblade. Dance; here is another one that almost anyone can begin and do well enough to build the inner athlete.

Step Four

Now we are getting serious. This step is where you act to truly transform. Crisply, here is what you are trying to do: increase heart rate variability, increase range of motion and stability of all joints, and finally you are trying to increase your most fundamental source of all biological power; you are trying to stress and train your mitochondria. Rowing intervals, hill sprints, shuttle runs, play tag in groups. All share one important element: you should be bent over waiting for recovery, gasping for breath, ready to go again. Interval work one to two times a week is enough and is plenty to maximize heart rate variability and mitochondrial demand and training. Next ‘get under the bar.’ Very fundamental, muscle, power work: back squats, front squats, deadlifts. Be consistent, build weight and range of motion. Once a week for these is enough.

Step Five

You the octogenarian, septuagenarian, 20 year old – whatever – Primal Animal. Flip tires, tug-o-war, grapple with a trainer or your wife (N.B. I’m kidding about grappling with the wife), switch from the speedbag to the heavy bag. Dig a ditch: dig one hole here and move the dirt there and fill the hole up. Repeat. Chop wood. No wood? Get a sledge hammer and hit a tire; over and over. Oh, and be careful; the sledgehammer might rebound. Pull weighted sleds, push them too.


You will have noted, I could list dozens of examples for each step but the progression should be understood and respected. The general outline holds whether you are starting for the first time as a 65-year-old retiree or are a detraining hyper-athlete. This sequence will build bone, improve balance, coordination, foot speed, increase insulin sensitivity, build muscle, absorb and decrease inflammation; it will make you healthier than any possible pill or combination of pills. It is that simple. I’ll meet you at the Post Office!

And read my book, Quantitative Medicine. It is available on Amazon and on one of my blog sites:

Smile, Have Fun, God Speed,

Dr. Mike

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