The almost-perfect exercise

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

November 2012

Compared to our Stone Age ancestors the small amount of physical activity that almost all of us engage in is truly pitiful. Modern hunter-gatherers walk about 9 miles on a given day and whatever needs to be lifted, carried, pushed or pulled gets to its destination by muscle power alone. Because of labor-saving devices that range from power tools to pickup trucks, modern epidemics that include obesity, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes osteoporosis and dementia have replaced the plagues of the past. These are largely exercise-deficiency diseases.

Thirty minutes to an hour, about 3 times a week, of moderately intense resistance exercises that require dumbbells, barbells and machines can maintain muscle mass, strengthen bones, improve balance and boost the immune system. Not everyone can afford to join a fitness center and some folks have a really busy schedule. There is one exercise, however, that can almost replace the gym routine: the push-up. It doesn't require any equipment or dedicated space and it has so many variations that boredom is never a problem.

The classic push-up, sometimes used by harsh athletic coaches and harsher drill instructors as a tool of punishment, calls into play more muscle groups than almost any other exercise. When you support yourself face-down on your hands and toes with arms extended you can feel the tension in your arms, shoulders, chest, back, abdominal muscles, thighs and calves. If you are able to lower your body until your nose almost touches the floor and then return to the arms-extended position at least 10 times you are more fit than most people.

Variations in push-up technique vary from the easiest (in a standing position, leaning against a wall) to the hardest (balancing on the fingertips with the feet higher than the body). Changing the position of the hands and feet calls different muscles into play so that this simple exercise makes the body stronger and keeps boredom at bay.

Even the easier versions of the push-up are strenuous. Be sure to have a thorough medical check-up if you have not exercised regularly.

Seniors have the most to gain from push-ups by improving balance and strengthening the bones of the upper body, reducing the risk of falls that can cause a broken wrist or shoulder.

The legendary Jack LaLanne once set a world record by doing 1,000 push-ups in 23 minutes. Of course, he was only a youngster of 42.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at