Exercise or Sport?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

February 2007

Is running an exercise or a sport? How about golf? Tennis? Skiing?

All these contribute to your overall health but a high-impact activity such as running isn't for everyone and only a ski bum can schuss every day. Riding in a golf cart won't do much for conditioning your heart, lungs and bones but it's a fine sport if you can stand the frustration. Walking the course is a great exercise and still a fine sport.

The number of folks who are exercising adequately isn't going up as fast as our collective weight is but we're doing better. Neighborhood fitness centers are the investment du jour and sports leagues for mature citizens, from basketball to street hockey, are bubbling up from coast to coast.

But let's not kid ourselves! More of this activity is aimed at prolonging or regaining our youthful vigor and svelte figure than it is at avoiding heart attacks or type 2 diabetes. Sometimes it's just an "I'll show 'em" attitude; we want to feel as young as our now-grown children. Unfortunately the youngest baby boomers are well into middle age, the time when body parts begin to wear out, fall out or spread out. The wearing out part is what gets the rejuvenated athlete into trouble.

You can undo a lot of the damage from lack of exercise and junk-food-on-the-run but we're seeing the results of trying to do it all at once. Strains, sprains and torn-up knees aren't kid stuff anymore. Impatience breeds injury. Walking 2 or 3 miles the first time out is not a good idea. Running even half a mile — provided that you can even go that far — is even worse.

Major league baseball players have spring training, a time to gradually melt away the off-season pounds, to stretch tight muscles and ligaments and to get back into a healthy meal routine. Weekend tennis players leap onto the court when the first crocuses pop up, with little conditioning and no warm-up. Tennis is a sport and we should treat it that way.

If you want to feel good, to look good and to become stronger you don't need to engage in a sport. I encourage everyone to be physically active every day but it doesn't have to be as taxing as an hour on the basketball or handball court. If you enjoy doing those things, by all means keep it up, but know that a sport requires preparation and conditioning.

One hour of brisk walking 3 days a week and an hour at the local fitness center 2 or 3 days a week will keep you in good condition, strengthen your heart and lungs, make your bones thicker and stronger and dramatically reduce your chances of encountering one of the chronic diseases that take the lives of most Americans. If you do these things a weekly game of tennis will be more fun and less risky. And you might even beat the kids once in a while.

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