Exercising? Be patient

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

February 2011

If all the persons who own a gym membership or who live in an apartment complex with a fitness center were to descend on that facility on the same day it would look like Times Square on New Year's Eve. The percentage of Americans who engage in regular, moderately intense physical activity is discouragingly low, partly because those who do start an exercise routine give up too early when they don't see significant results.

The human body evolved for survival. Occasional bursts of heart-pounding action keep blood vessels supple even in old age. Exercise keeps hearts ready to respond to an emergency escape, lungs capable of a days-long pursuit of an animal destined to feed the family and an immune system primed to resist the germs that threaten an injured hunter. We no longer have these needs and our big game comes neatly sliced and wrapped. Our bodies haven't caught up with that progress.

An hour spent every day in a brisk walk or lifting weights is almost all we need to maintain a healthy weight and a strong skeleton. Genuine fitness or athletic excellence require far more, of course. Ask any Olympics contender.

Modern hunter-gatherers in their native habitat are never obese. Even the oldest are free from the major diseases of industrial populations. But they spend more than an hour a day walking, lifting and carrying, and therein lies the lesson for us. We get impatient when our few hours a week of physical activity — what ancient Stone Agers and modern hunter-gatherers might have done in a day — leave us with no weight loss and a disappointingly small increase in strength or stamina. A little math logic tells us that we just have to do it longer.

In a study conducted among 70 seniors who ranged in age from 60 to 80, a supervised walking program made them more fit and their brain function improved. In fact, their measurements of connectivity patterns in the brain became similar to those in a group of twenty-somethings that formed a comparison group. A key observation was that the seniors only improved after a full twelve months of exercise. When they were tested after only six months the changes were minimal.

Regular exercise will lower your body fat and improve your muscle power and bone strength but it takes more than just a few weeks and perhaps more effort. Just keep going.

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.