why to exercise today


Coming Soon: The Magic Pill, A Daily Dose (By Podcast) Of Get Up And Go

Co-hosts Dr. Eddie Phillips and CommonHealth's Carey Goldberg record The Magic Pill in a WBUR studio. Photo: Robin Lubbock)

Co-hosts Dr. Eddie Phillips of Harvard Medical School and CommonHealth’s Carey Goldberg record The Magic Pill. (Photo: Robin Lubbock)

Dear reader,

Your presence on this page suggests that you’re interested in health. So perhaps you’d be interested to know that WBUR is about to launch a short, lively podcast aimed at helping you do just about the very best thing you can do for your health: Move more. (The experts tell us not to use turn-off terms like “exercise” and “work out.” It’s not supposed to be work. It’s supposed to be fun and feel good.)

We’re calling it “The Magic Pill,” because exercise (Oops. I mean, physical activity…) is the closest thing we have to a magic pill for our health. If you’ve read some of our scores of “Why To Exercise Today” posts over the years, you probably already have that impression.

The Magic Pill will be a 21-day challenge, uplifting you every day for three weeks this fall with compelling stories, fascinating facts and gotta-move music — all in a “micro-podcast” of under 10 minutes. What better boost to help you start your day?

As a CommonHealth reader and public radio fan, you can help — we hope — in two ways:

• Sign up now for The Magic Pill — by clicking here. The 21-day challenge won’t begin until Sept. 1, so it won’t hinder any summer slacking.

• As we produce the podcast, we’ll be looking for stories from people who exemplify certain themes. For example, how does exercise affect your mood? Have you “fallen off the wagon,” and how did you get back on? Did you undergo a “conversion experience” to exercise or just make small, gradual changes? If you’d be interested in receiving our questions once a week or so and possibly sharing your story, please post a note in the comments below. Or if you’d like to nominate someone else as a fitness inspiration, please click here. And thanks!  

Why To Exercise Today: Study Finds Fitness May Protect Against Harm Of Sitting

Exercise per se may not protect us from sitting-related disease, but being fitter may. (Paul Haeberlin/Flickr)

Exercise per se may not protect us from sitting-related disease, but being fitter may. (Paul Haeberlin/Flickr)

“Be fit to sit is the answer!” the press release from the American College of Sports Medicine tells us.

And it’s an answer I must say I like very much. Because, as someone who likes to work out but also to sit most of the day, I did not like earlier studies suggesting that exercise cannot offset the mounting evidence that prolonged sitting is bad for us.

See, for example, this Daily Mail headline, with its emphatic upper case: “Exercising regularly WON’T offset the risk of sitting for long periods of time: An hour of activity a day isn’t enough to stave off heart disease, diabetes and cancer, study finds.”

But the research machine rolls on, and now a new Norwegian study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise adds another piece to the puzzle: It suggests that in fact, exercise per se may not protect us from sitting-related disease, but being fitter may.

In other words, it may not be enough to get plenty of physical activity if it’s so gentle it doesn’t affect your fitness; but if it’s moderate or vigorous enough — like interval training — to raise your fitness level, it may in fact protect you.

Researcher Javaid Nauman summarized the study and its findings in an email. The message, Nauman says, is that “people who sit for long periods of time need to exercise and improve their fitness. This is done by completing aerobic exercise at a moderate intensity or higher. Physical activity that has no effect on fitness will do little to protect against the harms of sitting.”

Prolonged sedentary time is associated with cardiovascular risk factors independent of physical activity. Whether a high level of cardiorespiratory fitness can modify the deleterious health consequences related to high sedentary time is not known.

We conducted a cross-sectional study of 12,274 men and 14,209 women (≥20 years) without known cardiovascular disease. Each hour increase in sedentary time was associated with 5% and 4% greater likelihood of having a cardiovascular risk factor clustering independent of physical activity in men and women, respectively. And more than seven hours of sitting per day increased the risk of cardiovascular risk factor clustering by 35%. Continue reading

Lend Us Your Voice? Inspire Someone Else With Your Own Fitness Wisdom


Dear friends — Last week, we asked you to nominate people who inspire you, fitness-wise. (It’s not too late! Do it here.) Now, we’re asking you, yourself, to become a fitness inspiration for others. (Yes, even if your deltoid definition still leaves something to be desired.)

Why all these asks? We’re working on a podcast that aims to apply the power tools of public radio — solid information, great storytelling and sound — to fitness. You know the umpteen “Why To Exercise Today” posts we’ve put up over the years? Kind of like those, only even better, and in the form of ear candy plus a daily email you’ll be able to sign up for in a few weeks. It will aim to help people evolve their relationship to exercise, from seeing it as (mostly) a chore to seeing it as (mostly) a treat, a gift to self.

As we begin the early stages of production, we’d love your help, in your own voice — or rather, your own voice memo, recorded on your iphone, if you have one. Please check out the questions below, and if any of them speak to you, please consider recording yourself as you answer them, and sending the recording to me at goldberg.carey+magicpill@gmail.com (Instructions below.)

• What is your name, with spelling, and age?

• If your forms of exercise feel good to you, how? Please try to describe it.

• What do you like to do for exercise/activity and why?

• Do you find it affects your mood? How?

• If you love strength training or weights, can you describe why? Continue reading

WBUR Asks: Want To Nominate Someone As Your Fitness Inspiration?

Nintey-year-old retired Marine Col. Jonathan Mendes crosses the finish line at the end of the 2010 New York City Marathon, after 9 hours and 55 minutes. (USMC via Wikimedia Commons)

Nintey-year-old retired Marine Col. Jonathan Mendes crosses the finish line at the end of the 2010 New York City Marathon, after 9 hours and 55 minutes. (USMC via Wikimedia Commons)

Shhhhhh… We haven’t announced it officially yet, but we here at CommonHealth are working on a podcast that aims to apply the power tools of public radio — solid information, great storytelling and sound — to fitness. You know the umpteen Why To Exercise Today posts we’ve put up over the years? Kind of like those, only even better, and in the form of ear candy plus a daily email you’ll be able to sign up for in a few weeks.

As we begin the early stages of production, we’d love your help — and this is a chance to give props to someone you think deserves public recognition for what’s usually private effort. Is there someone you know who’s really your fitness inspiration? Who’s turned their health around, or just fights the good fight every day, as they’re able? Someone you’d like us to consider featuring in one of our podcasts or posts?

Let us know! Click here and fill out the Google form.

We welcome nominations of anyone you deem deserving, but there are a few types of folks we’re particularly looking for right now. People who…

• Seem to have zero free time but somehow manage to exercise anyway.

• Can talk about how exercise affects their weight, or their mood, or their energy levels.

• Can talk about how they overcome their own inertia and resistance.

• Actually enjoy weights and resistance training.

• Find ways to exercise despite their problematic location, or great ways to do it for free.

• Can talk about “falling off the wagon” of exercise and getting themselves back on.

• Have set themselves very gradual exercise goals, or found very simple rules.

• Can talk about how exercise affects their aging.

• Can share how their buddies/the social side help.

Thank you in advance! And please stay tuned — watch for word of “The Magic Pill.” (As in, exercise is the closest thing we have to one.)

Why To Exercise Today: Journal Warns Zapping Your Muscles At Gym Not Safe

Fitness training with electrical stimulation (Bodystreet/Wikimedia Commons)

Fitness training with electrical stimulation (Bodystreet/Wikimedia Commons)

Confession: I didn’t know this was already a thing. I thought it was still purely my fantasy: I lie down on a padded table and tell the electrode technician, “Please give me the equivalent of an hour of CrossFit.” Then I relax as my muscles and nerves are zapped into activity that approximates an actual workout, but sweat-free.

I’m filing that fantasy away with my hopes for a pill that will someday activate my brown fat so brilliantly that the need for actual exercise is utterly obviated. Because a letter just out in the journal BMJ warns that the relatively novel practice of “whole-body electrical stimulation” at the gym can land you in the hospital with rhabdomyolysis, or muscle breakdown.

(Of course, non-electric CrossFit can apparently lead to the dreaded “Uncle Rhabdo” too, if you really overdo it. Also, I should note that the electrical stimulation discussed in the BMJ letter is the kind used during a workout, not instead of one as in my fantasy.)

The letter, titled “It’s time to regulate the use of whole-body electrical stimulation,” opens with the background:

Transcutaneous electrical stimulation (ES) of human nerves and muscles has long been used as a non-pharmacological treatment for pain relief, and for rehabilitation after disuse. Whole body ES has recently emerged as an alternative form of physical exercise for improving fitness and health in healthy people. Despite limited scientific evidence on the safety and effectiveness of this form of exercise, several ES company sponsored fitness centers have recently been opened in different countries worldwide, making this technology easily accessible to the general population.

Now for the no-free-lunch part:

On 4 August 2015, a 20-year-old man presented to our hospital with severe muscle pain shortly after a session of gym based whole body ES exercise supervised by a fitness professional. Rhabdomyolysis was diagnosed, and he was treated with intravenous 0.9% saline for five days.

In Israel, a TV documentary publicized the potential risks of electrical stimulation, reporting that thousands of Israelis have tried it. The BMJ letter notes that several problematic cases have arisen and the Health Ministry issued an official public warning against the practice in January. The warning said bluntly: “The devices must not be used in gyms. Use without medical supervision could cause danger to health.”

The BMJ letter suggests that other health authorities follow suit. I asked its senior author, Dr. Nicola Maffiuletti, head of the Human Performance Lab at the Schulthess Clinic in Zurich, three quick questions by email:

Do you happen to know how common it has become for gyms to offer electrical muscle stimulation, and has it arrived in the United States yet?

Maffiuletti: “‘Whole body EMS’ is increasingly offered worldwide, also in the U.S. (there are three main brands that are distributed in more than 40 countries worldwide, including the U.S.). As an example, more than 500 centers have been opened in Spain in the last five years that offer whole body EMS. (Spain is one of the countries where EMS is more used.)”

What is the science on whether EMS actually works to replicate the effects of exercise? Is there any good research on that? How does the actual science compare with the marketing/advertising claims? Continue reading

The Office Corner Workout: A Dozen Quickie Exercises You Can Do In Your Cubicle

No, you didn’t read the headline wrong. This is not the “corner office workout,” for the elite who occupy spacious private offices. This is the “office corner workout” for cubicle-dwelling plebes who occupy space only as wide as our arm-spans, and pop up like prairie dogs to confer with each other.

In our class, there’s often not enough floor space to do a push-up or a crunch without risk of being run over by an oblivious colleague’s office chair. But here, Rick DiScipio, assistant manager of Boston University’s FitRec Center, demonstrates the minimalist glory of the simple but powerful moves we can do at or near our desks. (If, that is, we can also establish a workplace culture that accepts our colleagues’ quiet exertions.)

Why bother? Sitting is the new smoking (sort of). Even dribs and drabs of activity can improve your health. (A study last year suggested even two minutes an hour of light activity can have an effect.) And if you have to be a worker bee, at least you can be a fitter worker bee. More rationales later. First, the workout.

1) The Wall Slide

Fitness expert Rick DiScipio talk WBUR's Clint Cavanaugh through a wall slide. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Fitness expert Rick DiScipio talks WBUR’s Clint Cavanaugh through a wall slide. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Stand against the wall and slide downward until your knees are at a 90-degree angle. Then slide back up again. Two sets of 12.

2) Sit And Stand

Fitness expert Rick DiScipio shows WBUR staff a sit and stand routine. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

DiScipio shows WBUR staff a sit and stand routine. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Stand just in front of a chair with feet about shoulder-width apart. Slowly squat until you sit in the chair for a second, then stand back up again. For more challenge, put one foot in front of the other or — if very fit — try it one-legged. Two sets of 12.

3) Leg Extension

Fitness expert Rick DiScipio shows WBUR staff a leg extension. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

DiScipio shows WBUR staff a leg extension. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Sit in a chair and fully extend one leg, then the other. Two sets of 12.

[Time at this point: about five minutes.] Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: The Size Of Your Brain As You Age

(Wikimedia Commons/NIH)

(Wikimedia Commons/NIH)

Voice of panic: “Noooooo, don’t let my brain shrink!”

Voice of reason: “No one is shrinking your brain.”

Voice of panic: “But a study just out in the journal Neurology finds that people who are less fit in middle age tend to have smaller brains when they’re measured 20 years later.”

Voice of reason: “Right, but it’s just a link, not proof of causation. Anyway, that smaller size is compared to fitter people. So don’t panic, just get back on that treadmill…”

Would write more but too busy jogging. From the press release:

“We found a direct correlation in our study between poor fitness and brain volume decades later, which indicates accelerated brain aging,” said study author Nicole Spartano, PhD, with Boston University School of Medicine in Boston.

For the study, 1,583 people enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study, with an average age of 40 and without dementia or heart disease, took a treadmill test. They took another one two decades later, along with MRI brain scans. The researchers also analyzed the results when they excluded participants who developed heart disease or started taking beta blockers to control blood pressure or heart problems; this group had 1,094 people. Continue reading

Even In Your 20s, Fitness Cuts Risk For Later Heart Disease, Major Study Finds

(Elaine Thompson/AP)

(Elaine Thompson/AP)

Feeling a bit bloated and sluggish after Thanksgiving weekend? A major study just out in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine offers an added nudge to get back on the exercise wagon. How fit you are even in your 20s, the study finds, can dramatically affect your risk of heart disease and death well into middle age.

So dramatically, in fact, that every minute matters.

Imagine you’re doing a stress test on a treadmill. Every two minutes, the machine makes you go faster and at a steeper incline. The first few minutes are no sweat — you’re walking, then trotting, then jogging — but soon you start to suck air, and finally hit the point that you can bear no more. (Or you may reach the 18-minute maximum, if you’re superhuman.)

Say you did that test in your 20s. Now fast-forward 25 years. The study found that every extra minute you could last on the treadmill meant you were at a 15 percent lower risk of death over that quarter-century, and at a 12 percent lower risk of harmful effects of heart disease, including stroke and heart attack.

“That’s a lot,” I found myself saying in a phone interview with the study’s two lead authors, Dr. Ravi V. Shah, of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Dr. Venk Murthy of the University of Michigan.

“We were surprised too,” Dr. Shah said.

“Two, three, four, five minute differences are not uncommon,” Dr. Murthy said. “That adds up. That’s 15 percent per minute — it’s pretty substantial.”

Though, of course, it must be noted that the overall risk of heart disease and death are relatively low in such a young population. Among the 4,872 people in the study, 273 died, but 200 of those deaths had no relation to heart disease. And just 4 percent of the study’s subjects had a “cardiovascular event” like a heart attack.

Still, the results cast new light on just how much fitness matters for heart health — even in our 20s, when many of us can still get away with a sleepless all-nighter or an all-weekend TV binge.

This new research is the first large study to examine people in their 20s onward over such a long period, the lead authors say, and underscores the importance of starting good fitness habits early — not just in later years, when the health price of inactivity is already well known.

The study also found that the heart benefits of fitness held true independent of weight and other heart risk factors. That suggests, Dr. Shah said, that “being fit is important for everyone, not just for people who are trying to lose or maintain weight.”

The study — an epic endeavor that began back in the mid-1980s and was led by four universities, including Harvard and Johns Hopkins — also suggests that early trajectory matters. That is, typical as it may be, it is not a good idea to let your fitness decline in your 20s.

Nearly 2,500 of the subjects underwent a second treadmill test just seven years after the first. For every minute less that they could last compared with their first test, their risk of death in the coming years went up by 21 percent, and their risk of heart disease by 20 percent.

And one other, particularly fascinating finding: Fitness as reflected by treadmill performance did not seem to matter for an accepted measure of heart health, the accumulation of calcium deposits in the arteries that supply the heart. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today, Men: Daily Half Hour May Slash Odds of Erectile Dysfunction

(Flickr/Creative Commons)

(Flickr/Creative Commons)

You’d expect exercise to be good for erections, wouldn’t you? We know working out is good for blood vessels, and erections do involve blood flow.

But a recent study in nearly 700 men aimed to quantify the erectile benefits of exercise better by measuring physical activity, and the numbers are striking: The “brief communication” in the Journal of Sexual Medicine reports that “for every 30 minutes/day increase in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, participants had a 43% reduced odds of having erectile dysfunction.”

Quite a drop. And it fits with previous findings that exercise can make a real dent in impotence. From the paper:

For example, a recent prospective study examining various risk factors for Erectile Dysfunction determined that a variety of exercise modalities all resulted in reduced relative risk for Erectile Dysfunction. In this study, running 2.5 hours/week (150 minutes of MVPA) resulted in a 30% reduced risk for ED and running 1.5 hours/week resulted in a 20% reduced risk. Another study demonstrated a positive association between low Physical Activity levels and ED (40–60%increased odds with low PA levels).

I asked Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, director of Men’s Health Boston and author, most recently, of “The Truth About Men and Sex: Intimate Secrets From the Doctor’s Office,” how exercise could have this dramatic effect on erectile function. His emailed reply:

“It’s tempting to attribute cause and effect to studies, but it can be challenging to know whether exercise reduced ED rates, or whether men who exercise have lower rates of ED for other reasons, for example, they might be healthier in the first place. Nonetheless, the benefits of exercise are real. It is one of the best “drugs” that could ever be invented. If the gym isn’t your cup of tea, go for a walk. Now. Your body will thank you.”


The Key To Gardening Without Blowing Out Your Back? It’s Not What You Think

Say you love gardening, like Boston-based landscape designer Barbara Quartier in the video above. Say you, like her, find that your happy toil is tinged with dread, with the foreknowledge that one of these days, you’ll be pulling at a recalcitrant weed or hefting a heavy pot and boing: There goes your back. Or your knee. Or your neck. But you get carried away in the absorbing process of earthly beautification. You take chances you know you shouldn’t. What’s a gardener to do?

I asked Dr. Sharon Bassi of New England Baptist Hospital, which specializes in orthopedics and spine care, and she responded with evidence- and experience-based wisdom that diverges surprisingly from the usual folk wisdom. You know the usual maxims: Above all, bend your knees when you lift. Avoid prolonged repetitive movement without breaks. Know your weight limits.

All good pointers, Dr. Bassi says, but her central message, based on research and countless encounters with injured patients, is this: Strengthen your core, particularly your back muscles. Studies and experience suggest that matters more than specific postures.

Her advice, lightly edited:

“Many people feel that they have to lift a certain way or bend a certain way or not carry excess amounts of loads. But the reality is that it’s different for each individual, and a lot depends on how strong you are at baseline. One of the key pieces of our bodies that we fail to strengthen is the spine.

We talk about core strengthening a lot, about getting the abdominal muscles strong. But in parallel, the muscles that are less often talked about are the para-spinal muscles, and there are many of them: There are very tiny ones that hold the joints together, and there are larger ones that really help stabilize your back. And those are the muscles that we need to focus on a lot. In people who present with back strain or pain, we talk about core but we talk equally about getting the para-spinals in the back very, very strong, because that’s what helps holds you erect, that’s what helps to prevent sprain and strain injuries.

It’s especially important in people who are doing prolonged periods of gardening, or any type of prolonged activity — almost every activity involves your spine to a certain degree — that in parallel, those individuals strengthen those two key components. That will help prevent a lot of injuries and allow you to do almost anything in any comfortable posture and lift many pounds of weight without worrying about injuring your back.

So I think this whole notion of correct biomechanics — like bending from the knees — is really a little bit over-rated, and a little bit over-talked-about. We see plenty of people who have injuries having lifted in what is considered an ergonomically correct posture. And we don’t have great studies that show that by lifting in that manner you’re going to prevent an injury. We have more studies telling us that if we strengthen, that we can pretty much lift however we want, however it feels comfortable, because we will inherently be engaging the right muscles.”

(Here both Barbara Quartier — who goes by Barbara Peterson in her landscape design business — and I expressed some shock. We’d heard forever about bending our knees, but never a word about our para-spinals.)

“It really is a common misbelief,” Dr. Bassi responded. “We see patients who say, ‘I knew I lifted this wrong, and that’s why this happened,’ but that’s not necessarily true.”

So the question instantly arises, of course: How to strengthen those para-spinal muscles? Continue reading