I was a cross-country runner in high school. But now, I know about the dangers of this kind of extreme exercise. Fortunately, you and I both have safer options. And in a moment, I’ll tell you about three of my favorite healthy exercises you can enjoy this spring. But first, let me explain why extreme athletes are going about it all wrong…
Long-distance running is an obsession for many men and women. But it contributes to the modern epidemic of joint disease. As well as the insidious problems of plantar fasciitis and tendinitis. Especially if you run on hard pavement. The human body simply isn’t designed to pound hard pavement, mile after mile.
In general, extreme exercise is never a good idea. Take extreme cross-country skiing, for example. In a recent Daily Dispatch, I described a study that followed 52,000 competitive cross-country skiers over many decades. Much to their surprise, researchers found that many of these extreme athletes went on to experience double the rate of serious heart problems later in life, such as arrhythmias.
This damage is not like “typical” heart disease, where the blood vessels supplying the heart muscle become narrowed. (You can reverse that type of heart disease with a proper diet and stress reduction.) Extreme exercise appears to wear out the nerve and muscle fibers of the heart. And there’s no way to reverse it.
Fortunately, you can choose sensible forms of exercise that don’t damage your joints and your heart. These healthy alternatives become even more important as you age. You see, sensible exercise–as opposed to “extreme exercise”–is a key to a longer and healthier lifespan. It’s part of the original “anti-aging” program.
These three healthy exercise alternatives are safe and effective. Plus, they’re fun and recreational.
1. Go for a walk in nature
Remember a movie called “Walk Don’t Run,” set at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo? It was the last film made by Cary Grant. And this former circus acrobat did a fine job of walking fast throughout the film at his dignified older age.
I recommend you avoid walking on pavement altogether. Natural, uneven surfaces are better for you anyway. And more challenging too. So take a walk in the woods. Or anywhere in Nature. A walk in Nature is good for both body and soul.
If you can’t realistically walk outdoors–as can happen during the winter–try walking at the local shopping mall. These monstrosities are designed with few places to sit. So you have to keep moving.
All you need is a good pair of walking shoes. (Conveniently available in every mall.)
Then, just keep going. On average, every minute you walk extends your life by one-and-a-half to two minutes. And it doesn’t damage your joints or stress your heart.
2. Swim to stay fit
Swimming is a great aerobic exercise that stretches and exercises many muscles without stressing your joints. You also naturally benefit from immersing yourself in water (part of the old “hydrotherapy”).
If you enjoy swimming, it makes sense to invest in a membership in a properly run, professionally managed aquatic facility. YMCAs are popular but choose wisely. It’s sad to say, but as a former Medical Examiner, I have seen too many examples of tragic and unnecessary drownings. Investigations and routine observations too often reveal poor management practices. And distracted lifeguards are more interested in socializing with each other than taking care of swimmers.
Granted, chlorine is a problem in many larger, public pools. Just make sure to take a good, warm, soapy shower after you swim to wash off the chemicals.
Of course, the ocean is the best place to swim. Here again, the salt water is better for you. And swimming in the ocean is more challenging and interesting. So swim in it when you can!
3. Take up yoga
Yoga originally developed as a meditative and devotional practice in ancient India. There are six major traditional forms. Hatha yoga, which emphasizes breathing techniques and physical postures and maneuvers, is the most popular form in the west.
Practicing yoga stretches muscles and joints. It also clears the mind. In fact, research shows that practicing yoga reduces stress and lowers blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
You can practice yoga with a group in a class or alone at home. You may have the most fun practicing yoga with a partner. This adds in a social element.
Whatever exercise you do, strive to do it for about 30 minutes per day most days of the week. You can even divide your exercise time into three 10-minute intervals during the course of the day, if that better suits your schedule.
You don’t have to run a daily marathon. Remember what happened to Pheidippides who ran the first “marathon.” He was the ancient Greek soldier sent as a messenger to Athens from the Battle of Marathon where the Greeks defeated the Persians in 490 B.C. He ran the entire 40 kilometers (about 26 miles) without stopping. When he arrived, he shouted only, “we won!” Then, he promptly collapsed and died. Perhaps that’s the real lesson of Marathon.
So this spring, make it a point to get some exercise. But don’t overdo it.