If you ask normal people to divvy up the people around them into health groups, they assign most to minimal exercise and a few to heroic levels of exercise. The healthy among us are assumed by the others to be absolute exercise machines, to have wills of steel and unwavering commitment.
Ah, if only it were so…
I will let you in on a dirty little secret of the exercise cult. We’re just like you. We like to sleep in, procrastinate and eat too much. We have only one thing that you don’t have – and it’s what I call “get-back-on-the-horse-ness.”
I don’t mean to channel the Wizard of Oz here, but the image is there. Everyone you see that exercises has quit exercising countless times. They have been discouraged, lazy, too busy or too tired like everyone else. The only difference is that we are better at getting back on a program.
A corollary of the culture of excess is high expectations, even for health. “I’m going to start tomorrow and exercise 2 hours a day and lose 5 pounds a week.”
The unspoken part is: “If I can’t do the whole program, I won’t do anything.”
Let’s be a little less absolutist here. It might be a bit unrealistic to expect that kind of commitment out of yourself. Maybe you don’t have 2 hours a day to exercise. You can probably swing getting up 15 minutes early and walking briskly around the block. Park a little further away, take the stairs. Small steps are OK.
We see this absolutist behavior in other health habits, good and bad. How often does someone go two months or two years without smoking, have one cigarette and jump right back up to a pack a day.
One cigarette in two years is a remarkable victory. So you had one weak moment and had one cigarette? That one cigarette has zero health consequences. Smoke the darn thing, and get back on the horse.
Drinking is the same way. People with problematic alcohol consumption have a single drink after years of abstinence and immediately go on a two-week binge. Have the one drink, stop and then get back on the wagon.
I’ve had my own experience in moderating my previously extreme exercise tendencies. I had two low back surgeries in three months. I was initially quite upset because I couldn’t run or lift weights (probably not worth mentioning that the weights had something to do with the back surgery).
But I found out I could rollerblade. When rollerblades became a problem, I could still walk briskly. If walking slowly is all I can do, I will do it.
So go ahead – set a low bar and surprise yourself.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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