Want to keep your arteries clear and your heart beating strong? Integrative cardiologist Joel K. Kahn, MD, coaches his patients to adopt easy exercise routines with these motivating tricks.
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First, stop telling me you have no time to exercise.
It’s the top excuse I hear from patients when I suggest they get moving. But you do have enough time; what you really need is motivation. Too often people think of exercise in black or white categories: “thirty minutes” or “no minutes.” In reality, any minutes of movement are better than none. Here are some of my favorite tricks to get patients started on exercise routine.
Don’t ignore exercise.
It’s powerful medicine for your heart and arteries. It strengthens your cardiovascular system, allowing the heart to pump more blood with less effort. It keeps your arteries elastic and flexible, which allows them to expand to accommodate blood flow, which reduces blood pressure. It makes your tissues more sensitive to insulin, which means cells throughout your body more easily absorb and burn blood sugar for energy. It helps lower levels of triglycerides, tiny packages of fat that float around in the bloodstream. Exercise also helps tamp down inflammation and prevents blood clotting, which can lead to stroke, heart attack, and other problems. Finally, exercise creates physiological changes in the brain that lead to an increased sense of well-being, confidence, and an improved mood. And it’s not as hard as you might think.
Take a 5-minute walk.
It’s true that the American Heart Association recommends that we plan 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise. But if you can’t always meet this goal, should you do none at all? No! Less activity than the AHA guideline is still beneficial. Even a five-minute walk will bring you some health benefits. What’s most important is this: get started.
For one study, researchers followed the health habits and outcomes of more than 400,000 people for eight years. They found that the people with low levels of physical activity (they averaged about 15 minutes of exercise a day) showed a 14 percent reduction in death compared with the completely inactive group. People who were more active showed even lower mortality.
Never fast-forward through a commercial.
For every two hours you spend in front of the TV, your risk of becoming obese jumps 23 percent and your risk of developing diabetes increases 14 percent. This is true even if you exercise regularly. You don’t need to cut out TV time altogether—you just need to learn how to multitask. Mayo Clinic endocrinologist James Levine, who has spent his career studying the effects of exercise on health, says that converting TV time to active time could allow some of us to shed 50 pounds in one year!
How about a few sit-ups or push-ups during commercials? How about a five-pound dumbbell lifted overhead 15 times with each arm for a 60-second break? If that seems like too much, at the very least, don’t ever take a commercial sitting down. Use every commercial as a cue to get up and move.
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Stop thinking of yourself.
That is, practice active acts of kindness. Because one way to motivate yourself to get in small, regular bouts of activity is to do them for someone else. Dedicate small acts of exercise to the good of someone you love, the happiness of a stranger, or the good of society. For example, return your shopping cart to the store rather than leave it in the lot near your car. (Do it as a favor to the kid whose job it is to go gather all the carts). While you are out shoveling snow, clear your neighbor’s walkway too. Get up and stand on the bus or subway so someone else can have your seat.
De-motorvate your life.
Time-saving devices (think dishwashers and elevators) save more than time: they also prevent you from burning calories. Mayo Clinic researcher James Levine found that habits like using a dishwasher rather than washing dishes by hand, driving to work instead of walking, and using the elevator instead of taking the stairs cause the average person to save 111 calories a day. Over time, that adds up to 10 extra pounds a year. Whenever possible, try not to motor your way through life. Use a broom or rake instead of a leaf blower, your body instead of a remote control, or elbow grease instead of an electric mixer.
Don’t take waiting sitting down.
We stand and wait a lot: at the grocery store, at the bank, at the post office, at the ATM, at amusement parks. And that’s just the waiting we do standing. A lot of it we do sitting down. Consider a doctor’s office waiting room. Or what you do during the average 10 to 20 minutes each of us spends on the telephone each week? Try to stand and move as much as possible while you find yourself waiting. Depending on where you are, you could march in place, do a few laps around your house, try a few stretches, or climb a flight of stairs.
Get a pedometer.
Measure how many steps a day you take, then set a goal to increase the amount by perhaps 500 steps a day for a week, then jump it up again to the next level. New habits such as these will get you there: Park as far away as possible from the entrance to work. (I do this every day, and enjoy a 10-minute walk each morning and each evening). Spend half of your lunch hour walking. Propose a walking meeting with colleagues if you don’t need access to a computer during the meeting. Take a short walk whenever you arrive to a destination a little early.
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Don’t throw in the towel if you miss a workout, or a week.
There are two critical times when people fall off the exercise wagon: after a really busy period at work and after a vacation. They skip one workout and then another and then another. Soon they’ve gone a week or two without exercise and they think, “why bother? I’ve lost everything I gained.” But this isn’t true at all. In fact, Duke researchers proved this when they put 183 out-of-shape, overweight men and women at risk of developing heart disease through the paces of an eight-month-long exercise plan. Once they got everyone in shape, they wanted to see what would happen if everyone then blew off their workouts. So they asked all the participants to take two weeks off. They learned that all was not lost. Participants’ triglycerides remained low and their HDL cholesterol remained high.
So recommit yourself to exercise as soon as you can. Cut back on intensity and duration as you ease yourself back into the swing of things.
Take vitamin Y (ie, yoga).
Yoga is like four-for-one exercise. Most people don’t realize that certain types of yoga count as cardio. It also strengthens your muscles, so it counts as weight training too. Of course, it gets you flexible. Finally, the emphasis on breath work and the power of your thoughts make it a moving meditation. Some poses—such as Tree and Dancer’s Pose—also improve your balance, preventing falls. Studies have also linked yoga with a healthier heart rate pattern, less atrial fibrillation, and lower blood pressure. Start with a beginner’s class or DVD. Even yoga once a week for 15 or 20 minutes offers flexibility, mental focus, and relaxation.
Move in the morning.
It’s the best time to fit in a workout, and here’s why. It makes your workout number one on your to-do list. When you exercise later in the day, dozens of obstacles and excuses are likely to come up. When you roll out of bed and get moving first thing, those excuses don’t have a chance to derail your motivation. There’s also some evidence that a morning workout can undo some of the metabolic damage of whatever fatty, high-sugar foods you might have consumed the night before. Try to going to bed earlier so you can get up earlier. Agree to meet someone at the gym to help ensure you get out of bed rather than hit the snooze button.
Get more prescriptions for a healthy heart:
In The Holistic Heart Book, integrative cardiologist Joel K.
Kahn, MD, shares 75 traditional and alternative prescriptions to prevent
and treat heart disease. Learn more and buy the book here.