One of my recent patients was a European woman who is in the US on an academic visa and working here at Yale University. She was generally healthy and fit, and came to see me for a knee injury that she got while she was hiking a few weeks ago. We spent a few minutes talking about her regular exercise routine (she walks or hikes every day) and at one point in our conversation, she admitted that she just did not understand American exercise patterns. In fact she said she thinks we’re crazy.
Here’s why: We pay good money for a gym membership, then we get in our cars and drive a few minutes to the gym where we circle the parking lot to find a spot closest to the door. Once we get inside, we spend an hour on the treadmill… and then hop back in the car and head home.
She pointed out the ridiculousness of this ritual and made the point: Instead of paying for a gym membership, how about just walking to the gym, turning around, and walking home? That way, you save money, spend time outside, and get the same amount of exercise. Humans have been getting physical activity for thousands of years without a gym. All you need are your own two feet.
This brings me to the point of this article: movement is medicine. In the US, we have come to associate the idea of medicine with the image of doctors, hospitals, and pills… lots of pills. And although prescription pills can indeed be important medicine, they are certainly not the only medicine… far from it. Here at UpWellness, my job is to shout from the rooftops that there is powerful medicine all around that is available without a prescription.
One of the most obvious examples is food: when we choose to eat whole, nutritious foods, we are giving our bodies the medicine they need to thrive. Food is most definitely medicine. Movement is medicine too. Physical activity is one of the most powerful medicines for the treatment and prevention of disease. Virtually all of the most common chronic diseases are fueled by inactivity. There are hundreds of studies that demonstrate the dangers of inactivity. An example includes this 2012 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, which linked sitting for extended periods to a higher risk of all-cause mortality.
Our jobs are partially to blame for all of this sitting around. According to the American Heart Association, in 1960, about half of the American workforce worked in physically active jobs. Today, it’s less than 20 percent. A whopping 83 percent of American workers have sedentary jobs: jobs requiring very little to no movement. It’s not just our jobs, though. Time on the internet, binge-watching Netflix, and other such activities greatly cut into the time we could be spending moving around.
The large body of research on the dangers of sitting, and the excessive amount of time that Americans spend glued to their couches or chairs, led Dr. Anup Kanodia of Ohio State University to coin the phrase “sitting is the new smoking.” It’s an apt observation. The solution to this is simple: we need to move more. Moving our bodies is one of the pillars of human health.
This might sound controversial… but there is one form of exercise that is THE BEST, better than all the rest. The winner by a large margin is: Walking. Every day. A daily walk is the foundation of a movement-based lifestyle. Research is clear that walking for thirty minutes per day, in addition to other healthy practices, is a profoundly effective way to reduce your risk of disease. I walk for 45 mins each day, every day. I walk when it’s hot and I walk when it’s cold. I walk in the rain and yes, I walk in the snow. I live by the famous saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”
If you struggle to find the motivation to get out and walk, there is a simple “frame-shift” that can make a huge difference in your attitude toward daily physical activity. When I leave the house for my walk, the way I think of it is that I get to go for a walk: this is very different than thinking that I have to go. Adopting the mindset that a walk is something fun to look forward to really changes your relationship with your walk in a positive way. As you walk, enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds. Don’t think of it as a chore.
To get yourself walking on a regular basis, I recommend committing to doing this every day. Not three times a week, not five times a week, but every day. That way, you won’t give yourself an excuse to put it off until tomorrow. Walking each day needs to be as routine as brushing your teeth: something that you hardly ever miss.
Have you gone on your daily walk yet today? If not, get out there!
– Dr. Joshua Levitt