Exercise helps people stay healthy and prevent disease. It helps lower the risk of several leading causes of death, including many types of heart disease and cancer. Setting up a workable, effective exercise program, however, can be confusing due to the wide variety of exercise DVD's, books, apps, and videos.
My patients don't always have money to buy the latest exercise fad DVD and so they ask me for how to get started. Of course, before starting on a new exercise program it is best to get cleared first by your physician to rule out potential problems such as unstable heart disease. After this is done, most people will benefit from this simple program for healthy exercise:
A - Aerobics: it is important to give your heart, lungs, and vascular system regular exercise. Aerobic exercises such as jogging, bicycling, swimming, or walking accomplish this. The key is to find an activity that is personally enjoyable, so making it a habit comes easy. Starting slow and building up gradually works best for most people. A good exercise program is outlined by the "father of aerobics" Kenneth Cooper, MD in his book The Aerobics Program for Total Well-Being.
B - Balance: as people age, their sense of balance often needs to be exercised. Several studies have shown that Tai Chi helps prevent falls and improve quality of life. In addition to exercises that help physical balance, it is also critical to balance the mind and spirit through some form of meditation. One widely studied method that has been scientifically validated to lower blood pressure and improve health is the Relaxation Response by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard.
C - Calisthenics: any well-rounded exercise program needs to include exercising the muscles through some form of calisthenics or weight lifting. When designing a program of calisthenics, one good suggestion comes from Arnold Schwarzenegger's Bodybuilding for Men. In it, he recommends dividing the body into three parts: arms and shoulders, the legs, and the abdomen. Pushups are a good all around exercise for the arms and shoulders, and squats good for the legs. There are many exercises that work the core muscles, including crunches and leg lifts.
S - Stretching: regular stretching helps relax your body and your mind. You can stretch frequently throughout the day, at your desk, while on a walk, or even when going to bed. The best guide I've come across is Bob Anderson's book, Stretching.
Keeping in mind the ABC's of healthy exercising has really helped my patients, in part because it helps remind them of the importance of addressing each of the four main components of exercise:Aerobics, Balance, Calisthenics, and Stretching.
Recently the wife of one of my patients pulled me aside and asked me to discuss my program once again with her husband, because although he walked regularly his muscles were getting weak. He thought that "exercising" meant going on regular walks, that's it. But thankfully his wife knew better, and noticed that his muscles also needed some work. Discussing with him the ABC's helped get him back on track.
The ABC's of Healthy Exercise works when people use it in consultation with their personal physician. Overall good health, and a lower risk of disease comes from healthy exercise, a good diet, and regular consultation with a health care provider that focuses on prevention, like family physicians do. Now let's all get out there and start exercising!
Tom Heston MD is a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Society of Nuclear Cardiology. He practices clinical medicine in the Pacific Northwest.