It’s no secret that taking care of your body is key to being happy and successful. Exercise can ease stress, anxiety, and depression—and even decrease memory loss; improve self-esteem; and prevent heart disease, certain cancers, and pretty much any chronic disease. Exercise counteracts declining hippocampal function in aging and Alzheimer's disease. Intlekofer KA, Cotman CW. Neurobiology of disease, 2012, Jun.;57():1095-953X. Longitudinal examination of the exercise and self-esteem model in middle-aged women. Elavsky S. Journal of sport & exercise psychology, 2011, Jun.;32(6):0895-2779. Effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety sensitivity. Broman-Fulks JJ, Berman ME, Rabian BA. Behaviour research and therapy, 2004, Jun.;42(2):0005-7967. Plus, exercise as medicine is free: Everyone can take it.
That's why Jordan Metzl, M.D., sport medicine physician, best-selling author, and fitness instructor, is prescribing it to his patients every single day. During an IVY panel discussion, he teamed up with Liz Plosser, deputy editor of Self magazine, to talk about exercise as medicine and came up with these seven tips.
1. Work out to crush your goals.
Balancing a full-time job with the rest of your life is hard to begin with, so finding time to work out can feel downright impossible. But fitting in exercise might actually help you conquer the rest of your to-do list.
“I found that I’m most efficient when I’m balancing a bunch of things and physical activity is my gasoline,” Metzl says. “Fitness training leads to efficacy and success in all aspects of your life.”
Plosser agrees. “Fitness is a huge part of my life. I’m a mom, and I have a full-time job, but I find when I’m training for something, I’m most efficient and productive,” she says.
Try it yourself by setting a goal that’s just outside your comfort zone—whether that is simply squeezing in healthier habits or training for your first half-marathon. “If you can roll out of bed and do it, aim for something that’s a little bit more challenging,” Metzl suggests.
2. Save time by stepping up the intensity.
We get it. Time is tight for everyone (especially a guy like Metzl, who juggles a 20,000-patient practice on top of teaching fitness classes, training for his 14th Ironman, and writing his fourth book). But you can eliminate excuses by simply stepping up the intensity.
“I’ve been increasingly looking at the science of intensity and HIIT,” Metzl says. “It’s like if regular exercise is coffee, HIIT is espresso.” So instead of gauging your next workout by time or distance ("I'll go to the gym for one hour," "I'll run 3 miles"), measure it by intensity ("I'll go as hard as I can," "I'll leave completely breathless").
“The payoff from a short-but-intense workout is so much greater than if you slog through a super-mellow treadmill or elliptical session where you can read a magazine while you do it,” Plosser says. “It’s better to go in really focused, sweat, and make your heart race.”
3. Knowledge is power when it comes to preventing injuries.
With physical activity comes the risk of injury. According to Metzl, about 90 percent of athlete injuries are from overuse. To prevent being sidelined, Metzl suggests researching the common injuries for your particular sport or activity and then strength training to prevent them.
“Strength helps with all sports,” Metzl says. Strength training will help you increase speed, strength, agility, and muscular endurance, as well as protect your bones and joints from injury. You can hit the weight room or simply do as Metzl does and use your own body weight for training.
Above all, listen to your body's cues and pay attention to what’s going on. “You don’t get any extra credit for dragging your leg behind you when you're hurt,” Metzl says.
4. But pause before you search.
“Dr. Google is only right about 30 percent of the time,” Metzl says. Patients now have more access to advanced knowledge, but there's a big difference between credible sources and the stuff that's just whack, Metzl adds.
If something goes wrong and you visit Dr. Google before a real doctor, be sure your resources are credible (ahem, ahem). Or grab a book like Metzl's Athlete's Book of Home Remedies to help you diagnose and treat a minor ache or pain at home. (Confession: We own this book and love it!)
5. Beware of fitness tracker TMI.
Thanks to technology, doctors are now discussing adding a fifth vital sign to height, weight, blood pressure, and pulse: activity levels and how many steps you're taking. But at what point do we hit information overload?
“There is a TMI piece to this,” Metzl says. “I only like information that’s going to be actionable. I need to be able to do something—or don’t bug me about it."
Plosser agrees and warns about the negative effects fitness trackers and apps can have on your mindset. "I'm a fan of trackers," she says. "Having said that, I have had the experience where I’ll go to a SoulCycle class, track it, and look at the calorie count afterward. I feel great. I feel alive, clearheaded, and de-stressed, but then I look down and I’m like, 'That was only 175 or 200 calories?'"
Don't let a tracker change your mindset. Use it as motivation to hit your goals (say, 10,000 steps a day), but know that feeling awesome is also a good sign. "Any sort of exercise, sweat, or getting your heart rate up is a really positive thing, and don’t let your tracker tell you different," Plosser says.
6. Forget calories and just get moving.
Just as trackers are new and cool, weighing yourself and counting calories are definitely out of vogue.
"The whole push on calories is the wrong message," Metzl says. "I would much rather you be mild to moderately overweight (which is not a health risk at all) and active than extremely thin and inactive."
That's your cue to run—not walk—to the bathroom and throw out your scale for good. Go ahead; we'll wait. Back? Great. Now grab a friend and move. "Getting everyone off their ass and going is so powerful. That’s the focus we need," Metzl says.
7. You do you.
Moving more means finding something you click with so you'll actually do it consistently and enjoy it.
"Just because your best friend likes to run or is a yogi doesn’t mean you have to fall in love with it," Plosser says. "If you try it and don’t love it, don’t force yourself to do it."
Finding something you love is a challenge, but Metzl suggests tapping into what drives you. "I’m all about what’s going to motivate you," he says. "If that’s getting your steps in, being part of a community, reaching a specific goal, or doing a bunch of different things, that’s exactly what you want to do."
Amen to that.
Special thanks to IVY for hosting this panel discussion!