18 December 2013

That's what I'm dancing about!

At last! I am seeing around me what I've been believing over the last few years: movement is medicine.

In retrospect, I can see that over the past decade I've made over many of my habits.

I stumbled across a dance class when my daughter was in her gymnastics classes and remembered having attended a couple of classes when she had first started teaching at my local rec center. The class was even better than I had remembered, and the music blew me away -- some days I knew 90 percent of the music we danced to and other days I knew hardly any of it, but the rhythms were good and the class always made me feel happy and loose by the end.

I tried to ride my mountain bike to work at least a couple of times a week. I'm a wimp in the winter, though. (Turns out this is probably a good thing. My sweetie crashed his bike on a patch of black ice on his way back to work at the beginning of the year and had surgery on his hand as a result. He's getting better now--phew!) One of the things I was excited about when I went back to work was my five-mile commute. I bought a hybrid bike and started riding back and forth, or when it was windy or stormy I'd put my bike on the bus home, and ride the last mile or so home. Then one day I rode my mountain bike and had so much fun riding but had this notion it was slower. So I timed myself on both bikes, and it turned out it took me exactly the same amount of time to get home on my mountain bike as it did on my hybrid -- but it felt ten times as fun to ride the mountain bike, so I hung the hybrid up on the garage wall.

Despite my few days a week at dance classes and my occasional rides to work, I was still having a lot of knee pain and decided to have my second meniscus surgery last year. I'd had one tear cleaned up about a decade earlier and now the other knee was yelling for mercy. I tried physical therapy but the exercises I was doing just weren't helping enough. One night I fell asleep weeping with pain and decided it was time to call the orthopedic surgeon. The rehab following my surgery made me feel like a fresh new human, stronger and more stable.

After I had done my knee rehab I was finally strong enough to go to the fitness training classes held at work (during the work day, amazingly), taught by personal trainer Judd NeSmith of Ser!ous Fitness. "I'm an exercise scientist," he would say humorously when he answered questions or explained a concept, such as why you work complementary muscle groups during exercise sessions. But seriously, in Judd's classes I learned so much about strength and stability, heart-rate training, and working complementary muscle groups with squats and band-walks. The fun and varied whole-body workouts incorporated freeweights, TRX straps (straps affixed high on the wall to support your weight as you use them for a variety of exercises), medicine balls, elastic bands, and foam rollers. I learned about raising your heart rate quickly and working toward intervals of high cardio output. I left the workouts sweaty and strong, the hour having flown past in a blur of exercises and playful banter between Judd and my endorphin-soaked coworkers.

On NPR's Science Friday radio show last week, Ira Flatow interviewed Jordan Metzl, M.D., who argued that exercise is at least as effective as many medicines but doesn't have the side effects of so many medications, and should be prescribed -- and dosed -- to support health. Dr. Metzl said exercise supports body health and brain health by reducing cholesterol, reducing depression, reversing hypertension, and reducing inflammation. And no side effects (except for the occasional injury).

Recent research supports the notion that exercise is at least as effective as medication in many instances. A recent story by Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times poses the next logical question, which is why doctors don't prescribe exercise as much as they prescribe pills. Is it because doctors think it's easier for people to take a pill than change a habit?

Here are a few ways I changed my exercise habits:
  • I put all my dance classes and workouts on my calendars. This meant I got reminders for each one. It also meant I had the times blocked out, for others who can see my schedule. Sometimes if a meeting was scheduled during a workout class, I had to miss the class, but all those reminders help me prioritize the exercise as a nearly daily activity, and also nudge me to pack the workout clothes I'll need in the morning.
  • When I was just going to the gym to work out, I thought of it not only as fitness time, but also time to catch up on music or podcasts I wanted to listen to. I love grooving through my workout with my headphones on. (I did have to spend about $30 on earbuds that fit my ears better -- the standard earbuds that came with my mobile music player did not stay put through workouts.)
  • On days when I thought about skipping class, I tried to think about how I would feel after the workout. Often this was enough to get me there, and 99 percent of the time I was glad I'd gone after about 15 minutes of any given class or workout. 
  • I started using an online fitness tracker app on my smartphone. This motivated me in a surprising way: On days when I work out, I see how many calories I've used and feel free to eat a little more of what I like that day. 
Have you changed any of your habits? How did you do it? Did the changes stick? Tell me in the comments.

It's exciting to me to think more people are learning how to move for their health. Movement seems to bring with it so many benefits beyond stronger muscles. I am looking for ways to support folks in moving more. Stay tuned for new developments!

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