Lifestyle Medicine

Exercise is the Best Medicine: A Doctor’s Guide to Losing Weight

Anne was 44-years old. And overweight. She also suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis and depression. She required seven different drugs to manage her ailments. Like many patients, Anne tried countless diets; she’d given up on a multitude supplements, contraptions and other fads which failed miserably in their claims to help her lose weight. She felt hopeless.  Then, one day, her younger sister had a heart attack and Anne suddenly woke up. She came to see me and we started her on a radical new treatment plan.

One year later, Anne is 60 pounds lighter, off all her medications but one, and feels like a new woman — a woman who got her life back. And it’s all thanks to what she calls her ‘miracle’ treatment. Anne’s treatment boasts, among its benefits: weight loss, improvement in blood sugar and blood pressure, lessened depression and anxiety symptoms, increased sex drive, and improved pain control. To top it all off, it improves quality of life, lessens your chance of developing dementia, and reduces mortality. All with no side effects.

Anne’s miracle? Exercise.

If you have any doubts about the benefits of exercise, watch Mike Evans’ video, 155 minutes.  Thirty minutes of exercise daily lowers your risk of heart attack, stroke, arthritis pain, dementia — even fatigue. And the list goes on. It’s the best medicine any doctor can prescribe.

By all means, if you’re presently sitting at a healthy weight, keep your body fit and active simply by engaging in activities you love. Garden, do some home-renovations, cycle with your children, sign up for a 5 km run or Tough Mudder. Join an adult ballet class or get nostalgic and restart an active hobby that you remember enjoying as a kid. Have a good romp in the afternoon. Go for a long after-dinner walk with your spouse or a good friend. Make physical activity an enjoyable part of everyday life.

On the other hand, if you’re like the 62% of Canadian men or 46% of Canadian women who are overweight or obese, and you’re looking to lose weight to optimize your health, you have to up the ante. Follow these simple steps to begin your journey to a healthier you through physical activity:

1. Carpe Diem. There will always be reasons (or excuses) not to start your exercise programme. So, make today the day. Choose an activity — any activity. Take a 15 minute walk; get some yard work off your to-do list. Grab a calendar or beautiful journal to keep you honest (and motivated), and check off day one today. If you like your data electronic, try an app like Runkeeper. If you want to get fancy in tracking your fitness, an app marketed at athletes such as Training Peaks has some great features. Plus, a personal trainer or coach can enter workouts for you.

2. Take baby steps (and keep climbing). Take an honest stock of your present exercise levels and capabilities. If you’re new to exercise, start small. Schedule in 15 minutes per day, three days of the week. Then, don’t let your body reach a plateau. A safe guide to try to prevent injury is to follow the rule of tens. Each week, increase your weekly exercise by 10 percent — either in duration or intensity.

Let’s say in a given week you clock 3 sessions at 40 minutes each

3 x 40 minutes = 120 minutes

Your options for next week are:

1. Increase how long you exercise by 10%:

120 x 1.10% = 132 minutes

This could mean 3 x 44 minute sessions or 4 x 33 minute sessions

2. Increase how hard you exercise by 10%:

Keep your 3 x 40 minute sessions, but increase your average intensity by about 10% (see step 4 for how to estimate intensity).

3. Be an overachiever. Guidelines for recommended minimum physical activity for most adults is 150 minutes each week. Once you reach this prescription, give yourself a pat on the back, but don’t just do the minimum. The sky’s the limit.

4. Use a scale (a perceived level of exertion scale). Too often, patients report to me that they’re frustrated by an inability to lose weight or make health gains despite exercising. When I ask them to elaborate on their activity, however, they say “I’m on my feet all day” or “I walk instead of taking the elevator”. Now, the latter is a good first step, but, in itself, won’t cut it.

Those 150 minutes of recommended physical activity should be done at a moderate-to-vigorous intensity level. Moderate is defined as activity that will make you “sweat a little and breathe a little harder” while vigorous activity causes you to “sweat and be out of breath”. Not particularly objective, I know. Check out The Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion to guide your intensity increases.

5. Realize that it’s all in your head. My husband is triathlete and a voracious consumer of sports psychology literature. Here’s what I’ve learned from him: the mind often gives up far before the body requires; keep a positive attitude; recruit a friend for increased motivation; surround yourself with people who are supportive of your quest.

6. Set yourself up for success. Everyone has excuses for not exercising. “Exercise is boring.” “I don’t have time.” “It’s embarrassing.” “There’s no gym nearby”. Choose activities you enjoy to increase your likelihood of sticking with the programme — walk, run, swim, row, race, do yoga, lift weights — the options are endless. And, with technology advances and the internet in most homes, cost and location no longer need to be barriers to accessing great programmes. There are great fitness apps, free training programmes, exercise videos for every liking. A personal favourite of mine? Yoga with Adriene. This chipper yogi from Texas posts free videos on her own youtube channel for all skill levels to enjoy.

Remember, we all have the same number of hours in a day — you’re in charge of how you spend yours. Choose wisely.

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