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Just Say No to Exercise

By Eric Van De Graaff, MD December 27, 2011 Posted in: Heart Health

For the past couple of years I've written blog posts about the age-old New Year’s resolution game.  Two years ago it was how to set and reach reasonable (not overreaching) goals.  Last year I focused on how to help your loved ones get the health screening they need.  After spending countless hours refining my thesis, reworking my talking points, and tuning my arguments, I came to the realization that no one really paid attention to anything I wrote anyway.  My guess is that not a single person made a single change to a single resolution based on my expertly crafted recommendations.

My first instinct was to work feverishly to come up with new insight on this subject—delve into the latest research, interview successful and failed “resoluters,” and contemplate humanity’s ongoing quest for self-improvement.

Nah.  Too much work.  Instead, I’m adopting a whole different approach.  This year I’ve decided that if I can beat ‘em I’ll just have to join ‘em.  Exercise seems to be pretty high on everyone’s list of resolutions they fail to live up to.  Over my years as a cardiologist I’ve heard a million excuses from people trying to justify why they don’t engage in regular activity.  Today, in order to help you quickly put to rest any misguided temptation you may have to add exercise to your resolution list, I have compiled an inventory of the most commonly employed excuses I’ve heard.  Feel free to share them with your family, your doctor, or even your cocker spaniel who’s always yapping to be taken out for a walk:

Exercise is too boring.  This justification is brilliant because it provides a way to avoid a trip to the gym with the excuse that you are just too darn intelligent.  My brain is such a hotbed of intellectual activity that 45 minutes on a treadmill will do irreversible damage to my finely honed array of neuronal synapses.  Other exercisers, those with lower IQs and less cerebral pep, can combat the boredom of an hour on the elliptical with television screens and iPods, and those (like me) who prefer to run or bike outdoors seem to be content with soaking up the scenery and pondering the mysteries of the universe.  That’s fine for mere mortals, but don’t you dare risk your own gray matter on such mindless activity.

My joints are too bad.  Another gem of an excuse, this one can apply to virtually anyone over the age of 40.  Back pain is nearly universal in the overweight population (strap an extra 50 pounds to the front of your abdomen for a dozen or so years and a few slipped discs are inevitable) and degeneration of the knee joints is epidemic.  I tell ya, doc, if it weren’t for these knees I’d be out doing triathlons.  But, hey, it’s bone on bone, so I’ll just have to spend my afternoons on the couch.  Just don’t let your doctor send you for a second opinion on your debilitation.  I recently spoke with Dr. Wesley Smeal—a noted physiatrist and sports medicine specialist—and asked him what percentage of people who justify inactivity due to joint problems are truly incapable of exercise.  His response:

“None.  Zero.  If you can move then there are exercises we can find for you.  Even patients with spinal cord injuries can be taught or assisted in order to remain active.  We can find a wide range of exercises—such as water therapy or even exercises while lying down— for virtually anyone.”

Try to emphasize your limp anytime you meet with your exercise-happy doctor and try your hardest to avoid a skilled physical therapist.

It’s too cold outside.  This is the one I’m tempted to use all the time.  Omaha is cold with a capital C.  Most days between November and April are miserable to anyone foolish enough to try to bundle up and tempt the frostbite gods.  Between June and August you can invoke the heat as a prime reason to stay on the couch—don’t want to end up in the ER with heat exhaustion.  As you cite this justification, try to ignore the fact that there’s a gym on every corner in this town, several metro malls available for walking, and a thousand treadmills in a thousand basements collecting dust.

I’m too short of breath.  This is a great “vicious cycle” excuse.  If you don’t exercise and pack on the pounds for just a few short years you’ll reach the point that a simple walk up a flight of stairs feels like an ascent up Everest.  I’ve had many patients pull out this old standby when explaining why they spend their days in the Barcalounger.  One such subject lasted about a minute on our cardiac treadmill test and jumped off the moment he started breathing a little heavy.  “There,” he proclaimed, “That’s the shortness of breath I’m talking about!”  He had come to view any type of breathing beyond his baseline as pathologic.  Of course, regular exercise is precisely the best therapy for such breathing difficulty, but don’t let your doctor try to convince you of that.

I’m just too tired at the end of the day.  You wake up early for work, spend hours slaving away at the job site, come home to a messy house filled with screaming kids and a demanding spouse, and by the time you have even a moment to think about exercise you are ready to collapse into a heap on your bed.  You are constantly fatigued, and the concept of waking up early to attack the elliptical just makes you sleepier.  A word of caution: this excuse is relatively easy for your doctor to disprove with something they like to call “hard data.”  Study after study has shown that people who are chronically fatigue experience a considerable improvement in their level of energy once they get into a regular exercise program.  In one example, researchers took exhausted volunteers and tested the effect of only 20 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise three times a week for six weeks.  The results showed a 65% improvement in energy level:

“Too often we believe that a quick workout will leave us worn out — especially when we are already feeling fatigued,” said researcher Tim Puetz, the lead author of the study, in a news release. “However, we have shown that regular exercise can actually go a long way in increasing feelings of energy — particularly in sedentary individuals.”

I’m too busy.  This one works as well as the “fatigue” excuse.  How dare anyone question the obvious fact that your life is too harried for exercise!  There are only 24 hours in a day, after all, and every single one is already spoken for.  Just don’t throw this excuse around other equally busy people who manage to squeeze in regular exercise.  One such individual is a man I met a few years ago, a corporate big shot at a local Fortune 500 company and spends his days in high-level meetings and on airliners jetting around the world.  I had him do a treadmill test that he passed with high marks and surprisingly youthful vigor.  When asked about his exercise habits, he told me that he wears a pedometer and makes sure he gets ten thousand steps a day regardless of his schedule.  On more than one occasion, when arriving late at night at a hotel halfway around the world, he spent the remaining minutes of the day on a treadmill in order to keep to his regimen.  “I haven’t missed a day in years,” he told me.  Guys like that are spoilers for this otherwise useful excuse.

Here’s my advice: print up this blog post and keep it handy.  The next time someone—especially a doctor—tries to convince you of the need for exercise, or if you’re remotely tempted to add this to your resolution list, just pull out this list and employ any one of these sure-fire excuses.

As for me, I’m feeling pretty good about turning to the dark side.  Perhaps my New Year’s resolution will be to write more about the merits of life as a couch potato.  Next month: scientific justification that meatlovers pizza hits all the requirements of the new food pyramid and how to convince your spouse that channel surfing is a legitimate mode of exercise.

Eric Van De Graaff, MD
Eric Van De Graaff, MD

Eric Van De Graaff, MD is a Heart & Vascular Specialist at CHI Health Clinic.

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