Exercise and Fitness

Exercise Is Medicine, At the Right Dose

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You’ve probably heard the saying, “Exercise is Medicine.” I can say with certainty it’s true, on both personal and professional levels.

Like many of you, I went through a rough patch after the coronavirus pandemic began.

A year’s worth of speaking engagements and events were abruptly canceled. A lot of eagerly anticipated projects and contracts dried up. Through it all, I had to continue managing a busy household and making sure my family’s needs were met. As a healthy living coach, I also supported a lot of clients in their efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle in the midst of the new normal.

I’d actually reached a point at which I started to feel emotionally overwhelmed. Having noticed the mood change, my husband asked if I needed a break.

Prior to the pandemic, I was infamous for taking solo staycations and mini getaways to clear my mind and hear myself think. But this time I felt different. I didn’t think a stayca or getaway was the cure. I knew exactly what I needed. Hadn’t really had it since the onset of COVID. I knew it was just the medicine my body craved. So, instead of telling my husband I needed a break, I told him I needed a run.

Exercise is Medicine, in Its Purest Form

Science demonstrates that people who exercise feel better, function better and even sleep better. However, the type of exercise varies widely from person-to-person. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all amount or “dose.” As with medicine, it’s possible to underdose and overdose on exercise (the latter is far less common so that’s a conversation for another day).

Each person is different and, therefore, may react differently to different types and doses of exercise. Some people may get a good dose from a few Zumba or spinning classes a week while others may get their fix from regularly engaging in HIIT (high-intensity interval training) or heavy weightlifting sessions.

For well over 20 years, I got my fix from running long distances of 40-50 miles a week. If you regularly follow me, you’re likely aware that I had to dramatically cut back on running due to a high-risk pregnancy and subsequent caesarean section. I was really looking forward to getting back on the pavement after a full recovery.

Unfortunately, in the midst of the COVID lockdown I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis of the knee. It was both a surprise and a major blow to my efforts to resume some semblance of my running regimen. My regimen was my mental therapy. And, honestly, I hadn’t been right since I stopped.

Since the osteoarthritis diagnosis, I’d been performing targeted resistance exercises to increase stability and strength in both my knees. I also continued to engage in indoor cycling and elliptical training along with uphill walking in order to maintain my cardiovascular health. While this was great for me physically, I hadn’t got the mental fix I needed. So, I made an executive decision to hit the pavement again, but with caution.

How I Got My Exercise Mojo Back

Since my neighborhood is very hilly and pretty challenging even during walks, I decided to drive to a nearby trail. The relatively flat terrain and modest inclines in this particular trail are very similar to those of Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, which is where I initially started distance running. Pretty symbolic – it was like a new start.

I set aside two hours for the run so that I would have enough time to stretch, stop and/or walk, if need-be. Given my diagnosis, I was pretty nervous. Additionally, with my professional areas of expertise, I know firsthand that knee osteoarthritis is no joke. I decided to start with a long warm-up walk – and I had every intention of running a total of three miles roundtrip, tops.

Three miles later, however, I changed directions for what would ultimately turn out to be six straight miles roundtrip. While my pace was modest (5-5.5 mph), I was in full stride for the entire duration of the run. This was my first run since the diagnosis and my longest since undergoing the cesarean delivery. I had absolutely no pain and no discomfort. What I did have was an amazing feeling of euphoria also known as the “runner’s high.”

Exercise is Indeed Nature’s Miracle Drug

That so-called ‘runner’s high’ is generally triggered by the body’s production and release of endorphins. Endorphins are essentially the brain’s ‘happy’ or ‘feel good’ hormones. Low endorphin levels have been linked to depression, anxiety and negative mood. Needless to say, that six-mile run was just the medicine my body needed.

I can honestly say that I hadn’t felt that good during a workout in a very long while. Goes to show that we’re all different in the ways we react to different types of exercise. Though I’d been exercising in a lot of different ways, I was missing that unique ‘high’ that comes when I run. In this sense, for me, running is mental medicine.

If you regularly exercise, know that it can be the best form of medicine. It comes with very few side effects and a laundry list of benefits ranging from heart health, metabolic control and cancer prevention, to immune health, hormonal balance and healthy weight management, to emotional health, stress relief and even improved sex drive. But consistency is key. 

Medicine is meant to be taken regularly to ensure that you have an effective amount of ‘drug’ in your body at all times. The same holds true with exercise. Because exercise is indeed medicine.

How to Find the Right Dose for You

You don’t have to be a runner to experience that exercise-induced endorphin release. You can get similar benefits from cycling, swimming, brisk walking, HIIT, lifting weights or whatever form of exercise you choose. Figure out what you like, do it, and do it often. Just as you would take medicine. Depending on your preferred workout method and physical condition, this might be as little as three to as much as six days a week.

As for me, not sure if I’ll ever put in the running mileage my body was once used to. But I now know that the euphoric runner’s high that I experienced during that infamous run was just the medicine I needed at the time. For that reason, I remain committed to getting in at least 2-3 good running bouts a week in combination with other types of exercise. That’s my own personal exercise prescription. Now, what’s yours?

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