Don't Just Exercise…Play For the Fun of It!

A recent research study showed that exercise is as effective as the anti-depressant Zoloft in relieving depression. While most people are surprised by that statistic, an Ayurvedic physician would not be amazed at all.

The ancient Ayurvedic Sanskrit texts describe two benefits to exercise. The first and most important is best translated as “to create exhilaration,” which my dictionary defines as a “feeling of happiness and excitement combined with a heightened sense of being alive.” The side benefit, the texts state, is to make the body light and supple.

There is a big difference between fitness and health. Terry Fox, the teenager who was logging seventy to eighty miles a day running across Canada with a prosthetic leg during the 1970’s on behalf of a cancer foundation, was the epitome of fitness. But he was forced to stop halfway because cancer was found throughout his lungs. Highly fit, terrible health. On the other hand, I know elderly people who have never been sick or needed to see a doctor and who rarely walked more than a couple of blocks per week, and even then only under duress. Not fit, but excellent health.

The jury is still out on whether exercise actually makes us live longer and more free of disease. Harvard alumni who kept physically active since college live longer than their fellow students who don’t, including the students who were jocks in college. This brings up a critical issue that my own orthopedist and I are highly qualified to comment upon: the only physical activity that will extend life is one that is not dangerous and is easy on the joints. If due to aggressive exercise and other adventures during youth you end up with worn out or injured joints that prevent you from being active into old age, wherein lies the benefit for longevity?

If it is true that we find ourselves in the midst of an epidemic of obesity together with its resultant diabetes and other weight-related diseases, one of the major factors must be our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. We dine in abundance on delicacies from around the world without lifting a finger, much less without the need to walk, hunt or dig in the fields to make a living as did our recent forebears. This is why every successful weight loss program emphasizes developing the habit of regular exercise. Long-term success is only a matter of accounting: energy ingested less energy expended equals change in weight.

Unfortunately most people view exercise as a way to burn calories so they can continue to enjoy their three squares plus snacks in between. But exercise has been shown to be good for our bones, heart, elimination, endocrine glands, immune function and now our moods. Even more unfortunately, research has shown that persisting with a fitness program that is boring will eventually fail. My patients confess that they push themselves to “be good” for a while, but get derailed by bad weather, holidays, a cold, responsibilities and other excuses. Soon they’ve lapsed back into their sedentary lifestyle. Or they reason they can’t afford or hate going to a health club.

The answer is that they are “trying” to “exercise,” two words that imply work, penance and austerity. The ancient Ayurvedic texts stand in sharp contrast to the idea promoted by the fitness industry that you have to work out for an hour three to four times a week. Research supports the ancients. The Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas randomized 235 people into one group doing simple lifestyle activities and one doing structured workouts in the institute’s gym. The lifestyle group did gardening, playing with kids, walking, golf, dance, biking, or other enjoyable activities. At the end of the study, both groups had similar improvements in muscle mass and fat loss.

When counseling patients about getting moving, I write on their recommendation sheet, “Play, ideally outdoors, about thirty minutes a day.” The subtle difference in attitude this advice engenders is dramatic. “Play” implies that above all, you are doing it for fun. Only then does it fulfill the Ayurvedic prescription of creating exhilaration. The only useful attitude about the purpose of exercise and the only way exercise will ever become a life long habit is when the incentive is the fun of the activity itself and not the promise of a svelte or even a healthy body. Go out to play for the sheer joy of it.

I tell patients they need to invest in a few toys: walking or hiking shoes, in-line skates, a bicycle. Whatever they see as fun (and safe!). Every day before your “playtime” sit quietly with awareness in your body for a minute or two. How do you feel? Pick something fun to do based on how you feel. Too fatigued to even contemplate outdoor play? Try a long slow session of yoga or Tai Chi, or gently bouncing on a mini trampoline, or a slow nature walk. Too hyper? Fast walking, dancing, vigorous yoga, or a good swim or aqua-jogging. Just feeling dull? Try salsa, or get on a bike and start slow, and just watch the joy come back after a mile of watching nature go by. Got energy but stuck in a rut? Go for something physically challenging like a long bike ride or hike.

By the way, cross-country skis will do wonders for people who dread winter. The most important investment of all may be some water resistant boots, pants and parka, because there is no such thing as weather too foul for a walk, there is only inappropriate gear.

Jay Glaser, MD is a board certified internist and medical director of the Lancaster Ayurveda Medical Center in Sterling, MA. You can order his free newsletter atsubscribe@AyurvedaMed.com or at 978-422-5044.