THE BLOG

Why Should Exercise Be a Luxury?

01/02/2014 01:09 pm ET | Updated Mar 04, 2014

The health club was packed. Legs and arms were waving around in the air, grunts and groans came from the free weight area, and the thump, thump, thump, of heavy feet on the treadmills competed with the blaring music.

But this was no after work crowd of gym users. It was 11 a.m. during the winter vacation week, and the crowds of gym-goers were luxuriating in having time to really work out without watching the clock. The weather was foul outside, the sidewalks were crowded with people returning gifts or taking advantage of sales. But inside the gym member's concentration was solely focused on getting their bodies more fit, strong or well-toned.

A companion who has a difficult work schedule told me she was going to spend several hours working out. "I never have time to really exercise, " she told me. "I get to work really early and often don't leave until after 8 p.m. Going to the gym before work means waking up at 5 a.m., and I just can't do it. And at night, going to the health club means getting home after 10, and I am so wound up, I can't sleep... Being able to spend as much time as I want in the gym is a real vacation."

To the individual who thinks of exercise with the same delight as having a root canal, this thinking must seem insane. But for people whose bodies and heads simply don't feel energetic, clear, focused and alert without their daily or almost daily workout, not being able to do any physical activity is a psychological hardship. To them, a day without exercise feels like a day without being to brush their teeth. It doesn't feel right.

Yet in our ever-increasingly busy lives, finding time even to take a walk at lunchtime is difficult, and early morning or late afternoon meetings, heavy traffic during the commute, unexpected deadlines or elongated work hours because of seasonal demands... all of these reasons may make it impossible to exercise for days. Working 12-14 hour days is often demanded by corporate America and has become a necessity for many hourly workers. When the choice comes between making enough money to live, or going for a long run, few would choose the latter option. And jobs cannot be halted because it is time to work out. Can one imagine a neurosurgeon in the middle of a multi-hour operation saying to his team, "We have to stop now. There is a Zumba class I want to take at the gym..." ?

The response to this is (and mea culpa, I have said this to my own weight loss clients), " You can always make time to exercise." Theoretically, that is true. One of my clients, in the early days of computerized spread sheets, showed me how he scheduled exercise into his week. He analyzed how random time periods could be used for a run, or at home weight lifting, or riding his exercise bike, instead of looking at his email or doing laundry. Because he lived by himself, he did not have to consider the schedules and needs of others when deciding at which time to work out. Moreover, he had turned his living room into a quasi-gym, so he did not have to spend time traveling to a health club or the Y. Most of us do not have this option, alas.

The scientific literature is replete with articles attesting to the multitudinous benefits from exercise. There is no dispute over these data. Alas, the scientific and public policy literature is not similarly replete with articles that allow timely and easy access to exercise for most adults. The oft-repeated recommendations to walk are irrelevant for people who live in harsh seasonal climates hostile to outdoor walking, or who live where it is dangerous to walk. Where and when, for example, do shift workers exercise? What about those with two jobs and a family, or people who are constantly on a plane flying to far-off time zones, and then back two days later? How many can afford memberships at the Y, or more expensive health clubs, or have the money or space for at-home exercise equipment? Do factories, hospitals, government buildings, department stores, supermarkets, etc., have workout spaces for their employees? And those that do, like corporate or legal offices, may have well-appointed health clubs in their basement, but rarely give their employees the time to use them.

Perhaps the answer to ensuring that workers have time to exercise is to be found in the history of labor laws. Working conditions were appalling until political processes acknowledged that they had to be improved. We no longer have child labor in this country, employees have the right for two days without work each week (although email and text requests related to work erode the time off), and workers are allowed time for bathroom breaks and meals. Employers cannot demand that people skip meals in order to work longer hours, or forbid them to go to the bathroom until the end of their shift.

Should we now consider legislation to ensure that a 15- or 20-minute exercise break be built into the work day? It sounds radical, but is probably less so than the laws that reduced the workday to eight hours many decades ago, or legislation not allowing children to work in mines or crawling into machines to clean them. Having two days off from work was unheard of, and considered only something the rich and/or retired could enjoy. Must exercise also be an unattainable luxury as well? If so, then good health may also be.