An overworked colleague who was told to exercise as part of her treatment for osteoporosis complained to me about how much she resented going to the gym.
"When I am walking on a treadmill I have the same frustration I have when I am stuck in a traffic jam on the way to work. The minutes are ticking away, the 'to do' list is growing longer by the second, and I am stuck on this walk to nowhere. I don't have the time for this. I know I have to do it for my bones but I resent every minute."
She is not alone in finding it difficult to justify spending time exercising despite its well known benefits. Like her, most people know that a regular exercise regimen will pay off in terms of heart and bone health, better sleep, improved memory, decreased stress, and weight stability. But like her, they resist or resent making physical activity a basic part of their routine.
The most obvious reason is lack of time. How does one fit going to the gym or for a run or walk when family, work, household obligations, social commitments, commuting and travel use up almost all available time?
This is a problem not easily solved.
Our lawyer works in an office building with a full gym in the basement. He never uses it.
"The administrative staff use it," he told me. "They go there on their lunch hour or after work. But the lawyers rarely get downstairs. We are just too busy. And honestly, I don't think anyone regards spending time lifting weights as justifiable when the same time could be spent earning money for the firm."
And it is doubtful that this situation will change any time soon. Employees will be given time and approval to exercise only when it becomes profitable for the company. If and when it is perceived that the effects of physical activity on improving cognitive function leads to increased productivity and decreased health costs, then exercising will become part of the workday. But until then, people who go for a run at lunchtime or leave at the end of the work day to go to a nearby gym rather than working longer hours may be looked upon as shirking their obligations.
Some refuse to exercise because they feel their time is too valuable to waste on something that has no immediate benefit: They don't weigh less after a strenuous workout (unless they lost a lot of water by sweating), their muscles are no bigger and their stomach no smaller. Even though these positive changes will occur, those who want results as soon as they step out of the shower may not stick around long enough to see them.
Others don't want to use their limited time on exercise that is simply too boring, irrelevant or silly.
It is time to rethink how we market exercise to those who aren't buying it. Public service announcements or warnings from T.V. doctors are not influencing enough people to start doing some physical activity. People have to be convinced of two things: physical activity can be integrated into their daily life, and working out does not mean they have to stop working.
Given the rapidity with which new gadgets are appearing, the near future may see cardiovascular machines that have devices to prop up iphones and ipads rather than magazines, and television monitors on the ceiling so the stock prices can be seen while doing leg lifts on a mat.
In the meantime, consider some of these low-tech suggestions for getting in a little exercise while completing your 'to do' list:
1. Park on the highest level of the garage and jog up to your car after shopping or work. Do not do this with stiletto heels. Check your voice mail while doing this.
2. Food shopping takes valuable time away from your other obligations. Decrease the time you spend in the supermarket by race- walking with your shopping cart (Try not to bump into other shoppers, swerving improves hand-eye coordination)
3. Balance on one foot while waiting in line. After two minutes, change the foot. Do not hold onto shopping carts, counters or the ATM machine. Do not do this wearing those stilettos. When you become adept at this, do your e mail at the same time.
4. Pick up litter. This only works if you live where there is litter and you carry a plastic bag to wrap around your hands. Squat rather than bend over so you do not injure your back. People do squats all the time in the gym but doing it on the sidewalk over a discarded soda can helps your muscles and the environment.
5. Keep a stretchy cord or light weights on the passenger seat and do arm and back exercises while waiting at long traffic lights. Do not tie cord around stick shift.
6. Use a hand-free cell phone so you can talk while jogging. ( Unless you are training for a race and doing speed work, your pace should allow you to carry on a conversation without panting). If your conversation is private, do not do this in a crowded gym or running /walking path.
7. Pace up and down your office while on a conference call or if possible, go for a walk. Why waste good exercise time sitting at your desk when you could be expending calories?
8. Practice your presentations out loud while exercising on a stationary bike or elliptical trainer. No-one will hear you because of the noise around you. The timer on the machine is an added bonus so you can time your talk. This works if you are a singer as well. A friend who sang in a highly regarded amateur chorale used to do all his practicing in the gym.
9. Identify destinations in your neighborhood such as the post office, library, school or supermarket that are between one to two miles away. When the weather permits, walk or bike rather than drive to these places. You may not be able to go the entire round trip at first but keep at it. Eventually the distance will seem doable and you will be simultaneously exercising and walking to somewhere, not nowhere.
10. Exercising can be an ideal time to think. We all need time to free-associate, think creatively, make plans, analyze a complex work or personal problem. A writer -friend visualizes her characters while she is walking and a colleague who does long distance biking on weekends finds himself coming up with new ideas for experiments .
And remember, the 'to-do' list never goes away, at least until you are over 90. But if you want to live in good health so you can throw away that list, start exercising now.
Follow Judith J. Wurtman, PhD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stopmed_wt_gain