03/12/2012 06:24 pm ET Updated May 12, 2012

Be Like a Kid About Exercise

When I was 8 years old in 1958, our tract home in a southern California development was situated next to lemon groves. At the end of the street was a brand new high school and beyond that, rolling hills. Looking back, we spent a fair amount of weekend and summertime outside playing. Time wasn't structured like it is for kids today.

Within the lemon groves was "Wonderland" -- some mysterious woman's "mansion" with a koi pond that we could only get to by feats of stealth, which was consisted mostly of running away from the "the enemies" (orchard workers) yelling and screaming. At the high school we played "Convicts," a game in which everyone's name was either "Mac" or "Joe." The fun of convicts was in pretending to smoke, curse and spit, and it also involved escape, climbing chain-link fences and crawling on our bellies. From some TV show we gleaned the game "Horse Masters." We pretended to be riding dressage and jumping over ropes and other barriers we erected. We went into the then undeveloped foothills and spent entire days playing "Pioneers," returning at the end of the day dehydrated, sunburned, exhausted and ravenous.

It's really sad, in my opinion, that kids don't engage in the kind of playful and imaginative exercise that was typical for children before computers and smart phones took over their imaginations. Biking and walking by children aged five to 15 dropped 40 percent from 1977 to 1995, presumably because they are all glued to their computers, games and TV. Watching TV is passive and has been found by associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology of Harvard School of Public Health, Frank Hu, to be associated with obesity and an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Kids aren't the only ones who are getting fat and unhealthy from eating poorly and from lack of exercise.

Dr. Hu says, "We've spent years studying numerous nutritional and lifestyle factors. Good nutrition is essential for health [but] the single thing that comes close to a magic bullet, in terms of its strong and universal benefits, is exercise." Dr. Hu says get out and walk for 30 to 45 minutes per day to lower your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 30 to 40 percent. When it comes to exercise, Dr. Hu says, the more the better. "There is a straight dose-response relationship in both men and women. For preventing heart disease and stroke, there is no limit to the benefits of exercise."

Research has suggested that middle-aged women who take at least 10,000 steps per day (about five miles) average 18 percent lower body fat and have slimmer waists than women who walk fewer than 6,000 steps per day. Sedentary women (those taking fewer than 6,000 steps per day) are more likely to be overweight, obese and have thicker waists.

In addition to the many commonly known benefits of exercise it also causes the pleasurable release of endorphins, internal opiates that reduce the sensation of pain and heighten pleasurable emotions. So exercise will make you feel better in general. Also, because toxins are fat-soluble and are stored in fat cells, sweating provides a way for the body to flush toxins out of the system.

If we could only go back to the simple ways we exercised as kids before the introduction of distracting technologies. The big question is how to get motivated. What's worked for me is psyching up.

I've exercised almost daily for over 30 years. Every night at bedtime I visualize what I am going to do the following day, whether it's my yoga practice, biking, or a hike. I think about the enjoyment and the reward of what I have planned for myself. When I get up in the morning I already have that intention set in my mind and I am good to go. If I fail to psych myself up, or if my psyching up is lackluster (I really do not want to do it for one reason or another), when I wake up in the morning I face a nearly insurmountable psychological resistance and I usually end up not exercising that day. I'm convinced my passion for exercise has both to do with the real pleasure it has brought me over the years and also because of my habit of psyching myself has inadvertently programmed my brain into believing that exercise is enjoyable.

Beside my normal exercise routines of biking and yoga, I welcome ways in my daily life to increase my strength, flexibility and endurance. I do my own lifting of cases of Pellegrino, for example. When my 15-year-old whippet, Charlotte Brontë, poops out on a walk, I carry her as far as I can over my shoulders.

People have all kinds of good excuses for not exercising. If you are a martyr (my kids need me) make yourself a priority and they will admire you for it. If you are a workaholic (I have too much to do at the office) your work will still be there when you get back to it fresher and more alert. Or if you are a sloth (the game is on tonight) that's why God created DVR.

Every year on my birthday I do some kind of marathon exercise as a gift to myself. Carving out even more time than my usual daily exercise routine is a celebration for me. Start psyching yourself up today and when your next birthday rolls around, give yourself a great gift of being a kid again with a healthy day of exercise.

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