New Year's Resolutions    BDavid A. Holland, M.D.  - East El Paso location

So, how did last year's New Year's Resolution go for you?

My least favorite time to go to the gym is in January.  It's crowded.  Many of these people, I predict to myself, will not be here in the next couple of months.  The New Year's resolutions will be put off until next year, when the well-intending people will say "I'll really mean it this time," and the cycle will continue.

Mid-year in the gym it's great.  By late June and into July, it's already too late to work on looking good in a swimsuit, and there are no major holidays that demand fitting into nice clothes.  So, most of the people that partially-fill the gyms are in there for a steady reason—to stay in shape and try to prevent disease.

I was checking out groceries with my son the other day.  The gentleman in front of me had a belly that could be loaded into a wheelbarrow.  On the checkout conveyer belt was his purchase: a case of beer.  My wife, also recently, was with our four-year-old, again at the checkout counter.  With the honesty (and lack of volume control) of a toddler, he exclaimed "mommy, look how BIG her arms are!" referring to those of the lady in front of them; and the arms weren't big from muscle.  One of my wife's most embarrassing moments.

I've never been an ultra-marathoner (and never will be) or power lifter or top-notch athlete, but I just wonder sometimes: how much is enough?  How much will we put up with?  How bad do we let our health go before we do something about it, and why do we wait so long?  I wonder if people's health conditions truly bother them, or if people just don't notice how things gradually worsen until it's too late.  All too often, a newly-diagnosed case of hypertension causes the patient to say in wonder and confusion "but I feel great."  They never noticed that the reason they get headaches is that their blood pressure is near-stroke range.  Hence the term "silent killer," referring to heart disease and blood pressure issues. On the other hand, I think people know that they're probably not in shape, or that they probably have some health issues.  They know that the most they've done with their walking shoes is move them aside to vacuum around them, and they've noticed what a great clothes hanger their treadmill has turned out to be.  So, there's some component of denial going on in many cases.

I've been there.  And it's hard—very hard—to change any routine in your life.  Some of us just work too many hours.  A couple of years ago, I was helping with homeschooling in the mornings and working afternoons and evenings in a busy clinic.  The days were long, and I had little to no energy left over to exercise.  Both my wife—who was desperately sleep-deprived, caring for a nursing infant at that time as well—and I felt it.  It was too easy to justify catching up on some rest on those mornings when I could have exercised.  All of the tricks to get out of bed would often fail: getting shoes and shorts out the night before; getting to be a little earlier; subscribing to Runner's World® and reading their motivating articles; setting an extra alarm (that would just irritate my wife, because neither alarm really got me out of bed; sometimes I only made it to the couch, wearing my shorts and running shoes).  I've been there.  It's gotten to the point, many times in my life, where I literally feel horrible and the only remedy is to get out and get the blood circulating, like when sleep is the only solution to total and complete exhaustion, or a glass of water is to dehydration—it just has to be done.  At that point, to not exercise would feel worse than continuing without it.

I've also treated my body poorly in the past.  In the bullet-proof younger years, eating properly was not my concern.  Getting food when I was hungry was about the extent of my eating habits.  Several years of my life were polluted with excess alcohol and smokeless tobacco.  I don't even know if the changes I've made in the past 15 years will ever offset the damage incurred during these early years; but what's my alternative?  What's the alternative for any of us?  Stay the same?  Continue to feel fatigued, to be out of shape, to ache, to feel heavy and overweight?  To sleep poorly?  To "manage" your disease (and not get rid of it)?  What do you want?

No matter the degree or extent, or how difficult it is or how whiny I've been, dragging out of bed early in the morning, I've learned that the change has always been the better choice.  Even if the change brings about adverse events, I'd favor it.  I'd rather sprain my ankle running than fracture a hip from inactivity and osteoporosis.  I'd rather get hit by a car riding a bike (well, if it were a quick death) than die slowly and painfully of a failing heart or kidneys.

Why is it that we need to exercise?  What's the purpose?  Simply, because it's what our bodies need.  It's what your body needs.  They need to move.  They need to be challenged.  One can survive sitting in front of a computer for days on end, but the effects will not go unnoticed.  The bones grow weaker without being challenged and without the sun's vitamin D.  The heart de-conditions; muscles atrophy; and joints don't work as they used to, or should.  Some of you don't need to exercise as much.  You may swing a hammer or shovel most of the day, lifting, pushing, pulling—you need to rest and perhaps just work on your diet a little, maybe cutting back on the Friday night six-pack, if you have health problems or want to prevent disease.

Speaking of preventing disease, since most chronic diseases are lifestyle-induced, then another reason to exercise is to prevent and treat disease.  Exercise raises good cholesterol more effectively than medicine.  But, I understand: it's easier to lift that pill to your mouth than lift a dumb-bell.  So then, let me ask you not what's easier, but what would you prefer to do?  What would you prefer to tell your friends, your family, and your God what you do?  If you need a pill to lower dangerous symptoms, by all means, do the smart thing, but do something else, too.

What should you do, then, if you're feeling bad, or if you don't feel bad but haven't done any kind of exercise in a while?  For starters, you can stop reading this and go take a walk.  Don't think about it too much—just begin.  Too overwhelming are the big goals of losing 4 inches off your waist or dropping 50 pounds; sometimes you just have to start doing something.  For some, taking a walk around the block is too much.  Walk around your yard, or house, or in front of your house or building.  Don't buy one gym membership or treadmill, yet.  Maybe all you need is a pair of shoes.  If you've already bought some exercise equipment, just dust it off and try it out.  Don't worry about completing a 5k run or 30 minutes of cycling—just try it.  Do five minutes today, every day this week.  Next week, do 10 minutes a day.

Once you've reassured yourself that your body can move, then start thinking about your goals, but long-term; like, I don't want to be overweight and on 5 prescription medications when I retire in 20 years.  Here and there you can set shorter-term goals, like getting out of bed in the morning, or completing a 5k this spring or fall, or working out twice a week this month.  Do you see the point, though?  Just do something to get your body moving—and be an encourager to those that need it.  Once you're up and moving, encourage others to continue as well.  Smile or say good morning to someone along the path.  That way, they'll feel motivated to come back and offer the same to others.  If you're wondering about outdoor etiquette when exercising, I've found that the best rule is: be the first to smile and greet the other person passing you by.  If the other person doesn't acknowledge you, don't worry—they may be struggling, too.  You don't need to shout an obnoxious, early morning greeting (in fact, the Bible, in its wisdom, warns against that); sometimes just a nod of the head, and smile, and quick wave are enough.

I don't know what your threshold is for misery.  For me, it's several days without exercise.  By then, I'm fatigued, though without lack of sleep, and slightly grumpy or short-tempered (you do not have permission to confirm with my wife).  I'm miserable, in short.  The fix is to spend 30-40 minutes in the gym, or 3-4 miles out on the road, jogging.  I don't know if it's the adrenaline surge or blood flow or perspiration, but whatever it does, I feel better afterward.

There's another factor I've had to consider recently and that is: age.  My wife and I are now in our forties, and exercise is not only good for the spirit; it's required for healthy aging.  Again, we're not perfect, and we don't get in our "more than half of the days a week" or "1-hour a day" of exercise, but we do what we can in the face of raising three kids.

There's something else I've thought about when I go through bumper crops and droughts of exercise, and when I see people and talk with patients going through the same, and that is: it's the beauty of humanity.  It's just splendid to see failure, because on the flip side of that failure is the ability to turn things around and conquer.  Everyone who has failed at anything, and is still living, has the opportunity to change.  Sometimes it's discouragement that brings us to our knees.  Maybe that's exactly where God wants us to be.  When I've lacked any spark of motivation, I've needed extra help to get going.  Granted, exercise is not the most important thing in the order of life and creation and eternity, but we are charged as stewards of our bodies and it's our responsibility to be an example for young ones and not purposely depreciate and inflict disease upon our bodies by making conscious, repetitive bad choices.  "But we're free to do what we want."  Yes, indeed, you are; but you know how there's always a price to pay for freedom?  You'll find out what it costs when you grow older.  We're all at different stages of life.  Some of us have unfortunately already discovered that price, and have regrets; some of us are starting to see the results of our previous choices; and some can't even believe that (eew!) we'll be older than forty some day.

So I encourage you—and you do the same to others—to see right now as the critical time when you need to change, if not for yourself, then for your family or for the benefit of others, that you might be able to help them some day because your health worries are behind you, and you can show them what you've done.  For some of you, that critical time won't be right now—it'll be the next time you read this.  Like I said, I've been there.  But realize, as I must also, how brief our life is.  I pray that you'll be fed up with your disease or poor health sooner than later.

Make a New Day resolution.

P.S. Sometimes depression is behind lack of motivation.  These are some encouraging Psalms, if that's the case: Ps 42:11, Ps 91.  Talk with a doctor, or counselor or pastor, if needed, as well.

On Anxiety and Worry: Phil 4:13, Ps 27:1, Matt 6:25-31

January 2011