Exercise. Not too much. Mostly Walking.

James H O'Keefe, MD, cardiologist and Medical Director of the Charles and Barbara Duboc Cardio Health & Wellness Center at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute.

James H O’Keefe, MD, cardiologist and medical researcher.

Are we exercising for health, fitness, or longevity?  I must have watched this TED Talk by Dr. James O’Keefe Jr. about a dozen times, and it hasn’t gotten old!  His message is extremely and immediately important to every exerciser; and it is counterculture to the direction that exercise has gone in this country – towards excess and extremism.

In my practice I frequently advise folks on their exercise habits and I find that many mistakenly associate the approaches that lead to cardiorespiratory fitness and athletic strength with their goals of feeling better in their bodies and maintaining health and physical independence as they age.  To my mind, the goals of improving both health and fitness are compatible, and health and longevity are as well, but fitness and longevity may not be.  I know this may be tough to chew for fitness enthusiasts and professionals alike, but wouldn’t most anyone agree that ‘too much exercise’ is a bad thing?  I suspect so, and I also suspect that watching the video below will present quite a surprise when O’Keefe presents research on just how much exercise constitutes too much exercise… at least, with regards to living longer.

To my mind this video should be shown to all who are taking up exercise, and serve as informed consent for those who are seeking athletic heights of fitness.  O’Keefe made a very important point that I think should give pause to all exercisers: we’ve only been doing this exercise thing for a few decades – lifelong results are just now coming in.  To sum it up, as he said towards the end: regular exercise is like alcohol consumption – don’t abstain from exercise and don’t frequently binge-exercise (January gym joiners and crossfitters take note).

Hippocrates, who also said "Foolish, the doctor who despises knowledge acquired by the ancients."

Hippocrates, also accredited with saying “Foolish, the doctor who despises knowledge acquired by the ancients.”

Again, this isn’t surprising advice; two and a half millennia ago, Hippocrates said “The right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little, not too much, is the safest way to health.”  The surprise for me when I first watched the above video was at what point plenty of exercise becomes too much exercise.

And now, just in case everything has been pretty straight-forward and crystal clear up to this point, I would like to point out that exercise is synonymous with physical activity – it’s just that exercise is physical activity undertaken with the intention to improve or sustain health and fitness.  When O’Keefe presented some information from the impressively large Chinese study, he briefly mentioned that the “moderate exercise” was just walking, housework, being off one’s duff.  Including more physical activity in one’s life is what Drs. Mike Evans and James Levine are all about. These folks aren’t talking about tri-athletics; following their advice need not entail a gym membership.  Deciding to pace about while being on the phone or during commercials has helped my dad hit over 5,000 steps a day – doing the exact same things he would have done from a chair.  I’ll climb off my soap box before I get revved up, but I hope that you will have seen that exercise need not be frequent, long, and intense, and that walking shouldn’t be overlooked.  After all, Hippocrates also named walking as man’s best medicine.

By the way, has anyone caught the subtle tribute in the titling of this post :-)

UPDATED 2/2/15