Run for Your Life! by Karl Hempel, M. D


Exercise has almost always been a part of my life.

The recommendations for the amount of exercise we need for health has gradually gone up over the years based on studies showing it is the most important thing we can do for our health, other than not smoking. The official recommendations from the CDC are to exercise for 30 to 60 minutes, preferably daily. An article came out in the American Journal of Cardiology recently which showed that running for as little as 30 min per week results in a 45% decrease in the chances of having a heart attack and the overall mortality was decreased by 30%. This study included 50,000 people over a 15 year period. The authors did say that activities other than running, such as walking, riding a bike or swimming, will also reap the same benefits. My first thought was that I have been exercising all of these years for at least six hours a week and all I had to do was exercise for 30 minutes a week! Then I realized why I started exercising. I was 27-year-old and still in that invincible mode we all go through when we are younger. I certainly was not worried about heart disease, because that would never happen to me. I started running because I had been gaining weight and I figured it would help me lose some. I ran what I thought was about 1 mile around Tom Brown Park, which proved to be very difficult. After my body got over the initial shock, all the sudden, I felt like a million dollars. I thought, “this is absolutely amazing!” So I began running almost daily for the next 35 years. I know, it sounds like somebody who had their first hit of methamphetamine.
Over time, I have noticed some very interesting things which have been beneficial to my overall quality of life. I noticed I seem to come up with solutions to daily life problems when I am running. I have made some interesting and difficult diagnoses of my patients. I do not think I have made any important decisions in the last 35 years without running it through my “exercise brain.” Over the years it has become apparent through studies that exercise allows access to the right side of our brain which is more creative and capable of “thinking outside the box.” Honestly, this has been one of the more positive benefits of exercise that I have enjoyed.
I also noticed that I seem to develop aches and pains when I do not run for several days because of travel, illness, or whatever reason. As soon as I start exercising again, my aches and pains resolve. We now know that exercise produces anti-inflammatory chemicals and pain killing chemicals. This is what has led the American College of Rheumatology to recommend regular aerobic exercise as the number one treatment for osteoarthritis. “Motion is lotion” is an appropriate saying for keeping our joints healthy.
Other symptoms I have when I do not exercise for a few days are increased irritability, anxiety, and general unhappiness. This uncomfortable reality became apparent when my office staff would politely ask me if I ran this morning within 10 min of walking in the door, if for some reason I was unable to exercise that morning. That was when I decided I would always exercise before coming to work. This phenomenon occurs because exercise has an antidepressant and antianxiety effect. I see this frequently in my practice in patients who exercise regularly and for one reason or another have had to stop exercising. They present with anxiety and depression which many times is significant enough to warrant treatment with medications until they can hopefully start exercising again.
I mentioned the pain killing chemicals released when we exercise which can cause the well-known “runners high.” This is because exercise releases endorphins. Endorphin actually stands for beta endogenous morphine which is the very chemical that causes runners high and reduces pain from arthritis or any other cause of pain. As you know, morphine is addictive. Well, guess what? Exercise is addictive as well and we need to recognize that. We need to understand if we stop, we may have withdrawal symptoms. Moderation is an important thing to consider for continued success with regular exercise. I recommend the 10,000 step program which is a national program to improve overall health in the workforce. As we age, routine exercise becomes even more important to maintain our independence. Weight training and balance exercises add to overall fitness and well-being.
When I am trying to convince a young person to exercise, it really does not do much good to tell them that exercise will reduce their cholesterol, reduce heart attacks and strokes, and help prevent diabetes. I need to tell them it will make them feel better, concentrate harder, be less irritable, reduce weight, anxiety and depression. If you really think about it all of these benefits can make you a more successful person. If you are selling a car or negotiating a contract for your company, I believe you are more likely to be successful if you make exercise a regular part of your life. I truly feel many of the successes I have had in my life are specifically related to that spring day in March of 1978, when I ran around Tom Brown Park for the first time.


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