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How often should I exercise
Author: Cleaves M. Bennett MD FACP
Monday, January 07, 2008

You probably need to exercise a minimum of three times a week, and ideally five times a week, with a lower level of exercise (some casual walking, perhaps) on the sixth day. And then it's important to get one day of rest, to allow your muscles, your bones, and your joints to heal up and toughen up.

Eventually, when you've been exercising for some time, you may wish to do it seven days a week. I do—but I've been at it for quite a few years. For, now, let's take a gradual approach to this whole thing.

You'll probably find out after a short while that you're becoming more physically fit than you were. You'll find that a certain level of exercise that used to exhaust you—pushing your heart rate up, putting you into a sweat, and forcing you to breathe very deeply—just simply isn't a problem any more.

You're making progress.

I made a lot of progress, pretty fast. Back in the early ‘70s I was so physically out of shape, I had nowhere to go but up! After several months of vigorous training, workouts, sore, stiff muscles, and tired lungs, I measured how just long it took me to run one mile—twelve minutes.

A chart in one of Dr. Ken Cooper's books showed me that being able to run a mile in twelve minutes was right on the border between being in poor and very poor shape for someone of my age. Clearly I had a long, long way to go!

I didn't advance from zero up to thirty or forty minutes seven days a week overnight. It took awhile—years, actually, since I had no guidelines and no sense of urgency about improving.

Hey, if I can do it, anyone can. Short of patients with actual heart or lung disease, I've never met anyone who was in worse physical shape than I was before I started. I was a recent ex-smoker and totally sedentary. High cholesterol (about 240) and high fat/high salt diet. Tense, stressed, marriage on the rocks, kids not doing so well at school, fights at home. Too much anger, that’s the killer emotion. So if you're in bad shape, take heart from my story—and go for it!

If you've been working with a doctor or the exercise physiologist at a health spa, and they've given you an exercise prescription, in a few months it may be time for you to go back to them and say, "Hey, I'm in much better shape now. So maybe I'm ready for a higher level of exercise."

You might progress from a constant brisk walk to three quarters walking and a quarter jogging, then to half and half, and then to straight jogging. And then again you might not. Sometimes you may stay at roughly the same level of exercise for a while. And that's where what we call interval training comes in.

The idea of interval training is to increase the level of exercise you're getting gradually. And you do it by exercising for a minute or two at a higher, more intense level during your regular aerobic workout. If you're doing a brisk walk, you could find a tree that's maybe a block or two away and jog to the tree. Then slow back down to your regular brisk walk.

You can do this kind of thing several times in one exercise session and begin to push your heart rate up a bit; maybe 8-10 beats/minute and prepare yourself for a higher level of exercise. You'll find that after a few weeks or months you'll be able to exercise at this higher level—and still pass the talk test, i.e. still maintaining your Training Heart Rate.

But once again—if you've got some of the risk factors for heart disease, you should check with your doctor before you start increasing the intensity of your exercise. Get her okay to do it.

Another rule; don't increase your distance or speed more than about 10 percent every week or every other week. That's a rule that helps to prevent injury.

I broke this rule once and got hurt. I'd been running a mile and a half a day for many months. A lady friend of mine who had run marathons was starting her usual ten miles jog along the beach one Saturday morning and macho me; I decided to go with her. At six miles I dropped out lame with a very painful knee. She had to run on and fetch the car.

Boy was I embarrassed! But I learned a good lesson. Push it, but not too far, and not too fast.

As I walked along watching the other joggers sail past me, I wanted to tell each and every one of them, "I've just hurt my knee, that's why I'm walking". I set myself back six months that day, just because I pushed too hard and acted too macho.

Now don't use this story as an excuse not to exercise at all—the way every skier I see coming back on crutches allows me to put off learning to ski a little longer. You can learn to exercise safely if you'll just follow the guidelines. I want to reassure you of that.

While you are exercising, I'd like you to pay more attention to your body than you usually do. By that I mean pay less attention to what’s going on around you and more attention to the body feelings that are coming into your consciousness. (Hey, I don’t mean to run into strollers or ignore onrushing SUV’s,) Maybe you'll feel some stiffness in your knees and hip at first or your feet will hurt. Those aches and pains are your body's way of talking to you. Hence the admonition, “listen to your body.” If it hurts, you’re doing something that doesn't work. It’s likely you’re exercising too intensely. Slow down a bit, even if you have to go below your THR.

Ridiculous as this may sound, if you do pay close attention to your body you'll learn something about walking and running. You’ll be learning with your body, so it won't be limited to an intellectual process. You'll find that as you pay attention to your body it begins to change. You'll fall into a better, easier stride. Your sense of balance will improve. You’ll feel the pleasure of a strong heel-toe foot stride. You’ll feel your body warm up. You’ll feel more limber.

And with practice, what was at first uncomfortable will begin to feel easier and more natural. My stride is now immeasurably stronger, more stable and self-confident. I’ve totally converted to belly breathing. And to watch my dog and myself stay fit and sleek into our senior years is a real joy and source of pride.

When I first started out I was pretty shaky—I really thought I looked ridiculous, and I was quite self-conscious about it. Here’s this pear- shaped, pale (by Southern California standards), middle-aged man, huffing and puffing and holding his side, trying to act like—what, like a kid again? A runner? But after a while it became a whole different experience for me. It began to feel easy and natural and right. Like those folks I told you about, I plan to be exercising into my 90’s.

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