What if I don’t exercise?

One of my staff members (I operate a fitness and aquatic center) received an interesting question recently — “What if I don’t exercise?”. Seems like a pretty straight forward question but one we actually don’t hear out loud all that often. The benefits of exercise seem to be generally accepted at this point but what would happen if you don’t exercise? Let’s say, right now, it’s been years since you’ve exercised and you feel “fine”. Things seem to be going along pretty good so, what if you don’t exercise?

The simplest answer I can give is this — your body will betray you. After years of pampering and coddling, years of avoiding overexertion and strain and of supplying all the tasty treats it asks for, your body will turn on you. It won’t happen overnight. No, your body is more sinister than that. You’ll think you two are in this together. The whole time it is asking you to sit down, slow down, take the elevator, walk, don’t run, kick back and relax (and my favorite commercial tag line of all time — “don’t just sit there, eat something!”), it is slowly eroding the foundation upon which your life is built — your health.

Internally, you are aging in the way that most people view as being “old”. You’re getting weaker as your body shrinks your muscles and weakens your bones (you’re not using them anyway so they won’t be missed until it’s too late). Your heart shrinks and weakens as well and your arteries, your system for supplying blood, oxygen and other nutrients throughout your body, begin to clog and/or harden. Your blood is changing too as it becomes thicker, harder to pump and less able to carry oxygen to your muscles, organs and brain. Your body also removes less of the sugar, or glucose, from your blood, and these levels begin to rise (onset of diabetes).

Your body is tricky here because, while this is going on, it is also working to ensure you don’t get too sick. You think you’re okay because you haven’t been to the doctor’s in a long time, you never miss work and you feel “fine”. This gives your body time to work its evil plan.

A particularly sneaky trick your body plays is when it makes sure the scale doesn’t change in those early years. As it is taking away the muscle and bone, it replaces it with an equal amount of fat so the scale says you weigh the same as you always did (a rather ingenious plot). You may notice things are a little softer than they used to be but your body knows you’re too busy to worry about that right now. And it continues to chip away.

After a while, daily activities become harder, climbing stairs seems like a chore, playing with your kids drains your energy and your posture even begins to change. Rounded shoulders, a protruding stomach, and no butt are common characteristics of a body acting as a double agent. But you miss some of these signs because yours is not the only body doing this — everyone around you is changing so it seems “normal”. “Everything’s fine, go about your business”, it seems to say, “you’re okay, just look around, you’re not in as bad a shape as that guy over there”.

And on it goes until your muscles get too weak, your bones too brittle, your balance too poor and your weight too much, so that movement becomes more and more difficult. Your stamina is nonexistent but that’s okay because we have motorized everything (or at least placed benches in convenient spots). Your visits to the doctor have increased, as have your medications, and it’s starting to get expensive. Just when it looks like your body has taken all that it can, it takes the last thing that makes you, you — your independence. Without muscles, bones, and a strong heart, without the ability to get around on your own — without your health — you must rely on others and the betrayal is complete.

That’s a pretty grim story but it doesn’t have to turn out like that. You can fight back, you can make your body do your bidding and you can avoid the traps being set for you everyday. Your muscles, bones, cardiovascular system and brain need to be challenged — wait, it’s not your body that is betraying you, it’s your brain! In the greatest trick of all, our minds have convinced us that our bodies want to sit idle and relax. It’s not true! Your body wants to move, it wants to struggle and strain, use its muscles, pump its heart, jump, run, dance, play, laugh and be healthy. It wants to do these things because it knows it needs to in order to thrive, not just survive. You must move and the more you do, the more your brain will begin to realize that it feels better this way. In fact, your brain will begin to feel so good, it might actually start asking for more exercise and pretty soon, you will be “an exerciser” and the better for it. I think we have uncovered the betrayal just in time. Good luck and keep moving, your body will thank you!