Jeffrey L. Strobel, a 47-year-old biotech executive from Carlsbad, Calif., tries to exercise at least three times a week at his local gym. But that wasn't always the case. For much of the past 20 years, Strobel, a former all-state athlete, focused more on running up the corporate ladder than running a full-court press on the basketball floor. As a result, his weight ballooned from 205 to 278 pounds and his rippled physique turned to flab.
In 2002, his wife, Susan, booked an appointment for Strobel with Todd Durkin, personal trainer and owner of Fitness Quest 10, a health and human performance center in San Diego. Strobel's first session lasted only five minutes. "Durkin was ready to call 911. He thought I would have a heart attack," recalls Jeffrey Strobel. The sad thing was, "it wasn't even a particularly difficult workout. I was just barely moving," he says.
That first session was a wake-up call for Strobel. After two years of regular exercise, he has lost weight and added muscle mass. But as vice president of operations at Molecular Medicine BioServices, he admits that finding the time to work out remains a challenge. "I can always find other things to do. It's easy to get distracted,î Strobel says.
"A LITTLE ACTIVE."
Strobel is not alone. Americans are more sedentary now than ever before, and the single biggest reason is lack of time. In a world where executives and other professionals work long days, commute significant distances, and still try to spend time with their families, it's hard to put time in at the gym. That's one of the reasons nearly 50 million American adults are obese, and another 108 million are overweight.
Exercise obviously helps, but long gym workouts aren't the only solution. Simply by changing your mindset and finding opportunities to get your body moving, you can squeeze in enough daily exercise to dramatically improve your health. You don't need a daily 45-minute session of nonstop aerobics, or hours on the bench pumping iron. "If you are inactive, then get a little active,î advises Harold W. Kohl, an epidemiologist at the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, a division of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. "And if you are a little active, then get more active."
Studies from the CDC and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) have demonstrated that 150 minutes of so-called "moderate intensity" activity -- brisk walking, swimming, or cycling -- could significantly reduce the risk of today's leading killers, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and bone fractures.
MAKE IT A DATE.
Moreover, exercise mavens now say you can divide your workout into smaller increments and still get health benefits. At the annual ACSM meeting in June, researchers from Britain's Loughborough University reported that people who took three 10-minute jaunts daily achieved the same overall fitness results as people who walked continuously for 30 minutes. "How you package the activity is not as important as how much you actually do. Package it any way [that] it works for you, just get it done," advises Russ Pate, an exercise physiologist at the University of South Carolina, who helped author a set of federal guidelines on exercise.
With limited time, what kind of exercise -- cardio, weight training, or yoga -- gives the most bang for the buck? There's no one answer to that question. It's more important to pick an activity that you enjoy and that fits into your daily schedule, advises Bess H. Marcus, a psychiatry professor at Brown University Medical School. If donning lycra and sweating in front of total strangers makes you cringe, skip the gym and opt for a bike ride or a walk around the neighborhood. If solitary workouts leave you blue, try to find a workout buddy. You can even hit a few golf balls at the driving range. "You've got to pencil it into your calendar. If something else comes up, just say you're sorry," says Jonathan Ross, a personal trainer at Aion Fitness in Bowie, Md.
Many people require a trainer to help set up a personalized fitness program. Strobel is the first to admit that his trainer, Durkin, deserves much of the credit for his regular exercise routine. "I can't do it by myself. But Todd expects me to show up and work out. I've paid for the sessions and ethically I am going to honor that commitment," he says.
SHARE THE COSTS.
Customization pays off, says John Atwood, owner of the Health Fit gym in Needham, Mass. A slender woman in her 30s is going to need a different workout than a 50-year-old man with a history of heart disease. "If you are only going to exercise for 30 minutes a couple of times a week, it absolutely has to be individualized,î Atwood insists.
Personal attention doesn't come cheap, but it doesn't have to break the bank. Ross, at Aion Fitness, says that when new clients are trying to establish an exercise program, he typically meets them several times a week for hour-long sessions. But over time, it's not uncommon for people to reduce their trainer sessions to once a month or even once every three months for tune-ups.
You can also cut costs by going in with a couple of friends on a personal training session, says Fitness Quest 10's Durkin. That way, you are only spending $25 or $30 per meeting instead of $90. You won't get the individualized attention, says Durkin, but you're much more likely to stick with your exercise program if others are holding you accountable. Just make sure that your training buddies are all in roughly the same shape as you, so everyone works hard.
MY VACUUM, MY TRAINER.
It's also important to keep the right attitude. "There is the belief in our country that if something is broken, we just replace it. But that doesn't work for your body. You need to reinvest in it, not simply depreciate it," says Dr. Edward M. Phillips, director of the Spalding Rehabilitation facility in Boston, Mass., and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. A 45-year-old father of three, Phillips is an expert at squeezing a 20-minute bike ride or half-hour swim in between seeing patients and taking care of the kids. "Sure, I'd like to go out for a 2-hour ride with the bike club, but 20 minutes is better than nothing," he says.
Phillips counsels his patients to move as much as possible throughout the day. If it's possible, take the stairs in your office instead of using the elevator. If you commute to work via public transportation, get off a stop or two earlier and walk the remaining few blocks to your office. If you drive to the office, park your car as far away as possible from the building entrance. During the day, if you need to confer with a colleague, don't just send an e-mail message to him or her from your workstation. Walk the memo to his or her office, taking some time to stretch your back, neck, and arms en route. At home, think power grocery shopping or manic vacuuming. Feeling tired at four o'clock? Take a brisk walk instead of doping up on coffee.
It's never too late to commit yourself to exercise -- and age and infirmity shouldn't stand in the way. Wayne Westcott, fitness director of the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass., recently designed a fitness regimen for 20 wheelchair-bound nonagenarians at a local nursing home. After 16 weeks of moderate strength training, 19 of the 20 were able to spend at least part of the day out of their wheelchairs. One was strong enough to live independently again. With anecdotes like that, doctors and fitness experts say the message is obvious: Do whatever exercise you can, and get started right away.