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October 30, 2018

Getting Back in Shape: Pearls and Pitfalls of Fitness

Getting Back in Shape: Pearls and Pitfalls of Fitness

From Dr. Edward Gundy, Westmed Orthopedist

When you were in high school, it would take a couple of weeks to get in shape. It might be painful during those weeks, but then your sport would take you the rest of the way magically.  Well, it turns out, it’s all downhill from there.

Collegiate athletes stay in shape by necessity in order to compete. College students, on the other hand, typically go through long lapses of physical inactivity, underuse, and even abuse at the hands of the rigors of college academic demands, stress, malnutrition, and social activities. This is the first introduction to the hiatus during which body parts lie fallow. The smooth lining of joints and cartilage softens, and muscle tone gets flabby.  Inconsistency of use allows this to happen.  Then, when the student decides to resume exercising–often during junior or senior year–the re-entry takes longer, gets painful and discouraging, and the dreaded thought arises, “maybe I need to stop”.  After three weeks of “rest”, a renewed, somewhat tentative attempt elicits the same push-back.  This is most common with knees, lower back and shoulders.

This vicious circle can cycle repeatedly until you “get it”. There is a logical reason for this: Our joints and the muscles that move them were “designed” for us to run, chase, dodge, capture, escape, and kill just to stay alive.  We’ve come a long way!  But cartilage (an amazing hard and glistening  tissue in our joints) is only as hard as we keep it.  Furthermore, it is only nourished when moved and compressed.  So “rest” is not its friend.  Muscle is only as strong and fit as we keep it.  When we rest briefly, nothing changes, and this tissue goes through a little “maintenance”.  But when we remain inactive for any reason (illness, depression, stress, final exams), muscle and cartilage soften.  The longer the inactivity, the deeper in the hole of deconditioning we sink. Soft cartilage hurts when it is suddenly asked to perform feats of vigor.  Flabby muscles ache after they are asked to be suddenly youthful.

This happens at any age but usually starts in the 20’s. Each decade has characteristic excuses for it.  In the 20’s, college, graduate school and starting a career leaves “no time”.  In the 30’s, starting a family, moving, and chasing children and career further leaves “no time”.  In the 40’s, family becomes overwhelming  with child demands, parental parent needs, and the career is flying.  The result?  “No time” for exercise.  In the 50’s, all of these become more unpredictable in causing longer and longer hiatus times, making it sometime impossible to sustain regular exercise patterns. By the time you’re in your 60’s, children are grown, parental parents are becoming challenged, career may be settling down or slowing, and exercise is now more feasible–except now the deconditioning hiatus effect takes its worst turn:  “I can’t get started”.

So the key to this whole conundrum is to avoid the hiatus in the first place by keeping your life balanced with regular mindful exercise every day–every day.  Brief lull times are less tolerable as the decades tick by.