Sunday, May 20, 2001

Many people say they just dont have time to exercise.

Take Jennifer Hogan of Ar-lington County. As a stay-at-home mother of two small children, her day is filled with changing diapers, reading stories, mediating squabbles and keeping her small home from looking as if a bomb went off in it by the end of the day. She doesn´t have a lot of spare time.

But anxiety over fitting into a bridesmaid dress for a friend´s big Southern wedding last summer inspired Mrs. Hogan to add exercise to her schedule soon after the birth of her second child, Jack, now 15 months old.

“I wanted to look halfway re-spectable for this wedding, so I started bringing Jack to the nursery at the gym when he was 2 weeks old,” she says. “Some of the other ladies couldn´t believe it they thought I should still be at home resting.”

Most people realize the importance of exercise. The distance from the couch to the gym or track can be daunting, however, and the obstacle of finding the time can seem insurmountable.

But research shows it pays to make time. Health-care practitioners and exercise physiologists agree that any exercise even done in small increments sprinkled throughout a day is beneficial on many levels.

“Sure, the ideal is to increase your heart rate by about 60 percent four times a week,” says Barbara Howard, vice chairwoman of the nutrition committee for the American Heart Association. An extra burst of effort walking four miles instead of three in one hour, for example would boost the heart rate.

“But we´re finding that people can´t do that, so they decide not to do anything at all even moderate exercise,” Ms. Howard says.

The living proof

“I´m more toned, my clothes fit better. I have less appetite and I´m mentally more healthy. I get an endorphin high and feel like I am doing something for myself,” she says.

“I´d rather be at the beach sipping margaritas,” she continues. “You go to the gym and it´s painful. You wonder why you put yourself through it. I guess it is for the results we think they are worth it.”

Indeed, the benefits of exercise are well-documented, says Ms. Howard, who serves as president of MedStar Research Institute, a nonprofit medical-research organization based in the District. And it´s not just about looking good.

“Lack of physical activity is a risk for heart disease, the No. 1 killer in America,” Ms. Howard says.

And engaging in daily physical activity, according to the American Heart Association, can help delay or prevent chronic illnesses, increase muscle strength, and prevent bone loss. It helps release tension, improves the ability to fall and stay asleep, and counters anxiety and depression.

In days gone by, Ms. Howard says, staying fit and reaping the accompanying benefits was a fact of life.

“We have ignored the significance of physical activity,” she explains. “We are so horribly sedentary. We keep saying life is different now in America, but if you compare your life to your grandmother´s, there´s more difference in activity than in eating. She was washing diapers by hand, working outside. These are things we don´t do anymore. There are more elevators, more convenience appliances.”

People today don´t use their bodies for much of anything, agrees Dr. Pamela Peeke, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and a practicing doctor of internal medicine in Bethesda.

“The great majority of people are in pathetic shape right now,” she says. “What we did by taking away physical movement was that we took away the responses. We took away the ability to calm down. We took away the beta-endorphins,” a group of proteins with analgesic properties that occur naturally in the brain. These beta-endorphins, Dr. Peeke says, are the body´s most natural way of controlling stress. Besides exercise, they also can be coaxed out via massage or meditation, she notes, “or anything that is relaxing and enjoyable.”

Dr. Peeke explains how to use diet and exercise to eliminate stress-induced weight in her recent book, “Fight Fat After Forty.” The Pew Foundation scholar in nutrition and metabolism usually can be found putting theory into practice.

“I love to use physical activity as a destressor,” she says. “I have my sneakers at work, and I actually walk with my patients. We do an appointment that I call a walk and talk. I get up every morning at 5 and am training for the New York Marathon. I also do power lifting.

How does the doctor find time?

“I do it creatively,” she says. “A little here and a little there.”

Every little bit

A 1999 study at the University of Texas at El Paso, for example, tested different ways of meeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for physical activity. The CDC stated that all Americans age over age 2 should engage in 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on most days of the week. Moderate intensity might be achieved by increasing walking tempo or upping the resistance while pedaling an exercise bicycle, for example.

For the Texas study, 32 adults were assigned to one of three groups on six-day brisk walking schedules: 30 continuous minutes, three 10-minute bouts and 30 minutes in any combination as long as each instance lasted at least 5 minutes. Researchers found the members of all the groups significantly improved their aerobic fitness and reduced body fat, among other benefits.

Dr. Peeke frequently entreats her patients with this concept of accumulation.

“For most people, if you tell them I want you to take the requisite 30 to 45 minutes a day well, their schedule is the best reality show in town. I say, ‘Can you give me 5 minutes an hour?´ Most people can pull this off.”

Potomac resident Lisa Harwood, a patient of Dr. Peeke, often adds up the minutes to reach a day´s goal of exercise. Mrs. Harwood says she squeezes it in between volunteering, working part time at home and attending requisite sports practice sessions or games for her four children, ages 9 to 17.

“I´m a very organized person you have to be, with four kids. So every night I will look at my calendar and think about what is happening the next day and how I can fit exercise in. It is so important for my health and well-being. If I don´t work out for a day or two, I am much more tired and have so much less energy.”

Mrs. Harwood frequently drops off her three teen-agers at school and then takes some time to walk or run on the track, she says, or climb the bleacher steps. Weekends find her sharing driving and spectating duties with her husband, Bruce, for their children´s games, and she sneaks in some motion for herself on-site.

“If it´s nice out, I will go for a walk or run while the kids are warming up,” she says. “Sometimes I will walk around the field during the game and I can still see the game. I will say I do something five days a week. I´m just going to fit it in wherever I can.”

Making it fit

“But our philosophy in general is that people need to coordinate their time and make time for themselves,” he says.

“If that means 20 minutes of cardiovascular a day, that´s fine. Walk or jog around the neighborhood. Walk the dog. Walk or bike with your children.”

Mr. Nissel´s office is a seven-story-high gymnasium. His branch caters to 4,000 members of all shapes and sizes and its programs “speak to the mind, body and spirit,” he says.

And after a long day at work, which includes a 100-mile round-trip commute to the office from his home in Frederick, Md., Mr. Nissel puts his exercise philosophy to task by walking with his wife and two small children.

“After all that driving, the last thing we feel like doing is going out there and exercising, but after we do it we feel a whole lot better,” he says.

“It is one of the best prescriptions for feeling better that I know of.”

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