Ask the Doc: What is the best way to improve health?

Oct. 02, 2013 @ 11:56 AM

Dear Doc Littleton,

What is the best thing a person can do to improve their health?

The most significant improvement I have seen a patient have in their own physical and mental health in the past 10 years is clearly through increasing the amount of activity they do each day.

Yes, the dreaded word is exercise.

I have seen cholesterol levels drop by half, number of pill bottles reduced to only a few (or none), anxiety significantly pushed back, grief over the loss of a loved one weathered, and yes — even weight loss— all because a patient chose to do what we are meant to do: Be active.

Usually the patient chooses to start walking on a daily basis. Sometimes they choose to swim at one of our fine local community centers. Others choose to join a gym near their house. A few chose to use a DVD program at home that suited their workout style. Nevertheless, it has been a remarkable thing to watch.

This is the point where a lot of people roll their eyes and find the routine guilt that comes from not exercising, look at me and talk about their schedule, and then, and this is the most common trap, say “I know I need to lose weight.”

It’s not about the weight, friend. It’s about living a fulfilling life.

The vast majority of people think exercise is only to lose weight, reduce cholesterol and glucose levels, look better for the family picture or upcoming wedding, or to simply be able to tell their doctor they did it.

And exercise can certainly do that. And more.

The studies continue to show the benefits of exercise, even a small amount. Vigorous exercise (at least 20 minutes three times a week) combined with regular exercise (essentially walking 30 minutes most days of the week) was associated with a 50 percent decreased risk of death in a study of 250,000 people ages 50-71 (Archives of Internal Medicine 2007).

Regular exercise reduces the markers of inflammation in the body (C-reactive protein), reduces the “bad” cholesterol (LDL), improves the “good” cholesterol (HDL), improves blood pressure and has been shown to reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes.

Regular exercise also increase the amount of natural antidepressants in the brain. No, not the first week so much, but over time.

But I have seen the most remarkable changes that research cannot measure.

I have watched as a patient with agonizing grief used their time of exercise to deepen their faith and spiritual beliefs. Not just for a short time, but over years.

I have seen patients rediscover their love for a spouse and renew a bond with a marriage that had gone stale simply by walking together daily.

I have seen a person with a frustrating and daily drama job turn their entire attitude and find a happiness doing what they do — at the same job that used to be a dreaded chore.

I know a man over 65 who walks every day and prays for every family in his neighborhood, his church, his community and his nation. His walking is for his love of his fellow human being and his deep spiritual conviction to quietly fulfill a burden laid on his heart. He is one of the quietest individuals in a social setting, but his mental and physical health is incredibly good.

He doesn’t walk to reduce his weight, he walks to reduce the weight of the world on others.

And yes, each of these patients lost weight and improved their physical health, but it is what they gained that is so much more.

They gained a time of solitude, something we have so little of nowadays. Everywhere we go we have media, music, a talking screen, or some other device that is telling us what is going on, what we should buy, how we should think, or what is wrong with the world.

These individuals gained a time to be alone and think. Plan. Meditate. Grieve. Hope. Pray. And to learn to love again.

To love life. And living. And to make each day more effective and enjoyable even in the things that we all do simply as a chore

It is a remarkable thing to watch, and convicting to me, too. None of us are perfect, but we can all try to improve. Each and every day.

Some people simply can’t begin to exercise with walking or swimming because of their conditions. Please check with your doctor (or nosy insurance company nurse who calls you on the phone during dinner) about whether or not you are able to begin your exercise.

Nevertheless, even if it is just lifting two cans of beans while sitting in a recliner (I’ve seen that, too) the desire to move the muscles and give the mind some moments of peace is the most remarkable thing I have witnessed a patient do for themselves in my years of medicine.

It’s not just about the weight.

Eric J. Littleton, M.D. is a Family Physician in Sevierville, TN and is a graduate of Tennessee Technological University and University of Tennessee College of Medicine, Memphis. Topics covered are general in nature and should not be used to change medical treatments and/or plans without first discussing with your physician. Send questions to