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Exercise, by association

Published November 05. 2011 09:01AM

If life has dealt you a bad hand, here's my advice. Discard, discard, and keep discarding until you pick up the right combination of playing cards to create the situation you want.

That counsel is more than just clever word play to kick off a health-and-fitness column. Throughout my years as a teacher, it's a strategy I've watched a handful of students use to produce stability and success in their lives even though their home lives are less than stable and their family members are . . . well, less than successful.

While it would've been easy not to do the homework because mom and dad were fighting or sis was throwing one helluva party, these resourceful kids would go to a friend's house or the library and finish there. While it would've been easy to follow the family's footsteps into a life of indolence and illegal activities, these determined kids would work legitimate jobs all through high school, take out a ton of loans, attend college, and graduate with honors.

Besides a massive amount motivation, a great attitude, and a grand goal, these kids all seemed to have in something else in common. The good sense to develop surrogate families, groups of like-minded people whether they be peers or mentors to help them stay on course.

Doing the right thing or sacrificing or working hard is easier when the others around you are doing the same.

I thought about those adaptable and ultra-successful students who knew enough to limit their family life and find others to serve as sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles kids who broke the mold and beat the odds for a long time the other night when I was being critical of advice I had given. In the matter of only a few days, four people asked me either how I stay motivated to exercise or found so much time to do so, and in each case I gave an answer that didn't do justice to the question.

How could that be? How could I give such insufficient answers?

I exercise daily, write about it weekly. Exercise serves as my foundation, a form of meditation.

And some days it certainly is my salvation.

But I didn't get any of this across in any of my answers. Maybe Henri Bergson was right when he said, "Only those ideas that are least truly ours can be adequately expressed in words."

Whatever the case, what exercise means to me didn't come across in those conversations, which may be just as well. Sharing the zeal that I feel like the religious missionary who brings fire and brimstone to your front door might turn off those who just want a workout and not a way of life from their exercise.

Which is why I remembered those students who succeeded despite poor home situations. If you feel like the four people who questioned me you either can't get motivated enough to exercise or find the time to do so learn from their example.

Surround yourself with people who already feel about exercise the way you want to. Seek them out.

If you're an off-again, on-again runner who runs with a friend who often complains about the weather and cuts runs short, find a more positive partner. If none is around, find out where a group of runners meet or join a club.

Gravitate not necessarily to the fastest runner or the one who logs the most miles, but one of the truly positive people who positively loves to run.

Given time, that attitude will seep into you. Your new partner will be a living testament to the benefits of exercise and you'll want to reap those benefits too.

And while you're creating your surrogate exercise family, here's a rundown of some recent studies that show regular exercise certainly helps you.

Two separate studies comprising nearly one million people, one published in 2008 and the other 2009, showed that regular physical activity lowered the risk of two especially serious cancers, colon and pancreatic. A third found that subjects who developed terminal brain cancer but were healthy enough to exercise lived about 46 percent longer than those who could not or would not exercise.

A study published this summer in The Lancet concluded that exercise does not have to be lengthy to increase life span. While the general recommendation in the U.S. is to get 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, researchers in Taiwan found that as little as 15 minutes of daily exercise significantly increases life span and that every additional 15 minutes reduced the risk of death further.

Older people reap many benefits from remaining physically active or even beginning exercise at an advanced age.

What doctors call "silent strokes," mini-strokes that cause medical problems like severe headaches, slurred speech, or partial paralysis, are 40 percent less likely to occur in older people who engage in moderate exercise as compared to those who do no exercise at all, according to data gathered through the Northern Manhattan Study. A study done by University of Pittsburgh researchers and published earlier this year found that moderate exercise improved the memory of older people.

One specific form of exercise, weightlifting, has been shown to counteract the natural loss of muscle mass that occurs with aging. Retaining muscle mass not only maintains strength, but is crucial in maintaining a healthy weight.

And weightlifting continues to provide benefits even for those in their 70s and 80s.

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