The Most Overlooked Benefit of Exercise: The Ability to Get from Point A to Point B

A friend who just returned from Seattle was recounting the unexpected steepness of the city streets. ”Nothing is flat,” she told me. “You are either going up or down.” She was not young and had been worried about spending time exploring the city with a relative at least 10 years her junior. The younger woman was athletic and her favorite leisure activity was going on very long walks.“One day we walked up hills so steep I wondered how cars could drive up them! She took me up flight after flight of outdoor steps to get into certain neighborhoods. But I kept up with her and I don’t think I was puffing anymore than she was…“

My friend ascribed her stamina to her favorite gym activities: either walking on an elevated treadmill that mimicked walking uphill, or the elliptical climber which required a motion similar to climbing a shallow set of steps.

“I exercise because it is a habit,” she said as we discussed her unexpected physical prowess. “If I skip more than a day or two, I don’t feel right and have trouble sleeping. And of course it is good for my bones, especially since my mother suffered from osteoporosis and fractured her hip. But it never occurred to me that it would improve my, I guess I would call it, functionality.”

“You mean your ability to move better, longer, more efficiently and with less fatigue?” I asked.

“Yes, all of the above,” she laughed, “almost like a real athlete.”

Her experience of finding herself able to handle the demands on her body of trudging up hills because she exercised regularly should not have been a surprise. This, after all, is the point of training for competitive athletes or people setting off to climb mountains in the Himalayas or bike ride across the continental U.S. But those of us who are not planning on competing in athletic events and prefer to watch mountain climbing on a National Geographic special forget the most basic benefit of exercise: It prepares our body to engage in physical activity that may at times become demanding and strenuous.

The converse is painfully obvious. Someone who is unfit because of a voluntary disregard for any type of regular physical activity will have trouble climbing the steps out of a subway station or walking down a seemingly endless airport terminal corridor on the way to a gate or exit. Breathing becomes labored, muscles begin to ache and there may even be the feeling that unless help in the form of an escalator or one of the airport moving people carriers comes along, the goal of getting out of the subway or to the departure gate will not be achievable.

Of course, there are many who would, but cannot, exercise because of physical limitations. For example, a painfully bad back or severe asthma are obstacles to physical activity that may be difficult to overcome. And there are many whose lifestyle severely limits time to go on a long walk, work out at a gym or have time on a day off to engage in recreational sports. Convincing those who could, but don’t exercise, usually relies on listing the benefits to one’s weight, skeletal infrastructure, digestive system, sleep, cognition, mood, vulnerability to diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure, and life span. For example, there are some studies claiming that weight loss can be achieved through exercise alone without dieting, and that exercise is important in decreasing stress and depression.

But why do we ignore the obvious? If we rely only on vehicular transportation, we will diminish our stamina, endurance, the ability to oxygenate muscle cells sufficiently for prolonged contractions, and our muscle mass.

In short, we will find it more and more difficult to go from point A to point B.

It is possible to go through adult life with minimal need to engage in physical activity to arrive at a destination. Cars that sit in a garage next to the kitchen, or in a parking space a few steps from the elevator in the office building, reduce the need to walk. Malls that allow parking in front of a store or restaurant, or valet services that bring the car back to where you are standing on a sidewalk, also eliminate the need to move very much. One can even find scooters in supermarkets so walking can be avoided, and ordering groceries on line eliminates the need to even go to the market.

However, there are consequences to a lifetime of little voluntary physical activity beyond the obvious ones of physical well-being. It means not being able to explore a new city or museum or zoo on foot. It means not being able to walk through the woods, around a lake, or a botanical garden. It means a casual stroll with a child or friend or spouse is not pleasurable because fatigue and muscle pain quickly limit distance and enjoyment.

My friend concluded her description of her tramp through the city with an ecstatic description of the flagship Starbucks restaurant that sits on top of a steep hill. The restaurant, part museum, part coffee grinding factory and mostly a place where the city folk gather to drink coffee and eat incredible pastries from Italy was the treat her relative had planned for her. “She told me parking is impossible around that neighborhood, and she hoped I was going to be able to get there on foot. My days of exercising really paid off.”

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