Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

The Magic Pill

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Sunset in Aquinnah, Philbin Beach, August 30th

WBUR stole my idea. They got to it before I did. Carey Goldberg,  longtime health journalist and Eddie  Phillips, director of the Institute of Lifestyle medicine at Harvard Medical School who works at a Boston VA have begun a project called “The Magic Pill”. The goal is to encourage people to exercise without the guilt, “shoulds” and the pressure to do it in a particular way. I’ll catch you up on the first 5 episodes. Here’s a brief summary, then you can decide if you think it’s worthwhile to try this 21 day podcast.  These podcasts, which run for 8 minutes or less, provide simple and useful tips. Here’s a summary of the first 5 episodes, then you’re on your own!

Episode 1

The main reason to exercise is to feel better, and to begin a positive feedback loop that will have you coming back for more and making exercise a regular habit. It’s important to start somewhere,  – even small steps can make a difference.  For example, to increase your daily activity, try:

  • Standing instead of sitting, even as you use your computer
  • Using the stairs instead of elevators or escalators
  • Squats- standing from a chair, 10 reps x 3 sets, to keep hip flexor muscles strong
  • Stretching as you’re talking on the phone

You’re a physical being, and even a small amount of movement can release neurotransmitters in your brain. This touches off a process that can provide the “feel good” chemicals that may last for hours, or even the better part of the day. I often get the question, “How much do I have to do to feel better?

Something’s better than nothing, but more is better than less. You’ll feel better even after doing 5 minutes, but the habit  will be self-perpetuating, and you’ll likely find yourself exercising for longer.  The idea is to get into a positive cycle. The immediate feel-good benefits from exercise have been proven especially after age 65. A new book called  “No Sweat” discusses shifting our paradigm of exercise to one of feeling good, rather than losing weight, looking better, and doing it because it’s good for our health.  Go to “No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness” by Michelle Segar PhD.  Although we’ve now learned that being sedentary is being blamed for more deaths than obesity, this may not be the best motivator, even though it’s sobering.

Change the meaning of exercise for you,  so it’s self-motivating, without the “shoulds”. Maybe you can get to the point where you see it as a treat. Do you like being outdoors? Do you like to move to music? Do you like to walk the beach and feel relaxed by the undulating waves and sound of the birds? Figure out what it is that floats your boat, and keep it up!

Episode 2

Remember recess and the pure joy this break from the classroom used to be? When did it change from pure joy to work?  Some people don’t like gyms because it reminds them of gym class, with its blue and white outfits, and the feeling of not being “good” at sports or chosen for teams. A randomized study looked at subjects who were told that a 1 mile walk was “exercise”, and others who were told it would be fun. Those told it was exercise had a much worse experience and even ate in a less healthy way. In short, the goal of the activity changed the experience for them. Try changing what exercise means to you.

  • Give yourself a break- find what you like, so you can enjoy it. Instead of “I hate exercise”, maybe I like to dance, or ride my bike.
  • Why do we have to do exercise in a prescribed way?  Do it in whatever way feels enjoyable.

Episode 3

We all know that the evidence supporting exercise alone as a way to lose weight is in question. However, we don’t question the myriad studies showing that consistent exercise keeps weight off.  Although exercise burns calories, you must cut back on eating in order to lose weight. Try to create a “virtuous cycle” – if you look at food as “fuel”, instead of a “reward” then you’ll likely create that cycle. There is a national weight loss registry  of people who have lost at least 30 pounds, and kept it off for a year. One major commonality was that they worked out daily. The “Biggest Loser” study examined why contestants were unable to keep their weight off. This happened largely because they did it too fast, and lost muscle mass along with fat.   When they gained back their weight, they gained back fat which ultimately made them less efficient machines. Trained muscle has a higher metabolism rate than fat – when you lose the weight, you will need to eat less to maintain the weight loss. Exercise is key to keeping off weight. Avoid rewarding yourself with food after you work out.

Episode 4

Small lifestyle adjustments over time have been found to effect lasting change. One of the subjects of this podcast, Edgar, made purposely smaller changes that were guaranteed to succeed. He started by walking for 5 minutes, then kept adding small increments. 

The key to his success is self-efficacy – “I CAN DO IT”. He would go for a 20 minute walk- then gradually add a 2 minute walk. Set yourself up for success by making smaller goals, then gradually reaching them, one by one.  

In one study, two groups were given pedometers with the goal of taking 10,000 steps a day. The group who tried to achieve the full 10,000 right off weren’t successful- but the others who were asked to gradually build up by adding 500 steps a week were successful in reaching the 10,000 step goal.  The other common occurrence in beginning to work out is that many people set goals that are too ambitious and incur injuries. So, what can you do? 

  1. Set smart, achievable goals.
  2. Walk longer by adding a bit on each day.
  3. Recognize the success you’ve had already.
  4. Take 5 minutes a day to make a plan.

Episode 5

When you fall off the wagon, what can you do? Think about what you HAVE achieved already: If you’ve done half of what you expected, aren’t you further towards your goal?

Falling off the wagon can be defined as not reaching your goals in any way, shape or form. It often includes stopping regular exercise, eating too much, or self-sabotage through behaviors that are counterproductive. Use self compassion which is self-kindness- realize that you share a lot in common with humanity- you are not alone.  Many people feel bad about the same things. Try to use mindful awareness, which is being right here, in the present with as little self-criticism as possible. 

The main reason we can’t get back on track is we often doubt ourselves, are afraid of failure, or are unmotivated.   Remind yourself how much better you feel when you exercise.  Even if it means walking a half hour a day, rather than running marathons. Beware of comparing the present you with the 10-15 years younger model of yourself. The reality may be that you’re a different athlete now, than you were 10 years ago.  Running may have been your passion years ago, but maybe now it must switch to cycling or walking. Write down why you are making a change, put it in an envelope, and look at the envelope to be reminded of why you started in the first place.

My recommendation to you is to subscribe to “The Magic Pill”  for a daily dose of wisdom about the many benefits of exercise with some scientific studies mixed in. So go to  and see what you may learn. Labor Day is an excellent time to renew your motivation and get into a healthy routine!






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