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Exercise: My Secret to Happiness, Balance and a Better Life

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If you have been reading my posts for a while, you know that I just transitioned into a new job at a new hospital after 12 years at my previous hospital. It was an interesting transition. Although I was ecstatic to take on my new role and make this positive change in my life, I was surprised that I also went through all the stages of grief as I let my old job go: Denial, bargaining, anger, acceptance.

In many ways, I have been unable to really conceptualize the big picture of this major life change. I was certainly ready to go…but was I ready to go? When you are used to something, even something that doesn’t serve your highest self or even your critical needs, it’s hard to let go and make a change. As I struggle to understand what this all means, I recognize that in my past job, there were many years, especially in the last third of my time there, when things were difficult. Challenging. Toxic? I haven’t wanted to reflect on that, and yet, in some ways I think it is necessary in order for me to move forward fully.

I had a glorious two weeks off during the transition when I had a chance to really do this. And more. Oh, so much more! In fact, I spent that two weeks doing a lot of things I haven’t done for years, like have lunch with friends, and exercise (wait for it) in the middle of the afternoon! I also cleaned out my closets and started writing a new book. As the days went on, something intangible started happening. I felt different—lighter and grounded—for the first time in many, many years.

I was also surprisingly energized. I could breathe more easily. I was able to think clearly, my thoughts no longer a jumble going in every direction. My perspective on what I went through and my role in it all began to shift. I felt empowered rather than a victim. I felt more in control, and just overall better. I started smiling, and as one of my friends put it, “Hey! You got your sexy back.” I suppose you could say it was because I wasn’t working and had moved on from a less-than-ideal employment situation…and, sure, that was probably a part of it. But I will tell you what I think was the biggest contributing factor: Exercise.

Now, don’t stop reading! I am not about to launch into my typical go-yeah-rah exercise lecture (well, maybe just a little…). What I want to tell you is my true, heartfelt, personal account of how exercise can do so much more than improve the health of your heart (although it does that magnificently well). Exercise also improves the health of your emotional life, your soul…your very being. I believe it is the most powerful, multi-faceted, whole-health action you can take to improve every aspect of your life. Just saying…

But if exercise does all this, why is it that when we doctors talk about exercise, we mostly talk about the markers of heart rate, blood pressure and functional capacity? Why do we talk about VO2 max (which tells us how much exercise/work we can do, and has been shown to be an essential vital sign as a marker of vitality and longevity) but don’t mention the effect of exercise on mood, mental clarity, strength of purpose, and general life improvement? Maybe because these other measures aren’t quantifiable the way heart rate and blood pressure are quantifiable. How do you assign a number to “level of je ne se quois”?

At this transitional time in my life, when exercise has done so much for me, I encourage all readers, including all doctors, to consider that it’s okay to talk about health measures that are not quantifiable but that add significant quality to our lives. While many women (and increasingly, many men) often turn to dermatology for that look of eternal youth via the latest technology (fillers, Botox, etc.), perhaps we should all be looking at a fountain of youth that is less external and more internally transformative—something that doesn’t just change how you look on the outside, but improves everything about you from the inside out.

I talk to women almost every day about their concerns, which tend to be about losing weight or quitting smoking or getting rid of hot flashes (or all of the above). Guess what helps every single one of those problems? Exercise, of course! I have always recommended exercise as a great way to help with fitting into your jeans, reducing cravings for unhealthy food or lifestyle behaviors like smoking and drinking too much alcohol, and tempering the symptoms of impending menopause.

What I have forgotten to share is the true magical spirit of simply moving your body. Besides the endorphins (the happy hormones that keep you calm, stable, and happier), there is nothing more exhilarating than feeling strong and fit. You can breathe more easily, move more easily, and feel good about yourself—confident and empowered. What can be better than that?

I am known for repeatedly saying, “Exercise is the best medication,” but I may need to change that tune, which sounds limited to health metrics alone, to say, “Exercise is the best way to become the best you—across the board.”

I have always wished I could discover and package a pill or a cream or a type of fairy dust that could transform our hearts and our lives, filling us with vitality. If I discovered such a magical remedy, it would be the ultimate elixir. Everyone would want some. I haven’t found it yet…or have I? Because if you just dust off your sneakers, turn on some music, and get your heart rate up, you might feel every single one of those things I imagine that magical elixir could accomplish. For free, and 100% due to your own resolve. You might even feel like I have sent a bit of magic fairy dust your way, because when you start exercising regularly, you will discover that when you start looking in the mirror, you’re going to discover that you’ve recaptured that je ne se quois after all. You might want to reach out and tell me that I was right. You might begin to wonder why everyone isn’t doing it. At least you can. Please try it! And let me know if you experience the same benefits I have.

Now it’s back to work for me. I have a new job, but I also have a whole new attitude, energy, and perspective. The future never looked brighter.

Click here to buy Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s book, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life

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