Physician, move thyself

By Erika Schwartz, MD

I like working out. It’s always been one of my favorite activities, even before it was popular or cool. The true reasons for my love of exercise elude me. I certainly don’t do it to be thin.

Maybe it’s in my genes since I came from Romania, from the land of Nadia Comaneci. Maybe I just like being physically and mentally active and figured out the connection to being healthy from the very start and just did it.

That’s why I’m continually thunderstruck by how few doctors are interested in keeping in shape and how patients blindly take advice from out-of-shape doctors, who don’t look even vaguely worthy of being emulated physically.

To me it’s just plain common sense that working out and staying in shape will keep you healthy for good. I don’t need more studies to convince me of that philosophy, but it’s great to see modern science in agreement with what the Spartans knew 3,000 years ago.

Unfortunately, in spite of all this knowledge, we are still living in a divided world where conventional medicine, while paying lip service to the philosophy that exercise is good for you, is chock-full of doctors who prescribe medication for backaches rather than teaching you to stretch and give you pills to lose weight instead of teaching you to eat well and exercise – just to bring up the top problems in health care.

When I was practicing medicine in Irvington in the early 1990s, a middle-aged woman with a terrible backache came to see me. She had consulted an orthopedic surgeon, had X-rays and an MRI, spent multiple weeks taking terribly irritating anti-inflammatory medications and pain killers but found herself feeling worse than when the pain started.

My au courant medical training had taught me to put all people with backaches on bed rest, anti-inflammatory drugs and muscle relaxants.

Clearly, that didn’t work with this patient so I thought I would try common sense.

I taught her how to stretch.

On the examining table, I helped her put her knees up and showed her how to hug them gently to her chest. Though we were both initially fearful, I slowly pressed the soles of her feet in and she hugged her legs while rocking.

Ten minutes later, we were done and she sat up and for the first time in months felt better. She stayed well because after that incident she remembered to stretch every time her back went out.

Her story represents the beginning of my integration of exercise into my practice as one preventative measure, which is what I have been doing for the past 25 years without having a real title to give it.

Exercise, physical activity, intentional movement, whatever you want to call it, is a most important part of the puzzle that represents our health. The older we get the more we need it and the less we do it.

Maybe if we understood how each one of us is different and would benefit from the proper type of exercise for the individual, under the supervision of a knowledgeable person, be it a fit doctor or trainer, the results would speak for themselves.

You don’t need to join a gym, buy fancy workout clothes or go to yoga classes. All you need is to start somewhere. If you never got off the couch, get off it and walk around it now. Do it 10 times.

If you are a big jock and managed to destroy your joints by 40, change exercises and start a program that you never did before and don’t give up. Don’t continue doing things already proven to hurt you.

Stretch and swim, walk or jog, do yoga or Pilates, weights or videos. Whatever you do, you can be sure if you do it in moderation and are inspired to feel better, you will find it’s never too late to start and the results are truly amazing.

Don’t just do it to lose weight. Do it to stay young and healthy.

Like the 90-year-old in my practice I taught to use her walker to get to her office, 10 minutes away from her apartment. She lived to 94 and worked until the last day of her life.

I certainly view her as using exercise as an inspiration to us all.

For more information, email Dr. Erika at

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