Exercise is arguably the world’s most effective preventive medicine, and is unparalleled for improving health and wellbeing, as well as lowering health care costs. In fact, if a drug were developed that proved to be as effective as exercise for treating and preventing disease and disability, we would need a lot fewer hospitals!

James H. O’Keefe, M.D.

Regular exercise helps to treat nearly every illness across all of our body’s systems, and is especially potent against heart disease, depression, anxiety, insomnia, arthritis, osteoporosis, asthma and erectile dysfunction.

As beneficial as regular exercise is for the body, it is even more important for your brain. Vigorous exercise works like Miracle-Gro for the brain—stimulating new neuron growth in the memory center (hippocampus). Daily physical activity is the single most important step for preventing Alzheimer’s disease.

Working on one’s physical fitness can be free of charge, is easy to do anywhere, and confers benefits upon virtually every single person who does it—lowering his or her risk of early death and improving the quality of life.

Indeed, exercise is best understood as a drug with powerful benefits, especially for cardiovascular health, and as with most things in life, moderation is the key. We recommend not more than 40 to 50 minutes per day of intense exercise, like running, particularly for individuals over age 45.

Here are two of my favorite strategies for getting folks to automatically increase their exercise, and have more fun at the same time:

  1. Get an activity tracker. Wearable computers are the future—and the future is now. Ditch your old-fashioned watch and get one of these smart little bracelets that will not only tell you the time of day, but will also continually inform you about how many steps you’ve taken today, how far you’ve walked or run, along with the number of calories burned, hours you slept, times awakened, and minutes it took to fall asleep.

Wearing an activity tracker is uniquely motivational—you will feel like you are suddenly “getting credit” for your efforts. By tracking your numbers, you will automatically be keeping your physical activity and your sleep habits “top of mind,” so that you just naturally find opportunities to take many more steps each day and prioritize your precious slumber time. I find it really fun to compare my activity and sleep data with my friends who wear an activity tracker too. Sporting one of these wearable computers is like wearing a “hipster badge” of sorts. If you look around closely, you will see an increasing number of trendy individuals with one of these cool activity trackers on their wrists.

  1. Get a dog. This is a much more low-tech strategy for improving your fitness, but every bit as fun and effective. You will have an always available an enthusiastic exercise partner to whom you will be accountable. Once you get your pooch into the habit of a daily outdoor exercise session, he or she will make you feel guilty if you wimp-out and stay home. Importantly, studies consistently show that the supreme benefits of exercise are best bestowed by physical activity that is done outside and with at least one friend (canine pals count too). Having a dog makes it very easy to get in the habit of exercising outside daily with “man’s (or woman’s) best friend.”

Dr. O’Keefe is a cardiologist with Saint Luke’s Cardiovascular Consultants, located in Lee’s Summit at 20 N.E. Saint Luke’s Blvd., Suite 110, 816-931-1883. Also read Dr. O’Keefe’s newsletter, For the Heart, online visit: http://www.saintlukeshealthsystem.org/saint-lukes-cardiovascular-consultants-newsletter.