Drop that Cookie! How to Emerge Fit—Not Fat—from the Pandemic
Be honest--would an objective observer describe your pandemic lifestyle as indolent, slothful, shiftless, loafing, inactive, inert, sluggish, lethargic, languorous, listless, torpid, enervated, slow-moving, slow, heavy, dull and plodding? Have no fear—Charles Polit, the co-founder of Artus Physical Therapy to the rescue! A top Manhattan physical therapist with a doctorate from Columbia University and 15 years of clinical experience, Polit has helpful advice for Insiders, from the lazy bums among us to the fittest physical specimens. And when it comes to exercise, Polit walks the walk. (Runs the run?) A seasoned runner, marathoner, triathlete, swimmer and golfer, Polit shared his secrets with The Insider for staying motivated and safe as you exercise pandemically. In Part 2 of this interview next week, Polit will tell Insider readers about the new craze for remote physical therapy, which is paid for by most commercial insurance and Medicare.
How did you get interest in exercising? Were you athletic growing up?
I was always active growing up. I lived on a dead-end street in Bohemia, a small town in Long Island. I had friends on my block, as well as the two other dead-end streets next to mine, and we were always playing one sport or another: wiffle ball, hockey, skateboarding, all on these little side streets. With football, it would be two-hand touch--while the player with the ball was on the street, and tackle football if that player chose to run on any and all of our neighbor’s lawns,
I really took to baseball and played Little League until junior high school. I would practice throwing and fielding with my dad in the backyard most days after school, as soon as he got home from work. But I didn’t get into actually exercising until my last year of high school. I was 18 and scrawny–118 pounds-- so I decided to start lifting weights to fill out my physique a little more.
After two years of community college, I still wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do for a living, so I took a few years off from school. I then realized that I wanted to do something in the health field, but not spend nine to ten years in med school and residency.. So I decided to go to Hofstra for a degree in exercise science. Afterwards, I found a job in the city working for a corporate fitness/wellness center at Credit Suisse as an exercise specialist. I did that for a few years but found it just wasn't for me, and felt I wanted something more. There was a physical therapy office located in the wellness center where I was working. That appeared to be more challenging and rewarding, so that, along with hurting my back and having it rehabilitated with physical therapy, solidified my desire to return to school, where I received my doctorate of physical therapy from Columbia. It was there that I began to run at 30 years old. Several years later, I heard about the New York City Triathlon, which is Olympic distance. If you joined through a charity, you would be professionally trained for free in exchange for fundraising. The organization is Team in Training (TNT) and they raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Through TNT, I learned how to swim and cycle proficiently, and I did rather well in the tri. I thought if I could do that, maybe I could do the ultimate triathlon, the Ironman. Part of that race includes running an entire marathon though, so if I was realistically going to entertain an Ironman, I needed to see how I would perform in a marathon first. A friend of mine expressed interest in the Tokyo Marathon, and I thought why not, since I was always interested in Asian culture, especially the antiquity and modernity of Japan, so I signed up for it. It was a tough event, but I finished pretty well in that too, and have been running and swimming ever since.
Do you think that a pandemic couch potato can actually emerge healthier after the pandemic passes?
Sure! I think it’s possible for people who used to exercise, but for one reason or another put their routine on the back burner over the years--busy schedules, long hours stuck in the office, et cetera)--to see that they have all this extra time on their hands and figure, if not now, when?
However, it can be difficult for people who have never really been active through their childhood and young adulthood to begin a regimen when they’re older. I recommend for them, as with anyone really, but especially with these individuals, to choose something they don’t hate or do just to get it over with. A better approach, according to exercise psychologists, is to choose something you enjoy, like walking or running, or bicycling or exercise classes, or even dancing, whatever you may have some interest in already. And start easy, a couple of days a week for 10-15 minutes and gradually progress from there. This way, the person is more apt to stay with it, instead of getting into something gung-ho in the beginning out of excitement, only to burn out and give up completely after a week or two. The experts say that you need to stay with a routine for a minimum of three months in order for it to stick and become part of your lifestyle.
What is your advice for the person who has been sheltering in place and getting very little exercise?
If your baseline is sedentary, you’ve got to start gradually. If you’re not going out at all, and you have enough space in your own house or apartment, try to get 20-30 minutes of (12) increased activity most days of the week. It can be broken down into 10-minute increments, two times a day, three times a day. You can even do small laps back and forth in your home. Be sure to clear away any and all objects, including throw rugs, which you could trip over.. There was a story about a man who did the equivalent of a marathon on his terrace! Just be sure it’s continuous for at least 10 minutes and above your normal walking pace. Your body is used to your everyday pace, so it doesn’t need to adapt and improve if you only stay with that. Conversely, if you push your body safely, you will get the physiological adaptations and benefits, or training effect, of regular exercise: increased capillaries to move more oxygen, decreased heart rate and blood pressure. That's whether you're indoors or outdoors. But if you’re restricted to your home, I would love it if you have a terrace or backyard to get some fresh air.
Again, the biggest hurdle getting people to maintain prolonged course of exercise is that it has to become your lifestyle. Some people get too zealous. You’ll burn out, so you’ve got to start easily. The first week, you can do once or twice a week. Don’t take on too much. Walking is one of the most underrated activities you can do, if you do it properly for exercise. Your body is an amazing thing. It’s going to adapt if you push it, You have to do it slightly above pace. I’m not talking about being out of breath. You’re supposed to be able to hold a conversation while you’re walking. Just a tick more than normal—just stay at an elevated pace. Nothing crazy. That would be your minimum,
Beyond that, if you’re sheltering in place but going outside and already walking a lot, chances are that you’re not doing that in a sustained way most days of the week. So you have something to work up to—a walking program of 20-30 minutes a day, most days of the week, at an elevated pace. That will do wonders for your blood pressure and your heart rate. You’re trying to be more efficient. It’s not a miracle that marathon runners are in better shape. They’re pumping out more oxygen per pump than the average person. The sedentary person (and the more comorbidities, the worse the situation, of course) typically places more strain on their heart and cardiovascular system, as they require more beats per minute to get the necessary oxygen to all the cells. Often this is via more occluded, sclerotic vessels, which creates increased blood pressure and further taxes of the system. If you’re an active person, you’re going to pump more efficiently—hence, much less strain on the blood vessels, fewer sclerotic problems. So I highly recommend walking if you’re sedentary.
Beyond that, there are tons of classes online now. I do yoga myself. There’s also Pilates, if you have some experience with that. You don’t want to go willy-nilly and get hurt doing a class. You’re not going to get personalized guidance; this is for the masses. You’ve got to be careful with that. If you have some background in those classes, I think they’re phenomenal at home. I’m thrilled that a lot of people are getting healthier now. It’s awesome that they’re doing it.
What about the super athlete? Is it safe to run a lot now?
I think so, as long as you do it safely. You have to look at the continuum: zero risk, which doesn’t exist, to maximal risk. You have to play with that yourself as an individual. I do it myself anytime I step outside—we all do. So I’m going to go with the guidelines. I’m always going to stay at least six feet apart when I can. I always have a mask with me. At first, I thought, always wear the mask running. I’d rather err on the side of being careful. It’s not easy, but I did it. Then, as more information emerged, I discovered that if you’re not near anyone, you don’t need it. So I went from wearing it outside all of the time, to wearing it now just as I am entering or leaving my building, because you never know if you’re going to pass someone. Then, anytime I approach anyone, I don it. It’s not necessary if no one’s around you. But I purposely stay away from everyone. There’s no reason not to run if you have a safe distance around you.
If you just want to try running for the first time, it’s like anything else, like the bike or like the walking. Don’t go gung-ho. We all want instant gratification. It’s the American way: if something’s good, let’s get more of it. People have the best of intentions, but you see them fall flat on their face. You don’t like to do it then—it becomes not enjoyable. And you may get stress injuries to boot..
The Insider: How about golf as a pandemic sport?
Charles Polit: It depends upon the course. Some public golf courses are very strict and some are not. They all require you to have face masks in the starting and ending areas. I’m very cautious, but it’s like anything in life: you have people who are cautious and other people who don’t think it’s that big a deal. I’ll go by myself, but they group you with others. You can stay apart if you choose to, but I see instances all the time where golfers are still close together and not wearing masks. I don’t wear a mask when I play, but I certainly keep my distance and I’m outside, and there’s wind.
What about Peloton bikes? https://www.onepeloton.com/shop/bike
Charles Polit: I’m definitely a fan. Remember—to increase adherence, if you can last for three months at any kind of new activity, you’re more likely to keep that as part of your lifestyle. That’s what you need—not just a few weeks if you want long-term gain. You have to stay with it. And to make it more likely that you’ll do it, you choose something you enjoy. If someone hates biking, I’m not going to push them and say, “You should do it anyway, shut up and do it!” It doesn’t work like that. So if people like cycling, they’ll love Peloton. It’s a live class, and you pay for the access to that class remotely. There are wonderful instructors and you have different visuals. You pay for the bike and the subscription. But it’s not something to try if you don’t’ like cycling—it’s expensive. If you’re tinkering with whether you’ll like cycling, get a cheap bike and try that. And if you really like it, Peloton is the next level.
What about swimming? Is that safe?
My own laps have come to a halt, except for limited and brief ocean swims. since the pool at my gym has been shut down, Here is the CDC’s official advice about swimming:: https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/index.html
In some areas of the country, gyms are beginning to open. Is that safe or would you recommend against it?
That’s a tough one. I'm concerned with people being in indoor spaces, some smaller than others, with people who are breathing heavily, and not always social-distancing or wearing masks. And how do you know if the machines you're touching are that clean? I don’t think that I would feel comfortable telling anyone that it is safe yet, because it may not be. There are many safer, fun, quality alternatives out there!
Charles Polit is the co-founder of Artus Physical Therapy in Manhattan. He is working both remotely and in-person during the pandemic.
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