A Field Guide to Exercise

[Every man is a builder of a temple, called his body… We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our flesh and blood and bone.—Thoreau]

A New Kind of Athlete

We are seeing the emergence of a new kind of athlete in this country. The people involved are not Olympians or members of some school team. These are grown-up athletes, men and women of all ages, who share an appreciation for the psychological and physical benefits of fitness.

They’re becoming involved in new kinds of physical activities—most of them long, slow, steady, and noncompetitive. In the process, they have developed a new definition of athletics—doing as well as you can without overdoing it.

The most obvious members of this new group are the runners and joggers. You see them everywhere you go, yet they’re just the tip of the iceberg. The most numerous new athletes are the walkers. Then there are bikers, swimmers, rope jumpers, and those—more and more of us all the time—who don’t fit into any single category.

I’m one of these new athletes. I’ve been exercising regularly three to six days a week for the last three years, and, as they say, it’s changed my life. From my own experiences and from reviewing the medical literature, I’m convinced that starting a gentle exercise program—even as little as ten or fifteen minutes a day to start—will keep you not only healthier but noticeably happier.

Exercise and Your Heart

Your heart is a muscular pump, an amazing muscle. It is capable of improving its condition in response to exercise at any age. The exercise which will do your heart the most good is one which produces a modestly increased heart rate, maintained at the proper pulse target level over a fairly long period of time. By taking your pulse as you exercise, you can maintain a level of exertion that will build up your heart without subjecting it to undue stress. This desired pulse pattern can be attained by walking, cross-country skiing, exercising on a treadmill, swimming, distance bicycling, or by slow long-distance running.

All these kinds of long, slow exercise will make your heart bigger, stronger, and more efficient. brings about other kinds of bodily changes as well. Oxygen delivery to all parts of the body increases. Over a period of months, your pulse will grow slower and stronger. Excess weight often seems to just fall away. Many of these new athletes find themselves spontaneously cutting down on their smoking and drinking. There is often an increase in sexual drive.

Using Your Pulse as a Guide

You can tell the kind of shape you’re in right now by taking your pulse. And during exercise, your pulse can help you keep at just the right level of exertion. In fact, the most important and useful sentence in this whole article is probably this one: The key to painless, safe, and effective exercise is using your pulse as a guide.

How to Take Your Pulse

You’ll need a clock or watch that measures seconds. To start with, find your pulse in each of the following places:

  1. With your hand held palm-upward, feel with the first two fingers of the other hand at the-outside of your wrist, just below the base of the thumb (the radial pulse).

  2. With the first two fingers of either hand, reach across your Adam’s apple and find the pulse right under the angle of your jaw (carotid pulse).

  3. At either temple (the temporal pulse).

  4. Right over your heart (the apical pulse).

Using whichever place works best for you, practice counting your heartbeats. Once you have a good feel for it, count your pulse for thirty seconds and multiply by two. This—assuming that you’re now

feeling fairly relaxed and rested—is your resting (as opposed to your exercising) pulse. Most people have a resting pulse between 50 and 90. If you do not get much exercise now, you could reduce your resting pulse substantially by starting a gentle exercise program. Three years ago, before I started running and walking regularly, my resting pulse was 72. At the moment, let’s see . . . it’s 47.

Me and the Marathon

I should tell you that I myself didn’t follow the advice I’m giving you. I suggest starting slowly. I started fast—and suffered many setbacks as a result.

I decided from the beginning that my goal was going to be to run a marathon. In retrospect, I see that I picked an achievement instead of a process as a goal.

I did run a marathon. I trained up to two hours a day to prepare for it and enjoyed it immensely.

I may very well run another some day, but for now, a half-hour run each morning and an occasional walk in the evening seem just right. My present exercise is much more integrated into the rest of my day. I don’t push myself as I once did. And unlike some of my earlier experiences with exercise, I inevitably come back feeling better than when I started.

My biggest problem when I started running was that I was simply unable to run slowly enough. I’d find myself out there on the track or trail driving myself farther and faster than I wanted to go. I hadn’t learned about measuring my pulse yet. My exercise experiences were sufficiently unpleasant that I found myself skipping days at a time. Then I’d really feel guilty.

Gradually I realized that many of my attitudes toward exercise had their origins in high school P.E. classes, where laps were assigned as punishment, and we were given our term grades on the basis of how quickly we could run the mile—seven minutes was an A, eight was a B. nine a C, and so on. These experiences had taught me to hate running, to hate exercise, and, when I was forced into it, to push myself to get it over with as soon as possible.

Teddy Bear

My difficulties in running brought back memories of those P.E. classes and of one of my high school classmates, a gentle, ungainly fat boy we nicknamed Teddy Bear.

On each forced run, Teddy Bear would be found far to the rear of the pack, plodding patiently away. Long after the rest of us had finished and thrown ourselves down, sweaty and panting on the grass, Teddy Bear would still be pounding slowly around the track. He would come across the finish line much less out of breath than we had been. He knew his limits.

The hardest thing in my early months of running was getting in touch with the Teddy Bear in myself—a slow, awkward, ridiculous plodder. I’d been a fast runner as a child, and even at the age of thirty-three it was difficult for me to give up my self-image as a fast runner. The Teddy Bear in myself was a part I’d never learned to think very highly of. I think much more highly of it now. Teddy Bear had the right idea all along.

I thought of myself as a hare, not a tortoise. I had such a psychological investment in being fast that I was pushing myself as though getting in good shape were no more than a matter of will power. If you’re going to run you run, right?


I probably would have given up my exercise program altogether if I hadn’t learned to monitor my pulse, and if I hadn’t stumbled onto what I’ve come to call Ferguson’s Law.

Ferguson’s Law: Go For Satisfaction.

Ferguson’s Law states that it’s best to save all your will power and discipline for getting yourself out on the track or road or trail. Once you’re there—indulge yourself. Go for satisfaction, not for accomplishment. Do whatever you need to do to make walking or running fun. The freedom to do it any damn way you please is your reward for being out there at all. For that mile or that half hour or whatever your chosen time or distance, you are free. You can skip or hop or sing or dance, make faces or funny noises or take your shoes off and walk around on the grass—whatever feels good.

The last thing you need is to become a slave-driver, a hard task-master, driving yourself to “perform.” Our bodies have a wisdom of their own. What you want is to relax your will power and let your body do what it wants.

Starting Out

The hardest part of a new exercise program is the first step out the door. Once you’re out, the keynote is slow and steady. The kind of exercise that works best is the kind that fits naturally into the rhythm of your day. I slip in half an hour of running between the time I get up and my morning shower.

The least effective way is to plan to exercise after you’ve finished everything else. You’ll end up putting it off. Likewise for those who feel they can never “find time” to exercise. You don’t find the time, you make the time.

Nearly all the people I know who exercise regularly, do so on a regular schedule. If you use a planning or appointment calendar, go through your week and write “walking” or “running” in at the appropriate time. If a meeting or a visit is going to run into your exercise time, you can, in good conscience, excuse yourself. You have a very important appointment.

I’d suggest starting with half an hour three times a week—or even less. Pick a distance and a pace that is comfortable and enjoyable and don’t increase it by more than 10 or 15 percent per week. If you have a friend who walks or runs, go out together. And don’t feel you have to start and end together. If you both go your own pace for fifteen minutes, then turn around and head back, you’ll end up where you started at about the same time.

For most people who are not already running, it’s probably best to start with walking. Once you’re walking regularly for half an hour or more five times a week, then, if you like, you can increase your pace to a slow jog.

Your Target Pulse

In the early stages, use your target pulse only to make sure that you are not exercising too strenuously. Do not push yourself to reach your target pulse, but use it as a mark that you don’t exceed.

Dr. Laurence Morehouse, who developed the fitness training program for the Skylab astronauts, suggests the following guidelines for calculating your target pulse:

  • If you are in poor condition, take 150 and subtract your age.

  • If you are in fair condition, take 170 and subtract your age.

  • If you are in excellent condition, take 190 and subtract your age.

As you become accustomed to taking your pulse, you may find it easier to divide your target pulse by 6. This gives you your target pulse per ten seconds.

Let’s take me, for example. When I started out, I was in fair condition and I was 33. 170 minus 33 is 137. 137 divided by 6 is 22.8, which rounds off to 23. 23 beats per ten seconds was my target pulse when I started. I would stop from time to time as I was running, find my pulse, and count how many times my heart beat in ten seconds. If it was more than 23—as it all-too-frequently was—I took it as a message from my heart, telling me to slow down. On the rare occasions when it was significantly below 23, I considered—but did not necessarily choose—the option of going a little faster.

Choosing Your Exercise

In choosing a form of exercise, the most important criterion is whether it will allow you to attain and maintain your target pulse over a fairly long period of time. Many kinds of vigorous exercise—tennis, baseball, vollyball, calisthenics—produce a pulse rate that varies widely. Over a few minutes of football, for instance, your pulse might vary like this:

Your heart works very hard—reaching far above your target pulse—for brief bursts, with rests in between. This pattern of exercise puts a great deal of stress on your heart, and has relatively little training effect.

The reason that running, jogging, walking, swimming, and similar activities are the best conditioners is that they produce a pulse pattern that looks like this:

This pattern of continuous, steady exercise at a moderate, sustained level offers the best of both worlds—maximum training effect with minimum stress on your heart. After half an hour of exercise at their target pulse, most people will feel not exhausted, but refreshed. This slow, steady pattern with careful attention to not exceeding one’s target pulse is, in fact, the keystone of exercise programs prescribed for patients who are at the very highest risk of having a heart attack—cardiac patients who have already had one.

When you read of someone having a heart attack while exercising, you can be fairly sure that he was pushing himself beyond the pulse level indicated by his age and level of fitness. Persons with diagnosed or suspected heart disease and persons with risk factors for coronary disease should be especially careful, and should check with their physician before starting any program of vigorous exercise. Risk factors for coronary disease include the following: chest pains, shortness of breath, dizziness, a family history of heart disease, low level of physical activity, smoking, history of rheumatic fever, heart murmur, high blood cholesterol, type A personality, history of abnormal electrocardiogram, chronic high stress levels, more than fifteen pounds overweight.


It took me three months of three-times-a-week practice to learn to exercise at my target pulse. For those three months, I had to stop and check my pulse about every ten minutes. For the first four to five weeks, it was too high nearly every time.

I finally learned to slow down by becoming more aware of the different paces I was capable of. It’s very much like shifting gears in a car—the trick is watching the RPMs, not the speedometer.

I learned to go from ”compound low,” a very slow shuffle, through a dozen varying gaits to “overdrive,” a free-wheeling lope for coming down long hills. You can learn to “shift gears” in response to the slope of the road or trail, your energy level, your target pulse, and the messages you are receiving from your body. And you become much more aware of your body in learning to listen for these messages.

I also became aware that I was having ”slow days” and “fast days.” I was usually discouraged by the slow ones, and sometimes became so overenthusiastic about the fast ones that I would overdo it.

My subjective experiences were verified when I heard about the “Inclined Saw-Tooth” theory of fitness training. This theory states that as one continues to train, one’s fitness level does not increase in a straight line, but as a series of peaks and valleys—so that if you were to look at a person’s progress over a long period of time, it might look something like this:

The Inclined Saw-tooth Theory helped me be less discouraged about my slow days and less overenthusiastic about my fast ones. A relatively bad day seemed almost inevitably to be followed by a good one, and after a super-good day, the next one was often a bit of a letdown.

Safety Precautions

Here are three exercise tips which will help you avoid pain and injury, and make exercising more enjoyable: warm up, warm down, and wear good shoes.

If you are walking at a moderate pace, you may not need to do any special stretching before you start—just start out a bit slower than your normal pace. But if you experience stiffness, tightness, or pain, start out with a few simple stretches. If you’re running, you’ll almost certainly be more comfortable if you start and end your regular stint with some stretching. The single most important part of the body for most runners to stretch is the Achilles tendons—the thick cords that run down the back of the foot just above the heel. Some runners are able to go out without stretching—by beginning at a reduced pace. Experiment. Exercise with and without stretching on two consecutive days, and pay close attention to the way your joints and muscles feel.

When you return from exercising, take a few minutes to make the transition from an exercising to a resting state. It’s best not to stand still. The movement of your leg muscles has been helping to pump the blood back to your heart. It’s best to either keep walking around slowly, or to sit or lie down with your legs up. Standing still places an extra load on your heart.

You may be perspiring and you’re no longer generating the heat you were while exercising. Be careful not to let yourself become chilled. Many exercisers like to end their session with a hot bath or shower—this prevents chilling and helps keep the muscles relaxed.

A good, comfortable pair of walking or running shoes can turn your daily exercise period from a chore into a pleasure.

I encourage you to indulge yourself in this area. Get the best shoes you can possibly afford—and then some. It will be money well spent.

If you’re walking and already have some comfortable walking shoes—fine. If you don’t, or if you’re running, I’d strongly suggest a pair of top-quality running shoes.

The kind you want is called a “training flat.” They have wide heels and thick soles and are sold in stores that specialize in running shoes. Staff members at these stores are usually runners themselves, and can give good advice on shoe selection. Runner’s World magazine puts out a special running shoe guide each year, and most stores will have a copy of the most recent guide on hand. Stick to the top-rated brands, but try on a number of different models. They will all be top quality, so you’ll be looking for one with a shape that best matches the shape of your own foot. Be sure to try them on with the same kind of socks you’ll be wearing when you use them.

A Natural Psychotherapy

While the desire to lose weight and the urge to be protected from heart disease would be reason enough to exercise, and while that is often the reason people begin exercising, veteran exercisers list changes in their consciousness and personality changes as the main reasons that keep them at it.

The studies I researched documented many benefits of exercise. A recent review of the literature on exercise and health by Thomas, et al, concluded that exercise not only “appears to provide some protective effect” against coronary heart disease, but “exercise prescriptions are part of the treatment regimen in a great many diseases”—including myocardial infarction (heart attack), arteriosclerosis obliterans, angina pectoris, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, chronic obstructive lung disease, asthma, depression, and anxiety.

Efforts to lose weight, to stop smoking, and to stop or reduce drinking have proved more successful if combined with an exercise program. A Perdue study showed that middle-aged men who completed a four month exercise program showed increased emotional stability, self-sufficiency, and imagination. Another study showed that runners have more self-confidence and a better self-image than nonrunners. And Thaddeus Kostrubala, M.D., a psychiatrist who prescribes running to his patients, writes, ”I have talked to many runners—runners who run long, medium, and short distances—and I have come to the conclusion that running, done in a particular way [long and slow, using a target pulse—Ed.] is a form of natural psychotherapy. It stimulates the unconscious and is a powerful catalyst to the individual psyche.’

A Positive Addiction

It is helpful to remember, in the early stages of an exercise program, that at a certain level of fitness, exercisers begin to “get hooked”—exercising becomes something you look forward to, something you feel deprived of if you are forced to do without. Runners, walkers, swimmers, and other athletes describe a certain feeling that comes over you in the midst of an exercise session. I’ve heard it described as a “second wind, ” a “letting go,” a “being at one with the world.”

Like all emotional states, it’s hard to pin down in words. One fifty-five-year old runner, asked to describe the feeling, said that it was like trying to describe love to someone who has never been in love. Only walkers, runners, swimmers—and lovers—know.

One researcher who set out to study exercise addiction ran into problems which illustrate just what an important part of life exercise can become. He wanted to look at physiological changes in athletes who stop exercising. After interviewing a great many people who exercised regularly, he was forced to give up his project. He could not find enough people who exercised regularly who were willing to stop.

“Notwithstanding the fact that they were being offered higher pay than usual,” he wrote, “many prospective subjects (especially those who exercised daily) asserted that they would not stop exercising for any amount of money.”

Connection error. Connection fail between instagram and your server. Please try again
Written by Tom Ferguson MD

Explore Wellness in 2021