by Ben Kutz

Let’s talk about getting started – not just with exercise… as it pertains to ANY productive habit with exercise as an example. 

You can probably think of lots of things you wanted to work on or learn that would take practice and time. For me, when I was a kid, that was playing a musical instrument. I really wanted to start learning how to play the 6-string electric guitar. The next year, I still wanted to get started. Eventually, I did reach that goal and now I can play comfortably… but what would have happened if I had started a year earlier and just aimed to practice 10 minutes a day or so? 

“What could have happened” … is known as the compound effect! 

In the world of exercise oncology there are a lot of people who might be fearful of exercise because of decreased fitness levels, people who feel that they have too much appointments to add one more to their schedule, and then other people who simply say “I’ve never been an exercise person, it’s not for me.” I want to challenge those people today. Let’s use an example that we have all heard. 

A wealthy person asks another person trying to gain wealth, “If you could take $1 million today or take the result of a penny doubling its worth every day for 30 days, which would you take?” As you would expect, contrary to what a quick glance might show, the penny doubling itself ends up being worth far more than the $1 million option. This is known in general as the compound effect. How does this relate to your health and exercise? 

Well, for most people, they think that if they are going to exercise, they MUST do it every day with all their hardest efforts and drain all their energy for a huge 3-hour session and commit their entire lifestyle to it. While for some, that is appropriate, for others that type of regimen is far too outlandish. But…. what if each day, that person did a little bit of exercise compared to each day repeating what they said yesterday: “I’ll start tomorrow.” What if? A prime example of someone who is reaping the rewards of doing a little bit each day, maybe a little bit more each day or depending on side effects, a little bit less, is one of our stellar patients from UPMC. Let’s call her Jane. 

Jane has about a 50-yard driveway. After a clinical trial of immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and radiation twice per day all at the same time, obviously that left Jane with fatigue levels through the roof! She had shortness of breath with minimal exertion, joint aches all the time, and she noticed that she just wasn’t feeling any better. Once she started working with us at UPMC, she eventually set a goal to go just one step further in a walk down her driveway every day. What began for Jane as a 50-yard walk where she would need to sit down in a lawn chair halfway through has now turned into a mile with no breaks needed! That is an AWESOME story and now Jane is working towards some other goals as well. The amazing thing is that her fatigue levels have also plummeted; she just feels good now. The detail I left out in this story is that it took her about 3 months to work her way up to where she is now. Each day, she did what she could. Each day, she got a little bit better and better. 

What’s great about this, is that whether someone starts today or starts tomorrow, the compound effect of exercise is always taking effect. Your body is always adapting to its activity levels. If your body thinks it needs to get better at keeping the couch nice and occupied, it will get really good at that (deconditioning from inactivity). If your body thinks it needs to improve its capabilities, it will make the changes it needs to meet those demands (fitness/health improvements from exercise). So, knowing that this effect is taking place each day, why not capitalize on what the compound effect of exercise could do for you TODAY? 

It can be done and it can be surprising what someone can do for themselves. But, you’ve got to start!