Advice from a Local Orthopaedic Surgeon and Boston Marathon Veteran
William Cottrell, M.D. spends his days mending injured knees and shoulders. He understands all too well the importance of getting his patients up and moving again. That’s because when Dr. Cottrell isn’t in the operating room, you can often find him pounding the pavement. He is an avid runner, and has completed the Boston Marathon six times, including in 2014, a year after the tragic bombings that shocked the nation.
“There was really a different spirit that year. I returned with tens of thousands of other runners. It was the most triumphant and emotional event, with countless spectators, including families with small children, cheering everyone along the race course despite a cold and rainy day. ‘Boston Strong’ was the pervasive emotion, says Dr. Cottrell, a board-certified surgeon with Orthopaedic Associates of West Florida.
Racing has not only helped Dr. Cottrell achieve personal goals, it has also changed his career as a physician, by helping him better understand his patients and their needs.
“Regularly exercising gives me insight into just how important it is for our health, and for the health of my patients. That doesn’t mean that I’m encouraging each of them to go out and run a marathon. However, I do try to enforce that low-impact activity, and exercise should be a part of every patient’s daily routine.”
Any doctor will agree that exercise is a great preventative health measure, and can even help manage chronic diseases. People who are physically active tend to live longer and are at lower risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, depression and some cancers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention. Yet fewer than one in four American adults exercises enough to reap those benefits, the agency says. Dr. Cottrell considers it a physician’s responsibility to help change that.
“A patient who comes in at 40, 50, even 60-years-old who has never exercised is going to be really resistant to the suggestion. However, if you can emphasize in a positive way that just incorporating 30 to 45 minutes of daily exercise in their routines will keep them out of the doctor’s office, that can be a game changer. An injured patient who comes to see me, and participates in low-impact exercises following surgery, is much less likely to be back at the practice again years down the road for other joint issues, or conditions like osteoarthritis.”
Dr. Cottrell recommends focusing on a patient’s physical activity level, the same way you would their diet, asking them questions and tailoring a specific physical health plan to them. Physical activity can serve as a patient vital sign that can be assessed and discussed, the same way as blood pressure. Exercise can also serve as an alternative for prescriptions.
“Most physicians won’t hesitate to fill out a prescription for pain killers for a patient who has just had surgery, so why not recommend exercising as well? It can be more beneficial, get them back on their feet quicker, fight depression, not to mention the other numerous health benefits. Our bodies are meant to move,” says Cottrell.
Of course, it helps if you practice what you preach, and studies show that most doctors do. The American Heart Association filed a recent report showing that up to 70 percent of physicians polled said they participate in at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five times a week.
“That figure alone shows that every doctor knows the benefits of physical activity, so why wouldn’t you prescribe it to your patients?”
Dr. Cottrell also emphasizes that exercise is highly scalable. It can be prescribed to children, young adults, and even seniors at the right levels.
“Once a patient gets in a routine, they are much more likely to continue. You can’t start out walking 5 miles, if you can barely make it to the mailbox. Encourage your patients to start low and go slow. It is just as important to do this as it is to make sure they’re getting regular check-ups and testing for chronic diseases.
As for Dr. Cottrell, he’s busy training for his next marathon, and he’s also passing on his healthy philosophy to his three kids. His oldest daughter is starting her freshman year at Duke University, and his son is now following in his dad’s footsteps. He’s joined the cross country and track teams, and regularly rides his bike.
“I really stress to them that staying healthy is a lifelong project, and you are never too old or young to start making a healthy diet, exercise and lifestyle a priority. Being a dad, I’m even more conscious of it, because I want to pass on good habits to them.”