Dr. Metzl’s specialty is treating injuries without surgery. His favorite medicine, he says, is exercise: It is one he takes often and prescribes to all of his patients. He’s completed over 40 marathons and Ironman competitions, and his goal is to do at least one Ironman every year.
To his patients, Dr. Metzl is not only the healer of their achy knees and sore shoulders, but a fitness instructor. He designed and teaches an exercise class he calls “Ironstrength,” which combines high intensity cardio with strength training. The class is free, open to the public, and held at parks and other locations around New York City.
Recently, I showed up at Central Park on a weekday morning to give the class a try. After a fun but grueling hour of doing sprints, jump squats and push ups, I sat down with Dr. Metzl to talk about why exercise is the best medicine, how a strong kinetic chain makes you a better athlete, and why science shows that working out in a group is better than working out alone. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Q. Can you tell us about your role as a sports medicine doctor?
A. Well, I have three roles, I think. As a sports medicine doctor, I have a lot of people that come in to see me, and I try to fix their injuries and keep them from getting hurt again. I really believe that exercise is the best medicine, and I want everybody to be able to take that medicine all the time.
I also have a role as an athlete. This year I’ll be doing my 32nd marathon and my 12th Ironman competition. And the reason I do that is I think everybody needs a goal, myself included.
And finally I think I have a role as a fitness instructor. It didn’t start out that way, but what I’ve realized is that if I’m going to talk about exercise, I want to help people learn how to do it as well.
Q. What are some of the more common injuries you see in your practice?
A. I see all kinds of sports injuries – everything from achy knees to achy backs, shins and shoulders. I see athletes of all ages. In my waiting room it could be everything from an elite level 10-year-old gymnast to a 75-year-old person who wants to run a marathon.
Q. Tell us about your most recent book, “The Exercise Cure.”
A. It takes what I believe in personally and puts it in a scientific approach, namely that exercise is medicine. I want people to learn how they can take exercise for their problems, whether its memory issues, depression, anxiety, heart disease or high cholesterol. How do you use exercise as a first line drug, and how do you talk to your physician about that? Those are things I want people to learn.
Q. How long have you been teaching the Ironstrength class?
A. I started it a few years ago. The first time I did it I wondered if anyone was going to come. I just e-mailed some of my patients. We had about 25 people. But I’ve now built a listserv for this class of about 6,000 people. It’s always free. Every fourth class we raise money for a different nonprofit. We do it in different places around the city, and people of all ages come and work together.
Q. What is a typical class like?
A. When we do it in the summer outside, it’s a combination of hill running and then plyometrics. When it’s indoors – and I usually teach indoors at Equinox gym in the winter – we have just basically strength workouts twice a month. People come and they learn how to strengthen their bodies and prevent injuries.
Q. Today’s class was pretty challenging. Can you talk about about the exercises we did?
A. So today we did a combination of some skipping up a hill followed by some sprinting up a hill, and I alternated skipping and running. Skipping is a great example of what’s called plyometrics. The muscles are rapidly elongating and contracting, much like when you’re running. So it’s a great way to strengthen your running muscles.
When you start sprinting up the hill, you’re pushing not only your muscles but also your heart. Intensity matters in your workout. So what I’ve done in the sprinting part of this is to really push your lactate threshold and your VO2 max. It gets you breathing really hard, which teaches your heart to squeeze harder, to squeeze more blood, and that makes you more efficient at extracting oxygen from your blood. This intense training over time pushes your lactate threshold, meaning that your fatigue level gets further and further out the more you do it.
Q. In the second part of the workout, you had us switch gears a bit.
A. Right. The second part of the workout was all strength based. We did plyometric jump squats to strengthen the butt muscles and the quads and the hamstrings. And we did a combination of push-ups and sit-ups and all kinds of exercises that strengthen the kinetic chain, which is all the muscles of the body connected tip to toe. This workout strengthens the whole body. If you have a hurt knee, for example, I want you to learn how to make all the muscles stronger so you take pressure off the knee. As an athlete, you do much better with a strong kinetic chain. It doesn’t matter the sport: You can run faster, jump higher and hit a golf ball further if those muscles are stronger.
Q. How often do you do this workout?
A. This kind of workout is great about twice a week. You can do it anywhere. You don’t need a gym. You don’t need any equipment. I believe body weight strengthening is the way to go. I have kids who are 9 and 10 years old doing this kind of stuff. I have grandmothers in their 80s doing it and everyone in between. Strength training is wonderful medicine for anybody. If you have arthritis, if you have osteoporosis, it really helps.
Q. Is there research that shows any benefits to working out in a group?
A. There was actually a study done in England where they took rowers and they put them individually in a room and had them do “maximum erg” – essentially the maximum effort that they could do. And then they put all those people together and had them do it again. And the study found that there was a 15 to 20 percent increase as a group versus as an individual, meaning that you could work so much more effectively in a group than you can by yourself. Even if you think you’re pushing yourself as hard as you can, you can always go a little bit harder if someone’s encouraging you.
Q. What’s your personal workout like?
A. I do a combination of this kind of stuff once or twice a week. And then I do a lot of biking, a lot of running, a lot of swimming, just to try to keep myself as fit as I can be in the confines of my schedule and work, which is sometimes tough. But my overall hope is that I can keep myself going. I want to do this stuff until I’m 90 if I can. That’s the plan.
Q. Do you follow a special diet?
A. I’m not an absolutist. I eat a little bit of everything. I love pizza. I love hamburgers. But I try and lay off that kind of stuff before a race. But other than that I pretty much eat everything in moderation. I’m not a no-carb guy. I’m not a high protein guy. My general feeling is if you can stay away from stuff that doesn’t expire until 2035, then you’re in good shape.
Q. How can people join one of your classes?
A. They can go to my Web site (drjordanmetzl.com), and click on the “subscribe” tab. You’ll get my e-mails that tell you when the classes are. If you’d like to join me, we’d love to have you.