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A sweaty appointment with New York City’s fitness physician

Dr. Jordan Metzl says working out is a "drug" that doctors need to prescribe. And he's leading by example—and by teaching jam-packed fitness classes.
Dr. Jordan Metzl
(Photo: Facebook/DrJordanMetzl)

On a recent evening on an Astroturf field at Pier 25, Jordan Metzl, MD, asked a crowd of about 250 New Yorkers clad in workout wear, “How many burpees can you finish before we’re done?” A few weeks later, he had another question for an auditorium full of white-coated professionals at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Is exercise really medicine?”

The questions were different and the audiences were worlds apart, but Dr. Metzl, who’s both a renowned sports medicine physician and a popular fitness instructor, is on a quest to make the two populations understand each other—and to ultimately create a healthier city (and world) by spreading the gospel of getting active.

“Something I really believe in is that the closer we can bring the medical industry and the fitness industry, the better it is for everybody,” he says.

From stethoscopes to Spandex

To say Dr. Metzl is a man of many hats is an understatement. His practice at the Hospital for Special Surgery has more than 20,000 patients and he’s regularly named in New York Magazine’s Best Doctors issue (including this year’s).

But he was initially drawn to sports medicine because of his passion as an athlete. This year, he’s running his 32nd marathon and doing his 12th Ironman triathlon. About three years ago, he developed an interest in teaching fitness classes and created his own method, IronStrength, which he now teaches a few times a month in Central Park or at Equinox during colder months.

And he’s published two books with Rodale, The Exercise Cure and The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies, with three more on the way.

Jordan Metzl
Dr. Metzl teaching IronStrength at Lole and Fitist’s summer workout series. (Photo: Lisa Elaine Held for Well+Good)

The exercise prescription

Dr. Metzl says his first revelation about the power of exercise came after he helped rehabilitate his own knee injury using fitness. He began to do more research and implement strategies into his practice, both for treatment and prevention.

“I used to just be fixing injuries. People were coming in with a torn ligament or a hurt shoulder and it was ‘How do we fix them?'” he says. “As my practice has evolved, I’ve turned more of an eye to prevention. I’m as interested in preventing injuries as I am in treating them.”

And when it comes to prevention, exercise is a golden ticket he’s now intent on sharing with others in his profession.

During his recent talk at Weill Cornell, which was a Grand Rounds presentation for the department of internal medicine, he shared startling facts on the country’s declining health, followed by numerous research studies showing the positive impact of one health intervention on everything from obesity and diabetes to depression and Alzheimer’s—it was exercise.

“If you gave me a drug that worked on all of these body systems and was completely safe and free, and I didn’t give it to every one of my patients, I think I’d be doing something really wrong,” Dr. Metzl told them, insisting that exercise does fit the criteria of a “drug” that doctors need to learn to prescribe. “We’re not well-trained in how to administer this medicine,” he added. “If it works, we have to figure out how to give it to people.”

Beyond the hospital walls

Dr. Metzl, in the meantime, has had no trouble doling out this prescription in his own practice—and beyond.

The IronStrength classes he teaches (for which he takes no money and instead raises funds for different charities) regularly draw more than 200 people per session. And when he taught it at Lole and Fitist’s outdoor workout series this year and last, he drew the biggest crowd of the summer, more than instructors from some of the city’s most popular boutique fitness studios. Now, he also brings his classes and lectures to retreats at fitness spas like Miraval, Canyon Ranch, and Rancho La Puerta.

It’s a big mission and crazy amount of work for one person, and yet Dr. Metzl’s energy and effusive happiness never seem to dip. His explanation? Exercise, of course. “Being an athlete has allowed me to have a lot of energy and taught me to be efficient,” he says. —Lisa Elaine Held

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