Off to the races! How to get started training for a 5k run or walk.

Most of us could benefit from getting more exercise and, with the warmer spring weather, this is a perfect time to get started. You can meet minimum health and fitness goals with a 30-minute brisk walk five days per week. You can get even greater fitness benefits by exercising for longer or by doing more vigorous activity, like running. A good goal is to be active every day for at least 30 minutes and include longer exercise sessions or more vigorous exercise when possible.

Many people are motivated by having a goal to begin or add to an exercise program. You may find that training for an event is more rewarding than exercising for the sake of being active. An excellent goal is to prepare to walk or run in a race. Don’t let the word “race” scare you. Most people who enter these events have the goal of finishing, not winning. That should be your goal, too.

Getting started training for a 5k run or walk is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

running feet

Now is a great time to start training for your first race. The warm weather is an incentive to be active outdoors, and it’s not too hot to be enjoyable. In addition, there are several events in our community in the upcoming weeks and months that are excellent opportunities for first-timers and more seasoned racers. Many events are linked to charities, so they are also good ways to raise money for a good cause.

If you are starting to walk for exercise, completing a 5K (5 kilometers or 3.1 miles) walk is a good goal. If you don’t currently exercise, start with a target of 20 minutes of walking per day. You can split this up into 10 minute segments, if necessary. After you are comfortable walking 20 minutes at a time, increase to 30 minutes per day. Continue increasing your walking time until you are up to 45-60 minutes per day, about how long it takes most people to walk three miles. If you already do some walking, gradually build up to this goal.

Maybe you already walk and are interested in trying running. Preparing for a 5K run is great motivation. Start by adding some jogging into your walking routine. Try alternating 5 minutes of jogging with 10 minutes of walking. Once you are comfortable with that, try 5 minutes of jogging for every 5 minutes of walking. Increase the duration of the running intervals over time, until you can run for 30–40 minutes consecutively. If running 3 miles is too much, you can always complete a 5K by alternating walking and running.

To reduce the risk of injury you should progress slowly, whether you are walking or running. This is particularly important if you are building up to a longer event, like a half marathon or marathon. Obviously, training to walk or run 13.1 or 26.2 miles requires a good deal of time and motivation. Keep in mind that most people who complete their first half or full marathon started with a much shorter event.

Even if you don’t plan to participate in one of these events, the opportunity to get outdoors for a walk or run on a nice day is reason enough to be active. Exercising outdoors has benefits beyond the improvements in fitness or weight loss you would expect. Walking or running in a natural environment can give you a better workout and make you feel healthier and more energized.

Use this as an opportunity to get your friends and family moving with you. Kids can ride their bike while you walk or run and you can push younger children in a stroller. Older children may want to walk or run with you, and don’t forget to bring your dog!

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The case of the missing beach body

Now that spring has arrived you may have noticed that your eating and exercise habits over the winter (or past several winters!) haven’t been kind to your body. For some people this comes as a surprise, and they wonder where their beach body from last summer went. For others, their beach body may be long gone, but they want to lose some weight and get in shape before summer.

Obviously, this will mean making changes to what you eat and your exercise habits. If you want to lose 5–10 pounds and get back in shape, this means small changes to your diet and exercise designed to meet your fitness goals. If you have more significant weight to lose you will need a stricter diet and an exercise program that will help you to burn calories and build your strength, endurance, and flexibility.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

missing beach body

While diet and exercise can help you get back in shape, staying in shape requires making lasting behavior changes. Here are some questions that will help you find your missing beach body now and not lose it again in the future.

When did you last see it?

Many people can identify a time in their life when their lifestyle changed and weight gain began. Commonly, this is getting married, starting a new job, or having children. Other people notice that they have gained weight, but can’t point to any specific reason why. In both cases, healthy eating and exercise routines get replaced with other less beneficial habits. The result for most people is gaining weight, either very quickly or slowly over time. Understanding what led to your weight gain is important for making changes to fix it.

How long has it been gone?

The longer you have been inactive and eating poorly, the longer you have been developing these unhealthy habits. The consequence is that it will be more challenging to undo the damage these habits have caused and teach yourself new habits that are consistent with better health. Your task is relatively easy if you have just gained a few pounds since last summer. Trying to reverse years or decades of inactivity and unhealthy eating is a bigger challenge, but one you simply must take on!

Where did you last see it?

The environment has a huge impact on our health, largely through influencing our activity and eating behaviors. In many cases, weight gain may be at least partly a consequence of where we spend our time. For example, a new job that involves long commutes by car and workdays spent sitting can make gaining weight almost inevitable. Quitting that job probably isn’t reasonable, but knowing how it has affected your health allows you to focus your efforts on increasing your activity outside of work. For many women, weight gain occurs after graduating from college, getting married, and having children. While there are many contributing lifestyle factors in this case, the change from an active college campus to a more sedentary environment certainly plays a role.

Once you figure out when and where you last saw your beach body you will have an idea of what you need to do to get it back. Keep in mind that the type of behavior changes you need to make to lose weight and get back in shape are difficult and will take time to adopt. While you shouldn’t expect any miracles in the next month or two, developing healthy eating and activity habits can have a miraculous effect on your weight, your health, and how you feel in the years to come!

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You’re not “just kidding.” You’re just wrong. And that’s okay.

Recently a student asked me for an answer to a question on an assignment she was doing in my ECG Assessment class. I tend to answer questions with a questions, so I asked her, “what do you think the answer is?” After some discussion she came up with a response. Which was wrong. And she replied, “just kidding.” She wasn’t kidding, and she didn’t know the right answer.


This was far from an isolated incident. When a student answers a question incorrectly in class or  in conversations outside of class, the most common response is “just kidding.” I first noticed it years ago, mostly from female students. Now I hear it equally from male students. I even hear it from other “adults,” most recently when an acquaintance didn’t remember what grade my son is in—”just kidding.”

It’s as though being wrong is so unacceptable, it is turned into a joke. The message seems to be “I wasn’t wrong, I was joking, and I knew the right answer all along.” The problem is, most students who say this really don’t know the right answer.I worry that this lack of ownership will prevent students from identifying weaknesses and missing opportunities to fill gaps in their knowledge.

So, now when I hear a student say “just kidding” I say “no, you’re not just kidding, you’re just wrong, and that’s okay.” Then we work to find the correct answer.

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On second thought: Nutrition advice that seemed like a good idea at the time, but wasn’t.

If you follow nutrition news you have no doubt noticed that recommendations change over time. Foods you thought were good for you can suddenly show up on a “never eat” list and foods you had learned to avoid are now recommended. This makes it challenging to follow a healthy diet, for sure. It may also make you question the advice of nutrition experts, who seem to change their minds periodically.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

There are several reasons for this. First, carefully designed long-term studies of food and health are difficult to conduct. This means that small differences can appear to be more important than they really are and meaningful effects may not be statistically significant. Additionally, it is unreasonable to carefully control what people eat over years or decades, so “proving” that a food is either beneficial or harmful to health is almost impossible. This leads to health claims that probably shouldn’t be made as well as missed opportunities to make useful recommendations.

There are also political reasons why nutrition advice can change over time. The long-held belief that eating fat causes obesity and heart disease was largely based on decisions made by politicians. Importantly, these decisions were not based on good research. This led to a recommendation to eat more carbohydrates instead, something the food industry embraced.

Low-fat foods that were high in sugar became known as health food, despite evidence to the contrary. Even as evidence linking sugar intake with poor health accumulated, Congress forbid U.S. dietary guidelines to include an “eat less” recommendation. Only now are we changing our thoughts and behaviors to consume less added sugar and be less fearful of fats in our diet.

Here are two examples of nutrition advice that was well-meaning at the time but hasn’t worked out in the long run. In fact, these recommendations may actually have made us less healthy.

Low-Fat and Fat-Free Foods

The recommendation to eat less fat resulted in foods that normally would contain fat to be reformulated to have less, or no, fat. The fat was replaced by sugar and other additives leading to ingredient lists that read more like a chemistry experiment than food. We know now that these highly processed foods were no healthier and are thought to be a major cause of the obesity epidemic.

Sugar Free foods

Now that we have embraced the idea that we should eat less added sugar, there are sugar-free alternatives to most foods and beverages. The problem is that foods containing sugar are meant to taste sweet, so something must be added to replace the sugar. More often than not, the sugar is replaced by artificial sweeteners that contain no calories but still add sweetness.

There are two problems with this. First, although these foods tend to be calorie-free, they are still associated with weight gain. Second, they may be sweeter than the food they replace and alter our expectation of what food should taste like. This is especially true for children, who learn to expect that all food should be sweet. Furthermore, the alternative sweeteners used to replace sugar may not be as safe as we initially thought.

The bottom line is that all nutrients—carbohydrates, fat, and protein—are healthy within relatively broad ranges. And getting these nutrients, fats and sugar included, from real food is always preferable to eating processed foods. The key to good health is to balance what you eat with daily physical activity at work, at the gym, or at home. And remember that nutrition researchers and experts are doing their best to bring you reliable recommendations, even if it doesn’t come across that way in the news!


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Candy & Soda for Breakfast: That’s just nuts! Many almonds are more like candy than a healthy snack.

Eating a healthy breakfast provides energy to start the day and is important for weight control. In children, a healthy breakfast is essential for proper growth and development and is linked to improved attention and learning in school. Breakfast is often thought of as the most important meal of the day, for good reason. Unfortunately, many common breakfast foods are more similar to candy and soda than a healthy meal to start the day.

I call this idea that unhealthy food makes its way onto our breakfast table Candy & Soda for Breakfast. And it’s not just breakfast, either. Lunch, dinner, and snacks frequently include foods that look like a healthy choice but really are candy and soda in disguise. One example is nuts, which can be a healthy snack… or candy in disguise.


Eating nuts can be a tasty way to make your diet more healthy. Nuts are beneficial because they are rich in healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals. Nuts also contain omega-3 fats and natural plant sterols which, together, may help lower your blood cholesterol and reduce your risk of heaving a heart attack.

Although the specific nutrients vary among different nuts, all nuts are thought to be healthy. This includes tree nuts such as almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, and pecans, which have the most research to support their health benefits. But it also includes peanuts, which are actually legumes (like beans), not true nuts.

Keep in mind that you should focus on eating plain nuts to get the biggest benefits. Many nuts have added flavors in the form of coatings, glazes, and seasonings, which may be high in sugar and salt. Honey roasted peanuts and chocolate covered almonds are good examples of nuts that are essentially candy. These types of nuts should be eaten sparingly and for dessert, not as a snack. Check it out:

Plain almonds contain 160 calories with 14 g fat, 1 g sugar, 3 g fiber, and 6 g protein per 28 g (1 ounce) serving [source: Emerald Nuts Natural Almonds]. The fats are almost all healthy unsaturated fats with no trans fats. No question, plain almonds are a healthy snack or addition to any meal.

Many people consume almonds that are flavored or have sweet coatings. While these contain the beneficial nutrients of plain almonds, they also contain added salt and sugar. For example, honey glazed almonds have 140 calories with 10 g fat, 8 g sugar, 2 g fiber, and 4 g protein per 28 g (1 ounce) serving  [source: Emerald Nuts Honey Glazed Almonds]. That’s a lot of added sugar, which makes sense considering that sugar appears in four forms in the list of ingredients: sugar, tapioca syrup, sugar cane syrup, and dehydrated honey. The glaze is almost pure sugar and almost none of it is actually honey!

If you are curious why the honey glazed almonds have less fat, fiber, and protein compared to the plain almonds, this is why: The glaze makes the almonds heavier so there are fewer almonds per 28 g serving. Since the fat, fiber, and protein are in the almond itself, not the glaze, fewer almonds means less of these nutrients.

The honey glazed almonds are essentially candy-coated nuts. But since they would be right next to plain almonds on the shelf, it is reasonable that someone might think of them as a healthy option to the plain version. They aren’t. But at least they aren’t as bad as candy that contains almonds…or are they?

Chocolate covered almonds are delicious! But they also contain 158 calories with 15 g fat, 12 g sugar, 1 g fiber, and 3 g protein per 28 g (1 ounce) serving  [source: Dove Milk Chocolate  Almonds]. If you look at the ingredients you will see lots of added sugar, which is no surprise considering they are covered in candy!

What may be surprising is that the honey glazed almonds similar to the chocolate coated almonds in terms of added sugar. Another important point is the serving sizes. A 28 g serving of plain almonds contains about 28 nuts, about 1/4 cup or a small handful. There are fewer honey glazed almonds in the same serving size and there are only 9–10 of the chocolate covered almonds in one serving! How many people would stop after 10 almonds?

Based on this, plain almonds are an excellent snack. Even though chocolate covered and honey glazed almonds are essentially candy, they do have almonds inside, which makes them a better choice than many other candies or snacks. But don’t fool yourself, neither are the same as eating plain almonds!

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Forget about low-fat or high-carb: Focus on food, not nutrients, for weight loss.

If you are confused or frustrated by the conflicting claims about whether a low-fat or low-carbohydrate diet is the best for promoting weight loss, you are forgiven. First, we were told that eating a low-fat diet was the best way to lose weight and improve heart health. Then, research suggested that low-carbohydrate diets were better.

Although there are hundreds of diets and weight loss plans you can follow, most fit into one of these two broad categories, reducing calories by cutting back on fats or by restricting carbohydrates.

A recently published study in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets for promoting weight loss. The results say a lot about diets and weight loss in general and I interpret them to suggest that you should focus on food, not nutrients, to achieve your weight loss goal.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


feet on scale

This study was a bit complicated, but it basically compared a low-carbohydrate diet with a low-fat diet for weight loss. After one year, both groups lost about the same amount of weight, showing that both diets were equally effective. This shows that restricting fat or carbohydrates didn’t seem to make a difference for promoting weight loss.


But it might be better to consider that what the two diets had in common is what made them both effective. In addition to the emphasis on fats or carbohydrates, both groups were encouraged to eat less added sugar, more vegetables, and fewer processed foods. It is likely that these factors played such major role in promoting weight loss that they outweighed the effect of which nutrients were restricted.


This isn’t much of a surprise, since eating less added sugar, more vegetables, and fewer processed foods are the three recommendations almost all diets and eating plans have in common. They are also among the very few things everyone seems to agree on when it comes to nutrition recommendations.


When it comes to picking the perfect diet, we should stop thinking on how they differ from one another and focus on what they all have in common. By faithfully following those key recommendations, it almost doesn’t matter what the rest of the diet includes. Avoiding processed foods and added sugar and making vegetables a major part of each meal will lead to healthier choices than simply cutting back on either fats or carbohydrates. In this way, food matters more than nutrients.


This study also demonstrates an important truth about weight loss. The average weight loss wasn’t impressive, only 6 kg in one year, or just a bit over 1 pound per month. I think that most people would be disappointed with this weight change after a year of effort. There was also a big range in weight loss, with some subjects losing over 60 pounds and some gaining about 20 pounds.


Modest average weight loss with some people losing significant weight and others losing very little or even gaining weight is typical for most weight loss programs. What you tend to hear about weight loss programs is the highest expected weight loss—”you can lose up to 40 pounds!” for example, but they don’t tell you what you should really expect. Be skeptical of promises of rapid, significant weight loss. Also be wary of diets that require you to avoid or emphasize certain nutrients like fats or carbohydrates, and remember that the real key to weight loss seems to be food, not nutrients.

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Five students came to see me about their exam. They were the wrong five students.

I gave my first exam in Exercise Physiology last week. Predictably, grades ranged widely, with some students doing very well and others, well, not. There were five students who failed. So, I sent them a friendly email asking them to meet with me to discuss their exam and, more importantly, what they can do to salvage their chances to pass the class.

And five students came to see me. But they were the wrong five students.

F grade

The students who came to see me all earned As or Bs on the exam and wanted to see what they missed or to talk about some of their answers. One student who earned a high A just wanted to find out what she got wrong (very little). None of them really needed help, but they still took the time to see me.

This is probably why these five students did so well. And why the other five didn’t.

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