Function and fitness follow form.Why doing exercises properly can help you get fitter, faster.

When it comes to exercise, the most important thing is that you do it! When you are starting out, almost anything you do will have health and fitness benefits. As little as 30 minutes per day of moderate aerobic activity can improve your endurance and even one set of a few resistance exercises once or twice per week can increase your strength. Doing more, either longer exercise time or intensity, will result in bigger improvements in fitness.

Getting the most out of your workouts requires doing exercises properly. Using equipment appropriately and having good form can help enhance your gains from training. Proper technique is commonly thought to reduce the risk of injury, but it also has as much to do with the effectiveness of the exercise itself. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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A health and fitness remodeling project

Losing weight are getting in better shape are common goals. Given that almost 40% of Americans are considered obese and less than 25% meet minimum exercise recommendations, there are many people who could benefit from changing their eating and activity habits.

Much of the time the focus is on losing lots of weight quickly. Many popular diet and exercise programs require making big changes to eating and exercise behaviors. These changes can promote rapid weight loss, but many can’t be maintained as lasting habits. But these changes do help a lot of people lose significant weight, at least for a while.

There are also many people who want to lose just a little weight, maybe 5–10 pounds, and get in better shape. This usually means building muscle and shedding fat, but not really losing much weight, a process that I call “remodeling”.

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Here is a story about Shannon (not her real name), and her health and fitness remodeling project. Continue reading

Think big for better health. Here are a few simple changes that will have a big impact on your health.

If you are trying to lose weight, prevent or treat a chronic condition like diabetes, or improve your health in general, knowing what to do can be confusing. Being “healthier” can include an almost endless list of small changes, making you unsure where to begin.

Nutrition trends tend to focus on single foods or ingredients rather than on changes that will have a significant impact on your diet and health. For example, adding chia seeds to a smoothie is unlikely to make you any healthier, but eating more fruits and vegetables certainly will. The same is true for fitness fads, most of which offer little benefit beyond simply dedicating time for regular exercise.

To really improve your health, you should focus on making changes that will have a big impact. Here are a few ideas to help you get started, which I shared in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


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  1. Sit less, move more, be active every day

Research shows that sitting too much is almost as unhealthy as not exercising. Spending less time sitting at work, home, or in the car is an easy way to improve your health. Getting up and moving for even a few minutes is better than staying seated for long periods of time. Every little bit of activity really does count.

Significant health benefits, including weight loss and improved fitness, can be achieved with as little as 30 minutes of activity per day, but more is better. The activity doesn’t have to be “exercise.” It can include walking the dog, yard work, or house work, but there are significant additional health and fitness benefits from regular aerobic, strength, and flexibility exercise.

 

  1. Eat smart, and not too much

Making dietary changes can be difficult, but first you need to figure out what to do. Fortunately, a few simple changes can lead to big benefits. While there is much debate about which diet is the healthiest, almost everyone agrees that eating more real food, especially fruits and vegetables, and less added sugar is a good place to start.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber and most are low in calories. Eating less added sugar in sweets and processed foods can help you cut down on calories and lead you toward healthier food choices. Controlling portion sizes plays as big of a role in weight maintenance as the types of food you eat, so pay attention to how much you eat. Chances are, it is more than you think!

 

  1. Chill out and get your ZZZs

Reducing and managing stress is essential for good health. Uncontrolled stress can lead to high blood pressure, poor immune function, and weight gain. Daily exercise will help, as will using as will stress management techniques like progressive relaxation and breathing exercises.

Getting enough sleep is also important for good physical and mental health. Sleep is important because it provides a condition under which energy can be directed toward growth and recovery rather than other activities. This is essential for the brain, muscles, and other organs, which renewed during sleep.

 

  1. Don’t smoke

Smoking cigarettes more than doubles your risk of heart disease and stroke, and is by far the leading cause of lung cancer and other lung diseases. If you smoke, quitting now is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. Nicotine replacement therapy and prescription medications can help, but quitting really does require serious dedication. It’s well worth the effort and the benefits of quitting can be realized almost immediately.


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Exercise: The secret weapon for cancer prevention and treatment.

Exercise has broad and significant health benefits, making it among the most important healthy behaviors you can adopt. These benefits include improved muscular strength and endurance, stronger bones, and better cardiovascular system function. Exercise is also essential for maintaining a healthier body weight and body composition and improving metabolic health through blood glucose and lipid regulation.

But exercise causes changes at the cellular and hormonal levels that have even broader effects. Among these is a reduction in inflammation, which has long been linked to a lower risk of heart attack. Accumulating research suggests that reduced inflammation and improved immune system function may be an important way in which exercise reduces the risk of cancer. The role of exercise in cancer prevention and treatment is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

cancer exercise group


While we typically associate the immune system with communicable diseases like cold or flu, our immune system plays an important role in the body’s defense against cancer. Conditions like obesity, poor nutrition, and a sedentary lifestyle can promote chronic inflammation. Among other negative effects, inflammation can interfere with the normal functioning of the immune system. This impairs your cells’ natural cancer-fighting capacity, making it more likely that cancer will develop and spread. Exercise can reverse the immune system damage caused by chronic inflammation, reducing the risk of cancer development and progression as well as making it less likely you will become sick from a cold or flu.

The idea that exercise can reduce the risk of cancer isn’t new. I have written previously about the fact that regular physical activity can lower breast cancer risk by as much as 30%, improve survival, and reduce the risk of recurrence. A recent study confirms that high levels of physical activity can significantly lower the risk of breast cancer along with many other common types including colon, bladder, lung, kidney, and endometrial cancers.

In addition to helping reduce the risk of cancer development and recurrence, regular exercise can help you handle cancer treatment better. To be sure, cancer treatment can lead to extreme physical consequences including losses in weight, muscle mass, strength, and endurance. At least some of this is due to more time resting and less time being active, the effects of which occur within days and get worse over time.

You may have noticed this as weakness and fatigue after spending a few days in bed with the flu. Muscle strength declines at a rate of over 1% per day of bed rest, and can be 50% lower following as little as three weeks. That reduction in strength could limit a person who was already deconditioned to a point where he or she would have difficulty completing the most basic activities of daily living. Bed rest can also reduce bone density, exposing patients to a greater risk of fracture.

The fitter you are when you begin treatment, the fitter you will be at the end because you have “saved” more strength and endurance in your fitness bank. You simply have more you can lose before you get to a point at which you can’t complete your normal activities. In fact, maintaining physical activity is a key component of cancer treatment. And post-cancer exercise programs are becoming more common as a way to help women recover from cancer treatment and rebuild strength, endurance, and feelings of wellbeing.

The best approach is to be active now to reduce your risk of cancer (and many other chronic diseases) and build strong muscles and bones to help you successfully handle any cancer treatment or periods of other illness you may encounter later.


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It’s back to school time. Here’s what kids will be missing (again) this year.

It’s time for children in our area to head back to school. Students, parents, and teachers are starting another school year filled with opportunities for children to learn and grow through math and science, reading and writing, and art and music. To be sure, this is time well spent since these subjects help kids build a strong foundation that will help them succeed in school and beyond, something that is widely understood and appreciated.

Physical activity and good nutrition have long been recognized as essential for promoting good health in adults and children. More and more research suggests that these behaviors can have beneficial effects beyond health, including how we perform both physically and mentally. The emphasis here is on children in school, but it applies to adults, too. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week, just in time for the first day of school here.

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Children should also learn about good nutrition and physical activity, since both good health and good education are essential for lifelong happiness and success. In most schools, though, most kids won’t experience much meaningful education about nutrition, activity, and health.

In fact, opportunities for children to be active in school, either through formal physical education or more informal play and recess, has declined over the years. And good nutrition isn’t likely to get much classroom time at any level and the food served in most schools hardly sends a positive message about healthy eating. These are missed opportunities!

Unfortunately, taking time for activity and good nutrition is seen as a luxury or a distraction to learning in most schools. Far from being a distraction, physical activity and healthy eating are prerequisites for learning and academic achievement. In short, these often ignored factors can help make sure children are ready to learn.

The message that children need to eat breakfast before school is well-known.  Eating a good breakfast improves cognitive function, alertness, and academic performance in students of all ages. It should be no surprise, then, that skipping breakfast impairs cognitive function and academic achievement. This is one reason that many schools offer breakfast to start the day or include a healthy mid-morning snack.

Similarly, lunch is an important part of the school day. In addition to providing energy to support growth and learning, these meals also present an opportunity to teach children about healthy eating since formal nutrition education isn’t part of the curriculum at most schools.

The same is true for physical activity. Research shows that activity can positively affect several factors that are related to academic performance. These include skills (attention, concentration, and memory), behaviors (classroom conduct and homework completion), and academic achievement (test scores and grades). This is particularly relevant for children with ADHD, but the effects can be seen in all kids. These positive changes can maximize class time and lead to improvements in academic achievement, especially math and reading test scores.

The effect of physical activity on brain may be due to physiological adaptations that are associated with enhanced attention, better information processing and recall, and improved attitudes. And it doesn’t seem to matter if the activity is delivered through physical education classes, classroom activity, recess (especially outdoors), or extracurricular activity—it’s the movement that matters!

Regular physical activity is also essential for good health, growth, and physical development, including maintaining a healthy body weight. This last point is important given the epidemic of childhood obesity and related health problems, including “adult” diseases like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Current recommendations call for all children to get at least 60 minutes of activity per day. This can include activity at school from physical education classes, recess, other classroom activities as well as games, sports, and unstructured play. Unfortunately, most kids don’t get nearly enough activity at school and many aren’t active at home.

Schools have a unique opportunity to use physical activity and nutrition to promote health, support academic achievement, and teach healthy habits. Since formal nutrition education is missing from most curriculums and PE programs are being reduced or cut completely, schools must be creative to incorporate these essential subjects.

A way around this problem is to make sure children get a chance to move and play, ideally multiple times during the day. This is what recess is for. Teachers can also incorporate activity and nutrition education in the classroom and get away from the idea that kids must be sitting still to learn. As research shows, quite the opposite is true!

The point is that good nutrition and physical activity support academic success and including them in schools is a natural fit. Research and practical experience shows that nutrition and physical activity have a positive effect on learning. In many ways, health education is just as important as reading and math, topics schools don’t trust parents to teach on their own, to future success.

Some argue that parents, not schools, should be responsible for promoting physical activity and good nutrition. I disagree! Since nutrition and activity improve academic performance, schools are the perfect place to teach about these aspects of a healthy lifestyle. There is also no guarantee that children will have opportunities to eat well or be physically active when they go home, so school may be the best chance for many kids to get these benefits.

Given that most children will get only limited opportunities for physical activity and good nutrition at school, these topics necessarily become “homework.” Since most of us could stand to be more active and eat healthier ourselves, we should start by modeling good habits for our children and grandchildren.

Going for a walk in the neighborhood, going to the playground, or doing yard work along with preparing healthy meals and snacks is a good start. Parents and community members should also express their concerns to lawmakers and administrators in an effort to get more health education included in the school day. We should treat nutrition and activity like we treat other subjects. How would you feel if your child’s school wasn’t teaching math?


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The Ferris Bueller approach to losing vacation weight.

Remember in the movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, when they took Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari into the city for the day? The problem (or one of them) was that Cameron’s dad knew the mileage. Fortunately, Ferris had a plan: They would drive home backwards to undo the miles they put on the car.

It didn’t work.

Maybe you are about to head home from summer vacation, worried about the vacation weight you put on. You could always try the Ferris Bueller approach and drive home backwards!

It won’t work.

So you better get back into your exercise routine right away!


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Vacation is over…it’s time to get back to the gym.

Summer is winding down so many of us will be getting back to our usual routine. Maybe you had an active vacation this summer and maintained your fitness.  More likely, you took relaxing on your vacation a bit too seriously and fell out of your normal exercise routine.

Athletes have long known that even a short break from training results in significant decreases in fitness and performance. You may have noticed this yourself after taking time off. Two recent studies that you may have read about in the news suggest that taking time off from exercise can have a negative impact on your health.

Let’s explore how and why this happens, and what you can do to prevent it.

Exhausted after workout


When you start an exercise program your body adapts in ways that improve your strength and endurance.

Your aerobic fitness and endurance are enhanced by both cardiac and muscle adaptations. Your heart actually gets larger and stronger to pump more blood to your muscles. Within the muscles there is an increase in the number of capillaries, the small blood vessels that deliver blood to the muscle, and mitochondria, the part of the cell that produces ATP, the energy the muscle uses to contract. Together, these adaptations allow the muscle to produce more ATP without fatigue, allowing you to exercise a higher intensity for a longer time without fatigue.

If you do resistance training (and you should!), you get stronger and your muscles get bigger, called hypertrophy. Lifting weights causes microscopic damage in the muscle, which leads to inflammation and soreness. This sounds bad, but your muscles respond by rebuilding stronger, allowing you to generate more force and causing the muscle to grow in size.

These adaptations are also a major reason that exercise makes you healthier, too. Your blood pressure, blood glucose, and blood cholesterol are all improved because of how your heart, blood vessels, and muscles respond to exercise. Additionally, exercise results in changes to certain hormones and how your body stores and uses or stores glucose and fat. The end result is that exercise has far-reaching beneficial effects on your health that simply can’t be matched by any other intervention, including medications.

So, when you stop exercising for a period of time you start to lose these adaptations. This causes both your fitness and health to decline. And it happens quickly, in as little as two weeks!

Two recent studies demonstrate that regularly active adults who suddenly limit their usual activity for two weeks experience significantly impaired blood glucose control, increased fat storage, and lower fitness. It is important to note that in both studies these changes did not fully return to baseline after resuming normal activity for an additional two weeks. This means that the benefits of exercise were lost quickly and took a longer time to return to normal.

This is also true for aerobic fitness and muscular strength. Research done on athletes who stop training, perhaps due to an injury, shows that fitness declines rapidly with the first two weeks. Worse, it can take many more weeks to regain those fitness losses. You may not be a competitive athlete, but the same principle applies to you when you take time off from exercise.

Make it your goal to maintain some level of activity, even when you are on vacation. Time off can mean doing less, but it doesn’t have to mean doing nothing. Even a little exercise can help you maintain your fitness, keep you healthy, and make it easier when you return to the gym.


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