It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility.

Eating well and being physically active are two of the most important things you can do to promote good health. But knowing you should do these things does not always mean it is easy to actually do them.

Despite the simplicity of the message “eat healthy and exercise,” many people struggle with knowing exactly what to do and how to do it. This is largely due to the complicated and ever-changing nature of nutrition and exercise information and the fact that most people receive no education in these areas.

You may even feel like the information you read and hear is designed to confuse you. That may be true, considering that much of the nutrition information we get comes from food companies that are trying to convince us to buy their products. Even scientific research can yield conflicting results, challenging even the most knowledgeable professionals, myself included, to make sense of it. And even if you do decide to make eating or activity changes, the “best” diet or exercise program claims may make you wonder if you made the right choice.

Given this, it’s not your fault if you struggle to understand basic health information and recommendations. But it is your responsibility to learn as much as you can to make the best choices for you and your family.

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

Man shopping in supermarket

 


This won’t be easy, of course. The popular media, as well as social media, promote confusion and false promises about nutrition by making claims that some foods are “toxic” while others are “superfoods.” The old good carb, bad carb or good fat, bad fat arguments have been given a new life as eat this, not that lists. The problem is that many of these claims are not supported by science. The research that is done often yields complicated or conflicting results that aren’t explained in a way that actually helps people make good decisions.

The same is true for exercise. No one doubts that exercise and physical activity are essential for good health, but there are conflicting claims about specific benefits of exercise and what the best form of exercise really is. This can lead to the idea that if you aren’t doing the right exercise, it doesn’t count. Nothing could be further from the truth! While there are reasons why some athletes might want specific types of training, the majority of people can benefit from simply spending less time sitting and going for a walk each day.

So, what can you do? Given the confusing and changing nutrition recommendations it’s best to focus on what hasn’t changed. That is, to focus on eating real food rather than processed, prepackaged foods. Planning meals and snacks to include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, lean meat, eggs, and dairy should give you plenty of healthy fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.

Instead of worrying about the “perfect” exercise, make it your goal to do something active for at least 30 minutes every day.  Beyond that, dedicating time for aerobic, strength, and flexibility exercise will bring greater benefits. Remember, the best exercise for you is the one you will do! Seek advice from people you trust and credible professionals, but remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Your responsibility isn’t to understand all of the nutrition, exercise, and health information you hear. It’s to make an effort to make a few simple, healthy choices despite that confusing information: Sit less, move more, and eat real food.


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Driving yourself to the doctor–why spending time in the car is bad for your health, and what to do about it.

Have you ever thought about how much time you spend in your car? On average, Americans face a 50-minute round-trip drive each day just for their jobs, and nearly thee-quarters of commuters drive alone. In suburban and metropolitan areas the commute can be much longer. Even in Aiken the average commute time is about 23 minutes. When you include driving to work, taking the kids to school, and doing errands, sitting in a car can easily account for an hour or more each day.

The impact of spending time in the car on your health is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

line of cars at drive thru


 

You can find the average commute time in your area using this really cool interactive map from WNYC.

You are probably very aware of the time you spend in the car. What you may not know is that sitting in your car can also have negative effects on your health and happiness. This is the conclusion of several studies that examined the relationship between commuting time and indicators of health. One of these studies suggests that vehicle miles traveled is a strong predictor of obesity. In another study, commuting a greater distance was associated with lower levels of physical activity and fitness as well as a higher waist circumference and blood pressure.

This makes sense because spending more time sitting in your car means you have less time to dedicate to being physically active, something we know is good for your health. Add to that the fact that driving is sedentary. There is accumulating evidence that spending more time sitting in the car, at work, or at home is a predictor of poor health, regardless of how active you are the rest of the day.

It gets worse. Many people eat in their cars during long commutes. Much of the time these “meals” consist of fast food and other prepackaged foods—not many people eat salads while they drive! Since these foods are typically of questionable nutritional quality and high in calories, this alone can contribute to obesity and poor health. The combination of inactivity and eating behind the wheel can easily shift the balance toward weight gain. Plus, eating while you drive is dangerous!

Beyond the direct impact on health through eating and activity behaviors, commuting alone in a car is a form of social isolation. Research suggests that this can lead to depression, itself an important factor leading to poor health.

The problems with long commute times are well established and easy to appreciate. Unfortunately, the solutions are not. Most people can’t move in order to have a shorter commute and relying on public transportation isn’t practical or even possible for many people, especially in our area. Replacing driving a car with active modes of transportation simply isn’t practical.

Aside from the time requirement, our environment doesn’t adequately support active travel—imagine how long a 25-minute drive would take on a bike or on foot! Being able to walk or bike requires access to safe bike lanes and sidewalks that connect people’s homes to work, school, and other destinations. Even public transportation increases activity over driving and enhances social connections. Sadly, this infrastructure doesn’t exist in most communities, which were built to support cars, not people.

But we can take steps to undo some of the damage that so much driving can cause. Making activity at other times of the day a priority is a good start. This could include exercise at the gym, going for a walk, or even yard work or housework. When possible, replace car trips with walking or biking. Planning these activities with others can strengthen social connections as well as improve health and fitness. Finally, act as an advocate for changes in the community that will make active transportation more realistic.


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Back to school 2017

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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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.

Regular physical activity is 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.

Physical activity is also important for academic performance. Research shows that children who participated in an activity program had better executive control, which includes resisting distractions and maintaining focus, improved memory, and doing better switching between tasks. 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.

Similarly, good nutrition is also essential for health, growth, development, and academic achievement. 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.

The same is true for lunch, too. A good lunch can support learning in the afternoon and gives a chance to teach kids about good nutrition by providing healthy food that, unfortunately, many children may not get 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!

Schools are often hesitant to teach about nutrition and activity because it is thought of as a responsibility of parents, not schools. But most parents don’t teach these good habits at home, which affects what happens at school. Despite the obvious benefits, it will probably take years of effort to change this view.

In the meantime, parents can encourage their kids to be active and make smarter food choices at home so they are ready to learn in school.


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Chill out! Why less stress is essential for good health.

Chronic stress can have serious emotional, psychological, and physiological effects that contribute to or exacerbate many health problems. In fact, the negative health effects of chronic stress are like those of eating a poor diet or not getting enough physical activity. That said, managing stress, including getting enough sleep, is often overlooked as a key component of good health.

The effects of stress and the importance of stress management is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

stress


The word “stress” is typically used to indicate both the feeling of being “under a lot of stress” as well as the things that cause that feeling. The events and situations that cause stress are properly called stressors, which lead to a stress response that includes consequences we feel as well as physiological changes we may not notice.

The immediate effect of a stressor is called the “fight or flight” response since it prepares the body to deal with a dangerous situation. A classic example of this is a caveman who encounters a saber-toothed tiger, clearly a stress-inducing event.

The sympathetic nervous system is immediately activated, which raises heart rate and blood pressure to pump more blood to the muscles. Additionally, stored fat and carbohydrate fuels are broken down as fuel for the muscles. The adrenal glands release catecholamines (adrenaline) and cortisol (the stress hormone) to prolong and enhance this effect. This coordinated response makes sure the caveman’s body is ready for action. After the danger passes, everything returns to normal.

This physiological response is appropriate for major events like saber-toothed tiger encounters, but not for less perilous stressors like being stuck in traffic, pressure at work or home, and other personal and family issues. But the body responds with the same increase in blood pressure and hormones to them all. Unlike a rare saber-toothed tiger encounter, these stressors tend to occur on a daily basis, leading to continuous stress response.

The increase in hormones can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases. This is partly due to elevated levels of cortisol, a hormone that plays a role in storing fat and increasing appetite. While elevated cortisol during exercise (including running away from a saber-toothed tiger) is normal, chronic overproduction can have negative effects.

While it is impossible to avoid all stress in life, minimizing stressors and managing the way you respond to stress can have important benefits. To the extent that it is possible, avoiding stressful situations through better time management, setting realistic expectations for ourselves and with others, and learning to say “no” are common recommendations.

Learning how to deal with stressors to avoid the negative effects of stress is also important. Techniques that can be implemented in the heat of a stressful moment include taking a break from the situation, listening to calming music, and progressive relaxation. Even taking a deep breath can help.

Exercise has long been recognized as beneficial for reducing stress and the long-term effects of stress on your health. This includes doing something active during a stressful situation and exercising regularly to improve the way your body responds to stress. While all forms of exercise seem to work, much research and practice has focused on specific types of exercise including yoga and Tai Chi.

Other effective strategies traditionally include meditation and relaxation exercises. More and more research shows that getting enough sleep is also critical for reducing stress and the impact it has on your health. Eating a healthy diet can reduce the effects of stress as well.

The bottom line is that a healthy lifestyle includes stress management as well as a good diet and regular activity. Since all three are essential for good health, it would be wise to eat smart, move more, and chill out!


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Get fit (and stay cool) in the pool

It’s hot! Whether you are swimming laps or splashing in a lake, swimming is a great way to stay cool. Swimming is also an excellent exercise to get in shape, build muscle, and to help you lose (and maintain) weight. Lap swimming is about as aerobically demanding and burns as many calories as land-based exercise such as walking or jogging. The benefits of swimming is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Swimmer


There is nothing that feels better on a hot summer day than going for a swim. But beyond being a fun way to cool down, swimming is a great way to get in shape. Swimming is also an excellent exercise for injury rehabilitation or for people with conditions like arthritis.

The fitness benefits of swimming are well established. Since swimming is a whole-body exercise it uses all of your major muscle groups, building strength, endurance, and aerobic fitness. Highly trained swimmers have VO2max values, considered the best measure of aerobic fitness, that are similar to runners and cyclists. If you have doubts about the fitness benefits of swimming, think about how muscular and lean Olympic swimmers are.

Depending on the stroke and speed, swimming ranges between 5 to 10 METs. (METs are units used to measure the intensity of activity; one MET is equivalent to sitting at rest) For example, doing the backstroke at a moderate speed is about 5 METs while swimming laps freestyle with vigorous effort is about 10 METs.

This range is similar to walking at 4 mph up to jogging at a 9 minute per mile pace. What if you are just spending time in the pool or lake rather than swimming laps? Swimming leisurely is 6 METs, still a decent workout.

Swimming is a great way to burn calories, too. Even at a moderate pace, swimming laps for 30 minutes can burn over 200 calories. The exact energy expenditure depends on the stroke (butterfly is highest, backstroke is lowest) and the speed, but for most people swimming will burn as many calories as spending the same amount of time exercising on land.

There are two major reasons for this. First, water is more dense than air, so you need to expend more energy to move your body through the water. Second, swimming is a whole-body exercise which requires more muscle activity compared to walking or jogging which mostly involve the legs.

You may be surprised to learn that novice swimmers expend more energy per lap than elite swimmers. For example, one study showed that competitive swimmers expend only 280 calories to swim a mile, while less experienced swimmers burn about 440 calories to cover the same distance. The reason for this is that experienced swimmers are more efficient, so they expend less energy.

Aquatic exercise is popular for both therapeutic and fitness purposes, especially for people who don’t tolerate exercise on land well. When you are submerged up to your waist, 50% of your weight is supported; when you are up to your chest, about 75% is supported. This reduces the impact of exercise in the water, perfect for people who have arthritis, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, severe obesity, or who are recovering from injuries.

Exercise in the water doesn’t have to mean swimming laps. Water aerobics, aqua walking or jogging, and resistance training using foam “weights” or webbed gloves offer safe ways to increase strength and endurance for almost everyone. Most fitness facilities that have a pool offer group aquatic exercise classes and you can find instructions online for exercises that you can do in your own pool. If you are interested in using the pool for exercise, you can find information about aquatic exercise in general here and links to suggested exercises here.

The hot summer weather makes swimming and other water exercise appealing. But even if you don’t use the time for exercise, spending time playing in the pool or lake can still burn as many calories as going for a walk and is a great way to have fun and cool down!


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Get fit in just minutes per day!

We are cautioned to be skeptical of claims that you can lose weight while eating everything you want or that you can get in shape without spending hours at the gym. For good reason, too. These claims are essentially the equivalent of a get rich quick scheme, with the same expected results.

But there are some popular exercise programs that aim to increase your endurance, build muscle, and improve your health in less than 10 minutes per day. One is a popular seven minute workout that was published in a fitness journal and received much media attention. There is even an app for your phone that will guide you through the workout. If seven minutes seems like too much, there is even a four minute version! But is less than 10 minutes of exercise per day enough? This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Stopwatch


Current guidelines call for all adults to participate in moderate intensity physical activity for 2 hours and 30 minutes per week or vigorous activity for 1 hour and 15 minutes per week. You can meet this recommendation by going for a brisk walk for 30 minutes on 5 days each week, running for 25 minutes on 3 days per week, or some combination of the two. In addition, you should do strengthening and flexibility exercise at least two days of the week.

For many people, these recommendations seem daunting. In order to make it easier to meet these goals, the exercise time can be divided into shorter sessions. For example, three 10 minute walks are a substitute for walking 30 minutes at once. But some people may still find doing enough exercise to get in shape a challenge, which is why the seven minute exercise program became so popular. And for many, an effective way to improve their fitness.

The effect of exercise on health and fitness is determined by the dose—the combination of intensity and duration. Improvements in aerobic fitness and strength are more related to the intensity of the exercise. As little as a few minutes per day of high-intensity training can be enough to improve fitness, which is why these programs include a combination of vigorous aerobic and strength exercises. In fact, bouts as short as one minute of very intense exercise can improve strength and aerobic fitness better than lower intensity exercise done for a longer time.

Because these programs tend to be intense means that you have to be fit to even get started. A very short program may not be a good choice for people who are not already in shape or who are new to exercise. There may be a greater risk of injury in people who are unfit and start exercising at a high intensity. At the very least, muscle soreness is likely and may impact your ability—and motivation—to repeat that exercise the next day. It is smart to start slowly and gradually increase exercise duration and intensity as your fitness improves.

If you are interested in starting a 10 minute per day routine you may want to start with an app or video that leads you through daily workouts. These may involve using your own body weight for resistance or may require using minimal equipment like dumbbells or resistance bands. If you are more of an expert, you could create your own routine using exercises you are familiar with. You should also warm up before and cool down after each session, something that may not be included in the 10 minute program.

While a 10 minute exercise program can improve your fitness, it shouldn’t be the only physical activity you get. Optimal health and fitness benefits are realized by combining daily physical activity with regular exercise. The best advice is to be as active as possible every day by limiting the time you spend sitting and looking for opportunities to move. Walking instead of driving, using the stairs, and taking the dog for a walk are good ways to increase your activity. You should also dedicate time for exercise to improve your strength and aerobic fitness at least 2–3 days per week. A very short exercise routine may make it easier for you to meet this goal.


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FITT-SPF: How to exercise safely in the sun this summer.

People who exercise are probably familiar with FITT—frequency, intensity, time, and type—the basic principle behind almost all fitness programs. The FITT principle applies to everything from running to weightlifting to yoga. For people who exercise outdoors there are three more letters that are important to know, especially in the summer: SPF. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

woman running on beach


First, a bit more about FITT. Exercise prescriptions are based on four key concepts that allow training to be tailored to meet individual goals. Frequency refers to how often you are training, usually expressed as days per week. Intensity is how hard you are working, which could be running or walking speed or the amount of weight you are lifting. Time is simply how long you are exercising per session. Type is the specific type of training you are doing, which we typically think of as endurance (like walking), resistance (lifting weights), or flexibility (stretching).

Keep in mind that there is interaction between these components. Less intense exercise like walking is typically done for longer than more intense exercise such as interval training can be done in shorter sessions. Some people focus on one type of training at a time, as in weight lifting to increase strength or yoga to enhance flexibility, while others do exercise that includes some endurance, resistance, and flexibility training in the same session. Many group exercise classes and programs like CrossFit are examples of combining multiple aspects of fitness in one session. Since everyone has a different starting fitness level and goals, FITT can be manipulated to meet a variety of needs.

Many types of exercise, especially endurance or aerobic training, can easily be done outdoors. Walking, running, cycling, and water sports like stand-up paddle boarding and kayaking, are popular outdoor activities, especially in the summer. Being active outdoors in nature improves health and wellbeing beyond the fitness benefits of the exercise itself, so “going green” with your workouts is a great idea! Some sun exposure is necessary for your body to produce vitamin D, an essential nutrient. But excessive sun exposure can increase the risk of skin cancer, the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer.

Excessive sun exposure is a real risk of exercising outdoors, especially for prolonged periods of time. Cycling, running, water sports, and skiing have been identified as sports that increase the risk of some types of skin cancer. Unfortunately, sunscreen use among outdoor athletes is low. According to survey results, at least half of college athletes never apply sunscreen before games and practices and those who report using sunscreen don’t use it regularly.

Marathoners, who can accumulate 1,000 or more hours of sun exposure during training per year, are more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer than non-runners, but only about half use sunscreen, according to one study. Regular sunscreen use is even lower in the general population—about 30% of women and 15% of men—so even if you aren’t an athlete it is likely you are still at risk.

The good news is that there is much you can do to reduce your risk of skin cancer while you are active outdoors. First and foremost, properly applying (and reapplying every two hours) a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher is the best way to protect exposed skin. Some sunscreens are more water and sweat resistant, but still need to be reapplied regularly.

Second, covering exposed skin with light-colored clothing, a hat, and sunglasses is smart. Some clothing is more resistant to UV rays than others, so look for a higher ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). Obviously, you need to find a balance between protecting your skin and allowing sweat and heat loss to keep you cool.

Third, try to exercise outdoors in the early in the morning or later in the day when the sun’s rays are less direct. Keep in mind that you should still use sunscreen on cloudy days as UV rays can penetrate clouds. This also tends to be when temperatures are lower, too, so exercise may be more comfortable.

The bottom line is that summer is a great time to be active outdoors. By taking a few precautions you can do it safely, especially when it comes to reducing your risk of skin cancer from excessive sun exposure. You can learn more about skin cancer risk and prevention from the American Cancer Society and the American Academy of Dermatology.


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