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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​The Science of Sports Drinks

What do you drink during exercise? For most people, the answer is probably water. But many athletes and people who do vigorous exercise are likely to consume a sports drink, like Gatorade or Powerade, while they work out. While there are some differences among the various sports drinks, these beverages are specially formulated to meet the demands of athletes engaged in prolonged, intense exercise. In fact, most contain a similar combination of water, sugar, and salt, along with flavoring to make them palatable. Research and practical experience support the use of sports drinks to improve performance in endurance events (think running and cycling) that last an hour or more.

In my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week I explore the the components of sports drinks and why they may be beneficial—and when they aren’t.

Sports drink


Obviously, water is important for replacing sweat loss during exercise, something that is even more critical in a hot, humid environment. During intense exercise on a hot day, sweat losses can be well above one liter per hour. Failure to replenish this water loss can lead to poor performance due to physiological and psychological fatigue. In extreme cases, severe dehydration can lead to hyperthermia and heat stroke. For most athletes, 500–1000 ml (16–32 oz.) of fluid per hour is sufficient, but more may be needed to meet individual needs.

Carbohydrate replacement has long been associated with endurance performance. Vigorous exercise requires lots of carbohydrates in the form of glucose to fuel the active muscles. Your muscles can use 60–120 g of glucose per hour, depending on intensity. You store glucose in your liver and muscles as glycogen which gets broken down during exercise. But these supplies are limited and are diminished after an hour or so of intense exercise. Recommended intake is in the range of 30–60 g carbohydrate per hour during exercise to deliver glucose to the muscle sustain exercise. Almost any carbohydrate will work, but sports drinks contain sugars that are absorbed quickly. It is also essential to maintain blood glucose since, as I tell my students, “if your blood glucose drops, you drop!”

Sports drinks also contain some salt. First, the salt replaces what you lose in your sweat, preventing a dangerous condition called hyponatremia. Fortunately, most people eat enough salt throughout the day and don’t lose enough in their sweat to create problems. Another reason for including salt is that glucose is absorbed with sodium, so having both gets the carbohydrates into your blood faster. Additionally, levels of sodium in the blood act to stimulate thirst. Consuming salt makes athletes thirsty, and thirsty athletes are more likely to drink more.

The composition of sports drinks is important, but the way they are consumed matters, too. Research shows that drinking smaller amounts of fluid more frequently, say 12 ounces every 15 minutes, is better than 32 ounces at the end of an hour. Carbohydrate content is important, but more isn’t necessarily better. Most sports drinks are in the range of 8%, which is ideal for getting the sugar absorbed into the blood. Drink temperature matters, too, and colder drinks are absorbed faster. Obviously, you are more likely to drink beverages that taste good, so finding a flavor you like is important.

Much of the research into hydration, sports drinks, and performance has been done at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. Despite the name, the research done by GSSI scientists has served to advance the knowledge of exercise physiologists, sports nutritionists, and sports medicine professionals as well as athletes, coaches, and trainers. The research and recommendations are relevant even if you don’t use Gatorade.

Now that you know what is in most sports drinks and why you may wonder if you need one during exercise. Unless you are doing intense exercise lasting over an hour, probably not. Water is sufficient for most people who exercise. And consider this: sports drink contain as much sugar and calories as soda. If you are exercising to lose weight, a sports drink during (or after) exercise might sabotage your efforts!


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Just do it…together! Why exercise is better with family, friends, or your dog.

It’s common to see people walking or running in pairs, and at the gym many people like to work out with a partner. Group exercise classes and boot camp programs are popular among novices and seasoned exercisers alike. Joining a team that trains together to walk or run in a race is a good plan for completing your first 5k or 10k event.

Having another person or a group of people to exercise with is a great way to increase your motivation and enjoyment. This makes it more likely you will stick with your exercise program, leading to better fitness and health. But there are additional benefits to exercising with others that may help you get started and continue your fitness program. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Boot camp workout


Exercising with others provides a level of motivation and accountability that is important, especially for people who aren’t self-motivated. Knowing that you are meeting a friend for a walk or meeting a training partner at the gym makes it less likely that you will find an excuse to skip a workout. While guilt isn’t the best reason to exercise, for many people it is the one thing that will get them moving.

Did you know that exercising with others can also help you get a better workout? It’s true. When you are exercising with another person or a group you can get feedback on your technique. Doing exercises properly can reduce the risk of injury and improve your gains strength, endurance, and flexibility.

You can also get ideas for new exercises and training techniques that can make exercise more enjoyable and less monotonous. Many people find that having a friend to walk or run with makes the time seem to go by faster. The friendly “competition” that can come from a partner or group can push you to train harder, making the exercise more beneficial.

A group dynamic is an important component of many popular exercise classes and programs. At the gym, participants in classes from aerobics to Zumba and spin to yoga benefit from the support and motivation of exercising with others. And programs like boot camps, CrossFit, and F3 are popular largely because of the camaraderie of the other group members.

The benefits may be even greater if you exercise with someone who is more fit than you are. Research shows that when someone is exercising with a partner who they perceive to be more fit they will work out harder and longer than if they were exercising alone. You can benefit from finding a partner or group members who are in better shape than you are. Be careful, though, since exercising with people who are much fitter than you can have the opposite effect and you may get discouraged.

Your exercise partner doesn’t even have to be another person to be effective. Research shows that walking with a dog can improve your adherence to a walking program and lead to greater improvements in fitness compared to walking with a human companion. While a friend might make excuses to skip exercise, a dog will always look forward to a walk. Don’t worry if you don’t have a pet; one study used dogs at a local animal shelter as walking partners.

You can take advantage of the benefits of exercising with a partner easily by asking a friend to go for a walk. It’s something that will benefit you both and it will be a good opportunity to spend time together. No more excuses…get moving!

The effect of involving others in your behavior change process is also helpful for losing weight and quitting smoking. This is true even if the other person (or people) aren’t participating with you—simply telling others about your plans to change can help make you more accountable and improve your chances for success.


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Preseason sports safety

It’s hard to believe, but preseason practice for high school sports will be starting soon. This is an exciting time of year for athletes, coaches, and fans alike. Unfortunately, even the fittest young athletes can suffer injuries (or worse) during preseason training and competition during the season. Among the biggest concerns are the rigorous training schedule, exercise in the heat, and head injury. Fortunately, there are steps that coaches and parents can take to ensure the safety of young athletes during practice and games. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Preseason practices typically emphasize conditioning—getting athletes in shape for the season. While coaches may expect players to arrive at practice already in shape, the reality is that many athletes still need to improve their strength, endurance, and flexibility. Preseason conditioning usually consists of vigorous exercise designed to improve fitness rapidly. Many coaches also use this time to “toughen up” the players or to weed out those who are not suited for the sport. For most young athletes this approach is safe and effective, but there is a risk of injury or, more rarely, collapse or death with intense training.

The risk of injury or death is made worse by the high heat and humidity that is common at this time of the year. For this reason, many coaches hold conditioning sessions in the morning or evening, when it is cooler. Even then, exercise alone poses a challenge to maintain a normal body temperature. Adding equipment such as pads and helmets for football players increases the risk for hyperthermia, which is even greater in the sun on a hot day. A high sweat rate makes dehydration more likely, so frequent water breaks are essential. Unfortunately, some coaches may be tempted to limit water breaks in a misguided effort to build toughness. This is absolutely inappropriate! Dehydration and hyperthermia can lead to heat stroke, which can be deadly.

This topic was covered in an NPR  interview with Dr. Douglas Casa of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. You can also watch a video in which Dr. Casa discusses hydration and preventing heat illness in young athletes.

Another concern, especially among football players, is the risk of concussion. It turns out that concussions are more common than previously thought in football players and repeat concussions, even “minor” ones, can cause long-term problems. New recommendations for all levels of football call for a better assessment of athletes who suffer head injuries and prevent injured athletes from returning to play. This is important during practices as well as games. While the focus is on football, nearly all sports that involve contact have a risk of concussion.

The topic of concussion is addressed in this video of a lecture given by Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, Professor of Exercise and Sport Science at UNC-Chapel Hill and MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award winner.

These risks can be reduced by good year-round conditioning, altering practices to reduce heat injury risk, education to reduce the likelihood of concussion, and careful assessment when a concussion is suspected. These responsibilities fall on the coaching staff and the certified athletic trainers who should be present at all practices and competitions. Certified athletic trainers have the knowledge and skills to assess environmental conditions and monitor athletes for signs of heat stroke, concussion, and other injuries. You can learn more about sports injury prevention and the role of certified athletic trainers in keeping young athletes safe from the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA). All athletic trainers working in our area are certified by the NATA.

All players should also undergo a physical exam prior to participation in sports. The risk of injury can be further reduced by making sure all players are in shape prior to the start of practice. Coaches should find incentives to motivate their players to build strength and endurance in the off-season. Parents should make sure their young athletes are prepared for the physical requirements of their sport and aware of the risks of participation.

While injury is always possible, the risks can be minimized through careful planning and communication among coaches, parents, athletic trainers, and the athletes themselves.


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Go ride your bike!

Summer is a great time to go for a bike ride. Aside from being a great way to get around, bicycling can improve physical, mental, and social health, and has environmental and economic benefits. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
Bike ride


Going for a bike ride is a good way to meet physical activity goals. For most people, bicycling would help meet the minimum recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per day. At faster speeds, biking is an excellent exercise to improve fitness. For kids, riding a bike is a fun way to be active and teaches important movement skills.

Riding outdoors can promote enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger, and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity, including bicycling, may improve attention, learning, and productivity in adults and children.

Bicycling is often done with others, whether that is a family bike ride or exercising with a cycling group. This strengthens social connections and allows people to share in the enjoyment of being active. Even if you ride alone, you are far less isolated from other people and your environment compared to driving a car. These connections to the community are an important part of health and happiness.

Replacing car trips with cycling is good for the environment, too. Every mile you drive releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the environment. Additionally, spending more time sitting in your car can also have negative effects on your mental and physical health. Biking has no such effects on the environment and has important health benefits including improved fitness, weight control, and greater feelings of wellbeing.

As an added bonus, driving less will mean using less gas. Even though gas prices are lower now than in recent years, every mile you don’t drive saves money. Plus, it costs far less to purchase and maintain a bike than it does a car, so it makes economic sense to ride your bike instead of drive when possible. If you think you drive too far bike, think again. Most people commute less than five miles to work and nearly half of all car trips are less than two miles. Both are reasonable distances to bike. Even if you have longer distances to travel, you could probably replace some car trips with active transportation.

Obviously, biking everywhere isn’t practical. It requires access to safe bike lanes and sidewalks that connect people’s homes to work, school, and other destinations. Sadly, this infrastructure doesn’t exist in most communities (including ours), which were built to support cars, not people. Whether or not we bike for exercise or transportation ourselves, we should all act as advocates for changes in the community that will make bicycling more realistic for everyone.

Something as simple as a family bike ride around the neighborhood or biking to work or to visit a friend can have important health, environmental, and economic benefits. Whenever and wherever you ride, keep in mind that common sense says you should always obey all traffic laws and wear a helmet.

Finally, if you haven’t been out on two wheels for some time, don’t worry—it’s just like riding a bike!


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