Exercise during allergy season

Springtime has arrived in our area, which means warmer weather, blooming flowers, green grass, and, for many, seasonal allergies. If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you may want to know if it is safe to exercise outdoors. The short answer is yes, provided you take the right precautions. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Don’t be an April Fool when it comes to weight loss claims.

Diets don’t work!

Exercise can actually make you gain weight!

You can take supplements that will melt fat away while you sleep!

Claims like these should make you wonder if someone is trying to fool you. Since April Fools’ Day just past, it is worth learning the truth about these common weight loss myths.

Diet pills


Diets don’t work

Considering that most people who lose weight end up gaining it back, this belief is understandable. The fact is that diets do work—that is how people lost weight in the first place! The problem is that many diets simply aren’t sustainable and don’t teach healthy eating habits necessary to keep the weight off. The result is that after the diet ends, a return to old eating patterns leads to gaining the weight back. The solution, of course, is to find a diet that you can stick with even after you have lost weight, one that teaches you how to make healthy choices and adapt your lifestyle.

Exercise doesn’t lead to weight loss

The traditional advice for losing weight is to eat less and exercise more. But some research suggests that exercise itself doesn’t lead to significant weight loss. In fact, exercise alone results in lower weight loss compared to diet only or diet plus exercise. While this is true, concluding that exercise isn’t important is a mistake.

First, even if exercise only leads to a small amount of weight loss (about a half pound per week in my research) it does add up over time and can help someone achieve their weight loss goal more quickly. Second, research involving individuals who have succeeded at long-term weight loss in the National Weight Control Registry shows that exercise is important. It is noteworthy that 94% of these “successful losers” increased their physical activity in order to lose weight and 90% said that they maintain their weight by exercising an average of 60 minutes every day.

You can boost your metabolism and burn fat using supplements

Losing weight really does require making changes to your eating and exercise behaviors. Many of these changes can be difficult, so it is no surprise that people look for shortcuts. And there is no shortcut more appealing than a supplement that will increase your metabolism and burn fat while you sleep.

Keep in mind that there are no dietary supplements that have been shown to be safe and effective for promoting long-term weight loss, despite what the manufacturers claim. In fact, some could even be dangerous. The only way to make a meaningful change in your metabolism is to exercise and significant weight loss simply won’t happen unless you change your diet.

Be especially skeptical when you see words like “flush” and “cleanse,” which are meaningless and have nothing to do with weight loss. There are a few prescription medications and one over-the-counter drug (Orlistat) that has been shown to promote weight loss—but only when combined with a healthy diet and exercise.

Hopefully this advice will help you make healthy decisions and avoid becoming an “April Fool” when it comes to weight loss claims. The good news is that you can start losing weight today by making some simple changes including reducing your portion sizes at meals, choosing water or other calorie-free beverages when you are thirsty, and making it a point to be active every day. These modifications can lead to weight loss now and are exactly the type of changes you need to make to keep the weight off in the long run.

 

Sickeningly sweet: Added sugar and your health

You are probably aware that eating too much sugar is bad for your health. Excessive sugar intake causes hormonal changes and inflammation that can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. For decades an emphasis was placed on lowering fat intake, especially saturated fat and cholesterol, to reduce the risk of obesity and heart disease.

Unfortunately, much of this advice was misguided and while fat intake went down, sugar consumption in processed and prepared food increased. This is now seen as a primary cause of the current obesity and diabetes epidemic. The impact of sugar on health and steps you can take to reduce sugar intake are the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Let’s Agree to Agree About Food

Eating a healthy diet is a goal for many people to help them treat or prevent disease, improve exercise performance, or maintain a healthy body weight. If you pay attention to news about food and nutrition you have probably noticed that there is a great deal of controversy about what constitutes a healthy diet. It’s easy to find lists of foods to avoid and things to eat every day. Unfortunately, lists from different sources may not be the same or, worse, a food that is on one “never eat” list is on another “always eat” list.

There is a different approach you could take to plan the foundation for a truly health way to eat. Instead of focusing on what is different, think about what recommendations are shared among most “healthy” diets. Here is some diet advice that almost everyone agrees on. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Chill out! Understanding and managing stress.

There is no doubt that the past year has been especially stressful. From very real health and economic concerns to social distancing and working or learning from home, most of us are experiencing a higher level of stress. Much of this is unavoidable but finding ways to reduce the impact stress has on is essential for maintaining our physical and mental health. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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What you need to know about muscle cramps during exercise

Muscle cramps are a common condition experienced during endurance exercise and many sports. Known as exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC), these sustained and painful muscle contractions tend to occur during prolonged exertion including exercise and physical labor that results in fatigue. Despite their frequency, the cause and treatment for muscle cramps is not well understood by many recreational and competitive athletes.

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Muscle cramps that occur during exercise are widely thought to be caused by dehydration and electrolyte imbalances in the muscle. This makes sense, as muscle cramps seem to be more likely during prolonged exercise in a hot, humid environment in which sweat loss could cause a loss of both water and salt from sweat. Sometimes, EAMC are erroneously referred to as “heat cramps,” even though they can occur in cooler conditions. Furthermore, dehydration and electrolyte imbalances would affect the entire body, whereas muscle cramps occur only in the working muscles, typically the gastrocnemius in the lower leg. It is also worth noting that the most effective treatment for muscle cramps—stretching the affected muscle—does not replace fluid or electrolytes. These observations suggest that EAMC have a cause other than fluid and electrolyte loss during exercise.

 Research also does not support the notion that dehydration or electrolyte abnormalities are the cause of muscle cramps that occur during exercise. For example, in one study of competitors in an Ironman triathlon, there were no significant differences between those who experienced muscle cramps and those who did not in blood electrolyte concentrations or body weight changes (an indicator of dehydration). The development of EAMC was related to faster race times and a history of cramping. Other studies in a laboratory setting show that muscle cramps still occur even when electrolyte balance and fluid replacement is maintained. These findings and other research led to the development of an alternate theory of the cause of muscle cramps during exercise.

Understanding the cause of EAMC requires a brief primer in muscle physiology. Muscle contraction occurs when nerves, from the spinal cord, called motor neurons, stimulate the muscles to shorten and produce force. The force production by the muscle is controlled by a host of receptors that either stimulate or inhibit the muscle. One of these, the muscle spindle, responds to stretch and causes muscle excitation. Another, the Golgi tendon organ (GTO), inhibits muscle activation and causes relaxation. Working together, the muscle spindle and GTO regulate force production during exercise.

Just as repeated muscle contraction over time can lead to muscle fatigue, the pattern of the motor neurons stimulating the muscle can also be altered during prolonged, intense exercise. This causes an excessive stimulation of the muscle spindle and decreased activation of the GTO, resulting in uncontrolled muscle contraction—a cramp. This also explains why stretching is an effective treatment for muscle cramps. By engaging the GTO, the muscle relaxes and the cramp is eventually relieved.

The prevention of muscle cramps is obviously of great interest, especially for athletes who are prone to develop them. Given that muscle fatigue is a condition underlying most cramps, adequate training and conditioning to increase endurance is important. There are a number of popular preventive strategies, including increasing fluid and electrolyte intake, consuming specific foods and beverages like pickle juice and bananas prior to exercise, and taking substances like quinine. However, experimental evidence for these strategies to reduce EAMC is lacking and their effectiveness is based mostly on anecdotal reports.

For now, the best way to prevent muscle cramps is to prepare yourself through training and nutrition for both the environmental conditions and exercise itself. And if you get a muscle cramp during exercise, immediate stretching is the best way to relieve it.

Should you eat like a caveman? What you need to know about paleo and keto diets.

Which diet is the best? This is one of the most common questions about nutrition and health, with implications for weight control, chronic disease prevention and treatment, and exercise performance. Unfortunately, this is no simple answer to this question. While there are certain eating patterns and aspects of specific diets that are considered to be beneficial, there is no single diet that has been shown to be the “best.”

As a general rule, healthy eating should be informed by nutrition science, not determined by the latest trends. Many fad diets raise concerns because they restrict or over-emphasize certain foods or nutrients, rely on meal replacements or supplements instead of real food, or are supported by limited evidence.

The Paleo and ketogenic (Atkins) diets are examples of popular diets that are at odds with traditional nutrition recommendations, going against the poor “low-fat” advice we have long been provided. Given the popularity of these low-carbohydrate diets, it is worth exploring the benefits and drawbacks of each to help you decide which is right for you.

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Exercise and the gut microbiome

We tend to think of bacteria as something to avoid. Germophobes beware, but our bodies are literally covered and filled with bacteria. From our skin to the lining of our GI tract, bacteria are literally part of us. For sure, some bacteria are harmful, but many more play an important role in our health. The balance between the helpful and harmful bacteria seems to be important for health; diseases from eczema to irritable bowel syndrome can result from an imbalance.  

The combination of bacteria in our bodies is known as the microbiota, the genes of which are called the microbiome. Researchers study the bacteria themselves (microbiota) and the genes (microbiome) and use both as an indicator of the balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria. This is especially relevant in the large intestine, where there has been much research into the role of gut bacteria on health.

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Start American Heart month with some facts about your heart.

February is American Heart Month, with a focus on encouraging all of us to make heart-healthy choices to reduce cardiovascular disease risk. I thought that sharing some information about the heart, how it works, and how to keep it healthy would be an appropriate way to celebrate. This is also the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Fit to Serve

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a time to celebrate the birthday and reflect on the accomplishments and legacy of Mr. King. It is also a  on which people are encouraged to use their day off from work and school to volunteer in their community. Individuals and groups across the country participate in community service, with some making this their first-time volunteer effort and many more continuing a year-round commitment to service.

You can maximize your impact in community service activities by being fit and healthy. To be sure, there are ways that people of physical abilities can contribute, but many service opportunities require a certain level of fitness to participate. And it is certainly more enjoyable to volunteer if you aren’t being pushed to your limits. In fact, some service activities are similar in exertion to many forms of exercise and some may be consistent with maximal exercise. Unfortunately, the common pattern of inactivity and obesity can limit people’s ability to function optimally at school, work, or in leisure-time activities, including community service.This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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