Recovering from vacation: getting back in shape after time away from the gym.

After two years of staying close to home you may have taken a vacation this summer. Maybe you had an active 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.  Research shows that taking time off from exercise can also 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 used by your muscles. 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.

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!

Research shows 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 do not fully return to baseline after resuming normal activity for an additional two weeks. This means that the benefits of exercise are 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 caveman guide to health: Going Paleo means more than the diet.

What does a caveman know about nutrition and health? If you have been paying attention to a recent health trend, the popular Paleo diet, being more like a caveman might just be the answer to good health. It turns out that there is good reason to think that following at least some of the caveman’s advice is beneficial. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Wooly Mammoth

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The case of the missing beach body

Now that summer has arrived you may have noticed that your eating and exercise habits over the past several months (or years!) 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 are motivated to get back in shape now. 

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 focus on 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 lose fat while building your strength, endurance, and flexibility. 

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

Photo by vjapratama from Pexels

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 and losing fitness, either quickly or more slowly over years. Understanding what caused these changes is critical for reversing them.

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 (and men, too), 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!

Go for a walk while you fly!

If you travel for work or have vacation plans this summer that may mean spending time on planes and in airports. It usually also means a lot of sitting, especially now with so many flight delays and cancellations. But it doesn’t have to. In fact, you can easily find ways to include physical activity in your air travel plans. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Swimming is fun and excellent exercise, so 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 and fit this summer. Swimming is also an excellent exercise for improving your fitness and helping with weight loss.

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

Swimmer

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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

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Tips for staying cool when you exercise, work, and play in the summer heat.

Since summer is officially underway and the temperature and humidity are up, this is a good time to revisit some commonsense guidelines to make exercise, work, and play outdoors in the summer heat safe and enjoyable for your entire family.This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

summer splash fun


  1. Drink plenty of fluids

When it’s hot you have to sweat to lose heat and maintain your body temperature. High humidity makes sweating less effective, so you sweat even more. Losing lots of water through sweating can lead to dehydration. At the very least, you probably will feel fatigued but in more severe cases dizziness, low blood pressure, and fainting can occur.

For this reason, it is important to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after your outdoor activity. As a general rule, a cup (8 oz.) of water every 15–20 minutes is sufficient for most people. Thirst is a good indicator of fluid needs, but you should take frequent breaks to rehydrate.

Make sure to remind kids to take breaks since they can get so busy playing that they forget. Water, juice, sports drinks, and other soft drinks are equally effective, so pick something you and your kids will drink.

  1. Take breaks

The longer you are active the hotter you will get and you may feel more fatigued because of the heat. Taking frequent breaks will give you a chance to rest, cool down, and get something to drink.

  1. Seek out shade

Being in the sun means that you will feel even hotter because you gain heat from the sun’s rays. Spending as much time as you can in the shade will help you stay cool. While this isn’t always practical for all activities, look for shady spots to take breaks.

Keep in mind that shady areas at will change throughout the day, so plan your trip to the park accordingly. Also be aware that direct sunlight can make outdoor surfaces, like playground equipment, very hot. This is another reason to find shady areas to play.

  1. Pick cool clothes

Lighter colored clothing will reduce heat gain from the sun. Synthetic fabrics that wick sweat from the skin can help keep you feel cooler, too. 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.

  1. Wear sunscreen

Sun exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer, and outdoor activity can increase the risk. Always use a broad-spectrum (both UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and apply—and reapply—it according to the instructions. You should also protect your eyes by wearing a hat or sunglasses.

  1. Avoid the hottest times of the day

Try to plan your outdoor activity in the morning or evening to avoid the hottest times of the day. Keep in mind that the highest temperatures often occur in the late afternoon or early evening, so right after work may not be the best time for outdoor activities. Early in the morning is probably the best time since it tends to be cooler and less humid.

You may not be able to plan all of your activities in the shade or when it is cooler. This is especially true for people who work outdoors. In these cases, drinking plenty of fluids and taking frequent breaks is particularly important. By taking the right precautions, though, you can still enjoy your favorite outdoor activities all summer long.


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Summer gains and losses: Maintaining good health and academic success over summer vacation.

The school year has ended for kids in our area. Long summer days to play, sleep in, and relax are an important part of growing up. But many educators and health professionals are concerned about what gets lost, and what gets gained, when kids are away from school. This is especially true in a year when many kids missed at least some opportunities due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

kids-jumping


Summer learning loss is a real concern. It is estimated that children lose, on average, two months of reading skills and one month of overall learning over summer break. Those losses must be made up when school starts again in the fall, so teachers spend about six weeks re-teaching material that was covered in the previous grade. That is six weeks that children are not learning at grade level, which certainly has an impact on achievement over time.

Not all kids are affected equally. Much of the disparity in summer learning losses falls along socioeconomic lines. Some children have more opportunities than others to continue learning over the summer through formal educational programs and camps and informal encouragement to read.

To address this issue, many institutions implement summer “school” through classes, on-line learning programs, and encouraging reading at home. Some target the students who need them the most while other programs are instituted for all children. In fact, all three of my kids completed online learning programs last summer.

Learning losses are not the only concern with an extended break from school. Many children gain more weight over the summer than during the rest of the year. Furthermore, fitness gains made during the school year are frequently lost over the summer.

While poor nutrition and a lack of activity in schools is a real concern, many children get more exercise and eat better at school than they do at home. Being at home over the summer can lead to poor eating habits—too much unhealthy food or not enough food in general—and lack of chances to be active.

This is important because the combination of poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and obesity has physical, psychological, and social consequences for children that frequently persist into adulthood. Overweight and obese children, especially those who are inactive, are at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even stroke – conditions usually associated with adulthood.

Even if an overweight child does not have these conditions now, he or she is likely on that path. In fact, many experts predict that children born today will be the first generation in history to have a shorter lifespan than their parents due to obesity-related diseases that begin in childhood.

Children who are overweight are also more likely to suffer other consequences including lower self-esteem, social functioning, and academic performance. Overweight children are also less likely to play sports or participate in other forms of physical activity, which creates a cycle leading to poorer health and, potentially, poorer academic success.

Now that school is almost out for the summer, this is a critical time of year to focus on good nutrition, physical activity, and continued reading and learning to help prevent a summertime slump in health and academics.

Schools can only do so much, so adults should model good diet, activity, and reading behaviors themselves. A good place to start is by turning off the TV and reading a book or going outside to play. It’s something all of us—adults and children—will benefit from.


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Good news for weekend warriors.

Do you need to exercise every day? Or could you exercise on just a couple of days instead? According to one study, saving your exercise for the weekend can give you the same health benefits as spreading your exercise out over multiple days. However, becoming a “weekend warrior” might not be the best approach for you. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

hiking


Current physical activity recommendations call for us to accumulate 150 min/week of moderate-intensity activity or 75 min/week of vigorous activity. Typically, this would be done on multiple days per week (walking 30 min per day on 5 days, or jogging 25 min on 3 days). This study answers an important question about physical activity and health—can you get away with only exercising a couple of days per week instead of the recommended 3-5 days? It also included people who do some, but not enough, activity throughout the week.

This study looked at how physical activity pattern was linked to the risk of death from all causes, cardiovascular disease (CVD), and cancer, a common way of examining the effect of physical activity on health in large populations. The study compared the risk of death among four physical activity pattern groups: inactive, insufficiently active (some activity, but not enough), regularly active (meeting PA recommendations throughout the week), and weekend warriors (meeting recommendations in just 1-2 days per week).

The results show that, compared to the inactive group, the risk of death was lower in the insufficiently active, regularly active, and weekend warrior groups. This was true for deaths overall as well as deaths from CVD and cancer. Furthermore, the reduced risk was similar for the three activity patterns, but lowest in the regularly active participants.

This confirms what we already knew from numerous other studies: regular physical activity promotes longevity. The study also suggests that being active throughout the week, but not enough to meet those recommendations, is also associated with some reduction in risk. We knew that, too. What this study adds is that meeting the recommendations by doing the activity on 1-2 days, the “weekend warrior” pattern, is beneficial, too. In fact, this activity pattern seems to be about as good as being active most days of the week. This is good news for people who aren’t active on a daily basis!

That said, this study only examined mortality, meaning the number of people who died during the follow-up period. It doesn’t tell us much about how these activity patterns affect health the way most of us would consider it: controlling blood pressure, diabetes, blood lipids, or depression. It also doesn’t say anything about weight control or improving strength, endurance, or flexibility, which are important reasons many people are active. In both cases, exercising regularly is the key to realizing the benefits!

Additionally, the typical “weekend warrior” tends to engage in exercise that is more intense and/or longer duration than what they might do if they exercised regularly. Indeed, the study indicates that almost all (94%) of the weekend warriors played sports and relatively few (31%) walked for exercise. While this is fine for most people, participating in vigorous, prolonged exercise can lead to a greater risk of injury, especially in people who aren’t in good shape to begin with.

So, people who are weekend warriors should select activities they will enjoy, and focus on duration over intensity. A long walk, hike, bike ride, or kayak trip on the weekend is something most people can do without too much risk. But the best approach is to be active throughout the week as much as possible and use weekends for more ambitious exercise sessions.


Is it true that you burn 100 calories when you walk or run a mile? Yes!

Walking and running are widely used modes of exercise to improve fitness and promote weight loss. The energy expended (calories burned) during walking or running can be directly measured in a lab or estimated based on speed and body weight. It can also be determined using one of many wearable devices and mobile apps. A commonly used estimation is that walking or running one mile elicits an energy expenditure of 100 calories.

This estimation, while crude, is interesting because of its wide use and apparent acceptance, even though it hasn’t been tested for accuracy. Research my students and I did examined the accuracy of the 100 calories per mile estimate across a wide range of walking and running speeds. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week

100 kcals


To do this we asked subjects ranging in age from 20 to 44 years to walk or run one mile at a speed they selected on a treadmill while energy expenditure was determined. Some of the subjects walked and some ran, so the speeds ranged from 3 to 7 mph. For accuracy, we measured the air they breathed to measure how much oxygen they consumed to calculate how many calories they burned.

We found that the measured energy expenditure across all speeds was 108 calories per mile. It was higher (115 calories) during running and lower (98 calories) during walking. None of these were significantly different from the 100 calories per mile estimate.

There was a high degree of variability among subjects in energy expenditure, even at similar walking or running speed. This was due to body weight, with heavier people burning more calories when they walked or ran.

These findings are consistent with previous studies that compared the measured energy expenditure of walking and running one mile at set speeds. In our study, we allowed subjects to select their own walking or running speed, so it more closely reflects how people would exercise outside of a research setting. Research also shows that the energy expenditure during treadmill exercise was almost exactly the same as walking or running on a track, so our findings would also be applicable to walking or running on level ground.

In conclusion, the widely used estimate of 100 calories per mile appears to be accurate across a wide range of walking and running speeds. This supports using the 100 calories per mile value for estimating energy expenditure for fitness or weight loss purposes. For example, some exercise programs prescribe exercise based on calories burned rather than time or distance. And people who are trying to lose or maintain weight can use the 100 calories per mile estimate to help balance their energy intake and expenditure.

It is important to note that the 100 calories per mile estimate does not replace more accurate measurements or calculations that are done in a research or clinical setting. And wearable devices and apps are easy ways to get a good idea of how your energy expenditure during a wider range of activities. But, if you want to know how many calories you burn during a run or how long you need to walk to offset what you eat, the 100 calories per mile estimate will give you a pretty good idea.


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