Category Archives: Health & Fitness explainer

What children gain and lose over the summer

Summer vacation is a rite of passage for children. Long summer days to play, go to camp, 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.

Kids playing outdoors


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 are completing online learning programs this 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 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.


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

When fat attacks! Use your muscle to fight back.

Everyone knows what fat is. It’s where the extra calories you eat end up and the reason your clothes fit too tightly. But beyond that, it doesn’t do much, right? While fat, or adipose tissue, is a place to store excess energy, research shows that it also plays an active role in health and disease. In fact, your fat may be keeping you fat! The good news is that weight loss and regular exercise can reverse the negative health effects of excess body fat. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Adipose tissue


Body fat is essential for storing extra energy, something that allowed our caveman ancestors to survive times when food was scarce. But fat cells have important biological functions beyond storing extra energy. It turns out that fat cells release chemical signals called adipokines that have effects on other organs and tissues.

For example, type 2 diabetes is strongly linked with obesity. Type 2 diabetes is a condition of high blood glucose caused, in large part, by cells not responding to the hormone insulin. Resistin, which is produced by fat cells, has the effect of causing insulin resistance in the liver and muscle, the two major places where excess glucose is stored. The result is high blood glucose, the hallmark characteristic of diabetes.

Fat cells also secrete adipokines such as leptin and TNF-alpha that promote inflammation and abnormal function of blood vessels. This is associated with atherosclerosis, the development of cholesterol-containing plaques that form in blood vessels. These plaques may be unstable and rupture, leading to clot formation that causes a heart attack. This is one reason why obesity is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

The hormone leptin also plays an important role in regulating body fat stores. Leptin signals the brain about the amount of fat stored in the body. When body fat stores decrease, leptin stimulates appetite to increase energy intake and storage as fat; when body fat increases, appetite is reduced.

At least that is the way it is supposed to work. The effect of leptin on appetite is only a suggestion, and it is easy to eat despite it. The result is excess energy intake which leads to obesity. Worse, the brain develops a resistance to the high levels of leptin produced by the excess body fat and establishes a new “normal” level. When someone loses weight and leptin levels go down, the brain responds by increasing appetite. Is it any wonder why losing weight and keeping it off is so difficult?

The good news is that losing weight and body fat, no matter how difficult it can be, can reduce the negative effects of these adipokines. The even better news is that exercise can reverse some of this damage, even if you don’t lose weight. The reason is that, like adipose tissue, muscle produces chemical signals, too.

These myokines also have beneficial effects include improving insulin sensitivity and reducing inflammation. This is one way in which regular muscle activity (exercise) is thought to promote good health. Myokines can also counteract the negative effects of adipokines by creating a balance between the two opposing effects.

In fact, the myokines that are stimulated by exercise can have a greater effect than the adipokines. This helps explain why being obese but physically fit may actually be healthier than being a normal weight but unfit.

The bottom line is that excess fat is unhealthy and we are starting to understand the mechanisms that explain why. Losing weight is important for improving your health. And exercise may be even more important, so you should strive to be more active regardless of your body weight

If you want to learn more about the role of adipose tissue on health, these two articles are a good place to start (fair warning–they are high-sci):

George Ntaios, Nikolaos K. Gatselis, Konstantinos Makaritsis, George N. Dalekos. Adipokines as mediators of endothelial function and atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis 2013;227(2): 216-221. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2012.12.029

Coelho M, Oliveira T, Fernandes R. Biochemistry of adipose tissue: an endocrine organ. Arch Med Sci. 2013;9(2):191-200. http://dx.doi.org/10.5114/aoms.2013.33181


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

 

Video

Friday video pick: Be carb smart.

Nutrition can be confusing! Depending on the day, individual nutrients and whole foods may be good for you…or really bad. This is especially true for fats and carbohydrates, the major sources of calories in our diets. I have written about carbohydrates previously, but this video can also help you become carb smart!

How do carbohydrates impact your health? | via YouTube


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

What does it mean? A health and fitness vocabulary lesson.

When I write about health I routinely use terms like exercise, activity, and fitness. Some people have asked why I use these different words since they all have a similar meaning. That is an excellent question, since these terms are related they have different applications for health and wellness. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Exercise sign


Physical activity (PA) is defined as any movement produced by muscles that expends energy. Physical activity can be classified as occupational, what you do at work, and leisure-time, what you do in your free time. Occupational PA can vary greatly depending on the job, but it is low for most of us who spend much of our work day sitting. Leisure-time PA is all activity outside of work. This is of great interest to researchers since it reflects how we chose to spend our discretionary time. Physical activity can be measured by questionnaires or using devices such as pedometers, which count the steps you take, or accelerometers, which measure how much you move.

Exercise is a type of physical activity that involves planned, structured, and repetitive movement to improve or maintain physical fitness. Physical fitness, then, is a set of attributes that relate to the ability to perform physical activity and exercise. The components of physical fitness include endurance, strength, and flexibility. Basically, participation in physical activity and exercise improves your fitness and the greater your fitness, the better able you are to participate in physical activity. This is true for completing occupational tasks as well as traditional exercise, such as jogging or lifting weights.

The good news is that both physical activity and exercise have health and fitness benefits. Physical activity can vary in intensity, from light (slow walking), moderate (brisk walking), or vigorous (exercise like running). The 2008 U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that, at a minimum, all adults 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 along with strengthening exercises at least 2 days per week. You can meet this recommendation by going for a brisk walk for 30 minutes on 5 days per week or running for 25 minutes on 2 days per week or some combination of the two. Additional benefits come from doing more, either higher intensity or longer duration activity.

Vigorous exercise is the best way to improve fitness while moderate-intensity activity is strongly linked to health benefits. Fitness benefits result from adaptations in the heart and muscles, which get stronger and become better able to resist fatigue. These changes also lead to health benefits including lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose as well as helping with weight loss and weight control.

Research suggests that health and fitness benefits also result from light-intensity or intermittent activity, especially if it replaces sitting. At home or at work, the more time you spend sitting, the poorer your health, even if you exercise every day. One study shows that getting off the couch and stepping in place during TV commercials results in nearly 25 minutes of activity per hour and burns about 150 calories, compared to 80 calories just sitting the entire time. You won’t get in great shape doing this, but it will increase your overall activity.

With this is mind, a good recommendation is to reduce sitting time in favor of light activity—stand while you read the paper or walk around while you talk on the phone—and participate in moderate or vigorous activity each day by going for a brisk walk or doing other exercises, including strength training.


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

Vocabulary lesson: Exercise, activity, and fitness

When I write about health-related issues I routinely use terms like exercise, activity, and fitness. Some people have asked why I use these different words since they all have a similar meaning. That is an excellent question, since these terms are related they have different applications for health and wellness.

Physical activity (PA) is defined as any movement produced by muscles that expends energy. Physical activity can be classified as occupational, what you do at work, and leisure-time, what you do in your free time. Occupational PA can vary greatly depending on the job, but it is low for most of us who spend much of our work day sitting. Leisure-time PA is all activity outside of work. This is of great interest to researchers since it reflects how we chose to spend our discretionary time. Physical activity can be measured by questionnaires or using devices such as pedometers, which count the steps you take, or accelerometers, which measure how much you move.

Exercise is a type of physical activity that involves planned, structured, and repetitive movement to improve or maintain physical fitness. Physical fitness, then, is a set of attributes that relate to the ability to perform physical activity and exercise. The components of physical fitness include endurance, strength, and flexibility. Basically, participation in physical activity and exercise improves your fitness and the greater your fitness, the better able you are to participate in physical activity. This is true for completing occupational tasks as well as traditional exercise, such as jogging or lifting weights.

The good news is that both physical activity and exercise have health and fitness benefits. Physical activity can vary in intensity, from light (slow walking), moderate (brisk walking), or vigorous (exercise like running). The 2008 U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that, at a minimum, all adults 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 along with strengthening exercises at least 2 days per week. You can meet this recommendation by going for a brisk walk for 30 minutes on 5 days per week or running for 25 minutes on 2 days per week or some combination of the two. Additional benefits come from doing more, either higher intensity or longer duration activity.

Vigorous exercise is the best way to improve fitness while moderate-intensity activity is strongly linked to health benefits. Fitness benefits result from adaptations in the heart and muscles, which get stronger and become better able to resist fatigue. These changes also lead to health benefits including lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose as well as helping with weight loss and weight control.

Recent research suggests that health and fitness benefits also result from light-intensity or intermittent activity, especially if it replaces sitting. At home or at work, the more time you spend sitting, the poorer your health, even if you exercise every day. A recent study shows that getting off the couch and stepping in place during TV commercials results in nearly 25 minutes of activity per hour and burns about 150 calories, compared to 80 calories just sitting the entire time. You won’t get in great shape doing this, but it will increase your overall activity.

With this is mind, a good recommendation is to reduce sitting time in favor of light activity—stand while you read the paper or walk around while you talk on the phone—and participate in moderate or vigorous activity each day by going for a brisk walk or doing other exercises, including strength training.

Don’t wait until you get sick: What you can do to prevent heart disease.

I have been writing recently about heart disease, how it is diagnosed, and what you and your doctor can do to treat it. In order for your doctor to start treating you for heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes you need to be diagnosed with one of these conditions. This requires proactively seeing your physician for screening before you start experiencing the consequences of these conditions.

But most people don’t visit their doctor until they have symptoms, and many wait until a more serious event (a heart attack, for example) occurs to seek medical attention. By this time, the disease process has progressed and managing it becomes the goal. It is possible to prevent both the conditions that lead to heart disease as well as reduce the risk that you may have a heart attack or stroke.

Your risk of heart disease is largely determined by health-related attributes and behaviors called risk factors. Some of these risk factors cannot be changed, including age, sex, and family history. Other risk factors are modifiable, meaning you can change them to reduce your risk. These modifiable risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and physical inactivity.

While there are medications that can lower blood pressure and cholesterol and treat diabetes, these modifiable risk factors are best addressed by lifestyle changes. Adopting healthy habits has the potential to have a bigger effect on heart attack risk than medical management. There are three important health behaviors that, together and separately, have a powerful effect on reducing heart attack risk:

Stop smoking. There is no way around this one. Quit! Ask your doctor about prescription medications that can make quitting easier. Nicotine replacement therapy in the form of patches, gum, and lozenges can help manage cravings and are available over the counter. Ultimately, though, quitting smoking is a behavior change that takes motivation, willpower, and time. But it is worth it—your risk of heart attack can drop 50–70% within five years of quitting.

Be active everyday. The importance of physical inactivity as a risk factor for heart disease is often overlooked. But make no mistake, being active on a regular basis is one of the most important things you can do to improve your heart health. Whether you have other risk factors or not, physical activity can reduce your chance of having a heart attack. And if you do have a heart attack, your active lifestyle improves your chances of survival and returning to a normal lifestyle.

The benefits of exercise are well-established and impact heart disease risk in a multitude of ways. Physical activity helps with weight control, lowers blood pressure, improves blood lipids, and prevents and treats diabetes. Think of this as a great health “deal.” By modifying one risk factor—inactivity—you can also promote beneficial changes in four others—obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes. There is no other treatment, drugs included, that can have such a broad impact on heart disease risk!

Improve your diet. If you are like most Americans, your diet is too high in saturated fat, salt, and added sugar and lacking adequate whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and fiber. This type of diet is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. All of these conditions are risk factors for heart disease, so you may literally be eating your way to a heart attack.

It turns out that adopting a healthier eating pattern is important in reducing your risk of heart disease. Saturated fat intake can lead to abnormal blood lipids and high salt intake is linked to high blood pressure. While eating sugar doesn’t cause diabetes, the type of diet described above is associated with weight gain and diabetes. Just like with physical activity, a healthy diet can lead to improvements in several other risk factors.

The potential impact of these three health behaviors is great. Even modest changes in diet and activity can lead to improvements in risk factors and reduced heart attack risk. More intensive lifestyle modification can produce even greater benefits. In one famous study, daily exercise, a low-fat vegetarian diet, and stress management actually caused regression of heart disease, meaning that the blockages in the coronary arteries were smaller following treatment. While you may not follow such a strict program, becoming more active, eating a healthier diet, and quitting smoking can go a long way to improving your heart health.

What your doctor may do to diagnose and treat heart disease, and what YOU should do

As Heart Month draws to a close, it’s worth understanding a bit more about the tools your doctor may use to diagnose and treat heart disease or a heart attack. And, equally important, what you can (and should) do if you have a heart attack help prevent it from happening again.


Coronary_angiography_of_a_STEMI_patient,_showing_partial_occlusion_of_left_circumflex_coronary_artery


Coronary artery disease or heart disease is caused by atherosclerosis, a process which involves the accumulation of cholesterol plaques in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. These plaques can narrow the blood vessels and reduce blood and oxygen delivery to the heart, leading to symptoms like chest pain (ischemia). The plaques can also rupture and form a blood clot, blocking oxygen delivery and causing a myocardial infarction—a heart attack.

If you experience symptoms such as chest pain or have a high risk of heart disease due to family history and other risk factors, your doctor may recommend a diagnostic test. In a graded exercise test (GXT), or “stress” test, a person exercises, typically walking on a treadmill, at increasing speed and grade while heart rate, blood pressure, and heart rhythm are monitored by a doctor or exercise physiologist.

Stress_test

Changes in these variables, as well as the person’s exercise capacity, can be signs of ischemia and heart function. Often, a GXT is combined with another diagnostic technique such as nuclear imaging, which shows areas of the heart that do not receive enough blood flow, or an echocardiogram that uses ultrasound to show the heart beating and ejecting blood.

Based on the GXT results a cardiologist may recommend an angiogram, in which a catheter is inserted into an artery and threaded into the coronary arteries, dye is injected, and the coronary arteries are viewed through X-ray imaging. This allows cardiologists to actually see the extent of the narrowing in the coronary arteries.

You can been diagnosed with heart disease based on the results of an angiogram or if you had a heart attack. During the angiogram a cardiologist can perform an angioplasty in which a balloon catheter is inflated to open narrowed arteries. A mesh stent may also be placed to help keep the vessel open for longer. In other cases coronary artery bypass surgery may be indicated. Considered open heart surgery, this procedure actually bypasses narrowed sections of coronary arteries using another vessel, typically a leg vein. Both angioplasty and bypass surgery can restore adequate blood flow to the heart and treat ischemia and heart attacks.

Many people consider the treatment complete after the heart attack has ended and the angioplasty or bypass surgery is complete. The truth is that the long-term outcomes are largely based on what happens next. Traditionally, heart disease patients were told to rest and not stress their hearts, a belief that many still hold today. But exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation programs are key to improving heart health and preventing future complications.

Most cardiac rehabilitation programs include several phases. Phase I programs start in the hospital and focus on getting out of bed and performing self-care activities and some walking. Phase II cardiac rehab involves closely-monitored exercise, usually for 12 weeks following a heart attack or surgery. Phase III involves longer exercise sessions with greater independence and transitions into Phase IV, a lifelong exercise program. Education about exercise, nutrition, weight control, stress management, proper medication use, and psychosocial wellbeing are essential in all phases of cardiac rehabilitation.

The benefits of cardiac rehabilitation are well-established through research and practice. In fact, many patients credit cardiac rehabilitation with saving their lives, even if they had bypass surgery. Despite this, less than a third of patients who are eligible for cardiac rehabilitation actually attend a program.

If you or someone you know has had a heart attack or surgery, encourage them to ask their doctor about cardiac rehabilitation—it is likely to be the best way to improve quality of life and avoid future heart problems.