Category Archives: Health & Fitness

Maintain, don’t gain, this holiday season: Six tips for preventing holiday weight gain.

Now that Thanksgiving has passed, the holiday season is in full swing. In addition to spending time with family and friends, the big events of the season also seem to involve shopping and eating. This will almost certainly result in big numbers on your credit card bill. And, because holiday weight gain is a reality for most people, on your bathroom scale, too!

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

Christmas cookies


Research shows that, on average, people gain about one pound between Thanksgiving and the new year. The problem is that this extra weight may not be lost during the spring or summer, meaning that holiday weight gain can be a contributor to the gradual increase in weight, about one pound per year, that most people experience over time.

The good news is that the weight gain that typically occurs during the holidays can be prevented. Since people tend to gain less than one pound, even small changes to what you eat and your activity can make a difference, without taking away from your holiday cheer. Here are some strategies:

Stay active. The average holiday weight gain could be prevented by walking about one mile, or about 20 minutes, per day. Since time may be a factor, you can turn a shopping trip into a chance to be active by taking an extra lap around the mall or parking further away in the parking lot. Go for a walk when you have free time—and take your family and friends (and dog) with you.

Stay away from the food. Most holiday parties include lots of food, and usually not the healthiest choices. You can reduce the amount you eat by limiting your time near the food—literally, fill your plate and move away from the food. Using a smaller plate will reduce the amount of food you take, too. Getting rid of the candy dish on your desk at work or the plate of treats on the countertop at home are also smart ideas.

Don’t drink your calories. Alcoholic beverages, soda, and juice all contain calories and can add up to a big part of your total calorie intake. Many beverages, including hot chocolate and coffee drinks, can easily contain hundreds of calories. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your favorite drinks, but enjoy them in moderation.

Plan ahead. If you are trying to watch what you eat, have a healthy snack before you go to a party. You will feel less hungry so you will probably be less inclined to eat as much. If you are bringing a dish to the party, make it something healthy that you like.

Focus on family and friends, not food. The holidays are a time to enjoy special meals and events with family and friends, and that should be your focus. You should enjoy your favorite foods and drinks, just do it in moderation.

Give yourself a break! Healthy eating and exercise are always important, but they are more difficult to do around the holidays. In research, even people who said they were trying to lose weight over the holidays ended up gaining about a half pound. So, do your best maintaining your healthy habits, accept that you may struggle, and make a commitment to get back on track after the holidays!

The bottom line is that you can prevent holiday weight gain by watching what you eat and staying active. It is easier to keep the weight off than it is to lose it later, so a little extra effort now is worth it in the long run. Considering that many people plan to exercise and lose weight after the holidays, you could get a jump-start on your New Year’s resolutions along with making this a happy and healthy holiday season.


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Be thankful for family, friends, and food— real food—this Thanksgiving​.

Happy Thanksgiving week! While this Thanksgiving may different when it comes to gathering together with family and friends, food will certainly be a part of the holiday. Even though many of our favorite dishes are not the healthiest choices, they make an appearance on the table each year. For many of us, Thanksgiving dinner is a day marked by overindulgence and poor nutrition choices.

In an effort to make Thanksgiving dinner healthier, recommendations for modifying or replacing traditional dishes are a common theme in magazines, on the morning TV shows, and on the web. While these suggestions are meant to be helpful, I’m not sure they actually serve to make a significant impact on health. In fact, the foods we eat and the way we eat them may be the healthiest part of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.



Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

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Body fat: Where it’s at matters for health.

Everyone knows that fat is where the extra calories you eat end up and the reason your clothes fit too tightly. Body fat, or adipose tissue, is an efficient way to store excess energy. When you eat more calories than you expend, the extra energy can be stored as fat. Body fat is essential for storing extra energy, something that allowed our caveman ancestors to survive times when food was scarce. Beyond simply storing energy, research also shows that fat plays an active role in health and disease. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Some fat is stored beneath your skin, which you can feel when you “pinch an inch.” This is called subcutaneous fat, and it is what most people think about when they think of body fat. It is also the fat that people see change when they gain or lose weight. But you also store fat in other places in your body, which can have important health effects.

Subcutaneous fat is stored between the skin and muscle and may or may not be distributed evenly throughout the body. Some people tend to store fat in their hips and thighs while others store it in their upper body. Much of this is determined by genetics, which also influences where fat is lost during weight loss.

Fat is also stored beneath the muscle wall in the abdomen. This is called visceral fat because it surrounds the intestines and other internal organs. Visceral fat is known to be associated with a greater risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease than subcutaneous fat. This is in part due to the chemical signals called adipokines that are released from visceral fat and have effects on other organs and tissues resulting in insulin resistance and inflammation.

A simple way to tell if you have excess visceral fat is to measure your waist circumference. If it is greater than 36” for females or 40” for males, you are at risk. This is especially true if you aren’t able to pinch much fat around your waist, which suggests you have less subcutaneous fat and more visceral fat. Keep in mind that this isn’t foolproof, and a high waist circumference doesn’t always mean excess visceral fat, but it’s a good indicator.

Fat can also accumulate inside the liver, a condition is called fatty liver disease. You might expect this to be the result of eating too much fat in your diet, but a more common cause is too much sugar. When you eat excessive amounts of sugar, the liver can turn it into fat. This is especially true if the sugar is fructose, which is found in many artificially sweetened foods and beverages as high fructose corn syrup. When the liver converts fructose to fat it damages the liver and can lead to inflammation, cirrhosis, and liver failure.

The bottom line is that excess fat anywhere is unhealthy, but some forms of fat are particularly dangerous. Losing weight and body fat can reduce the negative effects of body fat. Improving your diet to reduce sugar intake is important for weight control and to minimize liver damage. Exercise also plays an essential role in reducing or reversing some of the negative effects of excess fat so you should strive to be more active every day regardless of your body weight.


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Fitness before, during, and after military service

There is no question that military training and service is physically and mentally demanding. Living and working in dangerous environments has clear risks to physical and mental health. For this reason, military recruits and active-duty soldiers require a high level of strength and endurance along with good stress management and other coping strategies. The importance of exercise and fitness for military service is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

One goal of military training is to develop these skills and abilities in already fit and healthy recruits or continuing service members. Unfortunately, many potential recruits are ineligible for military service because of physical limitations due to poor fitness. This is due to the common pattern of inactivity and obesity among young people. A report from the Council for a Strong America finds that being overweight is the major reason that civilian military recruits are deemed medically unfit for service. These attributes are more likely to be lacking among overweight recruits. Equally troubling is the fact that poor physical fitness disqualifies a high percentage of young men and women who are at a “healthy” weight. A 2010 report, written by a panel of retired military leaders, raises these same concerns, and has the ominous title, “Too Fat to Fight.” A follow-up report, “Still Too Fat to Fight,” suggests that the situation hasn’t improved. Not only are many young people disqualified from military service, those who do enter basic training may sustain injuries that delay or terminate their training. These injuries are more likely to occur in recruits who are obese and unfit at entry. Recuits who lack resilience and stress management skills are also less likely to complete training. This highlights the importance of promoting good mental and physical health among young people, especially those who are planning to serve in the military. Maintaining physical and mental health is also critical for active-duty troops and reservists to maintain readiness. Not only is exercise the best way to maintain physical strength and endurance, but it is also important for stress management and reducing anxiety and depression. Exercise plays in important role for the health and wellbeing of military veterans. First, regular exercise helps prevent a decline in fitness and can prevent weight gain that is common following military service. Additionally, exercise is a key component of physical therapy for recovery from injuries sustained during service. Equally important is the mental health benefits of regular exercise. Depression and anxiety are common among military veterans. It is well-established that exercise is effective for treating these conditions, both alone and in combination with other therapies. This is especially relevant for soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is estimated that as many as 20–30% of soldiers meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Most soldiers diagnosed with PTSD also have or develop other conditions including major depressive disorder, anxiety, or substance abuse disorder. The treatment for PTSD is challenging and includes cognitive behavioral therapy, medications, and other lifestyle modifications. Among these is exercise. Prior exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of developing PTSD and exercise itself can reduce PTSD symptoms, with and without other treatment. All of this supports the importance of exercise for developing and maintaining physical fitness, physical health, and mental health among military recruits, active-duty soldiers, and veterans. The rest of us can gain these same benefits from regular exercise, too.
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After October: Turning awareness into action to prevent breast cancer.

October was Breast Cancer Awareness month. Thanks to the efforts of local and national organizations and a number of events in our area, we should all be aware of the importance of education, screening, treatment, and research toward a cure for breast cancer. These are all worthy goals that deserve our full attention and support. Now it is time to take the awareness that we gained over the past month and turn it in to action for the rest of the year. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

cancer exercise group


Approximately 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that around 300,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed and nearly 40,000 women die from this disease each year. Breast cancer can occur in men, but these cases are rare, so the focus is rightfully on women.

Much attention is given to genetic factors that increase the risk of breast cancer, in particular certain gene mutations, including BRCA1 and BRCA2. Between 20­–30% of cases occur in women who have a family history of breast cancer, which can double the risk of being diagnosed.

However, most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history, so there are other factors that play a role. Many of these are lifestyle factors that can reduce the risk for and improve the treatment and survival of breast cancer patients. The good news is that these changes benefit all of us because they also reduce the risk of other cancers, cardiovascular disease, and most other chronic diseases.

Avoid tobacco use. Smoking may increase the risk of breast cancer and certainly increases the risk of other cancers, especially lung cancer, as well as heart attack, stroke, and other lung diseases. Not smoking, or quitting now, is among the best health decisions a woman can make. E-cigarettes are not a safe alternative to cigarettes, so quitting really means quitting all forms of smoking.

Consume alcohol in moderation. Alcohol can alter the level of hormones, including estrogen, that increase breast cancer risk. Women who consume more than two drinks per day increase their risk of breast cancer by 20% over women who don’t drink.

Maintain a healthy body weight. Being overweight can increase the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women by 30–60%. Excess body fat can alter the levels of estrogen and other hormones. The good news is that losing as little as 10 pounds can reduce this risk. Additionally, being overweight is associated with a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease, among other conditions.

Be physically active every day. Regular activity and exercise can lower breast cancer risk by as much as 20%by reducing the level of certain hormones that are associated with breast cancer. Women who exercise also tend to handle breast cancer treatment better than women who aren’t active and exercise can reduce the risk of cancer reoccurrence by 25%. These benefits can be achieved through 45–60 minutes of brisk walking five days per week.

Eat a healthy diet. The evidence from studies on the effect of diet on breast cancer risk is mixed, with more research needed. In general, increasing fruit, vegetable, and whole grain intake is associated with at least some decrease in breast cancer risk. These foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, so eating more of them is beneficial for reasons beyond cancer prevention.

The bottom line is that turning awareness into action to improve health behaviors can prevent breast cancer and reduce the risk of other cancers as well as many other serious health problems.


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Mindfulness matters for making meaningful and lasting health behavior changes

Mindfulness can be described as an awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. This is most commonly explored through mindful meditation, a practice that is credited with improving physical and mental health. Beyond meditation, being mindful can help to improve attention and focus in nearly every aspect of life. This is important for making meaningful and lasting health behavior changes. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Fitness and recovery from illness

Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. Among other health and fitness benefits, it can have a positive effect on your immune system. People who participate in moderate exercise daily have fewer and less severe colds and have up to 50% fewer sick days than those who aren’t regularly active.

Research shows that exercise increases the activity of certain immune cells called helper T cells. This makes the immune system response to viruses, like the cold, flu, and coronavirus, more robust. The strongest evidence is seen when the exercise is moderate in intensity and duration, such as walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming for 30–60 minutes.

Improving your fitness through regular exercise is also important for recovering from illness that keeps you from being active for several days or a hospitalization that keeps you in bed for a week, a month, or longer.

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

Patient walking in hospital


The problem with periods of inactivity, like bed rest or hospitalization, is that there are severe physiological effects that occur within days and get worse over time. You may have noticed this as weakness and fatigue after spending a few days in bed with a cold.

Muscle strength declines with each day of bed rest, and can be 50% lower following as little as three weeks. That reduction in strength could limit a person who was already deconditioned to a point where he or she would have difficulty completing the most basic activities of daily living.

A person who was fit and strong when they went into the hospital would certainly be better off when released. And older adults fare worse than younger individuals. According to one study, the decline in strength seen in older men in just 10 days was equivalent to the change measured after 28 days in men 30 years younger.

It’s not just the muscles that are affected, the bones get weaker, too. In fact, 12 weeks of bed rest can reduce bone density by as much as 50%, exposing patients to a greater risk of fracture. This is due to the reduced stress on the bone from not standing and walking as well as the lack of muscle activity.

Two of the most effective ways to build bone density are putting stress on bones through weight-bearing activity and the action of the muscles pulling on the bones from resistance training. Because bed rest eliminates both of these stresses, bone density declines rapidly.

One unique study from the 1960s had healthy young men complete three weeks of bed rest. They all experienced a rapid decline (over 20%) in their aerobic fitness, but recovered quickly after the experiment ended. These individuals also had their fitness tested again 30 years later. It turns out that the decline in fitness in those young men in three weeks of bed rest was greater than the decline in fitness that occurred over 30 years of aging!

The good news is that most patients are encouraged to move around as much as possible. Some receive inpatient physical therapy or rehab to help lessen the effects of prolonged bed rest. It is important to take advantage of these opportunities if you, or a loved one, are hospitalized. Since the effects of bed rest are seen in people of all ages, everyone can benefit from building a foundation of good fitness through regular exercise.


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Be active, even when you’re not.

You probably know that exercise is good for your physical health. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of regular physical activity. But the rewards of exercise go beyond strengthening muscles and bones, burning fat, and improving heart health. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of wellbeing. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Celebrate Walktober by going for a walk outdoors.

Now that cooler fall weather is finally here (at least in our area), being active outdoors is more enjoyable. October is a great time to get outdoors and go for a walk! That is the spirit of Walktober, an initiative adopted by health organizations, companies, and communities around the globe.

Walking is a great way to be active to help you control your weight, increase your fitness, and improve your health. The most common form of exercise for most people is walking, and for good reason: walking doesn’t require any special equipment (beyond comfortable shoes) or skills, and you can do it almost anywhere.

You can meet basic physical activity recommendations by walking briskly for 30 minutes most days of the week. Even this amount of walking can lead to a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers as well as improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of well being.

father and son walking in woods

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Fall into a 5k! How to get started training for a 5k run or walk.

Most of us could benefit from getting more exercise and, with the pleasant fall weather, this is a perfect time to get started. You can meet minimum health and fitness goals with a 30-minute brisk walk five days per week. You can get even greater fitness benefits by exercising for longer or by doing more vigorous activity, like running. A good goal is to be active every day for at least 30 minutes and include longer exercise sessions or more vigorous exercise when possible.

Many people are motivated by having a goal to begin or add to an exercise program. You may find that training for an event is more rewarding than exercising for the sake of being active. An excellent goal is to prepare to walk or run in a race. Don’t let the word “race” scare you. Most people who enter these events have the goal of finishing, not winning. That should be your goal, too.

Getting started training for a 5k run or walk is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

running feet


Now is a great time to start training for your first race. The warm weather is an incentive to be active outdoors, and it’s not too hot to be enjoyable. In addition, there are several events in our community in the upcoming weeks and months that are excellent opportunities for first-timers and more seasoned racers. Many events are linked to charities, so they are also good ways to raise money for a good cause.

If you are starting to walk for exercise, completing a 5K (5 kilometers or 3.1 miles) walk is a good goal. If you don’t currently exercise, start with a target of 20 minutes of walking per day. You can split this up into 10 minute segments, if necessary. After you are comfortable walking 20 minutes at a time, increase to 30 minutes per day. Continue increasing your walking time until you are up to 45-60 minutes per day, about how long it takes most people to walk three miles. If you already do some walking, gradually build up to this goal.

Maybe you already walk and are interested in trying running. Preparing for a 5K run is great motivation. Start by adding some jogging into your walking routine. Try alternating 5 minutes of jogging with 10 minutes of walking. Once you are comfortable with that, try 5 minutes of jogging for every 5 minutes of walking. Increase the duration of the running intervals over time, until you can run for 30–40 minutes consecutively. If running 3 miles is too much, you can always complete a 5K by alternating walking and running.

To reduce the risk of injury you should progress slowly, whether you are walking or running. This is particularly important if you are building up to a longer event, like a half marathon or marathon. Obviously, training to walk or run 13.1 or 26.2 miles requires a good deal of time and motivation. Keep in mind that most people who complete their first half or full marathon started with a much shorter event.

Even if you don’t plan to participate in one of these events, the opportunity to get outdoors for a walk or run on a nice day is reason enough to be active. Exercising outdoors has benefits beyond the improvements in fitness or weight loss you would expect. Walking or running in a natural environment can give you a better workout and make you feel healthier and more energized.

Use this as an opportunity to get your friends and family moving with you. Kids can ride their bike while you walk or run and you can push younger children in a stroller. Older children may want to walk or run with you, and don’t forget to bring your dog!


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