Category Archives: Health & Fitness

How to become an Olympic champion.

The Olympics are an excellent opportunity to see some of the world’s fittest athletes in action. Endurance events like the marathon, power events like sprints, team sports like soccer or basketball, and exhibitions of individual skill in gymnastics all highlight the dedication and training of these elite athletes. You may wonder what it takes to become an Olympic champion. In my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week that the answer is a combination of focused, intense training and some good luck.

Olympic rings


First, the training. The key to performance in long-duration events like distance running, cycling, swimming, and rowing is for the muscle to contract repeatedly and forcefully without fatigue. In order to do so, the muscle must have a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients (primarily fats and carbohydrates). These nutrients are delivered through the blood which is pumped to the muscle by the heart. The muscle takes up and uses these nutrients to produce ATP, the form of energy used by the muscle.

After months and years of endurance training the heart gets bigger and blood volume expands, resulting in the ejection of more blood to the muscle. Within the muscle 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 most of the ATP. Together, these adaptations allow the muscle to produce more ATP without fatigue, permitting the athlete to sustain a higher intensity (running speed, for example) for a longer time without fatigue. These adaptations are consistent with a change in muscle fiber type from fast (type IIx) to slow (type I and IIa) fibers, which are rich in capillaries and mitochondria, making them resistant to fatigue.

These adaptations occur to some extent in everyone who participates in regular exercise. Olympic-level athletes who train for years or decades can maximize these changes. But is training alone sufficient for Olympic-level performance? Could anyone who trains enough make it to the Olympics? The answer is no, because there is another important factor in athletic performance—luck. Luck refers genetics, which play an important role in performance. As much as 50% of performance in some events is attributed to genetics. Elite endurance athletes were fortunate to be born to parents who bestowed them with large hearts and muscle that was composed of a high percentage of slow fibers (the average person has about 50% slow fibers). Of course, years of training amplifies these attributes to result in a large, strong heart that can pump lots of blood to muscle that is made up of slow, fatigue-resistant fibers.

Genetics and training are the two major factors that lead to success in every other Olympic event, too. Sprinters and other power athletes have more fast (IIx) muscle fibers to generate high levels of force for a short duration. Genetics can provide a foundation of more fast fibers, upon which specialized training can build. Other events require a certain body type for optimal performance, which can be seen in female gymnasts (petite but strong) and swimmers (Michael Phelps’ arm span, for example). And beyond the physiological adaptations, years of training builds skill, technique, and mental focus that is essential for competition.

It is too late for most of us to become Olympic champions. But we can all experience many of the same benefits of training as Olympic athletes. And we can certainly appreciate the training, dedication, and good luck that the athletes bring to the games.


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After the ouch: New ways to treat minor sports injuries.

If you play sports or exercise regularly you probably have experienced some sort of injury. Hopefully yours was just a minor muscle strain, joint sprain, or soreness that didn’t prevent you from continuing your exercise program. It is always best to address minor injuries before they progress to cause more lasting damage.

If you do sustain a muscle or joint injury you will probably ice the affected area to help it heal. But there are also several newer techniques that can help speed recovery. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Kinesio tape


The most common recommendation for treating a minor exercise injury is to use ice to reduce swelling and speed healing. For example, an ankle sprain might be treated by sitting with the injured leg elevated while applying ice; later the joint might be wrapped with athletic tape to provide support and further reduce inflammation. This combination is called RICE—rest, ice, compression, elevation—and makes intuitive sense.

Several other treatments for sports injuries have become more commonly used thanks in part to their use by professional and Olympic athletes. This is also due to the realization that inflammation is a key component in tissue repair and reducing it with ice therapy might actually interfere with healing. More and more sports medicine professionals are using modalities— voodoo flossing, cupping, and kinesio taping—other than (or in addition to) RICE to treat many injuries.

The benefits of compression for injury healing can be achieved by tightly wrapping an injured area with a rubber band, called “floss,” for a short time, usually less than a minute. This technique, commonly called voodoo flossing, is used to increase joint mobility and speed healing of minor injuries. Tightly wrapping a joint does has several potential effects by which it can improve movement and reduce pain. This includes allowing tissues to move more freely and increasing blood flow to the injured area.

Cupping gained much attention when swimmer Michael Phelps appeared at a race in the 2016 Olympics with large red welts on his back. He wasn’t hurt, as many feared. Rather, he was using cupping as a technique to treat injury and improve performance. Cupping literally involves the application of glass or plastic cups to the skin for several minutes, typically 5–15 minutes. Using either vacuum or heat, the cups pull the skin away from the underlying muscle tissue, increasing blood flow and improving movement. While cupping may be new to most of us, it has been used since ancient times and factors prominently in traditional Chinese medicine.

While voodoo flossing and cupping have a role in treating injuries and improving performance in the training room, there is a relatively new modality that can be used during exercise to enhance performance. Kinesio tape, also called K-tape, is applied over specific muscles to reduce pain and improve movement. The tape pulls the skin away from the underlying muscle, which increases blood flow and enhances movement, much like cupping. The difference is that kinesio tape can be used during exercise, as many people first saw on the shoulders of beach volleyball players in the 2008 Olympics.

While many sports medicine professionals still recommend RICE as a first line treatment for minor injuries, they are increasingly utilizing these alternative treatments. With a little training, people can use these techniques at home to treat some of their own minor injuries. Obviously, it is important to learn how to properly do these treatments and evaluate whether they are working. Improper treatment can delay healing and may make some injuries worse, so these treatments might be best done by trained professionals. And some injuries do require attention by sports medicine professionals. That said, if you are looking for an injury treatment beyond RICE, voodoo flossing, cupping, and kinesio tape might be worth trying.


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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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A lesson in sports physiology in the Tour de France

The 2021 Tour de France is underway. This year the race covers over 2000 miles in 21 days of racing, comprised of team and individual time trials as well as stages through the cities, countryside, and mountains of France. The Tour de France is especially interesting to me because it provides an excellent opportunity for a short lesson in sports physiology.

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

Tour de France


All the riders in the Tour are exceptionally fit since their bodies have adapted to years of dedicated, intense training. Endurance sports like cycling are dependent on the delivery of oxygenated blood to the muscle to produce ATP, the energy needed to sustain exercise.

The riders have large, strong hearts, resulting in the ejection of more blood to the muscle. Within the muscle 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 most of the ATP. Together, these adaptations allow the muscle to produce more ATP without fatigue, allowing the athlete to exercise at a higher intensity for a longer time.

But training isn’t the only reason these athletes can sustain such intense exercise for so long. Proper nutrition, especially what the athletes eat and drink before, during, and after each stage, also plays an important role. Intense endurance exercise like cycling relies on carbohydrates, in particular, muscle glycogen, as a fuel. Muscle glycogen is a storage form of glucose, sugar that the muscle converts into energy. During prolonged exercise that lasts several hours, muscle glycogen levels can be severely depleted.

Eating carbohydrates before exercise can boost muscle glycogen levels, so cyclists eat carbohydrate-rich foods for breakfast before each stage. They also consume carbohydrates in the form of sports drinks (think Gatorade) and energy bars prior to starting. In fact, they start replenishing their muscle glycogen immediately after finishing the previous day’s ride. This usually begins with a recovery beverage, which may contain some protein for more rapid muscle glycogen synthesis, and extends through carbohydrate-rich meals and snacksthat afternoon and evening.

During exercise it is crucial to maintain adequate blood glucose levels, which tend to drop since the muscle is using so much as a fuel. Failure to replenish blood glucose results in what cyclists call “hitting the wall” or “bonking,” which is like your car running out of gas. To prevent this, glucose must be replenished, typically with sports drinks, energy bars, or a sugary mixture called goo.

Prolonged, intense exercise, especially in the heat, results in a high sweat rate which can lead to dehydration. Sweat loss of several liters per hour is not uncommon during cycling, so fluid intake is essential. This means that cyclists spend a lot of time drinking water while they ride. Sports drinks are also commonly used since they contain carbohydrates and electrolytes in addition to water.

Endurance events like cycling, especially multi-stage events like the Tour de France, highlight important concepts of sports physiology. Even though you may never compete at that level, understanding how training can improve your endurance is relevant if you cycle—or run, walk, or swim—for exercise. Knowing how proper nutrition before, during, and after exercise can improve performance can help you make better decision about what to eat. Hopefully, it also gives you a greater appreciation for the science that goes into a performance like the Tour de France.


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Tips for staying cool 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 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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Unfit for service. Another consequence of obesity and poor fitness in our youths.

Obesity and poor fitness, in combination or alone, have serious consequences on both an individual and societal level. This includes poor health now and in the future as well as an economic cost (in the billions per year!) that includes medical expenses as well as indirect costs such as increased absenteeism and lower productivity in the workplace.

This is particularly alarming in children since obesity at a young age sets up a cycle that leads to lower levels of activity that can make the condition worse over time. In both children and adults, overweight and obesity are associated with low physical fitness and many people who are at a “normal” weight are unfit as well.

Unfortunately, the common pattern of inactivity and obesity can limit the ability to function optimally at school, work, or in leisure-time activities. In fact, many young people are ineligible for military service because of physical limitations due to poor fitness and being overweight. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


Military fitness

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. Military training and service is physically demanding, requiring a high level of strength and endurance. 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).

Interestingly, this is not a new problem. Large numbers of draftees who failed the induction exams due to physical reasons during WWI and WWII resulted in changes in physical education and nutrition programs in schools. Poor fitness among American children also led to the formation of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in the 1950’s and an emphasis on physical fitness testing and education among school-aged children. In recent years, participation in physical education has declined, resulting in the current generation of overweight, unfit young people.

A recent study also examines the impact of obesity and poor fitness on careers in the military. Not only are many young people disqualified from military service, those who do enter basic training are more likely to sustain injuries that delay or terminate their training. These injuries are more likely to occur in recruits who are obese and unfit at entry. Furthermore, the prevalence of obesity and lower levels of physical activity is higher in states in the south and southeast. Considering that these are among the states send the most recruits to basic training, this limits a great many people from potential military service.

Taken together, these reports suggest that the continuing trend of obesity and poor fitness among American children may have national security implications. This emphasizes the fact that schools are critical to improving the health and military-readiness of our children.

Changes to school lunch and physical education programs are needed, but this is not a new recommendation. In fact, nutrition and exercise recommendations for children and schools already exist, but they are not followed, largely for political reasons. Perhaps the current condition of poor health and fitness among military recruits will motivate our leaders to implement effective exercise and nutrition programs in schools.


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Don’t forget about flexibility: Why stretching should be part of your exercise routine.

The benefits of regular exercise include increased endurance, strength, and flexibility along with increased energy expenditure for weight loss and weight maintenance. These benefits will vary depending on the type of exercise you perform.

Endurance (aerobic) exercise will improve your cardiorespiratory fitness and endurance. These improvements allow you to exercise at a higher intensity or for a longer duration. Aerobic exercise like walking or jogging is also effective for burning calories.

Resistance training (weight lifting) will improve your muscular strength. The practical benefit is that you will have an easier time completing physical tasks at work or at home, something that is increasingly important as you get older.

Ideally, your exercise program will include a combination of endurance and resistance training. But there is another type of exercise that you should also include—stretching. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

runner stretching

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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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Summer vacation fitness

After a year largely stuck at home, you may be looking forward to a vacation this summer. If your vacation will involve activities like hiking, cycling, or swimming, you need to make sure you are ready for that level of activity. Even sightseeing and visiting theme parks can require far more activity than most people are accustomed to.

Unfortunately, many people find out the hard way—sore feet and achy legs, for example—that they weren’t prepared. The good news is that regular exercise now can prepare you for your next vacation so you can focus on having fun. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Family beach vacation


There is good reason to choose an active vacation. Spending time outdoors can reduce stress and walking on the beach or snorkeling in the ocean seems like fun, not exercise. The end result is that being active on your vacation adds to the restorative effect of taking time away from your usual routine. In one study, people who had a physically active vacation reported that they felt mentally and physically fitter, felt more balanced and relaxed, could concentrate better during work, were in a better mood, and felt more recuperated than those who took it easy.

Even if you don’t choose a vacation to participate in a specific exercise, you will likely spend time being active. At the very least, you will be on your feet a lot more than usual.

It is not uncommon for visitors to Disney World to be on their feet for 12 hours and walk 10 to 15 miles in a single day. Most people don’t do that much walking in a typical week! This can lead to blisters, muscle soreness, and fatigue, limiting what you can do and, at the very least, making your time less enjoyable.

If you spend much of your time sitting at work and home, you should try limit your sitting and spend more time standing and moving around. This will help you get ready for long days on your feet. If your vacation will include cycling, hiking, or other vigorous exercise, you should make an effort to build up your endurance through longer exercise sessions. And be sure to break in new hiking or walking shoes before your trip!

Your travel plans may require spending time on planes and in airports. This usually means a lot of sitting, but it doesn’t have to. Airports, especially large airports, are built for walking. You can easily walk long distances while you wait for your flight. If you have enough time, you can take a walk around the entire airport, giving you an active way to pass the time.

Passageways that showcase art, shopping, or other information make walking through the airport a more pleasant experience. If you are traveling with children, many airports have areas that allow kids to move and play. You can always get at least a few minutes of activity by taking a short walk rather than sitting in the gate area waiting for your flight to board. Once you are on the plane you can usually get out of your seat to stand up, stretch, and walk around a bit.

Your goal should be to enjoy your vacation and the extra activity it will likely include. In addition to the numerous other health benefits, improving your fitness through regular physical activity will help you appreciate your vacation time more with less stress, meaning you can return home relaxed and ready to take on your usual routine.


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