Category Archives: Health & Fitness

Exercise has benefits at any age, so it’s never too late to start.

 

The benefits of regular exercise for everyone from childhood through old age are well-known. Children who are physically active establish healthy habits and do better in school than their peers who are more sedentary. Young adults who exercise are more likely to be active as they age, reducing their risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. Older adults can maintain their memory, cognitive function, and ability to complete everyday activities by improving their fitness.

In many ways, exercise can turn back time on many health and fitness variables that decline with age. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Sports physiology in the Tour de France

The 2020 Tour de France, postponed from the traditional July start due to the COVID pandemic, is underway. This year the race covers over 2100 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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Know your nutrients: Protein

For the last two weeks, I have written about carbohydrates and fats. This week in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard I am covering protein, another essential macronutrient in your diet.

Protein-rich_Foods


Protein is part of all cells and is the main component of muscles. Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. The human body requires 20 amino acids for the synthesis of its proteins. Your body can produce some of these amino acids, so they are called non-essential because you do not need to get them from your diet. There are nine essential amino acids that cannot be made by the body and are obtained only from food. If the protein in a food supplies enough of the essential amino acids, it is called a complete protein. An incomplete protein is one that does not supply all the essential amino acids.

All meat and other animal products are sources of complete proteins. These include beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, and milk products. Protein in plant foods (such as grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables) are either low in or lack one or more of the essential amino acids. These food sources are considered incomplete proteins. One exception is soy protein, which contains all of the essential amino acids.

Plant proteins can be combined to form a complete protein. This is called complementing. Examples of complementing plant proteins are food combinations such as rice with beans or black-eyed peas, beans with corn or wheat tortillas, and hummus, which combines chick peas with sesame paste. Since plant sources of protein are lower in fat and higher in fiber than meat, there are health benefits from getting more protein from plants.

A diet low in protein could lead to poor growth in children or result in muscle loss. For this reason, many people, especially athletes, are concerned about their protein intake. The typical diet for most people contains more than enough protein, so this concern is often unwarranted. People who follow vegetarian or vegan diets do need to pay extra attention to their protein intake. This is especially true for vegetarian athletes.

The amount of recommended daily protein depends on age, medical conditions, and activity level. The recommended intake for protein is 0.8 g protein per kg of body weight (or about 0.4 g protein per pound), so a 200 lb. person would require about 80 g protein per day. In general, two to three servings of protein-rich food will meet the daily needs of most adults. For example, four ounces of meat contains about 40 g protein, one cup of cooked beans contains about 15 g protein, and two slices of whole wheat bread have about 6 g protein.

Protein needs are higher for children, pregnant women, and athletes. That said, the average American’s protein intake is sufficient for most of these special situations. While athletes who are training to add muscle require much more protein than the typical adult, the average intake of most athletes is sufficient to meet these needs. In cases when it is not, the recommendation is to get extra protein from food, not supplements.

Since you probably get enough protein in your diet already, you should focus on healthier sources of protein. Select lean meat, poultry without skin, fish, lentils, and legumes often. Also try adding soy protein to your diet by eating tofu, soy milk, and soy beans (edamame) since soy protein contains beneficial compounds called phytochemicals. As always, you should get your protein by eating naturally protein-rich foods rather than through supplements or processed foods with added protein.


 

Know your nutrients: Fats

Last week I provided information about carbohydrates, the major energy source in our diets. This week the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard  is fats, including saturated fats, unsaturated (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans) fats, omega-3 fats, and cholesterol.

Photo by Loong Ken from Pexels


Fats tend to get a bad reputation since they are higher in calories than carbohydrates and protein and have traditionally been associated with obesity and heart disease when eaten in excess. In reality, some dietary fats are detrimental to your health, while others have health benefits. These consequences are partly linked to the effect of the fats on the LDL (“bad”) and HDL (“good”) cholesterol in your blood and partly to other factors, including blood clotting and inflammation.

Traditionally, cholesterol and saturated fats have been linked to heart disease because they raise levels of LDL cholesterol. Cholesterol is only found in animals, whereas saturated fats are in animals and tropical oils such as palm and coconut oil. This is why you may have heard that you should avoid foods that contain these fats, including red meat and eggs.

It turns out that the link between saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease isn’t what we long believed, so these dietary recommendations are being revisited. There has been much discussion in the media and scientific literature about the basis for our current recommendations leading to spirited debate among nutritionists and other health professionals. It seems that high fat intake along with excessive sugar and refined carbohydrates is particularly problematic, so fats themselves may not be to blame for poor health.

Unsaturated fats are found in plant oils. Polyunsaturated fats tend to lower both LDL and HDL cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats are associated with lower LDL but they do not lower HDL cholesterol–this is better. Oils high in polyunsaturated fats include corn and soybean oil while olive and canola oils are rich in monounsaturated fats.

Trans fats are found mostly in modified oils which are hydrogenated to make them more solid and have a longer shelf life. For example, when corn oil (unsaturated fat) is partially hydrogenated it becomes more trans and is more solid—margarine. Trans fats are used in baked and fried foods and can be identified on food labels (most of the time) or by the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. Trans fats have the effect of raising LDL while lowering HDL cholesterol, a bad combination! Fortunately, trans fats are less common now than they were even a few years ago, but staying away from fried foods and checking the labels on prepackaged snacks will help you avoid trans fats.

There are three essential omega-3 fats in the diet: ALA, EPA, and DHA. Two of these, EPA and DHA, are primarily found in fish and are associated with reduced risk of heart attack due to their beneficial effects reducing inflammation and blood clotting. Other sources of omega-3 fats include flax seeds, which are high in ALA. The evidence is strongest for beneficial health effects of EPA and DHA, so eating fish or taking fish oil supplements is a common recommendation.

Dietary fat should account for 20–35% of your total calories. The typical American diet is a bit too high in total fat, mostly from unhealthy sources. Your goal should be to make food choices that will shift your intake of fat away from unhealthy sources (trans fats) to more healthy sources (monounsaturated and omega-3 fats). Keep in mind that “fat-free” foods aren’t necessarily healthy options.

Just as with carbohydrates, you should get your dietary fats from real food (like olive oil or butter), not processed foods (margarine). If you do that, you won’t need to worry so much about the types of fats you eat. And don’t forget that all fat contains calories, so don’t overeat even the healthier fats, especially if you are trying to control your weight!


							

Know your nutrients: Carbohydrates

Nutrition and healthy eating are common themes in my writing, so it seems appropriate to provide more information about the major nutrients in our diets: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. These nutrients provide nearly all of the calories we eat and have a large impact on our health. Given the importance of these nutrients, there tends to be much confusion about the different forms they come in and how much of each we should eat. Carbohydrates are the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


Starchy-foods

Carbohydrates are an important energy source in your diet. All carbohydrates contain four calories per gram. Grains, fruits, and vegetables are good sources of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates include starches, naturally occurring and added sugars, and fiber.

Carbohydrates are produced as a result of photosynthesis in plants and are stored as complex carbohydrates or starches in grains and many vegetables and as simple sugars in other vegetables and fruits. When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks down the starches and converts the sugars to glucose, or blood sugar, which is used for energy.

The extent to which a food affects blood glucose is called the glycemic index, or GI. Refined carbohydrates, like white rice, pasta, and flour, and sugars typically have a high glycemic index, meaning they cause spikes in blood glucose. Whole grains, like whole wheat, whole oats, and brown rice, have more of a “low and slow” effect on blood glucose. This can help with blood glucose control and may affect appetite.

For these reasons, low GI foods like complex carbohydrates from whole grains are called “good carbs,” in contrast to high GI refined grains and sugars, known as “bad carbs.” In reality, the glycemic index can provide a guide for selecting carbohydrates in the diet, but is no guarantee you are making healthy choices.

Carbohydrates also include fiber, the nondigestible portion of plants. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are rich sources of fiber while refined grains and sugars contain little, if any, fiber. Fiber comes in two forms, soluble and non-soluble. Non-soluble fiber, also called roughage, promotes good digestive health. Soluble fiber, like that found in oats, may help lower blood cholesterol. Studies show that diets higher in fiber tend to promote weight loss over time.

You should make an effort to reduce your intake of sugars, especially added sugars, in your diet. Even though all sugars have the same number of calories, foods and beverages containing added sugars should be avoided. Look for “corn syrup” and “high fructose corn syrup” on the label to identify added sugars. You may be surprised how much added sugar you consume! Fruits or 100% fruit juices are a healthy choice since they are rich in vitamins and minerals, even though they contain sugar.

Carbohydrates can be a major part of your diet. Current recommendations call for 45–65% of your daily calories to come from carbohydrates, so a person who eats 2000 calories per day should consume about 300 grams of carbohydrate. Sugars should be limited to less than 10% of calories, so the majority should be complex carbohydrates.

You can meet this goal by reducing your intake of sugars, especially added sugars, and refined grains while increasing your consumption of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables that are high in fiber. When comparing food labels, look for foods that contain whole grains (the first ingredient should be something like “whole wheat flour”) and higher levels of fiber. But be aware that some foods, like many breakfast cereals, contain whole grains but are also high in added sugar.

The best advice is to get the majority of your carbohydrates from real food, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, rather than from processed foods.


Invest in your health

Making smart investments that pay off over time is a key to creating wealth and sustaining financial wellbeing as we age. Warren Buffett is widely regarded as a successful investor and financial leader. His careful investment strategies have allowed him to amass an impressive personal fortune and lead to him be considered one of the foremost experts on investing.

For these reasons, Buffett’s business and financial advice is respected and followed by many people to achieve wealth and financial security. This same strategy can be applied to health with the same good results. Here is how following Buffett’s investing strategy can help you achieve good health now and maintain it long into the future. Just like saving for retirement, you will be glad you have plenty of good health in the bank when you get older.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week. Since I am not an expert in the world of finance and investing, I did run this by a colleague from the School of Business to make sure I was on the right track!

couple jogging on beach


Make smart, not popular, choices.  Many of Buffett’s investments have been in industries or companies that others have overlooked in favor of more trendy options. However popular, these investments may not be smart choices in the long run. Similarly, new exercise trends and popular dietary supplements may seem appealing for weight loss, but the results are often disappointing. Sometimes the best approach for health is something much less exciting: making smart diet choices and daily exercise will almost always pay off for years to come.

Plan for the long-term success, not quick results.  Investments promising that you will get rich overnight are appealing. While you may make money initially, in the long run you may not have anything to show for it or you may end up losing money. Many fad diets and exercise trends are the health equivalent of get rich quick schemes. For example, they may promote weight loss right away, but fall short when it comes to keeping the weight off. Some popular high-intensity training programs can lead to rapid increases in fitness and strength. But for some people they can lead to injury or, at the very least, a negative experience that may turn them off from exercise in the future. Just as Warren Buffett makes investment decisions that will promote long-term income, you should make diet and exercise choices that will pay off for years to come. Even though the health “income” may accumulate more slowly, it is more likely to be lasting.

Diversify your investments.  Buffett’s strategy has been to invest in multiple industries. This allows him to maximize income and insulates his portfolio from losses in any one area. Similarly, you should diversify your health investments. Instead of focusing only on your diet or just on exercise, include both diet and exercise in your health portfolio. That way you will get the benefits of both treatments and maximize your return on investment. This works because the health benefits of good nutrition and physical activity are additive. In fact, in some cases the activity is essential for the diet to be effective, and vice versa.

Your goal should be to make smart investments in your health by choosing diet and activity strategies that you can live with and that will pay off long into the future. Applying Warren Buffett’s investment strategies can help guide you toward making these prudent decisions.

But a healthy, happy life involves more than good nutrition and exercise. You need to take time for yourself and do things you enjoy. Fortunately, there is another Buffett we can take inspiration from: Jimmy Buffett. Sometimes, escaping to Margaritaville is just what the doctor ordered!


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Getting back in shape

It’s been a long spring and summer! The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted most normal activities including, for many people, regular exercise. The closure and recent limited reopening of most fitness facilities has made maintaining exercise habits difficult. While some people used this as an opportunity to become more active, many more fell out of their 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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From farm to table at your local farmer’s market

Today marks the beginning of National Farmer’s Market Week, a celebration of the benefits local markets have on our communities. From supporting local farmers to improving access to nutritious food, farmer’s markets  and local farm stands can have positive effects on the environment, economy, and health. In fact, the availability of farmer’s markets is one of the criteria used in the American Fitness Index, an annual ranking of the fittest cities in the United States. Let’s explore some reasons why shopping at a farmer’s market makes good sense. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

farmers market

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It’s candy and soda for breakfast: The most important meal of the day is also the sweetest!

Eating a healthy breakfast provides energy to start the day and is important for weight control. In children, a healthy breakfast is essential for proper growth and development and is linked to improved attention and learning in school. Breakfast is often thought of as the most important meal of the day, for good reason. Unfortunately, many common breakfast foods are more similar to candy and soda than a healthy meal to start the day. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

donuts


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It’s hot! 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. Swimming is also an excellent exercise for improving your fitness and helping with weight loss. Even now with physical distancing restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, swimming can be a safe way to stay cool and fit this summer.

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

Swimmer

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