Category Archives: Health & Fitness

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.

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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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Are food additives safe? Maybe. Should you try to avoid them? Good luck!

Making healthier food choices is something that you should be thinking about every day, so this is a good opportunity to revisit some advice to help you make smart decisions. Eating more fruits and vegetables, limiting added sugar, and focusing on “real food” instead of processed, prepackaged meals and snacks are always good ideas. One reason to avoid processed foods, including restaurant meals, is to avoid food additives. While most food additives are probably safe, some may be harmful. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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If you have ever read the ingredients on a food package you no doubt realized that much of what we eat isn’t really food. Chemical additives are common in packaged foods as preservatives, coloring agents, flavor enhancers, and even vitamins and minerals. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since these chemicals allow food to last longer, look and taste more appealing, and provide essential nutrients. The assumption is that these additives have been tested and proven safe for us to consume. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many commonly used additives.

This may be surprising, but it isn’t new. In the late 1950s Congress required that new food additives must be proven safe before they could be used. That raised the question of what to do with additives that were already widely in use. Since people had been eating these additives with no apparent ill effects the decision was made to classify them as safe, and the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) list was created.

Now additives may be approved as GRAS by an expert panel without rigorous testing and FDA approval. One study found that in every case these reviewers worked directly for or had financial ties to the companies that manufactured the additives. This raises serious questions about the process and whether or not the chemicals added to our foods really are safe.

So, are the additives in our food safe? There is no simple answer to that question, mostly because safety studies haven’t been done. However, it is rare that a food additive is removed from the market for health reasons. Most research showing that a food additive may be unhealthy is conducted in animals. These studies often test amounts that are far higher than people would reasonably consume, so they may not predict the health effects in humans. And some additives, such as iron added to cereal or vitamin D added to milk, for example, are widely thought to be beneficial.

To be sure, there are some chemicals in our food that we should avoid, but it isn’t fair to say that all food additives are bad. Even so, eating foods that are free from additives is probably a good idea. Even though each individual additive may not be hazardous, it is possible that exposure to small amounts of these chemicals in combination could be dangerous over time.

Much of our exposure to food additives comes in the form of processed, prepackaged foods, including many restaurant meals. Getting back to basics and cooking using “real” food— fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats—is one way to avoid processed foods. Reading food labels can help, too. Look for ingredients that you recognize as food and avoid additives that clearly aren’t.

Avoiding all food additives is almost impossible. Even foods that don’t come in packages, such as fruits and vegetables, may contain coatings that prevent damage or preserve freshness. Even canned fruits and vegetables will likely have added salt or sugar, so even apparently healthy foods can contain additives. The best way to limit them is to select as many fresh foods as possible and make an effort to check labels for additives.

If you are interested in food additives and other aspects of food safety, nutrition, and health, here are two excellent resources:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest report on food additive safety : http://www.cspinet.com/reports/chemcuisine.htm

Marion Nestle, has an excellent blog about all aspects of nutrition, including food additives and safety:  http://www.foodpolitics.com/


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That’s not coffee! It’s your morning milkshake.

Breakfast is often thought of as the most important meal of the day, for good reason. Eating a healthy breakfast provides energy to start the day and can be helpful 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. Unfortunately, many common breakfast foods are more like candy and soda than a healthy meal to start the day.

This is also true for breakfast drinks, including coffee drinks. Many popular coffee drinks are more similar to a milkshake than to actual coffee!

Take, for example, the grande (16 oz) Mocha Frappuccino blended coffee drink from Starbucks. This drink has 410 calories, 15 grams of fat, 61 grams of sugar, and 5 grams of protein. To put this in perspective, 61 grams of sugar is more than most people should have in an entire day!

You could order this drink with nonfat milk and no whipped cream. That’s a good idea, but it will still have 270 calories, 1 gram of fat, and 59 g sugar. That’s still a lot of sugar!

Let’s compare that to a small (16 oz.) McCafe Mocha Frappé from McDonald’s, which is essentially a coffee milkshake. It has 500 calories, 20 grams of fat, 66 grams of sugar, and 8 grams of protein.

Sure, the calories and sugar in the coffee drink aren’t quite as outrageous as the milkshake, but it’s close. This is especially clear when you compare the coffee drink to actual coffee. A grande (16 oz.) Pike Place Roast from Starbucks has 5 calories and no fat or sugar. If you like cream and sugar in your coffee, that adds 5 grams of sugar, 3 grams of fat, and about 50 calories, still way less than either “coffee” drink.

If you don’t want plain coffee a better choice might be a grande Starbucks Cappuccino, which has 140 calories, 7 g fat, and 10 g sugar. Get one with nonfat milk and you cut out 60 calories from fat. If you are worried about how much sugar you consume and how many calories you drink (you probably should be!), this is a much better coffee drink choice than a milkshake!

This isn’t specific to Starbucks. A medium (16 oz.) iced coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts has 130 calories and 28 grams of sugar. And that doesn’t include a donut.

Does this mean you can’t enjoy a delicious coffee drink? Of course not. But don’t try to fool yourself by calling it coffee. Depending on what you order, it may essentially be a milkshake! I think we can all agree that is not part of a healthy breakfast.

I call this idea that unhealthy food makes its way onto our breakfast table Candy & Soda for Breakfast. Foods like donuts and pastries are often topped with icing and it would be difficult to distinguish many muffins from cupcakes. Many “fruit” drinks contain little to no juice but plenty of added sugar, so they are essentially soda without bubbles.

And it’s not just breakfast, either. Lunch, dinner, and snacks frequently include foods that look like a healthy choice—yogurt, nuts, and granola bars are a few examples—but really are candy and soda in disguise.

Staying healthy when going back to school, part 2

Last week I wrote about how to make returning to school healthier for children and families. The focus was on preventing the spread of COVID through vaccinations and mask use. Unfortunately, schools in our community cannot require children and teachers to wear masks and be vaccinated when eligible, so many schools are already seeing outbreaks leading to quarantines, closure of some schools, and some serious illnesses and deaths. Keeping children and families safe from COVID remains the top priority when it comes to making this school year a healthy one.

But there is more we all should do to stay healthy this year.  Here are a few suggestions to improve the health and wellbeing of our children and families.

 Make sure everyone in the family is active every day. Physical activity is critical for good health for everyone. Importantly, it can improve your immune system, helping you fight viruses of all kinds. Beyond that, being active can help you perform better at work and school and make it easier to do things you enjoy in your leisure time. Adults should be active for a minimum of 30 minutes per day. Everything from taking the dog for a walk to a fitness class at the gym counts. For children, the goal is 60 minutes per day through PE class, sports, and play. As a bonus, you can do at least some of the activity together to make activity a family event!

Make healthy eating a family project. There is a lot of confusion about what makes a healthy diet, but there are a few guidelines almost everyone agrees on. First, eat more fruits and vegetables. At a minimum, eat at least 5 servings each day, but try for twice that. Second, limit added sugars and salt. This is tricky since salt, sugar, and other sweeteners are added to most processed foods. Eating too much sugar is known to contribute to obesity, heart disease, and some cancers, so this is among the smartest nutrition moves you can make. Salt, by itself, isn’t necessarily harmful, but less salt almost always means less processed food and more “real” food. Finally, be mindful of portion sizes. Super-sized servings and second (and third) helpings are the primary reason why people gain weight over time.

Plan to eat at least one meal together each day. Most experts agree that family dinners are important for promoting good communication and healthy eating habits. Given that our days are busy with work, school, and other activities, eating dinner together every night is unrealistic for many families. So, start with planning at least one family dinner at home each week. This is also a good opportunity to teach children about food and cooking, so it is even better if you prepare the meal together.

Make getting enough sleep a priority. Many American adults and children don’t get enough sleep. Many American adults and children don’t get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can affect children’s growth, development, and learning.  It can also have an impact on an adult’s productivity at work. The effect of chronic stress on health is well known and we should recognize a lack of sleep as a form of stress. A good goal for adults is 7–9 hours of sleep each night. School-aged children need 8–12 hours, with younger kids requiring more. As difficult as it may be, earlier bedtimes can benefit everyone in the family. Limiting screen time (TV, computer, tablet) before bed can help improve sleep, too.

Obviously, these ideas are easier read than done, especially for busy families. But moving more, eating better, and getting more sleep—especially if it is done together—can help your family enjoy a happier and healthier year.

Staying healthy when going back to school, part 1

It’s the time of year when summer is winding down and kids are heading back to school. After two years of learning that was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, parents, students, and teachers were hoping for a more normal return to school. As we know, all children need to be healthy to learn and grow at school. Staying healthy includes avoiding illness, of course, but it also includes regular physical activity, good nutrition, and getting enough sleep.

When it comes to the health of students, teachers and their families, the biggest concern this year is still the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The predominant virus now is the delta variant, which spreads more readily and tends to lead to more serious infections, including in children. The best way to prevent infection and illness is through vaccinations, masking, and physical distancing.

While vaccinated people can still spread the virus, they are less likely to get seriously ill and require hospitalization. In recent weeks, over 95% of people who have been hospitalized or died due to the delta variant were unvaccinated. This strongly suggests that vaccination can prevent serious illness.

The fact that the delta variant can be easily spread, even by vaccinated people, explains the continued need for masking. The CDC recommends mask use indoors for all people regardless of vaccination status. This is especially, important in schools, since many school-age children who are under the age of 12 are not eligible for the vaccine.

Unfortunately, in our area and others around the country, vaccination rates are relatively low, putting many children and adults at risk. Adding to the problem, in some places mask use cannot be required in schools or is not encouraged among students and teachers. For example, at my kids’ school, parents were told that children who wear masks would be “welcomed” on campus.  

This is far short of the recommendation given by other local school leaders that actively promote vaccinations and mask use for students and staff, despite a prohibition of making these steps requirements for attendance. Already there are some schools that do not require mask use in our area and elsewhere that have had to make changes to their face-to-face teaching plan due to COVID outbreaks at their school.

The first step in making this a healthy return to school by protecting children, teachers, and their families from serious illness is to get vaccinated, wear masks, and physically distance when possible in schools. The COVID vaccinations are safe, effective, and free, so with very few exceptions there is no good reason for everyone not to get vaccinated.

We are all tired of wearing masks, but they are an easy way to allow people to more safely gather indoors whether that is at school, work, or other settings. Physical distancing, while not always easy, is also a good way to limit the spread of COVID and other viruses in crowded environments like classrooms. These same steps allowed many schools to open for in person learning last year and are the key to keeping kids in school this year.

Keeping children safe from COVID to allow them to stay in school is only the first step in a healthy start to the new school year. Next week I will explore how physical activity and exercise, good nutrition, getting enough sleep, and managing stress are essential for good performance at school. The good news is these same steps can help keep everyone healthy and happy this year.

Your park prescription for outdoor activity this summer.

You probably know that exercise is good for you and that daily physical activity—going for a walk, for example—almost always leads to better health. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of physical activity. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of well being.

What you may not know is that where you exercise matters, too. Exercise outdoors, especially in nature, can be particularly beneficial. This is not surprising given that being active in a natural environment has been shown to have an impact on mental health. Indeed, activity outdoors leads to enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger, and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors.

Especially now, the chance to be active outdoors away from crowds is certainly a good idea. Exploring parks and other outdoor places may be a smart and economical alternative to a vacation to place crowded with tourists. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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

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

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