Category Archives: Health & Fitness

Your metabolism explained. And the only real way to “boost” it!

 

Many people are interested in speeding up their metabolism in an effort to lose weight. There are drugs, supplements, and even certain foods that are thought to increase metabolism. The effectiveness of many of these things is unproven and some may actually be dangerous. The goal of this article, and my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week, is to explain what the term “metabolism” really means and how it can be changed.

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Metabolism refers all of your body’s processes that expend energy, or burn calories. Practically, this is how much carbohydrate, fat, and protein is burned throughout the day to provide energy for your cells. This matters because if expending more energy than you consume in your diet can lead to weight loss over time.

The amount of energy you expend in a day is composed of three main components: your resting metabolic rate (RMR), something called the thermic effect of food (TEF), and the energy you expend in activity.

Resting metabolic rate (RMR) is sometimes called the basal metabolic rate (BMR), but many people refer to it as their “metabolism.” No matter which name is used, it refers to the calories you burn at rest. It represents the energy needed to maintain your essential body functions: heart rate, breathing, body temperature, and normal cellular processes.

The RMR is important because it represents about 60–70% of the total calories a typical person burns in a typical day. Even though RMR is important, you shouldn’t worry about it too much.

First, it is difficult to change. RMR is based mostly on your lean body mass, so the only way to increase it is to gain muscle mass. While this is a good goal, it is challenging to do, especially while you trying to losing weight.

Second, although it does vary among people, it isn’t as different as people like to think. It is easy to think that someone who gains weight has a “slow metabolism” or that someone who is thin must have a “fast metabolism.” In reality, the RMR probably isn’t much different, certainly when you take lean body mass (muscle) into account. The explanation for the differences in weight among people probably has more to do with what they eat and how active they are.

The thermic effect of food (TEF) represents the energy needed to digest, absorb, and store the nutrients you eat. It accounts for only about 10% of your total energy expenditure and it is practically impossible to change, so you can ignore it.

Activity is the most variable component of energy expenditure and the one you can most readily change. Obviously, it will depend on how active you are, but for most people it accounts for 20–30% of total energy expenditure.

Activity includes both purposeful movement such as exercise and doing work or tasks that require you to move. Activity also includes non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT, the calories you burn when you move around, but not in a purposeful way. Maintaining your posture when sitting or standing, fidgeting in your chair, or other light movements count as NEAT.

The surest way for you to increase your metabolism is to limit the time you spend sitting, be active as possible at all times, and dedicate time to exercise every day. Doing prolonged aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, or exercise classes directly burns calories and including strength training will help increase your muscle mass, which can increase up your RMR.

The bottom line is that speeding up your metabolism requires you to move. So, get up off the couch and go for a walk!

Summer gains and losses: Maintaining good health and academic success over summer vacation.

Summer vacation is a rite of passage for children. Long summer days to play, go to camp, and relax are an important part of growing up. But many educators and health professionals are concerned about what gets lost, and what gets gained, when kids are away from school. This is especially true in a year when most kids missed part of the school year due to the coronavirus pandemic. And it’s the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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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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Keep your cool while enjoying outdoor activities this summer.

It’s that time of year again: school is out and the temperature and humidity are up. Since summer is officially underway it is a good time to revisit some common sense 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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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.

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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 wellbeing.

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. As summer begins, family travel plans may have been interrupted, so 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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Exercise musicology

There are many tools, or ergogenic aids, athletes use to improve exercise performance. These include nutrients like protein and carbohydrates, drugs like caffeine, steroids, and techniques like blood doping. Some of these performance-enhancing substances are illegal or banned, so ergogenic aids often have a negative image. Furthermore, many only work for highly trained athletes.

But there is one ergogenic aid that has been shown to enhance performance in everyone. In fact, there is a good chance you use it when you exercise. That ergogenic aid is music. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Exercise music

Music is a psychological ergogenic aid is known to affect mood, emotion, and cognition. More and more research also shows that music can also enhance exercise performance. In most gyms, there is music playing in the background and many people listening to music using headphones while they exercise. A practical reason, of course, is that listening to music makes the exercise more enjoyable by providing a mental distraction. It turns out that music has additional psychological and physiological effects that can improve exercise performance.

Not only can listening to music make exercise more enjoyable, it can also help you get a better workout. Research suggests that when exercise is coupled with motivational music, people tend to exercise at a higher intensity. They also tend to fatigue at a slower rate leading to longer exercise sessions. This is also associated with a lower rating of perceived exertion, meaning the exercise might feel easier!

Tempo is an important aspect of music that contributes to performance. People tend to prefer a tempo that matches the exercise intensity. Fast tempo music fits well with higher intensity exercise, like running, and music with a slower tempo is suited for lower intensity exercise, like yoga. But music tempo can also influence the intensity of exercise. Music with a faster tempo can promote more vigorous exercise, as measured by a higher heart rate, and a longer distance covered when running or cycling.

Listening to music before exercise can also affect performance. Studies have shown that listening to music prior to exercise can improve motivation, arousal, and focus. This is probably why you see athletes warming up before games and races wearing headphones. Research also suggests that listening to music during cool down can decrease recovery times, as measured by blood lactate levels.

While listening to music may increase exercise performance, the benefits vary based on the type of music. First of all, music that a person does not like is unlikely to elicit any positive impact on performance, so pick something you enjoy listening to. Another factor of music that can influence performance is whether it is synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous is when a person matches their movements with the music they are listening to. This is particularly effective for running, cycling, and rhythmic exercises like aerobics. Asynchronous is when the music and the movements of a person do not match, which may still provide ergogenic benefits for certain types of exercise.

Listening to music during exercise can make your workouts more effective and enjoyable. Music you like can distract you from sensations of intensity and fatigue and lead to longer training sessions. Music played at a fast tempo can make you exercise harder and slower tempo music can help you relax. But you probably knew that already—sometimes sports science makes sense!

What if you prefer to exercise without music or other distractions? Like all ergogenic aids, the additional effect of music is small compared to the great benefits of the exercise itself, so keep doing what you are doing.


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Going back to the gym

The coronavirus pandemic has meant that most of us are spending more time working, learning, and exercising at home. While it is possible to get a good workout at home, going to the gym provides equipment, classes, and social support you probably don’t have at home. Now that many businesses, including fitness centers, are reopening, you may be keen to move your workouts back to the gym.

Despite the reopening of businesses, the spread of coronavirus and COVID-19 is still a very real and urgent health concern. Hopefully, your gym is taking extra precautions with social distancing, hygiene, and cleaning to make it safer for staff and members. Here are some additional suggestions to reduce your risk of exposing yourself to coronavirus (and other viruses and bacteria, too) when return to the gym.

Photo by William Choquette from Pexels
  1. If you are sick, please stay home! For the safety of others, you should be symptom-free when you go to the gym. In fact, they may screen you at the door to make sure. You can still do light activity with mild symptoms at home, but it’s best to take the day off if you have a cough or fever.
  2. Wash your hands with soap and water before and after your workout. If that’s not an option, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol) is okay, too.
  3. Use the provided disinfectant spray to wipe down equipment, including weights, before and after you use it. Many people are good about wiping sweat from benches, seats, and other equipment but skip cleaning barbells, dumbbells, and other hand-held gear. Make sure you spray and wipe thoroughly.
  4. As much as you can, keep your distance from other people. This includes social distancing in the gym from people you are close to outside the gym. Your gym may already have blocked access to some equipment to maintain social distancing, but you should make an effort, too. If your favorite exercise equipment or group exercise class is not available, ask the staff for suggestions of other things to try.  

If your gym isn’t reopening yet or if you decide not to go, you can still get a good workout at home. If you need ideas, try one of the many mobile apps that will guide you through a variety workouts, some using nothing more than your body weight. And being active outdoors is always good for your physical and mental health. Even if you go with a friend, the risk of virus spread is lower outdoors, especially if you keep appropriate distance between you. 

Finally, make sure you follow the rules at your gym. The safe return to normal activities requires that everyone participates faithfully. Fitness facilities have specific regulations they must adhere to in order to reopen, so be careful not to jeopardize that. 

Remember, your goal is to keep yourself and the people close to you as healthy as possible. Regular exercise is essential for doing that, but only if you can do it safely. And don’t forget that good nutrition, getting enough sleep, and finding a way to manage your stress are also critical for physical and mental health.

Go ride your bike!

This is a great time to go for a bike ride. Aside from being a great way to get around, bicycling can improve physical, mental, and social health, and has environmental and economic benefits.This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Bike ride

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“Is it okay to be overweight if you are fit?” is the wrong question. Instead, ask “Is it ever okay to be unfit?”

I get a lot of questions about nutrition, exercise, and health. Given the considerable uncertainty and misinformation about these topics, it comes as no surprise that people have questions. Sometimes there are no clear answers to these questions. And sometimes the question itself shifts the focus away from a more important aspect of health. This is true of one of the most common questions I get: Is it okay to be obese if I exercise?

The idea that it is okay to be fat if you are fit is not new. In fact, decades of research shows that being obese but physically fit is associated with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than being thin but unfit. When assessing health risks associated with obesity, fitness matters. That said, excess body fat can lead to other health problems, even if you are fit.

A better question would be, Is it ever okay be unfit? The answer is no! This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Overweight men walking


There is no question that being physically fit can improve your health, reduce your risk of developing certain chronic diseases like heart disease and some cancers, and help you live a longer, healthier life. This is true even when you take body fatness into account. People who are overweight or obese should have more health problems and die sooner, but many don’t.

The difference is physical fitness. Men and women who are obese but physically fit have a lower risk of serious health problems than those who are obese but unfit and, surprisingly, even lower than people who are at a “healthy” body weight but unfit. This suggests that a “healthy” body weight has less to do with weight and more to do with fitness.

This relationship holds true even when you start adding in other health problems, like high blood pressure or diabetes. Even though obesity is associated with and thought to cause these conditions, physical fitness seems to reduce the risk significantly. Again, this suggests some of the health problems linked to obesity may be due, at least in part, to low physical fitness.

Physical fitness in these studies typically refers to cardiorespiratory or aerobic fitness measured during in exercise test on a treadmill or stationary bike. A broader definition of fitness also includes muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility. You can improve your fitness by participating in regular exercise to develop your endurance, strength, and flexibility. The benefits are linked to the intensity and duration of the exercise, so the more you do, the better your fitness, but substantial benefits can be achieved from walking for 30 minutes per day.

In the much of the research, subjects were divided into five fitness categories. The most significant differences in health and longevity were seen when comparing the highest and lowest fitness groups. But the biggest reduction in health risk was between the lowest fitness and the next highest group. This means that becoming even a little more fit is beneficial.

If you are overweight, becoming more fit may matter as much as losing weight for improving your health. If you don’t need to lose weight, remember that there is no such thing as a healthy weight unless you are fit. Regardless of your weight, everyone can benefit from regular exercise to achieve and maintain the strength, endurance, and flexibility necessary for good health and wellbeing.


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Go nuts!

Eating nuts can be a tasty way to make your diet healthier. Nuts are beneficial because they are rich in healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals. Nuts also contain omega-3 fats and natural plant sterols which, together, may help lower your blood cholesterol and reduce your risk of heaving a heart attack. But all foods that contain nuts are not equally healthy, as I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Mixed nuts


Although the specific nutrients vary among different nuts, all nuts are thought to be healthy. This includes tree nuts such as almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, and pecans, which have the most research to support their health benefits. But it also includes peanuts, which are actually legumes (like beans), not true nuts.

Research suggests that regular nut consumption is associated with a lower risk of dying from many of the leading causes of death, including heart disease and cancer. One study examined a host of lifestyle factors, including physical activity, smoking, and diet, in over 100,000 men and women for nearly 30 years.

The reduction of risk of death was greater with more frequent nut consumption. For example, the risk of death from all causes was 11% lower among men and women who consumed nuts once per week and 20% lower among those who ate nuts seven or more times per week. This was true for both peanut and tree nut consumption, suggesting that all nuts are beneficial.

It is important to note that the people in the study who ate the most nuts were also leaner, consumed more fruits and vegetables, less likely to smoke, more likely to exercise, and more likely to use multi-vitamin supplements. Although these other factors were controlled for in the analysis, common sense suggests that the benefits associated with nut consumption is likely due to a combination of these beneficial health behaviors.

The bottom line is that eating nuts as part of an overall healthy lifestyle is good for you. A person who eats in unhealthy diet, doesn’t exercise, and smokes is unlikely undo the negative health impact of their lifestyle simply by eating more nuts. Achieving the full benefits of nut consumption seen in the study also certainly means adopting other healthy behaviors.

The good news is that adding nuts to your diet is an easy change to make. A typical recommendation for nut consumption is 1-1.5 ounces per day. This is the equivalent of a handful of most nuts. The goal would be use nuts to replace a less healthy snack such as chips. A handful of nuts contains about 150-200 calories, similar to other snacks such a small bag of potato chips. The difference is that nuts contain healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which may fill you up more. Nuts are relatively inexpensive and portable, meaning you can take them with you for a snack. Nuts can also be added to salads and other dishes.

Keep in mind that you should focus on eating plain nuts to get the biggest benefits. Many nuts have added flavors in the form of coatings, glazes, and seasonings, which may be high in sugar and salt. Honey roasted peanuts and chocolate covered almonds are good examples of nuts that are essentially candy. These types of nuts should be eaten sparingly and for dessert, not as a snack.

Similarly, peanut butter (and other nut butters) are a healthy source of protein and energy. But many contain added sugar as some contain other ingredients like chocolate. In fact, many “nut” butters don’t contain nuts at all and are essentially frosting!

To learn more about the difference between plain nuts and nuts that are essentially candy, check out Candy and Soda for Breakfast!

So, go ahead and go nuts! Just remember to do it as part of an otherwise healthy diet and active lifestyle.