Category Archives: Health & Fitness

Time is on your side. The benefits of incidental physical activity…quickly!

Regular physical activity is essential for good health and wellbeing. Despite the clear benefits of being active, only half of Americans meet even minimum recommendations for exercise and other activity.

As a way to get people moving, they are encouraged to incorporate physical activity into their daily routine. This includes taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking further away and walking to their destination. However, the perception that these “steps” take longer than the less active alternative may serve as a disincentive for many people.

Studies conducted by my students at USC Aiken show that these forms of what I call incidental physical activity do not necessarily take longer than the less active alternatives. In fact, in most cases the active way is quicker! This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

B&E stairs elevator

In one study, we examined the time required to ascend and descend one floor using either the stairs or elevator in a building on the USC Aiken campus. The results showed that the time required to take the elevator was about twice that to use the stairs (36 vs. 16 seconds). The increased time on the elevator was due to waiting, in some cases almost one minute, for it to arrive.

It is worth mentioning that this study was conducted in a building with two floors. To be sure, the elevator would be quicker if you were going up or down several floors. But let’s be honest, not many buildings in our area have enough floors for this to be relevant. For most of us, the stairs will be quicker most places we go.

In another study we compared the time required to park in the first convenient parking space in the parking lot as opposed to driving around searching for a space closer to the destination. We asked several people to record the time required to enter their destination after either parking in the first convenient space compared to searching for a parking space closer to the destination on campus and at businesses in the community.

The time required to search for a parking space closer to the destination was significantly greater than the time required to park in the first convenient parking space on campus and at stores. Driving around looking for a closer spot meant that it took an average of three minutes to enter the destination building. It took people about half that long if they parked further away and walked.

These studies show that taking a few extra steps in the parking lot or on the stairs is actually quicker than driving around and parking closer or using the elevator. This information might help people decide to be more active. And these small changes may lead to further healthy choices.

Of course, simply using the stairs instead of the elevator or talking the first available parking spot isn’t going to replace regular exercise. But making activity a part of your everyday routine is an important part of developing a healthy lifestyle. In fact, a recent study suggests that multiple bouts of activity as short as a few minutes can add up to equal the health effects of a single prolonged exercise session each day. Now that you know that active choices won’t necessarily slow you down, what ways will you save time by being active?

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Your pants may be making you fat!

If you have purchased new pants recently they may have an adjustable or expandable waist. Some men’s pants include up to two extra inches to allow you to “flex” or “move more freely.” Women’s pants might have elastic hidden in the waist band for extra “stretch.” While these pants are designed to be comfortable, they could be making you fat!

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

Most people gain weight as they age, typically a slow process that may not be immediately noticeable. If you have pants with a two-inch expandable waist you could easily gain weight while still wearing the same pants size. In fact, you could gain two inches of fat around your waist before you noticed. For many people, tight-fitting pants are a signal that they may have gained a few pounds. If you miss that cue you could easily gain significant weight, which requires a significant effort to fix.

This might sound like a minor issue, but external cues like this are important to help us recognize weight gain. In a classic example, a man puts on his favorite suit for the first time in over a year to find that the pants are too tight. Immediately he realizes that he has gained weight since he last wore the suit. Imagine, though, if his suit pants stretched to accommodate his larger waist. He might still think that, since the pants still fit, he hasn’t gained any weight.

This is important since people typically gain weight little by little over time, which may not be appreciated without these external cues. One way to prevent surprise weight gain is to weigh yourself regularly so that you can make adjustments to your diet and activity to prevent further weight gain. In fact, one common characteristic of the “successful losers” in the National Weight Control Registry is that they weigh themselves at least once a week. This is important because it’s easier to make adjustments to lose weight that’s gained in a week versus weight that is gained over a month or more.

This is also why people who lose weight should get rid of their “fat clothes.” Typically, these clothes get pushed to the back of the closet. But they are still readily available, so when the person regains some of the weight, it is easy to reach for a larger size. If those clothes had been packed away in a box in the attic, retrieving and unpacking them would be a noticeable sign that they had gained weight and may motivate them to get back on track.

Even small changes to our diet and activity patterns can lead to weight gain over time. Since this weight gain can often go unnoticed, it is important that we pay attention to external cues. The way our clothes fit is one such reminder, but there are others. Do you notice that you feel more out of breath doing routine activities, like climbing a flight of stairs? Is it more difficult to bend over and tie your shoes? These are both signs that your fitness may be declining and that it is time to start exercising.

These cues are easy to ignore, but they are important signs that it is time to make changes to your diet and activity habits. It is even easier to prevent weight gain or to stay fit than it is to lose weight or get in shape. So, don’t let your pants trick you! Pay attention to how your clothes fit and how you feel and use these cues to guide you to maintain good health.

Just eating more protein won’t build muscle. Here’s what you need to do.

Building or maintaining muscle mass is important for improving physical fitness, enhancing quality of life, and promoting a healthy body weight. For sure, this is essential for athletes, but building muscle also is important for the rest of us, especially as we get older.

A key step in building muscle is eating enough protein. If you pay attention to the claims of supplement marketers or people touting the new “perfect” diet, you might think that protein is the only thing that matters. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. To really build muscle requires resistance exercise. Yes, you may need extra protein, too, but it’s the exercise that promotes the muscle growth. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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There are good reasons to think that protein is important for developing muscle. First, muscle is made of protein, so you do need dietary protein to build muscle. Second, there are many studies that show that giving people who are doing resistance training extra protein does enhance muscle mass and strength. This is used as “evidence” that protein supplements are necessary, when it may really be the weight training that is improving strength.

A recent study looked at the effect of increasing protein intake on muscle mass in people who were not doing any resistance training. These were older men who could benefit from both extra protein and increased muscle mass. The results showed that the extra dietary protein did not increase muscle mass. Since the subjects were not doing any muscle building exercise, this suggests that resistance training is needed to promote muscle development.

Lifting weights or doing other resistance exercise builds both muscle mass and strength. The primary adaptation that results in increased muscle is hypertrophy, a process in which the muscles literally get larger. Resistance training causes a series of changes within the muscle that repair damage and stimulate protein synthesis. This why having adequate protein in the diet is important; you must have the protein available for the muscle to use it.

This only works if the muscle needs the protein, and that demand comes from doing resistance exercise. Having extra protein without exercise to stimulate the muscle wouldn’t have much effect on either muscle size or strength. But when someone is doing strength training, having enough protein at the right time is critical to maximizing strength gains.

The RDA, the amount that meets the needs of most healthy adults, is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg) per day. You can calculate your protein requirement by multiplying your body weight in pounds by 0.4, so a 200 lb. person would require about 80 g protein per day. While the RDA is a minimum for most healthy people, those who exercise regularly may need more, and it is certainly too low for athletes engaged in strenuous endurance or strength training. One study suggests that 1.6 g/kg per day, about twice the RDA, is a good goal for people who are trying to build or maintain muscle mass through resistance training.

You should get your protein from food, not supplements, to meet both energy needs to fuel your exercise sessions and provide adequate protein for muscle repair and growth. Timing matters, too: Protein intake immediately after exercise is particularly effective, so follow a workout with a protein rich meal or snack. Even if you aren’t actively training to build muscle, the combination of regular resistance exercise and adequate protein intake is essential to maintain muscle mass and strength as well as helping you maintain your weight.

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Off to the races! How to get started training for a 5k run or walk.

Most of us could benefit from getting more exercise and, with the warmer spring 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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The case of the missing beach body

Now that spring has arrived you may have noticed that your eating and exercise habits over the winter (or past several winters!) haven’t been kind to your body. For some people this comes as a surprise, and they wonder where their beach body from last summer went. For others, their beach body may be long gone, but they want to lose some weight and get in shape before summer.

Obviously, this will mean making changes to what you eat and your exercise habits. If you want to lose 5–10 pounds and get back in shape, this means small changes to your diet and exercise designed to meet your fitness goals. If you have more significant weight to lose you will need a stricter diet and an exercise program that will help you to burn calories and build your strength, endurance, and flexibility.

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

missing beach body

While diet and exercise can help you get back in shape, staying in shape requires making lasting behavior changes. Here are some questions that will help you find your missing beach body now and not lose it again in the future.

When did you last see it?

Many people can identify a time in their life when their lifestyle changed and weight gain began. Commonly, this is getting married, starting a new job, or having children. Other people notice that they have gained weight, but can’t point to any specific reason why. In both cases, healthy eating and exercise routines get replaced with other less beneficial habits. The result for most people is gaining weight, either very quickly or slowly over time. Understanding what led to your weight gain is important for making changes to fix it.

How long has it been gone?

The longer you have been inactive and eating poorly, the longer you have been developing these unhealthy habits. The consequence is that it will be more challenging to undo the damage these habits have caused and teach yourself new habits that are consistent with better health. Your task is relatively easy if you have just gained a few pounds since last summer. Trying to reverse years or decades of inactivity and unhealthy eating is a bigger challenge, but one you simply must take on!

Where did you last see it?

The environment has a huge impact on our health, largely through influencing our activity and eating behaviors. In many cases, weight gain may be at least partly a consequence of where we spend our time. For example, a new job that involves long commutes by car and workdays spent sitting can make gaining weight almost inevitable. Quitting that job probably isn’t reasonable, but knowing how it has affected your health allows you to focus your efforts on increasing your activity outside of work. For many women, weight gain occurs after graduating from college, getting married, and having children. While there are many contributing lifestyle factors in this case, the change from an active college campus to a more sedentary environment certainly plays a role.

Once you figure out when and where you last saw your beach body you will have an idea of what you need to do to get it back. Keep in mind that the type of behavior changes you need to make to lose weight and get back in shape are difficult and will take time to adopt. While you shouldn’t expect any miracles in the next month or two, developing healthy eating and activity habits can have a miraculous effect on your weight, your health, and how you feel in the years to come!

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On second thought: Nutrition advice that seemed like a good idea at the time, but wasn’t.

If you follow nutrition news you have no doubt noticed that recommendations change over time. Foods you thought were good for you can suddenly show up on a “never eat” list and foods you had learned to avoid are now recommended. This makes it challenging to follow a healthy diet, for sure. It may also make you question the advice of nutrition experts, who seem to change their minds periodically.

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

There are several reasons for this. First, carefully designed long-term studies of food and health are difficult to conduct. This means that small differences can appear to be more important than they really are and meaningful effects may not be statistically significant. Additionally, it is unreasonable to carefully control what people eat over years or decades, so “proving” that a food is either beneficial or harmful to health is almost impossible. This leads to health claims that probably shouldn’t be made as well as missed opportunities to make useful recommendations.

There are also political reasons why nutrition advice can change over time. The long-held belief that eating fat causes obesity and heart disease was largely based on decisions made by politicians. Importantly, these decisions were not based on good research. This led to a recommendation to eat more carbohydrates instead, something the food industry embraced.

Low-fat foods that were high in sugar became known as health food, despite evidence to the contrary. Even as evidence linking sugar intake with poor health accumulated, Congress forbid U.S. dietary guidelines to include an “eat less” recommendation. Only now are we changing our thoughts and behaviors to consume less added sugar and be less fearful of fats in our diet.

Here are two examples of nutrition advice that was well-meaning at the time but hasn’t worked out in the long run. In fact, these recommendations may actually have made us less healthy.

Low-Fat and Fat-Free Foods

The recommendation to eat less fat resulted in foods that normally would contain fat to be reformulated to have less, or no, fat. The fat was replaced by sugar and other additives leading to ingredient lists that read more like a chemistry experiment than food. We know now that these highly processed foods were no healthier and are thought to be a major cause of the obesity epidemic.

Sugar Free foods

Now that we have embraced the idea that we should eat less added sugar, there are sugar-free alternatives to most foods and beverages. The problem is that foods containing sugar are meant to taste sweet, so something must be added to replace the sugar. More often than not, the sugar is replaced by artificial sweeteners that contain no calories but still add sweetness.

There are two problems with this. First, although these foods tend to be calorie-free, they are still associated with weight gain. Second, they may be sweeter than the food they replace and alter our expectation of what food should taste like. This is especially true for children, who learn to expect that all food should be sweet. Furthermore, the alternative sweeteners used to replace sugar may not be as safe as we initially thought.

The bottom line is that all nutrients—carbohydrates, fat, and protein—are healthy within relatively broad ranges. And getting these nutrients, fats and sugar included, from real food is always preferable to eating processed foods. The key to good health is to balance what you eat with daily physical activity at work, at the gym, or at home. And remember that nutrition researchers and experts are doing their best to bring you reliable recommendations, even if it doesn’t come across that way in the news!


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Weight loss “frenemies”: How the people around you can support–and sabotage–your weight loss.

Anyone who has tried to lose weight, quit smoking, or make another behavior change knows that having the support of family and friends is a key to success. Additionally, having a “buddy” to go through the process with can help keep you motivated, leading to greater success now and in the long run.

However, a lack of support can make these changes even more difficult. Some people even encounter behavior by friends and family members that directly interferes with their efforts, something that seems to be more common among women than men.

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


Social support has long been recognized as a key component of group exercise, weight loss, and smoking cessation programs. This support can be both real and perceived. Family, friends, co-workers, and others who directly or indirectly offer support and encouragement are obvious examples. But research shows that even thinking that you have the support of others can boost your chances of success.

Group weight loss programs are popular because they provide accountability, positive role models, and practical advice in a supportive environment. From my perspective as a weight loss researcher, the group dynamic is a major reason people stick with a program when they otherwise might not. In fact, research supports the idea that programs with a group component tend to be more effective over time. Not wanting to “let the group down” keeps many participants focused and on track. While guilt isn’t the best reason for continuing a weight loss program, it can be an effective motivator for some people to reach their goal.

Group support can also make up for support that may be lacking from other people. Some dieters find that the people around them are unsupportive. This can include comments (“seeing you eat healthy makes me feel guilty!”), being excluded from activities because the person is on a diet, and direct sabotage of the person’s efforts by encouraging them to stray from their diet. Participants of group programs report that support from other members helps them get past these barriers.

Even with strong support from others making the same lifestyle changes, the assistance of friends, family, and coworkers is essential. Some support is relatively simple to provide and includes making positive comments and encouragement. A simple acknowledgement of the effort a dieter has been making goes a long way. Sometimes others may see changes before the person losing weight notices any progress. This feedback can be especially motivating.

Other forms of support may be more challenging. For example, if one member of a family is trying to lose weight, the rest of the family may need to alter their habits as well to accommodate changes in eating and exercise. Others can contribute by helping a dieter shop for healthier food, prepare meals, and find time for exercise. Sadly, missing this support is a frequent reason why people are unable to realize long-term weight loss success. The bottom line is that those close to someone who is trying to improve their health can be influential, both positively and negatively, in their success.

If you are trying to lose weight, look for people who can provide support, whether that is encouragement or actual assistance. If you know someone who is on a diet, try to be a source of support for them. Complimenting them on their progress and encouraging them to continue is a good start. At the very least, don’t do or say things that make their health improvement process more difficult. Best of all, you can play along with them—chances are, you could benefit from eating better and getting more exercise!

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