Category Archives: Health & Fitness

Function and fitness follow form.Why doing exercises properly can help you get fitter, faster.

When it comes to exercise, the most important thing is that you do it! When you are starting out, almost anything you do will have health and fitness benefits. As little as 30 minutes per day of moderate aerobic activity can improve your endurance and even one set of a few resistance exercises once or twice per week can increase your strength. Doing more, either longer exercise time or intensity, will result in bigger improvements in fitness.

Getting the most out of your workouts requires doing exercises properly. Using equipment appropriately and having good form can help enhance your gains from training. Proper technique is commonly thought to reduce the risk of injury, but it also has as much to do with the effectiveness of the exercise itself. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Active transportation matters—and not just during National Bike to Work Week

Since May is National Bike Month and this week is National Bike to Work Week, this is a good time to think about cycling and other forms of active transportation.

Active transportation, which includes walking, cycling, and other physically active modes of moving from place to place, has important environmental, health, and economic benefits for individuals and communities. Promoting active modes of transportation can reduce pollution, increase physical activity, and benefit both people and communities economically. In some areas, active transportation can replace motor vehicle use entirely. More commonly, though, physical activity can be combined with cars or public transportation to replace parts of trips.

Significant and accumulating evidence shows that motor vehicle use is a primary cause of air pollution. This includes greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and particulate matter that are released by combustion engines and industry. This has been linked to climate change and health problems, including pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases, contributing to 200,000 deaths per year.

The transportation sector is the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the United States, so physically active modes of transportation that replace motor vehicle use could have a significant impact on air pollution and health. Estimates suggest that even a small decrease in vehicle miles traveled, a measure of motor vehicle use, by increasing active transportation could lead to reductions in particulate matter and greenhouse gas production.

In addition to environmental benefits, increasing active transportation has clear health benefits. As you might expect, spending more time commuting in a car is associated with an increased risk of obesity and more active commuting is associated with a lower risk of obesity. Beyond the influence on body weight, people who use physically active modes of transportation have a lower risk of diabetes and hypertension as well as death from cardiovascular diseases.

People who engage in active transportation get an average of 12–15 minutes of physical activity per day and 30% meet the 30 minutes per day recommendation. Considering that over a quarter of trips are less than 1 mile and most are less than five miles, most people could replace at least some driving with walking or cycling.

The cost of implementing active transportation is often cited as a reason not to, but individuals and communities can benefit economically from increased active transportation. Transportation represents the second largest expense for American families and may have a greater impact on low-income households. Given that active transportation is almost always more affordable than using a car, this could help many people and families make ends meet. 

Communities that develop infrastructure and policies to promote active transportation experience direct and indirect benefits. These benefits include increased residential and commercial property values as well as the fact that people who are walking or cycling are more likely to visit businesses along their route. Depending on the location and nature of the project, implementing active transportation can have a positive cost-benefit ratio and promote job creation.

Given the environmental, health, and economic benefits, active transportation is a win, win, win for our community. Across the country, cities large and small are implementing infrastructure and policies to make them safer and more convenient for pedestrians and cyclists. Since everyone benefits from a community that supports active transportation for work and leisure, we should take steps in that direction.

Health and fitness “frenemies”: How the people around you can support—and sabotage—your health behavior change.

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. 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.

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

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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 exercise and weight loss programs are popular because they provide accountability, positive role models, and advice in a supportive environment. From my perspective as an exercise professional, 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 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 even find that the people around them are unsupportive. This can include comments (“seeing you eat healthy makes me feel guilty!”), being excluded from activities that might be seen as unhealthy, and direct sabotage of the person’s efforts by encouraging them to stray from their routine. 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 someone has been making goes a long way. Sometimes others may see changes before the person exercising or losing weight notices any progress. This feedback can be especially motivating.

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 someone has been making goes a long way. Sometimes others may see changes before the person exercising or 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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Hold the ice: New ways to treat minor sports injuries.

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

If you do sustain a muscle or joint injury you will probably ice the affected area to help it heal. But there are also several newer techniques that can help speed recovery. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week. And it seems especially relevant since many of us participated  the Run United Aiken Half Marathon this past weekend, so we may have some soreness or overuse injuries .

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

However, research and experience by sports medicine professionals suggests that using ice after an injury can delay healing and recovery. This is due to the realization that inflammation is a key component in tissue repair and reducing inflammation with ice therapy interferes with healing. A newer guideline called PEACE & LOVE (protection, elevation, avoid anti-inflammatory drugs, compression, and education & load, optimism, vascularization, and exercise) is more complicated but removes ice from the treatment plan. So, more and more sports medicine professionals are using modalities including voodoo flossing, cupping, and kinesio taping instead of (or in addition to) RICE to treat many injuries.

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

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

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

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


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Strike a recovery pose

If you spend time in the gym or play or watch sports, you probably see athletes standing with their hands on their head or bent over with their hands on their knees during a break from a workout or game. Other than being an indicator of fatigue, these “poses” may actually speed recovery, allowing athletes to get back to action faster. Quick recovery is important for performance in athletes, especially if they have back-to-back events. It’s also important for the rest of us when we do workouts that have multiple sets, separated by brief recovery periods. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Go (and Eat) Green for Earth Day

Since Earth Day is this is a good time to think about the impact we have on our environment and what we can do to reduce that impact. The good news is there are ways we can “go green” that are good for our health and the health of our planet, as I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Fit for fun: Preparing for your active summer vacation

If you intend to take a vacation this summer, now is the time to start planning. If your vacation will involve activities like hiking, cycling, or swimming, you need to make sure you are ready for that level of activity. Even sightseeing and visiting theme parks can require far more activity than most people are accustomed to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Living from chair to chair … to wheelchair?

You probably know that participating in regular physical activity is among the most important things you can do to improve your health. This activity can include exercise as well as just about anything else that gets you moving.

Parking further away at the store, walking the dog, even doing yard work are all recommended ways to be more active. The message, from me and others, is that every little bit of activity counts. Of course, doing more activity, including both higher intensity (traditional exercise) and longer duration (a longer walk) can bring greater health benefits.

What you may not know is that being sedentary, especially spending time sitting, is just as detrimental to your health as not being active. In fact, spending most of the day sitting can undo some of the benefits of exercising, as I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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It’s true—a person who doesn’t exercise but moves a lot during the day at work or home may be healthier than someone who exercises every day but spends much of the rest of their day sitting! (To be sure, that person is much better off than someone who doesn’t exercise and sits all day.)

You may also be surprised how much time most people, yourself included, spend sitting. While some people have jobs that keep them active, most occupations involve sitting much of the day.

The situation outside of work isn’t much better, between lengthy commutes in the car and hours of “screen time” at home.

This sedentary time comes at the expense of being active, especially doing vigorous activity that causes you to break a sweat, like exercise. And the extent to which we avoid vigorous activity is shocking!

One study used measurements of physical activity recorded continuously for several days in over 2,500 adults to determine how much time the typical American spends being active or sedentary. The results show that the average adult spends about 8 hours each day being sedentary (sitting, mostly), and about 6 hours being active. Almost all that activity time was light intensity activity, around 20–30 minutes was moderate-intensity (a brisk walk), and less than a minute of vigorous activity per day. Less than a minute!

As the author of this study noted, many people seem to be living from “one chair to another.”

Men were slightly more active than women, and overweight and obese men and women were less active than normal weight individuals. Obese women got just one hour of exercise per year. Obese men were not much better, with less than three hours of vigorous activity per year. These levels of physical activity are far below the recommended minimum of 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.

The consequences of sitting so much instead of being active can be severe, including higher body fatness, poor physical function, and increased risk of chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.

Another study suggests that these consequences also include an increased risk of disability. In this study, older adults who were less active reported more difficulty completing self-care tasks including getting in and out of bed, eating, dressing, or walking. In fact, each additional hour of sedentary time increased the risk of this type of disability by almost 50%.

Most of us live a life that includes too much sedentary time, especially sitting, and too little activity. This has serious health consequences both now and as we age. But you can take steps (literally!) to become more active by sitting less, moving more, and making time each day to be active.


 

Reducing sugar and sweet.

Cutting back on sugar intake is a common goal to improve heath and promote weight loss. It is also a popular New Year’s resolution and many people have attempted to completely eliminate sugar on a 30-day (or longer) sugar challenge. There is good reason to do this: eating too much sugar is unhealthy! Excessive sugar intake causes hormonal changes and inflammation that can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This is especially true when combined with a lack of physical activity. And your dentist wants you to know that sugar is also associated with dental caries.

If you are trying to lose weight or if your goal is to eat healthier in general, reducing or eliminating added sugar will help more than any other single dietary change. Many people do this by switching from sugary sodas, juices, and other beverages to flavored, artificially sweetened drinks. This is good because it lowers sugar intake, but it may not be the best approach.  This is the topic of my Health and Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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There is some concern over potential health risks of excessive artificial sweetener consumption, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, mood, and behavior. It is important to know that research does not support a strong association between typical artificial sweetener consumption and these health problems. That said, if your goal is to eat less processed food, avoiding artificial sweeteners is an excellent idea.

A more realistic concern may be the effect that replacing sugar with an equally sweet alternative has on your eating behavior and food preferences. Sweetness is one of the most important tastes we respond to, driving our food choices and the amount we eat. It is easy to become accustomed to a certain level of sweetness in food and beverages that make unsweetened “natural” options less palatable.

For example, in an effort to move away from soda and other beverages, many people drink flavored, artificially sweetened water. These drinks taste good and have no calories, so they seem like a smart choice. And they are, if you only consider calories. But these drinks create an expectation that water should be flavored and sweet, so they move people away from a goal of making water the primary source of hydration. I know several adults who simply won’t drink plain water!

This is especially true for children when it comes to fruit. Kids may develop an expectation that strawberries should taste like strawberry-flavored fruit snacks or that orange juice should taste as sweet as a sugar-free fruit drink. Children who learn that fruit should taste sweeter than it really is may not like real fruit when they try it. To a kid accustomed to drinking orange-flavored drinks, even sugar-free, an actual orange may taste sour.

So, if you are already cutting back on sugar intake, keep it up. If you haven’t tried to reduce your sugar consumption, you should. The health benefits are worth it! Keep in mind that you should also make an effort to cut back on sweets, too.  

Take the sweet challenge by reducing your consumption of added sugars and sweeteners. One easy way to do this is to replace sweetened drinks with plain water, tea, and coffee.  You should also avoid processed foods and eat more “real” food. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, meat, beans, and dairy are known to have health benefits and have no added sweetness. When you do eat packaged foods, pay attention to food labels and look for foods and beverages that have no added sugar or sweeteners.


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No pain, no gain? Why muscle soreness occurs after exercise and what to do about it.

If you exercise, especially if you lift weights, you have probably heard the adage, “No pain, no gain.” This may serve as motivation for some people, but the belief that exercise results in pain might be a good reason not to work out for others. If you are one of those people, you should know that idea that exercise should hurt is simply wrong—muscle pain during or following exercise usually suggests an injury. However, some muscle soreness is unavoidable, especially if you are new to exercise. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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