Category Archives: Health & Fitness

Make Fitness Tech Work for You

Wearable fitness technology is an important tool that many people use to monitor their activity, track their progress, and stay motivated. From activity trackers and heart rate monitors to devices that do both and more, the newest “wearables” are sophisticated tools for recording your steps per day, distance you run, and calories you burn. But using these devices to help you get fit, lose weight, or otherwise improve your health requires that you use that information wisely. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

This is especially true when it comes to losing weight. Thanks to a host of wearable devices and mobile apps, counting calories has never been easier. This matters because losing weight almost always means reducing the calories that you eat and increasing the calories that you burn. This concept of “eat less, move more” is the foundation of nearly every effective weight loss program and explains why some diets and exercise programs seem to work better than others, at least for some people.

Modern wearable devices and mobile apps allow you to track your weight, what you eat, and your activity fairly accurately. Many apps can measure the intensity of exercise by using the GPS and accelerometer features of your phone itself and some include heart rate to make the estimates even more precise. Using this technology, you can count steps, measure how many miles you walk or run, and estimate how many calories you burn.

Other apps can help you track what you eat. Whether you are counting calories or concerned about your protein intake, dietary analysis apps can show you what you are really eating. Most require you to enter the foods you eat and the app calculates calories, nutrients, sugar, salt, and water intake based on standard databases. In order to get accurate results, it is important to estimate portion sizes accurately, something that is challenging even for experts. That said, these apps can be useful for tracking what you eat to help you learn about your eating patterns to develop healthier habits or meet specific goals, such as eliminating added sugar from your diet.

Activity trackers and exercise apps are especially popular for improving fitness and promoting weight loss. Both the physical activity that you do throughout the day and dedicated exercise are important for good health, physical fitness, and weight control. This technology can help you know what to do, when to do it, and how much you did at the end of the day.

While these tools can be helpful, it is important to emphasize the importance of developing healthy habits in order to improve fitness, lose weight, or keep it off. A focus on “micromanaging” steps or calories may cause you to lose sight of the “big picture” changes you want to make. For example, you should strive to be as active as you can throughout the day, even if you have already met your step or calorie goal.

Keep in mind that there are very few people who fail to meet their fitness or weight loss goal because they didn’t have the latest activity tracker or fitness app. Real success comes from making lifestyle changes to incorporate healthy eating and activity habits that you can maintain without constant reminders. While technology can help you make those changes, it does not replace the dedication needed to develop lasting eating and activity habits to promote good health. Finally, make sure to pick the device that meets your needs… and your budget, as they can get expensive!

Santa’s secret plan for health and fitness revealed!

Since Christmas is this week our attention is naturally focused on one person: Santa Claus. Have you ever wondered how Santa gets in shape for his yearly sleigh ride to deliver gifts to good boys and girls around the globe? Like many elite athletes, Santa does not publicly discuss his training or his fitness. There are certainly no published studies that report his one repetition maximum strength or his maximal oxygen uptake.

Given this lack of information, I attempted to make an educated guess about Santa’s training, fitness, and health. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


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The 2020 Health & Fitness Holiday Reading List

Looking for a good book to read? Maybe you have some extra time during the holidays or need a gift idea for a family member or friend. Here are some suggestions related to nutrition, exercise, and health, all written by experts in a way that make them easy to read and understand. Together, these books provide the why and how of developing an active, healthy lifestyle and give you the information and ideas you need to get started on your New Year’s Resolutions!

Photo by nappy from Pexels

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor (Riverhead Books, 2020).
For something you do all day and night, you probably don’t think much about breathing—but you should! In this book you will learn how breathing can affect your physical and mental health, the benefits of regulating your breathing, and techniques to improve your breathing. Combining research, ancient practices, and self-experimentation, the author provides evidence and examples for taking breathing as seriously as you do healthy eating, exercise, and sleep.

The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss by Jason Fung (Greystone Books, 2016)
Losing weight and keeping it off is a familiar challenge for many people and the focus on simply eating less doesn’t always work. This book explains the metabolic and hormonal reasons why weight loss is so difficult and why traditional diets often fail. It also provides suggestions for things you can do to achieve a healthy balance to lose weight and keep it off. Equal parts explanation and instruction, this book has a lot to offer people who want to understand both the why and how of weight loss.

Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear (Penguin Random House, 2019).
Improving your health is as much about changing your habits as it is about any specific dietary or exercise change. This book focuses on breaking bad habits and adopting good ones in all aspects of your life through small changes to your everyday routines. Based on a loop that reinforces habits, good or bad, the author recommends four steps to make new habits obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. While the book isn’t specifically about health behaviors, you can apply it to any habits you want to change, including eating, exercise, and sleep.

The Heart-Healthy Handbook by Barry Franklin and Simon Dixon (Healthy Learning, 2017).
If you have had a heart attack or are at risk for a heart attack in the future—which, by the way, is nearly everyone—this is the book for you! Written by expert exercise and nutrition professionals in a way that is easy-to-understand, this book explains the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of heart disease and related conditions. From descriptions of common tests to steps you can take to improve your heart health, this is a book you can put to use within the first few pages.

Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World by Kelly Starrett, Juliet Starrett, and Glenn Cordoza (Victory Belt, 2016).
You probably already know that years of sitting at work, home, and in your car is bad for you. This book clearly explains why and how prolonged sitting affects your health, from diabetes and heart disease to muscle and joint pain. More importantly, this book includes simple exercises to help you undo the damage from sitting. On almost every page you will find something you can do to stretch, strengthen, and restore your muscles and joints.

SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey (Little, Brown and Company, 2008).
Exercise has well-known and proven benefits for the body, from improved health to enhancing fitness. What is less well-known are the benefits exercise has on the brain. In this important book, Dr. Ratey explains the link between exercise and brain health. You will learn how mood, memory, attention, and learning are all improved with exercise and have new motivation to get out and get moving!

Healthy for the Holidays

Now that Thanksgiving has past, the holiday season is in full swing. At the same time, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has changed virtually every aspect of our lives. If that’s not enough, this is also cold and flu season. In addition, the holiday season itself, with hectic schedules, stress, and lack of sleep, can weaken your immune system making you more susceptible to getting sick. The good news is that there is much you can do to keep yourself and the people close to you healthy for the holidays.

For starters, following the familiar recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will help prevent colds and the flu, too. This includes physical distancing and wearing a mask anytime you are close to others, especially indoors. Another basic step in preventing sickness is to wash your hands regularly. Soap and water is best, and there is no additional benefit in using an antibacterial soap. If you can’t wash your hands, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is an acceptable alternative. Keep in mind that hand sanitizers don’t actually clean your hands and aren’t as effective if your hands are dirty.

Masks and physical distancing are important because SARS-CoV-2, influenza, and common cold viruses are spread through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks loudly, or sings, so avoiding close contact with people who are sick—or who may be sick—is important. If you are sick, it is essential that you stay away from others as much as you can. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or cough or sneeze onto your sleeve to help keep the germs from spreading through the air or on your hands.

People who participate in moderate exercise on a daily basis have fewer and less severe illnesses than people who aren’t regularly active. This is because exercise has the effect of stimulating the immune system, making it better able to respond when you are exposed to cold or flu viruses. Presumably, the same is true for the virus that causes COVID-19, so being active every day is essential for the health of your immune system…and the rest of you!

Good nutrition is also necessary for optimal immune system function. Deficiencies in certain nutrients can have a negative effect on immune function, so eating a balanced diet is essential. That said, there is no support for “boosting” the immune system by taking high doses of vitamins, minerals, or other supplements, despite the claims made by supplement companies. The best advice is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day, drink plenty of water, and avoid highly processed foods, especially those that contain added sugar.

You can get benefits from two more common-sense recommendations: getting adequate sleep and reducing stress. Poor sleep habits are associated with suppressed immunity and more frequent illness. High levels of stress increase susceptibility to viruses and can lead to more sick days from work or school. Stress and poor sleep habits tend to occur together, creating a double negative effect on the immune system.

By taking these steps, you can improve your chances of celebrating the holidays in good health. As a bonus, eating a healthy diet, exercising every day, managing your stress, and getting enough sleep will give you a head start on what are likely to be New Year’s resolutions.

Be thankful for family, friends, and food— real food—this Thanksgiving​.

Happy Thanksgiving week! While this Thanksgiving will different when it comes to gathering together with family and friends, food will certainly be a part of the holiday. Even though many of our favorite dishes are not the healthiest choices, they make an appearance on the table each year. For many of us, Thanksgiving dinner is a day marked by overindulgence and poor nutrition choices.

In an effort to make Thanksgiving dinner healthier, recommendations for modifying or replacing traditional dishes are a common theme in magazines, on the morning TV shows, and on the web. While these suggestions are meant to be helpful, I’m not sure they actually serve to make a significant impact on health. In fact, the foods we eat and the way we eat them may be the healthiest part of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.



Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

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Immediate benefits of exercise

Regular physical activity is essential for achieving and maintaining good health and preventing and treating conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer. In addition to being physically active, participating in exercise is the best way to improve strength, endurance, and flexibility as well as promoting health and well-being to an even greater extent. These health and fitness benefits of exercise often take weeks or months to achieve, and requires a commitment to being active most, preferably, all days of the week.

While most of the biggest health benefits come from chronic adaptations to years of regular activity or exercise, there are some acute physiological changes that occur after a single bout. These changes tend to be short-lived, lasting only a few hours, and depend on the intensity and duration of the exercise. But, when exercise is repeated every day, these changes can have important positive effects on your health. Here are a few of the immediate benefits of exercise that can improve your health right now.

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

Photo by Cliff Booth from Pexels


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What you need to know about diabetes

Diabetes is among the fastest-growing health conditions in the United States. Over 30 million adults have diabetes, with 1.5 million new cases each year. If you include prediabetes, which tends to lead to diabetes if untreated, over 115 million Americans are affected. Fortunately, most cases of diabetes can be treated or prevented through healthy eating, weight control, and regular exercise.

Since November is American Diabetes Month, this seems like a good time to raise awareness about the prevention, treatment, and consequences of this serious medical condition.  If you want to learn more about diabetes, a great place to start is American Diabetes Association. This is also the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standardthis week.

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Diabetes mellitus is a metabolic disorder characterized by high blood glucose (sugar) caused by a lack of insulin production or impaired insulin action. The lack of insulin production can be caused by an autoimmune disorder that damages the pancreas. This typically occurs during childhood, as in type 1 or “juvenile” diabetes, but it can occur in adults, a condition called latent autoimmune diabetes of adulthood (LADA). For both types, injected insulin is required to control blood glucose.

More commonly, diabetes is caused by the body’s cells not responding to the insulin that is produced, a condition called insulin resistance. This is called type 2 diabetes and is thought to be caused by some combination of obesity, particularly excess abdominal fat, and physical inactivity.

Diabetes can be diagnosed based on a fasting blood glucose test, taken 8–12 hours after a meal, usually in the morning. Another test is an oral glucose tolerance test in which blood glucose is measured for two hours after drinking a special beverage containing glucose. This measures the body’s response to glucose. The hemoglobin A1C test is a long-term measure of blood glucose control. This is important because the higher the hemoglobin A1C level, the greater the risk of diabetes complications.

For most diabetics, the main treatment goal is to control blood glucose level to prevent serious complications including nerve damage, blindness, infection and amputation, heart attack, and stroke. This is typically accomplished through a combination of diet, exercise, and medications, with varying degrees of success. But “curing” diabetes is rare, so most patients require continued treatment.

Exercise is important for blood glucose control because exercise causes an increase in the uptake of glucose into cells and can improve glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity. In addition, exercise has the added benefits of promoting weight loss and improving strength and fitness. Both aerobic and strength training are recommended, with a minimum goal of 30 minutes per day, every day.

Meal planning involves selecting healthy foods to help maintain consistent blood glucose levels while meeting energy needs for exercise and other activities. The dietary recommendations for preventing and treating diabetes are almost identical to the general recommendations for good health: Emphasize whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and low-fat meat and dairy and reduce unhealthy fats, added sugars, and salt. The diet should also promote weight loss and weight maintenance, especially for overweight patients. The glycemic index (GI), a measure of how much a food raises blood glucose, can be helpful in dietary planning, but it is not the only meal planning tool that should be used.

Proper diet, blood glucose testing, medication use, and regular exercise can improve blood glucose control, reduce the risk of other health problems, and improve quality of life in diabetics. In those with prediabetes these efforts can delay the progression to diabetes and may even result in a return to normal blood glucose. In fact, diet and exercise have been shown to be more effective than medications in preventing diabetes. Plus, these lifestyle changes lead to weight loss and improved fitness, benefits that no medication can match.


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Halloween is over, so what will you do with all that candy?

This weekend marked the end of several weeks of Halloween preparation, events, and celebrations. But even after the lights in the jack-o-lanterns have been extinguished and the costumes have been packed away, the Halloween horrors continue. It’s not ghosts or witches or black cats you need to worry about, though. It’s the leftover candy.

And not just the candy that gets brought home by (or is left over from) trick-or-treaters. What you really need to worry about is the candy that remains, either in the cabinet or in the dish on the table. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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If your home is like mine, you have probably been accumulating candy for several days now. Despite our best intentions, most of it will get eaten, probably in the few days after Halloween. There are several ways in which a Halloween candy binge could be bad for our health.

First, it can add up to a lot of calories, which could contribute to weight gain. As a rough estimate, a typical “fun size” candy bar has about 75–100 calories. Look in your kids’ candy bags or the bowl of leftover candy at your front door and think about how many calories that adds up to.

Second, eating lots of candy could replace healthier foods. Candy is considered “empty calories,” meaning that there is little nutritional value beyond calories—typically no vitamins, minerals, or fiber. And if you eat less at meals because of the extra candy you are consuming you may not be getting enough essential nutrients. However, since the candy binge will probably only last a few days, this shouldn’t cause long-term health problems.

Third, the high sugar intake can contribute to cavities. Bacteria in the mouth produce acid when they come in contact with sugar, and this acid erodes tooth enamel to cause cavities. Sticky candy like gummies or hard candies that are in the mouth a long time are of particular concern. Obviously, brushing after eating can reduce the risk of cavities and chewing sugarless gum may help, too.

Many parents try to reduce some of these potential health concerns by limiting how much candy their children can eat at a time. This makes sense since spreading out the candy consumption—a few pieces each day—means less sugar intake at any one time.

Others solve this problem by letting their kids eat as much candy as they want on Halloween, then taking the rest away or letting their kids keep just a few pieces. Many times kids don’t even miss the candy when it is gone. This is probably a smart approach, but it does require some creativity to get the candy away. Replacing the candy with books, toys, or other gifts might help.

For many people, the real problems begin after Halloween when the leftover candy ends up in a bowl at home or in a dish on a desk at work. While there are some people who can resist reaching into the bowl, most of us can’t. It’s just too tempting to grab a piece of candy as we walk by, and we likely do it more often than we think. In fact, sometimes the candy dish is set out for the purpose of getting rid of the candy!

As the end of the Halloween candy season nears we will probably find ourselves eating more candy than we should. The good news is that as long as we get back to a routine of healthy eating and regular exercise, a Halloween candy binge shouldn’t do any lasting harm our health.

 

Trick or treat? More like getting tricked by treats! Watch out for candy and soda dressed up as healthy food.

Boo! Since Halloween is this weekend, it’s a good time to think about what makes this holiday so scary. It’s not the ghosts or zombies that come to your door in the evening seeking candy that you should be scared of, though. In fact, you don’t even need to wait until dark to get spooked. You are likely to see the scariest “costumes” on your breakfast table on Halloween morning—candy and soda dressed up as healthy food! Here are three common examples:

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Fro-yo dressed as healthy yogurt

Most people would consider yogurt to be a healthy breakfast. And it is, provided you aren’t getting tricked! Low-fat and fat-free flavored yogurt is almost always sweetened with sugar. This is true for the yogurt tubes that kids love and much of the Greek yogurt that is so popular. Sure, it contains protein and beneficial bacteria, but the added sugar makes it equivalent to frozen yogurt or ice cream in terms of calories and sugar. Some of these yogurts even come with toppings, like bits of chocolate, just like fro-yo!

A healthier alternative is plain yogurt with real fruit. Sure, it’s not as sweet, but you will be getting the benefits of eating yogurt without all the added sugar.

Soda dressed as fruit juice

Many “fruit” drinks contain less than 5% juice but plenty of added sugar, so they are essentially soda without bubbles. For example, the orange drinks like Hi-C or Sunny D are a popular substitute for orange juice, but they are far from a nutritional equivalent. The same is true for other drinks, including juice boxes and pouches, which are commonly part of breakfast, lunch, or snacks. Even scarier is the fact that these drinks are much sweeter than real fruit. Children may develop an expectation that oranges or orange juice should taste as sweet as soda and prefer the sugar-sweetened version over the real fruit.

A better choice is to make real fruit and fruit juice, not soda disguised as juice, a part of meals and snacks

Candy bars and cookies dressed as cereal and breakfast bars

Many popular breakfast foods targeted at children include sugar-sweetened cereals, pastries, and bars. Some breakfast bars and cereals that seem healthy are really candy bars in disguise. Some even skip the disguise and actually look like candy or dessert. Pop Tarts and some granola bars are covered in chocolate or frosting, and favorite cereals often contain marshmallows or are shaped like cookies. No surprise that these foods are as high in calories and sugar as cookies or some candy bars. Worse, a child who is used to breakfast or snack foods that taste like candy or cookies may resist real food when it is offered. Now that’s scary!

When you think you are eating something healthy but it’s really not—I call this Candy and Soda for Breakfast. And it’s not just breakfast, it happens at every meal.

While the focus here is on food for kids, it really isn’t much different for adults. Breakfast foods like donuts and pastries are almost always topped with icing and it would be difficult to distinguish many muffins from cupcakes. For many people, coffee isn’t just coffee anymore, but a drink that contains as much sugar and as many calories as a milkshake, sometimes with whipped cream on top. What’s really scary is that this is how many people eat every day.

The good news is that you can make your breakfast healthier without too much effort. While there is much debate about what constitutes a healthy breakfast, there is agreement about what it doesn’t include—lots of added sugar! Look for cereals that are low in added sugars and high in fiber. Include real fruit, fruit juice, and milk (or soy milk) whenever possible. If you have time, eggs are an excellent source of protein and healthy fats. Yogurt is good, too, but watch out for added sugars in flavored yogurt. Whole grain toast or a bagel with peanut butter makes a good alternative to Pop Tarts or breakfast bars.

As a general rule, steer clear of foods that look like dessert. Frosting, marshmallows, chocolate chips, and sprinkles simply aren’t part of a healthy meal!

If you are worried about the big bags of candy that get brought home on Halloween night, keep this in mind.  While eating a lot of candy is never healthy, a typical Halloween candy binge lasts a few days, after which time the candy is gone or the kids are literally sick of eating it.  The long-term effects on your kid’s health (and teeth) can be offset by a good diet, regular activity, and diligent brushing and flossing. The same applies to you, too, if you find yourself digging into the big bowl of candy that is inevitably left over.


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Hunger games

One of the most powerful motivators we have is hunger. Seeking food when we are hungry is what allowed our ancestors to survive. For most of human history, finding the next meal could be arduous or even dangerous, so a strong physiological drive was necessary to make it happen. Now, though, the problem isn’t usually finding food, it’s having access to too much food. Unfortunately, the regulation of hunger in our brains hasn’t changed.

The physiology behind why and when we eat is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Photo by Tim Mossholder from Pexels

Hunger is an internal physiological drive to seek and eat food and is usually experienced as a negative sensation. When you are hungry you may be distracted when your stomach growls. Since most of us have a supply of food that is readily accessible, severe hunger is uncommon. But when people diet to lose weight, especially a restrictive diet, hunger can be a powerful signal to eat.

Often when we think we are hungry, it isn’t hunger at all—it’s our appetite. Appetite is a psychological, as opposed to physiological, sensation that drives us to eat. Hunger and appetite can work together, but not always. The sight or smell of food can trigger can increase our appetite even if we aren’t hungry. Appetite tends to be more specific, too. While hunger will drive you to eat pretty much any food, appetite usually pushes you to eat a certain food.

One of the reasons we overeat is because we confuse appetite with hunger. We may think we need to eat when we see a food advertisement on television or smell someone cooking, but we really don’t have a physiological need for nourishment. Think about eating dessert after dinner. You just ate a full meal, so you can’t possibly be hungry. But when you see the dessert tray you develop an appetite for something sweet, even though you don’t need it.

Satiation and satiety are two other factors that influence what you eat. Satiation is the feeling of satisfaction or fullness that signals the end of a meal. Satiety is the effect of one meal, including the amount and type of food you eat, on how much you eat later. You can use these biological factors to your advantage to help you eat less.

For example, if you eat quickly you will eat more food (and calories) before satiation occurs. If you eat more slowly, you may actually eat less before that same feeling of fullness occurs. Additionally, what you eat for breakfast will impact when you feel ready for lunch and how much you eat when you do. It turns out that protein has a greater effect on satiety that either carbohydrates or fat. If your breakfast is juice and a donut you are likely to feel hungry sooner compared to having something with protein, like yogurt or eggs.

Genetics also play an important role in what we eat. Research suggests that how much we eat and even our food preferences are controlled, at least to some extent, by genes. Of course, some of this has to do with learned behavior, too. Maybe you prefer certain foods because you have a strong positive association with them developed throughout childhood.

One important point to remember is that no matter how strong the effect of genetics on food preferences, eating is a behavior that you can control. Your genes give you a predisposition, not a predetermination, meaning that even though you can’t change your genes, you can make an extra effort to not let them define you.


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