Category Archives: Health & Fitness

How to stay healthy at work.

Many people are trying to create a healthier lifestyle by eating healthier, making time for exercise or other activity, and reducing stress. Frequently, the focus is on what they can do at home, from prepping meals to joining a gym or going to yoga class. But many people spend a major part of their day at work, where healthy options are often limited. From the box of donuts at a morning meeting to a quick fast food lunch, eating well at work can be difficult. And for people who have office jobs, it also likely means lots of time sitting at a desk.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to make your time at work a little less damaging to your health. Even better, these steps can also make you more productive and feel better throughout the day. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Second chance New Year’s resolutions

 

It’s hard to believe, but summer is winding down and a new school year has begun. As teachers, students, and parents know, this is the real beginning of the new year. For those of us involved in education, the start of a new school year is a perfect time to make goals for the upcoming year, whether they are related to school or not.

This is a lot like making New Year’s resolutions on January first. Hopefully, you are still on track with the resolutions you made. Sadly, research suggests that only 8% of people actually achieve their goal (more data here).

There are a host of reasons for this. Some of the most common resolutions—quitting smoking, losing weight, and getting in shape—are also some of the most difficult behaviors to change because they require making significant lifestyle modifications. To make things worse, many people set unrealistic goals or try to take on too much at once.

Many people who fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions this year will recycle them next year and try again. In fact, most people who manage to successfully quit smoking or lose weight have tried many times in the past. Sometimes experience, even a bad experience, is the best way to learn what does and doesn’t work for you.

But there is no need to wait until 2023 to restart your stalled New Year’s resolutions or finally get around to doing what you planned months ago. Setting a date to begin a behavior change is an important step in the process so, why not make the end of summer and the start of a new school year the time to revisit your resolutions and try again?

Here is some advice to help make this second chance to start or restart your New Year’s resolutions successful.

Be realistic. Many people fail to keep their resolutions simply because they don’t set realistic goals or aren’t realistic about what it will take to meet those goals. For example, running a marathon is an ambitious goal for almost anyone, especially someone who doesn’t exercise at all. A resolution to work up to walking or jogging five days per week, with a goal of completing a 5k run/walk is more achievable.

Focus on learning. Making most health behavior changes involves learning as much as doing. Something as simple as eating healthier meals requires learning about the nutrients that make some foods healthier than others, learning to read food labels to select healthy foods, and learning how to cook and prepare healthy meals. If your resolution is to learn about healthy meals, you will be able to achieve that goal and be well on your way to eating a healthier diet.

Manage your time. Most health improvement projects require taking time to learn about, implement, and maintain those healthy behaviors. If you resolve to manage your time to include exercise or meal preparation in your daily schedule you will be much more likely to meet your goals. Trying to add these new activities as “extras” to your already busy day will inevitably lead to them getting squeezed out.

Plan ahead. Most people already know that changing health behaviors can be challenging, even under the best circumstances. It’s no wonder that holidays, travel, and other life events can complicate or even derail an otherwise successful diet or exercise program. Make it your resolution to think about what you can do before, during, and after these (and other) disruptions occur to keep yourself on track.

Hopefully these steps will help you keep your resolutions, achieve your goals, and make this a happy, healthy year. As a bonus, you can take January 1, 2023 off!


 

The most important meal of the day is also the sweetest: It’s candy and soda for breakfast!

Eating a healthy breakfast provides energy to start the day and is important for weight control. In children, a healthy breakfast is essential for proper growth and development and is linked to improved attention and learning in school. Breakfast is often thought of as the most important meal of the day, for good reason. Unfortunately, many common breakfast foods are more similar to candy and soda than a healthy meal to start the day. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Healthy back to school, part 2

Last week I wrote about the importance of physical activity and good nutrition for growth, learning, and development. However, most schools do little to provide meaningful opportunities for activity during the day. Similarly, nutrition education is lacking and the quality of food provided in most schools is poor.

To be clear, this is not the fault of teachers or individual school leaders, who are limited in what they can do by local, state, and federal requirements. Knowing that good nutrition and physical activity support health and academic success, families are held responsible for teaching these topics at home. Here are a few suggestions from my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard to help make everyone happier and healthier this school year.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s back to school time. Here’s what kids will be missing (again) this year.

Today is the first day of school for many children in our area. Students, parents, and teachers are starting another school year filled with opportunities for children to learn and grow through math and science, reading and writing, and art and music. To be sure, this is time well spent since these subjects help kids build a strong foundation that will help them succeed in school and beyond, something that is widely understood and appreciated.

Physical activity and good nutrition have long been recognized as essential for promoting good health in adults and children. More and more research suggests that these behaviors can have beneficial effects beyond health, including how we perform both physically and mentally. The emphasis here is on children in school, but it applies to adults, too. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week, just in time for the first day of school here.

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Children should also learn about good nutrition and physical activity, since both good health and good education are essential for lifelong happiness and success. In most schools, though, most kids won’t experience much meaningful education about nutrition, activity, and health.

In fact, opportunities for children to be active in school, either through formal physical education or more informal play and recess, has declined over the years. And good nutrition isn’t likely to get much classroom time at any level and the food served in most schools hardly sends a positive message about healthy eating. These are missed opportunities!

Unfortunately, taking time for activity and good nutrition is seen as a luxury or a distraction to learning in most schools. Far from being a distraction, physical activity and healthy eating are prerequisites for learning and academic achievement. In short, these often ignored factors can help make sure children are ready to learn.

The message that children need to eat breakfast before school is well-known and many schools offer breakfast for kids who don’t get it at home.  Eating a good breakfast improves cognitive function, alertness, and academic performance in students of all ages. It should be no surprise, then, that skipping breakfast impairs cognitive function and academic achievement. This is one reason that many schools offer breakfast to start the day or include a healthy mid-morning snack.

Similarly, lunch is an important part of the school day. In addition to providing energy to support growth and learning, these meals also present an opportunity to teach children about healthy eating since formal nutrition education isn’t part of the curriculum at most schools.

The same is true for physical activity. Research shows that activity can positively affect several factors that are related to academic performance. These include skills (attention, concentration, and memory), behaviors (classroom conduct and homework completion), and academic achievement (test scores and grades). This is particularly relevant for children with ADHD, but the effects can be seen in all kids. These positive changes can maximize class time and lead to improvements in academic achievement, especially math and reading test scores.

The effect of physical activity on brain may be due to physiological adaptations that are associated with enhanced attention, better information processing and recall, and improved attitudes. And it doesn’t seem to matter if the activity is delivered through physical education classes, classroom activity, recess (especially outdoors), or extracurricular activity—it’s the movement that matters!

Regular physical activity is also essential for good health, growth, and physical development, including maintaining a healthy body weight. This last point is important given the epidemic of childhood obesity and related health problems, including “adult” diseases like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Current recommendations call for all children to get at least 60 minutes of activity per day. This can include activity at school from physical education classes, recess, other classroom activities as well as games, sports, and unstructured play. Unfortunately, most kids don’t get nearly enough activity at school and many aren’t active at home.

Schools have a unique opportunity to use physical activity and nutrition to promote health, support academic achievement, and teach healthy habits. Since formal nutrition education is missing from most curriculums and PE programs are being reduced or cut completely, schools must be creative to incorporate these essential subjects.

A way around this problem is to make sure children get a chance to move and play, ideally multiple times during the day. This is what recess is for. Teachers can also incorporate activity and nutrition education in the classroom and get away from the idea that kids must be sitting still to learn. As research shows, quite the opposite is true!

The point is that good nutrition and physical activity support academic success and including them in schools is a natural fit. Research and practical experience shows that nutrition and physical activity have a positive effect on learning. In many ways, health education is just as important as reading and math, topics schools don’t trust parents to teach on their own, to future success.

Some argue that parents, not schools, should be responsible for promoting physical activity and good nutrition. I disagree! Since nutrition and activity improve academic performance, schools are the perfect place to teach about these aspects of a healthy lifestyle. There is also no guarantee that children will have opportunities to eat well or be physically active when they go home, so school may be the best chance for many kids to get these benefits.

Given that most children will get only limited opportunities for physical activity and good nutrition at school, these topics necessarily become “homework.” Since most of us could stand to be more active and eat healthier ourselves, we should start by modeling good habits for our children and grandchildren.

Going for a walk in the neighborhood, going to the playground, or doing yard work along with preparing healthy meals and snacks is a good start. Parents and community members should also express their concerns to lawmakers and administrators in an effort to get more health education included in the school day. We should treat nutrition and activity like we treat other subjects. How would you feel if your child’s school wasn’t teaching math?


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On second thought: Nutrition advice that seemed like a good idea at the time.

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 might be recommended as healthy. 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 research 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 didn’t work 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 may 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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Recovering from vacation: getting back in shape after time away from the gym.

After two years of staying close to home you may have taken a vacation this summer. Maybe you had an active summer and maintained your fitness.  More likely, you took relaxing on your vacation a bit too seriously and fell out of your normal exercise routine.

Athletes have long known that even a short break from training results in significant decreases in fitness and performance. You may have noticed this yourself after taking time off.  Research shows that taking time off from exercise can also have a negative impact on your health.

Let’s explore how and why this happens, and what you can do to prevent it.

Exhausted after workout


When you start an exercise program your body adapts in ways that improve your strength and endurance.

Your aerobic fitness and endurance are enhanced by both cardiac and muscle adaptations. Your heart actually gets larger and stronger to pump more blood to your muscles. Within the muscles there is an increase in the number of capillaries, the small blood vessels that deliver blood to the muscle, and mitochondria, the part of the cell that produces ATP, the energy used by your muscles. Together, these adaptations allow the muscle to produce more ATP without fatigue, allowing you to exercise a higher intensity for a longer time without fatigue.

If you do resistance training (and you should!), you get stronger and your muscles get bigger, called hypertrophy. Lifting weights causes microscopic damage in the muscle, which leads to inflammation and soreness. This sounds bad, but your muscles respond by rebuilding stronger, allowing you to generate more force and causing the muscle to grow in size.

These adaptations are also a major reason that exercise makes you healthier, too. Your blood pressure, blood glucose, and blood cholesterol are all improved because of how your heart, blood vessels, and muscles respond to exercise. Additionally, exercise results in changes to certain hormones and how your body stores and uses or stores glucose and fat. The end result is that exercise has far-reaching beneficial effects on your health that simply can’t be matched by any other intervention, including medications.

When you stop exercising for a period of time you start to lose these adaptations. This causes both your fitness and health to decline. And it happens quickly, in as little as two weeks!

Research shows that regularly active adults who suddenly limit their usual activity for two weeks experience significantly impaired blood glucose control, increased fat storage, and lower fitness. It is important to note that in both studies these changes do not fully return to baseline after resuming normal activity for an additional two weeks. This means that the benefits of exercise are lost quickly and took a longer time to return to normal.

This is also true for aerobic fitness and muscular strength. Research done on athletes who stop training, perhaps due to an injury, shows that fitness declines rapidly with the first two weeks. Worse, it can take many more weeks to regain those fitness losses. You may not be a competitive athlete, but the same principle applies to you when you take time off from exercise.

Make it your goal to maintain some level of activity, even when you are on vacation. Time off can mean doing less, but it doesn’t have to mean doing nothing. Even a little exercise can help you maintain your fitness, keep you healthy, and make it easier when you return to the gym.


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The caveman guide to health: Going Paleo means more than the diet.

What does a caveman know about nutrition and health? If you have been paying attention to a recent health trend, the popular Paleo diet, being more like a caveman might just be the answer to good health. It turns out that there is good reason to think that following at least some of the caveman’s advice is beneficial. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Wooly Mammoth

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The case of the missing beach body

Now that summer has arrived you may have noticed that your eating and exercise habits over the past several months (or years!) 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 are motivated to get back in shape now. 

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 focus on 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 lose fat while building your strength, endurance, and flexibility. 

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

Photo by vjapratama from Pexels

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 and losing fitness, either quickly or more slowly over years. Understanding what caused these changes is critical for reversing them.

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 (and men, too), 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!

Go for a walk while you fly!

If you travel for work or have vacation plans this summer that may mean spending time on planes and in airports. It usually also means a lot of sitting, especially now with so many flight delays and cancellations. But it doesn’t have to. In fact, you can easily find ways to include physical activity in your air travel plans. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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