Failing Grades for Physical Activity (Again)

It’s probably no surprise that the majority of Americans are not active enough. Only about half of adults meet even the minimum recommendation for physical activity of 30 minutes per day, five days per week. Compounding this problem is the fact that many people spend much of their time at work and home being sedentary—some spend over 12 hours per day sitting!

A low level of physical activity is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and, of course, obesity in adults. Becoming more active is probably the most important change a sedentary person can make to improve their health. The impact is similar to a smoker who quits.

What may be surprising is that this is a problem for children, too. Less than half of children ages 6–11 are active for 60 minutes per day. Among teenagers, it is less than 20%! The health effects of too little activity in kids is similar to that in adults.

The impact of low physical activity on children’s health now and in the future as well as new statistics on activity in kids is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Exercise musicology

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

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

Exercise music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Boo! Since today is Halloween, 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:

candy corn


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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Fall into fitness by being active outdoors

Walking is a great way to be active to help you control your weight, increase your fitness, and improve your health. The most common form of exercise for most people is walking, and for good reason: walking doesn’t require any special equipment (beyond comfortable shoes) or skills, and you can do it almost anywhere.

You can meet basic physical activity recommendations by walking briskly for 30 minutes most days of the week. Even this amount of walking can lead to a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers as well as improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of well being.

Now that cooler fall weather is finally here (at least in our area), being active outdoors is more enjoyable. October is a great time to get outdoors and go for a walk! That is the spirit of Walktober, an initiative adopted by health organizations, companies, and communities around the globe.

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Beyond Fitness: Hidden Benefits of Exercise

There is no question that exercise is essential for achieving and maintaining physical fitness, losing weight and keeping it off, and preventing and treating conditions like diabetes and heart disease. What you may not know is that exercise can improve your health in ways that you may not be able to notice in the gym or on the scale. Here are a few surprising ways that exercise can improve your health.

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Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

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Get out of debt—health debt.

There is a lot of talk about debt in the news these days. This includes student loan debt, rising mortgage rates leading to greater debt to buy a home, and debt from simply spending too much and not saving enough. For most individuals and families, this situation has been years in the making, has no simple solution, and will have an impact lasting years into the future. Reducing debt is essential for achieving financial health.

This is not the only type of debt we face—many people are also in health debt. Poor eating habits and increasingly sedentary lifestyles have led to an obesity epidemic. The problem is widespread, since most Americans are overweight, fewer than half of US adults meet minimum recommendations for physical activity, and about one in six adults smoke. Alone and especially in combination, these poor health habits are the major causes of the most common, and preventable, diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.

Even if we have not been diagnosed with diabetes or heart disease or other health problems, our lifestyle has put us on that path. For most of us, small changes in what we eat or how active we are have added up over the years to create a condition of poor health. Since our overall health and potential complications get worse over time, the longer we are overweight and inactive, the worse our health is likely to be in the future. This health debt is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Ever feel like the world is working against you. It’s our toxic activity environment

Last week I introduced the idea that we live in a “toxic environment,” which provides easy access to high-calorie, unhealthy, inexpensive food and promotes physical inactivity.  The focus was on the toxic food environment, so now it is time to explore our toxic activity environment which makes easy to be inactive and can discourage activity. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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We live in a toxic food environment. Here are some tips to help you survive.

The term “toxic environment” was popularized years ago to refer to conditions that promote the consumption of high-calorie, unhealthy food and encourage being physically inactive. This combination is thought to be a major factor that contributes to obesity and other chronic diseases, so understanding both aspects is important. For now, let’s focus on our toxic food environment, which I do in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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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.

Parr at desk 2-11-16

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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!