Let’s Agree to Agree About Food

March is National Nutrition Month, an annual event created by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to focus on developing healthy eating and physical activity habits. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics represents Registered Dietician Nutritionists and other nutrition professionals and is an excellent source for information about food, nutrition, and health.

I will share some general advice about healthy eating here but remember that a Registered Dietician is your best resource for evaluating your diet and making changes to meet your individual needs for health and performance.

Here are five ways to improve your diet almost everyone agrees on, from my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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How to be smart about cutting carbs

I had lunch with a friend at a casual Mexican place recently. He ordered a burrito without the tortilla (too many carbs), but ate a whole basket of corn chips. Many people make this same choice…cutting out carbohydrates in one way but eating more in another.

To be sure, most of us could easily eat less carbohydrates, but I think we are focusing on the wrong carbohydrate sources. Perhaps we shouldn’t focus on the tortilla as much as the chips that go with it.

I think of this in terms of “necessary” and “unnecessary” carbs. In the example above, the tortilla is a necessary part of the burrito, but the chips are an unnecessary addition. If people are interested in cutting out carbs, skipping the chips make more sense than forgoing the tortilla. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Celebrate American Heart month by learning more about your heart.

February is American Heart Month, with a focus on encouraging all of us to make heart-healthy choices to reduce cardiovascular disease risk. I thought that sharing some information about the heart, how it works, and how to keep it healthy would be an appropriate way to celebrate. This is also the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Are those chocolate hearts you got for Valentine’s Day healthy?

Today is Valentine’s Day so you may have been the lucky recipient of a box of chocolates. Hopefully you enjoyed it! Of course, eating too many sweets, including chocolate, isn’t a good idea. But eating certain types of chocolate has been linked to some health benefits.

The idea that chocolate may be healthy is no doubt welcome news for chocoholics. But it may leave you wondering if eating chocolate really is healthy. The answer depends on what you mean by chocolate and what you mean by healthy.

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Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

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This is your brain on football: The Super Bowl, concussions, and CTE.

Since the Super Bowl is this coming weekend, football is a trending topic sparking conversations about the game itself and the halftime show as well as the retirement of a famous quarterback and the renaming of the Washington football team. Football has also been in the news for another more serious reason—the association with traumatic brain injury. Over the years, it has been reported that several former NFL players suffered from brain injury as a result of concussions sustained over years of playing. Some players have even retired early in their careers in an attempt to avoid such injury. Far from being an NFL problem, the issue of sports-related concussion is something that should concern young athletes who play football and other sports, as well as coaches and parents. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Concussion


Football, especially at the professional and college level, has long been known for violent collisions. An obvious concern is that players could sustain a career-ending injury and head injuries, including concussions, are particularly worrisome. In particular, repeated concussions can cause a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The 2015 motion picture Concussion brought this issue to the attention of a wider audience, but many sports medicine professionals have been aware of this problem for years. A recent report suggests that CTE may be far more common than previously thought.

A concussion is caused by the brain moving forcibly inside the skull as the result of the head striking an object (another player or the ground) or simply the head moving violently without hitting anything. Because of this, concussions and sub-concussive injuries can occur even when an athlete doesn’t lose consciousness or appear to be injured. This can put athletes at increased risk for multiple injuries in a season—or even in a single game. This last part is critical, because much of the permanent damage comes from a second concussion sustained before the first has healed completely.

New rules banning helmet-to-helmet contact are part of an effort to reduce the risk of concussions. Off the field, players are subjected to special screening to detect concussions, assess recovery, and determine if it is safe to return to play. Improvements in equipment, including helmet technology that can monitor potentially concussive hits, may also help reduce the risks of serious injury.

Despite these efforts, some experts believe that football is simply too dangerous and have called for tackling to be banned. These concerns are more frequently expressed when it comes to youth football. The evidence that accumulated brain trauma sustained by young athletes can have immediate and lasting effects has led some communities, schools, and even whole states to consider banning tackling in youth football.

This is complicated by the fact that other sports also have a high risk of concussion, including hockey and soccer. In fact, heading has been banned in some competitive youth soccer leagues. And there is the fact that all sports have some risk of injury, including concussions. Furthermore, youth sports, including football, provide a great many young people with opportunities to be active, promote growth and development, enhance academic achievement, and have fun. The effect of banning tackling in football or heading in soccer on the health, social, and educational opportunities for young athletes is unknown and should be considered.

Whether policies like these are practical or not remains to be seen. In the meantime, there are steps we can take to make all sports safer for young athletes. We should make sure that coaches are educating players how to compete as safely as possible instead of emphasizing winning at all costs. We should also advocate for having certified athletic trainers at all games and practices to teach players safe techniques, assess and treat injuries, and ensure appropriate return to play. Most of all, we should be mindful of the risks of playing sports while encouraging kids of all ages to be active, play, and have fun!


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Sports science in the 2022 Winter Olympics

The winter Olympics start later this week so we will soon be seeing some remarkable athletic performances. The competitors are among the fittest and most highly trained athletes in the world, both in terms of laboratory measures of fitness and in subjective evaluations of skill. Competing in the Olympics requires years of focused, intense training, and some good luck. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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First, let’s look at the fitness. This is most evident in the endurance events like cross-country skiing and speed skating. The key to performance in long-duration events like these is for the muscle to contract repeatedly and forcefully without fatigue. In order to do so, the muscle must have a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients. These nutrients are delivered through the blood, which is pumped by the heart. The muscle takes up and uses these nutrients to produce ATP, the form of energy used by the muscle.

After months and years of endurance training the heart gets bigger resulting in the ejection of more blood to the muscle. Within the muscle 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 most of the ATP. Together, these adaptations allow the muscle to produce more ATP without fatigue, allowing the athlete to sustain a higher intensity (skiing speed, for example) for a longer time without fatigue.

While all Olympic athletes are very physically fit, some events rely more heavily on skill, including figure skating and freestyle snow boarding. For example, in figure skating completing a triple axel involves leaping into the air, spinning three and a half times, and landing backwards. On a 4 mm wide blade. On ice. Or think about the triple cork 1440, a snowboarding trick that involves flipping three times in the air while doing four 360-degree turns.

The athletes who are able to successfully complete these maneuvers have practiced for years to develop the skill and confidence needed to perform them consistently in competition. These are some of the most obvious displays of athletic skill, but all events require good technique. The development of skill in addition to fitness is the main reason why athletes specialize in one area and you don’t see people competing in both downhill skiing and speed skating, for example.

Of course, there is a psychological aspect to Olympic performances. The motivation to put in the training time alone is remarkable. Even more impressive is the ability to focus on an event despite the distractions of the crowds, media, and pressure of competition. This combination of physical and mental preparation is rare—as rare as Olympic gold medalists!

But is training alone sufficient for Olympic-level performance? Could anyone who trains enough make it to the Olympics? The answer is no, because there is another important factor in athletic performance—luck. Luck refers to genetics, which determine potential for attributes like heart size and muscle characteristics. As much as 50% of performance in some events is attributed to genetics. One sports physiologist famously answered the question, “How do I become an Olympic champion?” with “pick different parents!”

Even though most of us will never become Olympic champions we can still experience many of the same benefits of training. All athletes train to develop strength, endurance, and flexibility, which is exactly what we should do, too. And those attributes will help us perform better at work (and play) and help us live a longer healthier life. It will also help us appreciate the training, dedication, and good luck that the athletes bring to the Olympic games.


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Lose big by not winning! Why weight loss competitions probably won’t help you lose weight and what to do instead.

There are numerous community and workplace weight loss competitions and fitness challenges underway in our area right now. These programs are a popular way to start making health improvements with friends or coworkers. Many people find the competition aspect of these programs to be motivating. Even those who are reluctant to start a diet or exercise program are more likely to give it a try. But this raises the question, are “biggest loser” type weight loss programs effective at promoting lasting weight loss? This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Fitness for Community Service

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a time to celebrate the birthday and reflect on the accomplishments and legacy of Mr. King. It is also a  on which people are encouraged to use their day off from work and school to volunteer in their community. Individuals and groups across the country participate in community service, with some making this their first-time volunteer effort and many more continuing a year-round commitment to service.

You can maximize your impact in community service activities by being fit and healthy. To be sure, there are ways that people of physical abilities can contribute, but many service opportunities require a baseline level of fitness to participate. And it is certainly more enjoyable to volunteer if you aren’t being pushed to your limits. In fact, some service activities are similar in exertion to many forms of exercise and some may be consistent with maximal exercise. Unfortunately, the common pattern of inactivity and obesity can limit people’s ability to function optimally at school, work, or in leisure-time activities, including community service.This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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What’s Trending in Fitness This Year

The fitness industry is constantly evolving and responding to the needs of consumers. This year was no exception, especially considering the continued disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are the top 10 fitness trends to look for in 2022, compiled by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

The fitness industry is constantly evolving and responding to the needs of consumers. This year was no exception, especially considering the continued disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are the top 10 fitness trends to look for in 2022, compiled by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

The biggest fitness trend for 2022 is wearable fitness technology. From activity trackers to 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. Make sure to pick the device that meets your needs… and your budget, as they can get expensive!

Second on the list is home exercise gyms. With fitness facilities closed, many people opted to build their own at home. Home gyms can range from a single piece of exercise equipment to a set of weights to a fully equipped room that replaces the need for a fitness facility. Your home gym should match your goals, available space, and budget.

Next is outdoor activities. When fitness centers closed, many people moved their exercise outdoors. Not only are walking, running, cycling, and hiking great ways to get in shape, being outdoors makes appropriately physically distanced group exercise a safer option. Aside from getting a great workout, there are additional physical and mental health benefits from being active outdoors.

Strength training with free weights is fourth on the list. In addition to building or toning muscles, strength training can make everyday activities easier, help maintain bone mass, and promote weight loss. While weight machines can make you stronger, free weights promote bigger improvements and can incorporated into other types of exercise.

Number five is exercise for weight loss. Usually combined with some form of dietary changes, exercise can add to weight loos and prevent regain. This traditionally includes aerobic exercise, but now there is an emphasis on maintaining muscle and building strength.

Personal training is sixth on the list. One-on-one training can help you learn proper techniques, try new exercises, and keep you accountable. You should look for a certified personal trainer who has experience working with people like you, so ask for recommendations and references to get the best match.

Next on the list is high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which uses repeated cycles of short, maximal or near-maximal exercise alternated with short rest periods. These HIIT sessions typically last less than 30 minutes but lead to fitness improvements that exceed those of traditional longer-duration training.

Eighth is body weight training, and for good reason. Popular because it requires minimal equipment, body weight training focuses on dynamic movements to build strength and endurance. This type of training can be done almost anywhere, which is good news for people who are moved their workouts from the gym to their home.

Number nine is online live and on-demand exercise classes. After access to most fitness facilities was restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic, exercise professionals responded by offering synchronous and pre-recorded individual and group training sessions online. Using streaming video platforms, people were able to work out from home with expert guidance and real-time feedback.

Rounding out the top ten is health and wellness coaching, which combines behavior and lifestyle modification for a holistic approach to improve health and well being. Coaching can be delivered individually or in small groups, either in person or virtually to provide goal setting, support, and encouragement.

Whether you decide to follow a fitness trend or not, make sure you dedicate time every day to be active. Health and fitness will always be trendy!

Ready, set, go! Set a goal to run or walk in a road race this spring.

Most of us could benefit from getting more exercise and, with the new year just beginning, this is a perfect time to get started. You can meet minimum health recommendations with a 30-minute brisk walk five days per week. You can get even greater fitness benefits by exercising for longer or by doing more vigorous activity, like running. A good goal is to be active every day for at least 30 minutes and include longer or more vigorous exercise sessions when possible.

Many people are motivated by having a goal to begin or add to an exercise program. You may find that training for an event is more rewarding than exercising for the sake of being active. An excellent goal is to prepare to walk or run in a local race. Don’t let the word “race” scare you. Most people who enter these events have the goal of finishing, not winning. That should be your goal, too.

Now is a great time to start training for your first race. The weather is an incentive to be active outdoors because it’s not too hot to be enjoyable. There are several events in our community in the upcoming months that are excellent opportunities for first timers and more seasoned racers. Many events are linked to charities, so they are also good ways to raise money for a good cause.

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One example is our area is the Run United event on April 30, 2022, which consists of a 5K (5 kilometers or 3.1 miles), 10K (10 kilometers or 6.2 miles), and a half marathon (13.1 miles). Almost everyone can participate in one of these events with some preparation, so it is a perfect event for the whole family.

If you are starting to walk for exercise, completing a 5K walk is a good goal. Start with a target of 20 minutes of walking per day. You can split this up into 10 minute segments, if necessary. After you are comfortable walking 20 minutes at a time, increase to 30 minutes per day. Continue increasing your walking time until you are up to 45-60 minutes per day, about how long it takes most people to walk three miles. If you already do some walking, gradually build up to this goal.

Maybe you already walk and are interested in trying running. Preparing for a 5K or 10K is great motivation. Start by adding some jogging into your walking routine. Try alternating 5 minutes of jogging with 10 minutes of walking. Once you are comfortable with that, try 5 minutes of jogging for every 5 minutes of walking. Increase the duration of the running intervals over time, until you can run for at least 30 minutes for a 5K or 60 minutes for a 10K consecutively. If running three or six miles is too much, you can always complete those races by alternating walking and running. Completing the half marathon will require more dedicated training, building up to running (or a run/walk combination) for over two hours.  To reduce the risk of injury you should progress slowly, whether you are walking or running. This is particularly important if you are building up to a longer event, like a 10K or half marathon.

Even if you don’t plan to participate in one of these events, the opportunity to get outdoors for a walk or run on a nice day is reason enough to be active. Use this as an opportunity to get your friends and family moving with you. Kids can ride their bike while you walk or run and you can push younger children in a stroller. Older children may want to walk or run with you, and don’t forget to bring your dog!


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