Your park prescription for outdoor activity this summer.

You probably know that exercise is good for you and that daily physical activity—going for a walk, for example—is associated with improved health. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of physical activity. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of well-being.

What you may not know is that where you exercise matters, too. Exercise outdoors, especially in nature, can be particularly beneficial. This is not surprising given that being active in a natural environment has been shown to have an impact on mental health. Indeed, activity outdoors leads to enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger, and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity may improve attention in adults and children. I have written about outdoor exercise in the past, but now that it is summer, an ideal time to get outdoors, this a good time to revisit some the benefits of being active in nature.

walk-in-woods


The National Park Prescription (Park Rx) Initiative is designed to encourage people to make the outdoors their destination for exercise and family activities. In fact, April 24th was National Park Rx Day. The idea is to promote access to and use of parks, trails, and other green spaces and highlight the health, environmental, social, and economic benefits of having these resources in our communities. The benefits of parks can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of age or ability, so enhancing public lands should be a high priority.

This isn’t new of course, but it’s nice to have a reminder. At playgrounds you commonly see as many children playing in the trees that surround the swings, slides, and monkey bars as you see on the playground equipment. Grassy areas serve as picnic spots, impromptu sports fields, and places to run and play. Trails through the woods offer a place to hike and bike as well as trees to explore and climb. Lakes, rivers, and streams (called water trails) are perfect for rowing, paddling, and swimming. And many public parks and green spaces have paved trails so that people of all ages in strollers or wheelchairs can enjoy the outdoors.

Fortunately, there many excellent parks and natural areas to explore in the Aiken area. Aiken State Park, several county and city parks, and neighborhood playgrounds make it easy to find a place to be active outdoors. There is no better place to experience nature than the vast Hitchcock Woods, located right in the heart of Aiken. Community organizations like the GAIT Foundation are dedicated to expanding access to natural areas for all types of outdoor activates. This makes it easy to find a place to walk, run, bike, hike, climb, swim, paddle, push, or ride.

It also makes it easy to follow the Park Rx. Being active is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health and wellbeing. Activity in a natural environment has additional physical, mental, and social health benefits. Share these benefits with others by planning outdoor activities with your family and friends. For maximum effect, you should do this as often as possible—everyday is best. And it doesn’t need to be a day-long excursion. Even taking your dog for a short walk, playing outside with the kids, or doing yard work are good ways to reap the benefits of being active outdoors.


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Eat slow, then fast: When and how you matter as much as what you eat for weight control.

What you eat is an essential part of achieving and maintaining good health. What you may not know is that when and how you eat can be just as important. This is especially true if your goal is to lose weight. Here are two ways to change the way you eat to help you lose weight and keep it off. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

alcohol blur cuisine dining

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com


First, eating more slowly can help limit the amount of food you eat. Perhaps your mother admonished you to “slow down” at meals when you were young. This was good advice, for both practical and physiological reasons.

As an aside, your mother may also have told you to “chew your food.” too. This was probably to remind you to eat more slowly.  Almost 100 years ago Horace Fletcher recommended a process that involved chewing each bite of food 100 times. “Fletcherizing,” as it was called, was a way to reduce how much people ate, among other more dubious health claims.

Your appetite is regulated by a host of factors, including the presence of food in your stomach. As you eat, your stomach fills, triggering the release of hormones that signal your brain to reduce your appetite. The result is that as your stomach fills, you feel less hungry. Eating quickly, like many of us do, allows you to take in lots of calories before your brain gets the message that you are full.

Practically, eating slower means you will eat fewer calories during mealtime. If you slow down at meals, you start to feel full before you eat as much. Research shows that this can lead to lower calorie intake during the meal. In addition to controlling how much food you consume, eating more slowly is a good way to enjoy meals, both the food and the company, more fully.

Second, extending the time between meals or limiting eating to fewer hours per day may affect your metabolism in ways that may help with weight control. There are two main ways to incorporate fasting into your diet. Intermittent fasting involves having some days on which you don’t eat. An example is the 5:2 program, in which you include two water-only fasting days per week. While this is effective for modest weight loss and improved glucose and lipid metabolism, it isn’t easy to do.

Time-restricted feeding, in which you limit your eating to a 4 to 8 hour period each day with a 16–20 hour fast, may be easier to follow. the concept of not eating between meals, especially between dinner and breakfast, isn’t new, but research shows that having a longer fasting period each day may help you lose weight, even without counting calories.

According to a recent study, people who followed a time-restricted feeding schedule in which they were allowed to eat anything they wanted for 8 hours each day for 12 weeks. They were compared to a group that could eat whenever they wanted but were instructed to maintain their weight.

After 12 weeks, the time-restricted feeding group ate about 300 fewer calories per day, leading to a modest six-pound weight loss. By contrast, the participants who were supposed to maintain their weight did just that, with no changes in calories consumed.

This suggests that limiting eating time without focusing on calories or the specific foods eaten can lead to some weight loss. One of the biggest problems people have with changing their diet to lose weight is figuring out what to eat to reduce calorie consumption. While making dietary changes is an essential part of weight loss and weight maintenance, a good first step might be to simply limit eating time to fewer hours per day.

Even without this evidence, adopting a fasting period between dinner and breakfast, which should be about 12 hours, seems prudent. At the very least, it will keep you from snacking in the evening, which almost certainly involves unhealthy choices. And as you try to make healthier food choices, consider eating more slowly and making dinner the end of your eating day.


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How and why: Cool down after exercise.

I have written previously about warming up before exercise. This frequently skipped part of a workout is important to increase blood flow to your heart and muscles as well as increasing your body temperature. A good warm up can also enhance your focus on the exercise session, which could improve your performance. Hopefully, you are spending 5-10 minutes doing a light-to-moderate activity like walking or jogging before you begin an exercise session.

You should also focus on what you do after exercise to cool down and recover. Cooling down after exercise is important for several reasons that can impact both safety and performance. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Cycling class


An important reason for active cooldown is to prevent a condition called post-exercise hypotension, a drop in blood pressure that could lead to dizziness or fainting. When you exercise there is a huge increase in blood flow to your active muscles, bringing oxygen and nutrients as well as removing wastes. For most types of exercise, this involves blood being pumped down to your legs. This is aided by the blood vessels dilating, or getting wider, boosting blood flow.

The return of blood from your legs is enhanced by your contracting muscles pushing the blood back up towards your heart, a phenomenon called the skeletal muscle pump. If you suddenly stop exercising and stand still, the pumping action of the muscles is lost and blood can pool in your legs. This can lead to less blood flow up to your brain, resulting in lower blood pressure, dizziness, and fainting. This is most relevant for upright exercise like walking, running, cycling, or any exercise in which your head is above your heart, but it can also happen following resistance exercise, too.

Continuing to move at a lower speed after exercise can maintain the blood flow back to your heart and prevent this from happening. After a few minutes, the blood vessels return to their normal state and muscles activity is no longer needed to return blood to the heart. There are other physiological factors involved, and lower (but not too low) blood pressure may persist for several hours following exercise. This can occur in everyone, from young, healthy people to older adults with high blood pressure. In fact, this is part of the reason that exercise is effective for reducing blood pressure in people with hypertension.

A practical reason for active cool-down is that many people feel off-balance after hard exercise, especially on a treadmill. Most fitness center employees have seen clients suddenly stop a treadmill and step off, only to feel shaky and lose their balance. Walking at a slower speed before getting off a treadmill can help prevent this.

Active recovery is also important for performance in athletes, especially if they have back-to-back events. During intense exercise, muscles can accumulate wastes, including lactate, a by-product of energy production during intense exercise that can contribute to fatigue. These wastes are removed from the muscle after exercise, but research shows they are removed more quickly during an active cool-down period. Again, this is mostly relevant for athletes who need to recover quickly after a training session or event.

Given the benefits of cooling down after a workout, you should take the time for active recovery. At a minimum, a few minutes can help prevent a drop in blood pressure that could lead to dizziness or fainting. Your goal should be 5–10 minutes of less intense exercise to cool down. Together with a similar time for warming up, this will add time to your workouts, but the benefits will make that time well spent!


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Summer gains and losses: Maintaining good health and academic success over summer vacation.

Summer vacation is a rite of passage for children. Long summer days to play, go to camp, and relax are an important part of growing up. But many educators and health professionals are concerned about what gets lost, and what gets gained, when kids are away from school. This is something that I have written about before, but now that school is out it is worth revisiting, which I do in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

kids-jumping


Summer learning loss is a real concern. It is estimated that children lose, on average, two months of reading skills and one month of overall learning over summer break. Those losses must be made up when school starts again in the fall, so teachers spend about six weeks re-teaching material that was covered in the previous grade. That is six weeks that children are not learning at grade level, which certainly has an impact on achievement over time.

Not all kids are affected equally. Much of the disparity in summer learning losses falls along socioeconomic lines. Some children have more opportunities than others to continue learning over the summer through formal educational programs and camps and informal encouragement to read.

To address this issue, many institutions implement summer “school” through classes, on-line learning programs, and encouraging reading at home. Some target the students who need them the most while other programs are instituted for all children. In fact, all three of my kids completed online learning programs last summer.

Learning losses are not the only concern with an extended break from school. Many children gain more weight over the summer than during the rest of the year. Furthermore, fitness gains made during the school year are frequently lost over the summer.

While poor nutrition and a lack of activity in schools is a real concern, many children get more exercise and eat better at school than they do at home. Being at home over the summer can lead to poor eating habits—too much unhealthy food or not enough food in general—and lack of chances to be active.

This is important because the combination of poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and obesity has physical, psychological, and social consequences for children that frequently persist into adulthood. Overweight and obese children, especially those who are inactive, are at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even stroke – conditions usually associated with adulthood.

Even if an overweight child does not have these conditions now, he or she is likely on that path. In fact, many experts predict that children born today will be the first generation in history to have a shorter lifespan than their parents due to obesity-related diseases that begin in childhood.

Children who are overweight are also more likely to suffer other consequences including lower self-esteem, social functioning, and academic performance. Overweight children are also less likely to play sports or participate in other forms of physical activity, which creates a cycle leading to poorer health and, potentially, poorer academic success.

Now that school is almost out for the summer, this is a critical time of year to focus on good nutrition, physical activity, and continued reading and learning to help prevent a summertime slump in health and academics.

Schools can only do so much, so adults should model good diet, activity, and reading behaviors themselves. A good place to start is by turning off the TV and reading a book or going outside to play. It’s something all of us—adults and children—will benefit from.


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Keep your cool while enjoying outdoor activities this summer.

It’s that time of year again: school is out and the temperature and humidity are up. Since summer is officially underway it is a good time to revisit some common sense guidelines to make exercise, work, and play outdoors in the summer heat safe and enjoyable for your entire family. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

summer splash fun


  1. Drink plenty of fluids

When it’s hot you have to sweat to lose heat and maintain your body temperature. High humidity makes sweating less effective, so you sweat even more. Losing lots of water through sweating can lead to dehydration. At the very least, you probably will feel fatigued but in more severe cases dizziness, low blood pressure, and fainting can occur.

For this reason, it is important to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after your outdoor activity. As a general rule, a cup (8 oz.) of water every 15 minutes is sufficient for most people. Thirst is a good indicator of fluid needs, but you should take frequent breaks to rehydrate.

Make sure to remind kids to take breaks since they can get so busy playing that they forget. Water, juice, sports drinks, and other soft drinks are equally effective, so pick something you and your kids will drink.

 

  1. Take breaks

The longer you are active the hotter you will get and you may feel more fatigued because of the heat. Taking frequent breaks will give you a chance to rest, cool down, and get something to drink.

 

  1. Seek out shade

Being in the sun means that you will feel even hotter because you gain heat from the sun’s rays. Spending as much time as you can in the shade will help you stay cool. While this isn’t always practical for all activities, look for shady spots to take breaks.

Keep in mind that shady areas at will change throughout the day, so plan your trip to the park accordingly. Also be aware that direct sunlight can make outdoor surfaces, like playground equipment, very hot. This is another reason to find shady areas to play.

 

  1. Pick cool clothes

Lighter colored clothing will reduce heat gain from the sun. Synthetic fabrics that wick sweat from the skin can help keep you feel cooler, too. Some clothing is more resistant to UV rays than others, so look for a higher ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). Obviously, you need to find a balance between protecting your skin and allowing sweat and heat loss to keep you cool.

 

  1. Wear sunscreen

Sun exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer, and outdoor activity can increase the risk. Always use a broad-spectrum (both UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and apply—and reapply—it according to the instructions. You should also protect your eyes by wearing a hat or sunglasses.

 

  1. Avoid the hottest times of the day

Try to plan your outdoor activity in the morning or evening to avoid the hottest times of the day. Keep in mind that the highest temperatures often occur in the late afternoon or early evening, so right after work may not be the best time for outdoor activities. Early in the morning is probably the best time since it tends to be cooler and less humid.

 

You may not be able to plan all of your activities in the shade or when it is cooler. This is especially true for people who work outdoors. In these cases, drinking plenty of fluids and taking frequent breaks is particularly important. By taking the right precautions, though, you can still enjoy your favorite outdoor activities all summer long.


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How to pass your summer vacation fitness test.

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

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

Family beach vacation


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Should you worry about food additives? Yes, but…

Making healthier food choices is something that you should be thinking about every day, so this is a good opportunity to revisit some advice to help you make smart decisions. Eating more fruits and vegetables, limiting added sugar, and focusing on “real food” instead of processed, prepackaged meals and snacks are always good ideas. One reason to avoid processed foods, including restaurant meals, is to avoid food additives. While most food additives are probably safe, some may be harmful. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

food additives


If you have ever read the ingredients on a food package you no doubt realized that much of what we eat isn’t really food. Chemical additives are common in packaged foods as preservatives, coloring agents, flavor enhancers, and even vitamins and minerals. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since these chemicals allow food to last longer, look and taste more appealing, and provide essential nutrients. The assumption is that these additives have been tested and proven safe for us to consume. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many commonly used additives.

 

This may be surprising, but it isn’t new. In the late 1950s Congress required that new food additives must be proven safe before they could be used. That raised the question of what to do with additives that were already widely in use. Since people had been eating these additives with no apparent ill effects the decision was made to classify them as safe, and the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) list was created.

 

Now additives may be approved as GRAS by an expert panel without rigorous testing and FDA approval. One study found that in every case these reviewers worked directly for or had financial ties to the companies that manufactured the additives. This raises serious questions about the process and whether or not the chemicals added to our foods really are safe.

 

So, are the additives in our food safe? There is no simple answer to that question, mostly because safety studies haven’t been done. However, it is rare that a food additive is removed from the market for health reasons. Most research showing that a food additive may be unhealthy is conducted in animals. These studies often test amounts that are far higher than people would reasonably consume, so they may not predict the health effects in humans. And some additives, such as iron added to cereal or vitamin D added to milk, for example, are widely thought to be beneficial.

 

To be sure, there are some chemicals in our food that we should avoid, but it isn’t fair to say that all food additives are bad. Even so, eating foods that are free from additives is probably a good idea. Even though each individual additive may not be hazardous, it is possible that exposure to small amounts of these chemicals in combination could be dangerous over time.

 

Much of our exposure to food additives comes in the form of processed, prepackaged foods, including many restaurant meals. Getting back to basics and cooking using “real” food— fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats—is one way to avoid processed foods. Reading food labels can help, too. Look for ingredients that you recognize as food and avoid additives that clearly aren’t.

 

Avoiding all food additives is almost impossible. Even foods that don’t come in packages, such as fruits and vegetables, may contain coatings that prevent damage or preserve freshness. Even canned fruits and vegetables will likely have added salt or sugar, so even apparently healthy foods can contain additives. The best way to limit them is to select as many fresh foods as possible and make an effort to check labels for additives.

 

If you are interested in food additives and other aspects of food safety, nutrition, and health, here are two excellent resources:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest report on food additive safety : http://www.cspinet.com/reports/chemcuisine.htm

Marion Nestle, has an excellent blog about all aspects of nutrition, including food additives and safety:  http://www.foodpolitics.com/


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