Let’s Agree to Agree About Food

Eating a healthy diet is a goal for many people to help them treat or prevent disease, improve exercise performance, or maintain a healthy body weight. If you pay attention to news about food and nutrition you have probably noticed that there is a great deal of controversy about what constitutes a healthy diet. It’s easy to find lists of foods to avoid and things to eat every day. Unfortunately, lists from different sources may not be the same or, worse, a food that is on one “never eat” list is on another “always eat” list.

There is a different approach you could take to plan the foundation for a truly health way to eat. Instead of focusing on what is different, think about what recommendations are shared among most “healthy” diets. Here is some diet advice that almost everyone agrees on. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Chill out! Understanding and managing stress.

There is no doubt that the past year has been especially stressful. From very real health and economic concerns to social distancing and working or learning from home, most of us are experiencing a higher level of stress. Much of this is unavoidable but finding ways to reduce the impact stress has on is essential for maintaining our physical and mental health. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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What you need to know about muscle cramps during exercise

Muscle cramps are a common condition experienced during endurance exercise and many sports. Known as exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC), these sustained and painful muscle contractions tend to occur during prolonged exertion including exercise and physical labor that results in fatigue. Despite their frequency, the cause and treatment for muscle cramps is not well understood by many recreational and competitive athletes.

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Muscle cramps that occur during exercise are widely thought to be caused by dehydration and electrolyte imbalances in the muscle. This makes sense, as muscle cramps seem to be more likely during prolonged exercise in a hot, humid environment in which sweat loss could cause a loss of both water and salt from sweat. Sometimes, EAMC are erroneously referred to as “heat cramps,” even though they can occur in cooler conditions. Furthermore, dehydration and electrolyte imbalances would affect the entire body, whereas muscle cramps occur only in the working muscles, typically the gastrocnemius in the lower leg. It is also worth noting that the most effective treatment for muscle cramps—stretching the affected muscle—does not replace fluid or electrolytes. These observations suggest that EAMC have a cause other than fluid and electrolyte loss during exercise.

 Research also does not support the notion that dehydration or electrolyte abnormalities are the cause of muscle cramps that occur during exercise. For example, in one study of competitors in an Ironman triathlon, there were no significant differences between those who experienced muscle cramps and those who did not in blood electrolyte concentrations or body weight changes (an indicator of dehydration). The development of EAMC was related to faster race times and a history of cramping. Other studies in a laboratory setting show that muscle cramps still occur even when electrolyte balance and fluid replacement is maintained. These findings and other research led to the development of an alternate theory of the cause of muscle cramps during exercise.

Understanding the cause of EAMC requires a brief primer in muscle physiology. Muscle contraction occurs when nerves, from the spinal cord, called motor neurons, stimulate the muscles to shorten and produce force. The force production by the muscle is controlled by a host of receptors that either stimulate or inhibit the muscle. One of these, the muscle spindle, responds to stretch and causes muscle excitation. Another, the Golgi tendon organ (GTO), inhibits muscle activation and causes relaxation. Working together, the muscle spindle and GTO regulate force production during exercise.

Just as repeated muscle contraction over time can lead to muscle fatigue, the pattern of the motor neurons stimulating the muscle can also be altered during prolonged, intense exercise. This causes an excessive stimulation of the muscle spindle and decreased activation of the GTO, resulting in uncontrolled muscle contraction—a cramp. This also explains why stretching is an effective treatment for muscle cramps. By engaging the GTO, the muscle relaxes and the cramp is eventually relieved.

The prevention of muscle cramps is obviously of great interest, especially for athletes who are prone to develop them. Given that muscle fatigue is a condition underlying most cramps, adequate training and conditioning to increase endurance is important. There are a number of popular preventive strategies, including increasing fluid and electrolyte intake, consuming specific foods and beverages like pickle juice and bananas prior to exercise, and taking substances like quinine. However, experimental evidence for these strategies to reduce EAMC is lacking and their effectiveness is based mostly on anecdotal reports.

For now, the best way to prevent muscle cramps is to prepare yourself through training and nutrition for both the environmental conditions and exercise itself. And if you get a muscle cramp during exercise, immediate stretching is the best way to relieve it.

Should you eat like a caveman? What you need to know about paleo and keto diets.

Which diet is the best? This is one of the most common questions about nutrition and health, with implications for weight control, chronic disease prevention and treatment, and exercise performance. Unfortunately, this is no simple answer to this question. While there are certain eating patterns and aspects of specific diets that are considered to be beneficial, there is no single diet that has been shown to be the “best.”

As a general rule, healthy eating should be informed by nutrition science, not determined by the latest trends. Many fad diets raise concerns because they restrict or over-emphasize certain foods or nutrients, rely on meal replacements or supplements instead of real food, or are supported by limited evidence.

The Paleo and ketogenic (Atkins) diets are examples of popular diets that are at odds with traditional nutrition recommendations, going against the poor “low-fat” advice we have long been provided. Given the popularity of these low-carbohydrate diets, it is worth exploring the benefits and drawbacks of each to help you decide which is right for you.

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Exercise and the gut microbiome

We tend to think of bacteria as something to avoid. Germophobes beware, but our bodies are literally covered and filled with bacteria. From our skin to the lining of our GI tract, bacteria are literally part of us. For sure, some bacteria are harmful, but many more play an important role in our health. The balance between the helpful and harmful bacteria seems to be important for health; diseases from eczema to irritable bowel syndrome can result from an imbalance.  

The combination of bacteria in our bodies is known as the microbiota, the genes of which are called the microbiome. Researchers study the bacteria themselves (microbiota) and the genes (microbiome) and use both as an indicator of the balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria. This is especially relevant in the large intestine, where there has been much research into the role of gut bacteria on health.

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Start American Heart month with some facts 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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Fit to Serve

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 certain 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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Resolutions to make your family happier and healthier in 2021

 

By this time, you are probably working on your New Year’s resolutions. Hopefully, you are on track to meet your goals. Whether they are health-related or not, it is likely that your goals focus on you. But what about the rest of your family? Fortunately, there are a few resolutions that your whole family can make that will help you all move, eat, and sleep better. Here are a few ways your family can make 2021 a happy and healthy year.

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Make sure everyone in the family is active every day.

Physical activity is critical for good health for everyone. 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 5 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 sleep. 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.

Fitness Trends for the New Year

The fitness industry is constantly evolving and responding to the needs of consumers. This year was no exception, especially considering the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are the top 10 fitness trends to look for in 2021, compiled by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

The biggest fitness trend is online training. 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.

Second 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!

Body weight training is next, 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.

Fourth 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.

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.

Number six is virtual training. Similar in many ways to online training, virtual workouts are typically done individually or in smaller groups and participants can go at their own pace. The virtual sessions are led by a trained instructor and can be viewed anytime. You can find virtual workouts from local gyms and online and on social media from specific personal trainers.

Next is Exercise is Medicine, an initiative that aims to get physicians and other health care providers to ask about and promote physical activity in every interaction with patients. Treating exercise like a “drug” that should be prescribed reflects the importance of being active for good health. You should treat exercise professionals as an integral part of your health care team.

Strength training with free weights is next 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 nine is fitness programs for older adults. Now that people are living longer, staying healthy and active in old age is a priority for many. Exercise can improve strength and endurance to help people who are recovering from cancer or other chronic illness and allow older adults to enjoy an active lifestyle.

Rounding out the top ten is personal training. 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.

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!

Make Fitness Tech Work for You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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