Unfit for service. Another consequence of obesity and poor fitness.

Obesity and poor fitness, in combination or alone, have serious consequences on both an individual and societal level. This includes poor health now and in the future as well as an economic cost (in the billions per year!) that includes medical expenses as well as indirect costs such as increased absenteeism and lower productivity in the workplace.

This is particularly alarming in children since obesity at a young age sets up a cycle that leads to lower levels of activity that can make the condition worse over time. In both children and adults, overweight and obesity are associated with low physical fitness and many people who are at a “normal” weight are unfit as well.

Unfortunately, the common pattern of inactivity and obesity can limit the ability to function optimally at school, work, or in leisure-time activities. In fact, many young people are ineligible for military service because of physical limitations due to poor fitness and being overweight. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


Military fitness

A report from the Council for a Strong America finds that being overweight is the major reason that civilian military recruits are deemed medically unfit for service. Military training and service is physically demanding, requiring a high level of strength and endurance. These attributes are more likely to be lacking among overweight recruits.

Equally troubling is the fact that poor physical fitness disqualifies a high percentage of young men and women who are at a “healthy” weight. A 2010 report, written by a panel of retired military leaders, raises these same concerns, and has the ominous title, “Too Fat to Fight.” (A follow-up report, “Still Too Fat to Fight,” suggests that the situation hasn’t improved).

Interestingly, this is not a new problem. Large numbers of draftees who failed the induction exams due to physical reasons during WWI and WWII resulted in changes in physical education and nutrition programs in schools. Poor fitness among American children also led to the formation of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in the 1950’s and an emphasis on physical fitness testing and education among school-aged children. In recent years, participation in physical education has declined, resulting in the current generation of overweight, unfit young people.

A recent study also examines the impact of obesity and poor fitness on careers in the military. Not only are many young people disqualified from military service, those who do enter basic training are more likely to sustain injuries that delay or terminate their training. These injuries are more likely to occur in recruits who are obese and unfit at entry. Furthermore, the prevalence of obesity and lower levels of physical activity is higher in states in the south and southeast. Considering that these are among the states send the most recruits to basic training, this limits a great many people from potential military service.

Taken together, these reports suggest that the continuing trend of obesity and poor fitness among American children may have national security implications. This emphasizes the fact that schools are critical to improving the health and military-readiness of our children.

Changes to school lunch and physical education programs are needed, but this is not a new recommendation. In fact, nutrition and exercise recommendations for children and schools already exist, but they are not followed, largely for political reasons. Perhaps the current condition of poor health and fitness among military recruits will motivate our leaders to implement effective exercise and nutrition programs in schools.


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It’s time to get real about food. Really.

Given that we eat several times every day, we should all be food experts. But it turns out that many of us don’t know much about our food including where it came from, the method of preparation, or the quality and nutritional value. We are increasingly disconnected from our food, a fact that has implications for our health and the health of the environment. We should all try to learn more about the food we eat and the impact it has on our health, environment, and quality of life. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Good food display


Our lack of knowledge about the food we eat has been replaced by a heightened awareness about nutrients. In fact, many people follow diets that either emphasize or restrict certain nutrients to obtain health benefits. But the research to support the importance of these individual nutrients is often mixed or lacking altogether. Still, as we seek out sources of these nutrients we turn to supplements, such as fish oil, or processed foods with added nutrients, like fiber.

To be sure, fish oil and fiber are good for us. But does that mean that taking a fish oil supplement will have the same health benefits as actually eating fish instead of, say, fried chicken? Or is adding fiber to a chocolate breakfast bar equivalent to getting more fiber from fruits and vegetables? According to both research and common sense, the answer is no.

Beyond the individual nutrients, the food we eat has changed. Even the way food gets to our table has changed. Since nearly half of our meals are eaten outside the home, it’s not even “our” table anymore. And when we do eat at home, take-out and prepackaged heat-and-eat meals have become the norm. In fact, the idea of cooking meals from ingredients is so foreign that we have to be reminded about how and why we should do it. There are even services that will deliver ingredients and detailed instructions to make cooking a reality for many people.

Getting back to the basics of cooking and eating real food may seem old-fashioned, but it is a current trend. This, of course, is how people ate for years before the obesity and diabetes epidemics we are dealing with now, so eating real food again is a step toward reducing these, and other, health problems.

In addition to the potential health benefits of focusing on food over nutrients, this approach is also good for the environment and the economy. It turns out that eating healthier food promotes sustainable agriculture and can support local farmers. Locally grown produce, which is picked at the peak of freshness, can be more nutritious and have a lower environmental impact than food from factory farms which is often shipped great distances. And most important, food from local farms usually tastes better!

We should make ourselves aware of where our food comes from and do our best to eat “real food” as opposed to processed and pre-packaged foods that tend to be high in calories, added sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. When possible, we should buy foods that are grown locally to minimize the environmental impact and support local farmers who live, work, and pay taxes in our area.

It turns out that focusing on food, not nutrients, will have a positive impact on your health, the environment, and quality of life for you and others. In fact, eating real food usually means that you will get all the nutrients you need to be healthy and thrive.


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No pain no gain? Pain, no. But a little muscle soreness is okay, even good.

If you exercise, especially if you lift weights, you have probably heard the adage, “No pain, no gain.” This may serve as motivation for some people, but the belief that exercise results in pain might be a good reason not to work out for others. If you are one of those people, you should know that idea that exercise should hurt is simply wrong—muscle pain during or following exercise usually suggests an injury. However, some muscle soreness is unavoidable, especially if you are new to exercise. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

sarcomere


This soreness is called DOMS—delayed onset muscle soreness—and it typically occurs 24 to 48 hours after exercise. It can range from a mild reminder that you worked out to more severe soreness, weakness, and tenderness. DOMS can occur after any type of exercise, but is more common following weight training, especially if it is your first session or a particularly intense workout.

A common belief is that lactic acid build-up in the muscle causes muscle soreness. This is based on the fact that during intense exercise like weight training the muscles make energy for contraction anaerobically (without oxygen), which leads to lactic acid production. This is in contrast to aerobic exercises like walking or jogging that produce energy using oxygen, with little lactic acid build-up. This belief that lactic acid causes DOMS has been shown to be false since any lactic acid that is produced during exercise is cleared shortly after you finish, long before muscle soreness begins.

So what causes DOMS? It turns out that strenuous exercise leads to microscopic tears in the muscle, which leads to inflammation and soreness. This sounds bad, but the muscle damage is an important step in the muscle getting bigger and stronger. Your muscles are made up of protein filaments that shorten, leading to a contraction. When you lift weights your muscles respond by creating more protein filaments, allowing you to generate more force and causing the muscle to grow in size, called hypertrophy. The mechanism that leads to creating more muscle protein is stimulated by the damage that occurs during exercise. Without that stimulus, muscle growth wouldn’t occur. This is why weight training programs call for increasing the resistance over time to overload the muscle. Without increasing the weight, you wouldn’t get much stronger.

While the muscle adaptations that are associated with DOMS are beneficial, you may wish to avoid or limit the soreness aspect. You can do this by beginning your exercise program slowly. Resist the temptation to do too much too soon! Build up your time and intensity slowly over several weeks and start weight training with lighter weights. Remember, your goal is to begin an exercise program that you will sustain. Many people have quit working out because they started off with exercise that was too intense. While your goal should be to exercise every day, there is nothing wrong with taking a day off between workouts early on.

If you do experience DOMS you should rest those muscles until the soreness subsides. You can also try an over-the-counter pain reliever or applying ice to the sore muscles. If the soreness isn’t too severe, you can still exercise, but keep the intensity low. Weight training sessions should be scheduled a few days apart to allow for muscle recovery, but aerobic exercise can usually be done every day. If your arms are sore from lifting weights, you can always go for a walk!


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Most New Year’s resolutions are destined to fail. Here’s what to do instead.

Have you made your New Year’s resolutions yet? If not, there is still time. Among the most common resolutions are changes to improve health, including quitting smoking, losing weight, and starting an exercise program. Some people set specific goals, such as losing 20 pounds or running a marathon, while others take a more general approach, like eating healthier or getting in shape. Either way, these are excellent goals, but they should not be your only New Year’s resolutions.

Your resolutions should also include the things you need to do and change to achieve these goals. For example, losing 20 pounds is a good goal for many people. But what that really means is learning about a healthier way to eat, shopping for and preparing appropriate meals, finding time to exercise each day, and focusing on turning these behaviors into lasting habits. In this example, learning how to shop for and prepare healthy meals would make an excellent resolution that would lead toward the goal of losing 20 pounds.

With this in mind, here are a few resolutions that can help you achieve your health improvement goals:

Resolution list


Be realistic. Many people fail to keep their New Year’s 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 everyone, especially someone who doesn’t exercise at all. It is possible that someone could get in shape to run a marathon, but it will take a long time. A resolution to work up to jogging five days per week, with a goal of completing a 10k run is more realistic and achievable.

Focus on learning. Making most health behavior changes involve 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 eating 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. A major reason that people fail to really get started with or sustain a weight loss or exercise program is time. 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 to your routine to keep yourself on track. Planning ahead and thinking “what if” can make the difference between giving up and catching up on your diet or exercise program after a vacation.

The idea of making resolutions that are steps in the process leading toward a goal instead of the goal itself may be new. But focusing on the changes you need to make rather than the outcome may well be the step that helps you keep your resolutions, achieve your goals, and make 2018 a happy, healthy year.


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Fat bit fit, here’s how Santa stays in shape for his annual sleigh ride.

Since today is Christmas our attention is naturally focused on one person: Santa Claus. Have you ever wondered how Santa gets in shape for his yearly sleigh ride to deliver gifts to good boys and girls around the globe? Like many elite athletes, Santa does not publicly discuss his training or his fitness. There are certainly no published studies that report his one repetition maximum strength or his maximal oxygen uptake. Given this lack of information, I attempted to make an educated guess about Santa’s training, fitness, and health. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

santa


By all accounts, Santa is overweight. While we don’t know his body mass index, he would probably be considered obese. Furthermore, he appears to have a large waist circumference, indicating a high level of visceral fat. This suggests that Santa is a high risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. This combination can lead to a heart attack and, possibly, death at a relatively young age.

But Santa has avoided this fate, and seems to be living a healthy life. His secret, no doubt, is regular exercise. There is good evidence that maintaining a high level of physical activity can “undo” some of the negative effects of obesity and can reduce the risk of death in people who are obese (and everyone else).

Like many athletes, Santa trains in the “offseason” to get ready for his annual Christmas Eve journey. Santa’s training likely includes endurance, strength, and flexibility exercises. In order to visit every home around the world in one night, Santa moves quickly. This suggests that he has a high maximal aerobic capacity as well as good endurance. This is a result of both high-intensity interval training and long-duration, lower intensity training, similar to what a marathon runner might do. Evidence for his good aerobic fitness is shown by the fact that he flies away from each home with a hearty “ho, ho, ho.” If he were out of shape, he would be too short of breath to speak, much less give such a robust farewell.

Santa must also dedicate training time to improving his strength. His sack of gifts is certainly very heavy and he repeatedly carries it up and down chimneys. In addition to traditional weight lifting, Santa probably also engages in plyometric training, which involves explosive movements that develop muscle power. Santa must also have good flexibility in order to squeeze through narrow spaces and move quickly without pulling a muscle. This is the result of stretching and, likely, other exercises such as yoga.

Santa is also educated about sports nutrition. The cookies and milk you leave for him are more than a reward for delivering gifts at your house. The carbohydrates (sugar) in the cookies help Santa maintain his blood glucose to delay muscle fatigue. Some research suggests that combining carbohydrates with protein is even more effective, so the glass of milk is a good addition. Of course, Santa could have a specialized sports drink, but that doesn’t make for such a good story.

We can learn an important health lesson from Santa. Even though he is overweight, through regular exercise, Santa has reduced his risk of health problems and maintained his fitness at a level that allows him to complete his necessary activities. Like Santa, all of us can benefit from being physically active, whether we are overweight or not. He would likely be healthier and be able to perform his job better if he lost weight, but I’m not about to tell Santa what to do!


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Think about health AND wellness when making your New Year’s resolutions.

“Be healthier” is a common New Year’s Resolution, and almost everyone makes some effort to achieve and maintain good health. For many, this simply means not being sick. But being healthy goes beyond feeling good and involves actively talking steps to reduce the risk of disease and promote wellbeing. This is why not smoking, eating well, and being active are so important—these habits can improve your health now and help you maintain good health as you age.

But good physical health is only part of being truly “healthy.” This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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The World Health Organization defines health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. This is consistent with concept of wellness that is not limited to physical health, exercise, and nutrition and integrates physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. While wellness models vary, they almost all include a range of components associated with living a good life. The National Wellness Institute presents a concept of wellness that includes six dimensions that act and interact to contribute to quality of life. They include:

Social Wellness is the ability to relate to and connect with other people in our world. Our ability to positively interact with people and establish and maintain positive relationships with family, friends and co-workers contributes to our social wellness.

Emotional Wellness is the ability to understand ourselves and cope with the challenges life can bring. The ability to cope with stress and acknowledge and share feelings of anger, fear, sadness or stress; hope, love, joy and happiness in a productive manner contributes to emotional wellness.

Spiritual Wellness is the ability to establish peace and harmony in our lives. It includes the ability to link personal values and actions and to realize a common purpose.

Intellectual Wellness is the ability to open our minds to new ideas and experiences that can be applied to personal decisions, group interaction and community betterment. Engaging in creative and stimulating mental activities to expand your knowledge and use information effectively desire to learn new concepts, improve skills and seek challenges in pursuit of lifelong learning are characteristics of intellectual wellness.

Occupational Wellness is the ability to get personal fulfillment from our jobs or our chosen career fields while still maintaining balance in our lives. Our desire to contribute in our careers to make a positive impact on the organizations we work in and to society as a whole leads to Occupational Wellness..

Physical Wellness is the ability to maintain a healthy quality of life that allows us to get through our daily activities without undue fatigue or physical stress. Adopting healthful habits while avoiding negative habits will lead to optimal physical wellness.

Other models also include additional components of wellness, including:

Environmental Wellness is the ability to recognize how your behavior impacts your surroundings, be it your home, community, and planet, how the physical world impacts you, and how to you can make a positive impact on the quality of our environment.

Financial Wellness includes managing your money effectively, living within your means, and making wise financial decisions now and for the future.

Obviously, these are all important for achieving health and wellness. Unfortunately, many programs which intend to promote health or wellness actually only prevent or treat disease. As you make your New Year’s Resolutions, be mindful that wellness is an active process through which we become aware of, and make choices toward, a more vibrant and successful life and take steps to look beyond fitness and nutrition to embrace wellness.


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Finally, healthy foods you want to eat!

If you pay attention to news about food and nutrition you have probably noticed that there is a great deal of controversy about what we should eat. Lists of foods to avoid and foods to eat every day are common. 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.

Often, it seems that the foods we should eat are not the things we enjoy the most. We are told to eat more vegetables and drink more water but avoid sweets and high-calorie restaurant meals. This leads many to develop the notion that good nutrition and good health are about depriving yourself of foods you enjoy. But this is not always the case. Sometimes, the foods we are supposed to eat and the foods we want to eat are the same.

Just in time for the holidays, here are three examples of foods that have health benefits that you can enjoy guilt-free—in moderation, of course!

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

Coffee chocolate wine


Chocolate

Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, contains phytochemicals, plant-derived compounds that have certain health benefits. Antioxidant flavonoids in chocolate have been shown to affect a variety of physiological systems. The beneficial effects include dilation of blood vessels, improved blood clotting, and reduced inflammation, all of which can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases including heart attack and stroke. Additionally, these flavonoids may lower blood pressure, regulate insulin levels, and reduce stress. These flavonoids are what give dark chocolate more of a bitter flavor than milk or white chocolate. Look for chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa (sometimes listed on the label as cacao or cocoa solids) and remember that a small amount is enough.  Since chocolate does contain sugar and calories, eating more may not be the best idea.

 

Coffee

Coffee also contains many of the same or similar flavonoids as chocolate that have similar effects and benefits. Research shows that moderate coffee consumption (2-3 cups per day) is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Coffee also contains caffeine which can have additional benefits related to alertness, attention, and physical performance. If you choose not to consume caffeine, decaffeinated coffee still contains the beneficial phytochemicals. But make sure you are drinking coffee. Many popular coffee drinks are more like milkshakes, with lots of added sugar and calories.

 

Wine

You have probably heard that red wine is good for you. Because it has many of the same antioxidant phytochemicals found in chocolate and coffee, drinking 1-2 glasses of red wine per day has been shown to reduce the risk of hypertension and heart disease. Obviously, wine contains alcohol so more isn’t better and non-drinkers are not encouraged to start.

 

The good news is that there are some foods you may enjoy that can actually be good for you. With all of these, more isn’t always better, so moderation is the key. Also keep in mind that many fruits contain the same antioxidants as chocolate, coffee or wine, so a serving of berries, for example, may be a better choice. And finally, achieving good health requires more than simply changing one aspect of what you eat, so include these foods as part of an otherwise healthy diet balanced by daily physical activity.


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