Physical activity is essential for children. Here’s how they can (and should) get it.

Regular physical activity is essential for optimal growth, development, and health in children. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, first published in 2008, recommend that all children and adolescents should do at least one hour of physical activity each day. Most of this time should be spent in moderate or vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity.

Additionally, children should include muscle and bone-strengthening activity at least 3 days a week as part of the 60 or more minutes per day. The importance of physical activity for children and solutions for how to make it work is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Kids on playground

These activities should be appropriate for their age, be enjoyable, and offer variety. In younger children, active play that involves running, jumping, and climbing meets the call for aerobic as well as muscle and bone-strengthening activity. Older kids can get these types of exercise through sports, physical education in school, or other active pursuits.

Unfortunately, most kids don’t meet these recommendations. According to one survey, only about 30 percent of high school students participated in at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity during the week prior to the survey. That means that less than a third of high school students meet the recommendation! Worse, 14 percent of high school students did not participate in 60 or more minutes of physical activity on any day in the week leading up to the survey.

A different survey showed that only 42 percent of younger children participated in at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity on most days of the past week. This is surprising considering that, for younger children, pretty much anything that involves being active counts!

So why aren’t kids getting enough activity? As much as it would be nice to blame television and video games, this isn’t the only problem. While it is true that many kids spend nearly as much time sitting in front of a computer or TV screen as they do in school, the real issue is that adults, including parents and educators, don’t encourage participation in activity.

Almost all elementary, middle, and high school age children are in school for at least 6 hours per day, yet less than 10% have access to daily physical education. Other opportunities, including activity breaks during and between classes, recess, and active transportation to and from school are limited. In fact, in an effort to dedicate more time for test preparation, PE and other activities are among the first to be cut.

At home, parental example and encouragement are important determinants for children’s activity. Active parents are likely to have kids who are active, and this lifestyle tends to persist through adolescence and into adulthood. Kids who are encouraged by their parents to play sports or engage in active play or other activities are 65% more likely to do so. Considering that less than half of U.S. adults are active on a daily basis, this positive influence may be missing.

What can we do to promote activity in children in our community? First, most of us could stand to be more active ourselves, so we should start by modeling good activity habits and include our children and grandchildren. Going for a walk in the neighborhood, to the playground, or doing yard work is a good start. Second, we should demand that kids be provided with opportunities for activity in school. Not only is it good for their health, but children who are active in school tend to learn more and do better on tests. Finally, we should limit sedentary pursuits such as video games or watching TV and encourage kids to do something active.

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Think globally, eat locally.

Since Earth Day just passed, this is a good time to think about the impact we have on our environment. We should also think about what we can do to reduce that impact. The good news is there are ways we can “go green” that are good for our health and the health of our planet, as I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


You can go green by eating green—more vegetables and fruits. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber and most are low in calories. At a minimum, you should eat five servings per day, but more is better especially green leafy and brightly colored vegetables. Ideally, you would eat fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, but frozen is a good alternative.

Eating locally grown food is good for you and the environment. Food production and delivery is second only to cars for fossil fuel use  and is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. According to one estimate,  the food items that make up a typical meal travel about 1,500 miles each (as much as 100,000 miles for a whole meal in some places) to get to your table? Food from local farms is associated with fewer “food miles” and a lower environmental footprint.

Additionally, produce grown locally is picked at the peak of freshness, meaning it is richer in nutrients, not to mention flavor. By contrast, produce that is grown far away is picked before it is ripe, resulting in lower nutritional value. As an added benefit, the money you spend on food from local farms stays in our area, supporting farmers who live in our community.

Since you are eating more veggies, you can eat less meat. Raising animals for meat, milk, and eggs has a major impact on the environment. Over a quarter of land is dedicated to raising livestock, and almost 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock. These animals also produce tons of manure every minute, at least some of which ends up polluting water supplies.

What about organic? Organic food, including produce, milk, and meat, are becoming more popular among consumers each year. There are many reasons to account for this increase, including potential health benefits and environmental impact. Despite the popularity of organic foods, there is little evidence that eating organic has significant health benefits.

There are some studies that show that organic fruits and vegetables contain higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants, but this finding is not consistent. Organically produced milk and meat may have higher level of omega-3 fats, which are associated with heart health. The take-home message is that organic foods are at least as healthy as conventional foods.

Although reduced exposure to pesticides is a common reason to go organic, there is no direct evidence that consuming organic food improves health or lowers the risk for disease. But they do note that organic foods, with lower pesticide levels, may be a smart choice for children who are more likely to be harmed by chemical exposures.

But there are other reasons why you may choose to buy organic beyond the potential health benefits. Organic farming may be better for the environment due to reduced water contamination by pesticide run-off and healthier soil. Pesticide application also poses potential risks for farm workers. Additionally, there are issues of animal welfare that some consider important. Many people also feel that organic farming is more traditional and the way food “should be” produced.

So, as you reflect on the meaning of Earth Day, try to eat locally to improve your health and reduce your impact on the environment. Most importantly, make sure your food choices are part of a lifestyle that includes and regular physical activity getting enough sleep.

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Time is on your side. The benefits of incidental physical activity…quickly!

Regular physical activity is essential for good health and wellbeing. Despite the clear benefits of being active, only half of Americans meet even minimum recommendations for exercise and other activity.

As a way to get people moving, they are encouraged to incorporate physical activity into their daily routine. This includes taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking further away and walking to their destination. However, the perception that these “steps” take longer than the less active alternative may serve as a disincentive for many people.

Studies conducted by my students at USC Aiken show that these forms of what I call incidental physical activity do not necessarily take longer than the less active alternatives. In fact, in most cases the active way is quicker! This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

B&E stairs elevator

In one study, we examined the time required to ascend and descend one floor using either the stairs or elevator in a building on the USC Aiken campus. The results showed that the time required to take the elevator was about twice that to use the stairs (36 vs. 16 seconds). The increased time on the elevator was due to waiting, in some cases almost one minute, for it to arrive.

It is worth mentioning that this study was conducted in a building with two floors. To be sure, the elevator would be quicker if you were going up or down several floors. But let’s be honest, not many buildings in our area have enough floors for this to be relevant. For most of us, the stairs will be quicker most places we go.

In another study we compared the time required to park in the first convenient parking space in the parking lot as opposed to driving around searching for a space closer to the destination. We asked several people to record the time required to enter their destination after either parking in the first convenient space compared to searching for a parking space closer to the destination on campus and at businesses in the community.

The time required to search for a parking space closer to the destination was significantly greater than the time required to park in the first convenient parking space on campus and at stores. Driving around looking for a closer spot meant that it took an average of three minutes to enter the destination building. It took people about half that long if they parked further away and walked.

These studies show that taking a few extra steps in the parking lot or on the stairs is actually quicker than driving around and parking closer or using the elevator. This information might help people decide to be more active. And these small changes may lead to further healthy choices.

Of course, simply using the stairs instead of the elevator or talking the first available parking spot isn’t going to replace regular exercise. But making activity a part of your everyday routine is an important part of developing a healthy lifestyle. In fact, a recent study suggests that multiple bouts of activity as short as a few minutes can add up to equal the health effects of a single prolonged exercise session each day. Now that you know that active choices won’t necessarily slow you down, what ways will you save time by being active?

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Say what? A health and fitness vocabulary lesson.

When I write about health I routinely use terms like exercise, activity, and fitness. I often get asked why I use these different words since they all have a similar meaning. That is an excellent question, since these terms are related they have different applications for health and wellness. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

vocabulary crossword

Physical activity (PA) is defined as any movement produced by muscles that expends energy. Physical activity can be classified as occupational, what you do at work, and leisure-time, what you do in your free time. Occupational PA can vary greatly depending on the job, but it is low for most of us who spend much of our work day sitting. Leisure-time PA is all activity outside of work. This is of great interest to researchers since it reflects how we chose to spend our discretionary time. Physical activity can be measured by questionnaires or using devices such as pedometers, which count the steps you take, or accelerometers, which measure how much you move.

Exercise is a type of physical activity that involves planned, structured, and repetitive movement to improve or maintain physical fitness. Physical fitness, then, is a set of attributes that relate to the ability to perform physical activity and exercise. The components of physical fitness include endurance, strength, and flexibility. Basically, participation in physical activity and exercise improves your fitness and the greater your fitness, the better able you are to participate in physical activity. This is true for completing occupational tasks as well as traditional exercise, such as jogging or lifting weights.

The good news is that both physical activity and exercise have health and fitness benefits. Physical activity can vary in intensity, from light (slow walking), moderate (brisk walking), or vigorous (exercise like running). The 2008 U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that, at a minimum, all adults participate in moderate-intensity physical activity for 2 hours and 30 minutes per week or vigorous activity for 1 hour and 15 minutes per week along with strengthening exercises at least 2 days per week. You can meet this recommendation by going for a brisk walk for 30 minutes on 5 days per week or running for 25 minutes on 2 days per week or some combination of the two. Additional benefits come from doing more, either higher intensity or longer duration activity.

Vigorous exercise is the best way to improve fitness while moderate-intensity activity is strongly linked to health benefits. Fitness benefits result from adaptations in the heart and muscles, which get stronger and become better able to resist fatigue. These changes also lead to health benefits including lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose as well as helping with weight loss and weight control.

Research suggests that health and fitness benefits also result from light-intensity or intermittent activity, especially if it replaces sitting. At home or at work, the more time you spend sitting, the poorer your health, even if you exercise every day. One study shows that getting off the couch and stepping in place during TV commercials results in nearly 25 minutes of activity per hour and burns about 150 calories, compared to 80 calories just sitting the entire time. You won’t get in great shape doing this, but it will increase your overall activity.

With this is mind, a good recommendation is to reduce sitting time in favor of light activity—stand while you read the paper or walk around while you talk on the phone—and participate in moderate or vigorous activity each day by going for a brisk walk or doing other exercises, including strength training.

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Your pants may be making you fat!

If you have purchased new pants recently they may have an adjustable or expandable waist. Some men’s pants include up to two extra inches to allow you to “flex” or “move more freely.” Women’s pants might have elastic hidden in the waist band for extra “stretch.” While these pants are designed to be comfortable, they could be making you fat!

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

Most people gain weight as they age, typically a slow process that may not be immediately noticeable. If you have pants with a two-inch expandable waist you could easily gain weight while still wearing the same pants size. In fact, you could gain two inches of fat around your waist before you noticed. For many people, tight-fitting pants are a signal that they may have gained a few pounds. If you miss that cue you could easily gain significant weight, which requires a significant effort to fix.

This might sound like a minor issue, but external cues like this are important to help us recognize weight gain. In a classic example, a man puts on his favorite suit for the first time in over a year to find that the pants are too tight. Immediately he realizes that he has gained weight since he last wore the suit. Imagine, though, if his suit pants stretched to accommodate his larger waist. He might still think that, since the pants still fit, he hasn’t gained any weight.

This is important since people typically gain weight little by little over time, which may not be appreciated without these external cues. One way to prevent surprise weight gain is to weigh yourself regularly so that you can make adjustments to your diet and activity to prevent further weight gain. In fact, one common characteristic of the “successful losers” in the National Weight Control Registry is that they weigh themselves at least once a week. This is important because it’s easier to make adjustments to lose weight that’s gained in a week versus weight that is gained over a month or more.

This is also why people who lose weight should get rid of their “fat clothes.” Typically, these clothes get pushed to the back of the closet. But they are still readily available, so when the person regains some of the weight, it is easy to reach for a larger size. If those clothes had been packed away in a box in the attic, retrieving and unpacking them would be a noticeable sign that they had gained weight and may motivate them to get back on track.

Even small changes to our diet and activity patterns can lead to weight gain over time. Since this weight gain can often go unnoticed, it is important that we pay attention to external cues. The way our clothes fit is one such reminder, but there are others. Do you notice that you feel more out of breath doing routine activities, like climbing a flight of stairs? Is it more difficult to bend over and tie your shoes? These are both signs that your fitness may be declining and that it is time to start exercising.

These cues are easy to ignore, but they are important signs that it is time to make changes to your diet and activity habits. It is even easier to prevent weight gain or to stay fit than it is to lose weight or get in shape. So, don’t let your pants trick you! Pay attention to how your clothes fit and how you feel and use these cues to guide you to maintain good health.

Busy, yes. Productive and effective, not so much.

I have become increasingly aware of how my institution values being busy over being productive and effective. This is especially true right now, during advising and registration.

The amount of time required to manage an always increasing number of advisees—meeting with them, answering follow-up questions, helping solve residual problems— takes away from doing pretty much everything else. Like teaching. Or helping a student with an internal research grant application. Or grading papers. Or writing grad school recommendations.

Worse, the emphasis is on scheduling, approving graduation applications, and solving problems with our online registration system so there is little time available for actual advising. You know, career goals, and such, the things we should be doing when we advise students.

So, we are very busy with advising, but I would hardly say that we are being effective. The good news is, registration ends this week so we should be able to get back to work!



Just eating more protein won’t build muscle. Here’s what you need to do.

Building or maintaining muscle mass is important for improving physical fitness, enhancing quality of life, and promoting a healthy body weight. For sure, this is essential for athletes, but building muscle also is important for the rest of us, especially as we get older.

A key step in building muscle is eating enough protein. If you pay attention to the claims of supplement marketers or people touting the new “perfect” diet, you might think that protein is the only thing that matters. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. To really build muscle requires resistance exercise. Yes, you may need extra protein, too, but it’s the exercise that promotes the muscle growth. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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There are good reasons to think that protein is important for developing muscle. First, muscle is made of protein, so you do need dietary protein to build muscle. Second, there are many studies that show that giving people who are doing resistance training extra protein does enhance muscle mass and strength. This is used as “evidence” that protein supplements are necessary, when it may really be the weight training that is improving strength.

A recent study looked at the effect of increasing protein intake on muscle mass in people who were not doing any resistance training. These were older men who could benefit from both extra protein and increased muscle mass. The results showed that the extra dietary protein did not increase muscle mass. Since the subjects were not doing any muscle building exercise, this suggests that resistance training is needed to promote muscle development.

Lifting weights or doing other resistance exercise builds both muscle mass and strength. The primary adaptation that results in increased muscle is hypertrophy, a process in which the muscles literally get larger. Resistance training causes a series of changes within the muscle that repair damage and stimulate protein synthesis. This why having adequate protein in the diet is important; you must have the protein available for the muscle to use it.

This only works if the muscle needs the protein, and that demand comes from doing resistance exercise. Having extra protein without exercise to stimulate the muscle wouldn’t have much effect on either muscle size or strength. But when someone is doing strength training, having enough protein at the right time is critical to maximizing strength gains.

The RDA, the amount that meets the needs of most healthy adults, is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg) per day. You can calculate your protein requirement by multiplying your body weight in pounds by 0.4, so a 200 lb. person would require about 80 g protein per day. While the RDA is a minimum for most healthy people, those who exercise regularly may need more, and it is certainly too low for athletes engaged in strenuous endurance or strength training. One study suggests that 1.6 g/kg per day, about twice the RDA, is a good goal for people who are trying to build or maintain muscle mass through resistance training.

You should get your protein from food, not supplements, to meet both energy needs to fuel your exercise sessions and provide adequate protein for muscle repair and growth. Timing matters, too: Protein intake immediately after exercise is particularly effective, so follow a workout with a protein rich meal or snack. Even if you aren’t actively training to build muscle, the combination of regular resistance exercise and adequate protein intake is essential to maintain muscle mass and strength as well as helping you maintain your weight.

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