Tag Archives: aiken standard

Chill out! Why less stress is essential for good health.

Chronic stress can have serious emotional, psychological, and physiological effects that contribute to or exacerbate many health problems. In fact, the negative health effects of chronic stress are like those of eating a poor diet or not getting enough physical activity. That said, managing stress, including getting enough sleep, is often overlooked as a key component of good health.

The effects of stress and the importance of stress management is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

stress


The word “stress” is typically used to indicate both the feeling of being “under a lot of stress” as well as the things that cause that feeling. The events and situations that cause stress are properly called stressors, which lead to a stress response that includes consequences we feel as well as physiological changes we may not notice.

The immediate effect of a stressor is called the “fight or flight” response since it prepares the body to deal with a dangerous situation. A classic example of this is a caveman who encounters a saber-toothed tiger, clearly a stress-inducing event.

The sympathetic nervous system is immediately activated, which raises heart rate and blood pressure to pump more blood to the muscles. Additionally, stored fat and carbohydrate fuels are broken down as fuel for the muscles. The adrenal glands release catecholamines (adrenaline) and cortisol (the stress hormone) to prolong and enhance this effect. This coordinated response makes sure the caveman’s body is ready for action. After the danger passes, everything returns to normal.

This physiological response is appropriate for major events like saber-toothed tiger encounters, but not for less perilous stressors like being stuck in traffic, pressure at work or home, and other personal and family issues. But the body responds with the same increase in blood pressure and hormones to them all. Unlike a rare saber-toothed tiger encounter, these stressors tend to occur on a daily basis, leading to continuous stress response.

The increase in hormones can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases. This is partly due to elevated levels of cortisol, a hormone that plays a role in storing fat and increasing appetite. While elevated cortisol during exercise (including running away from a saber-toothed tiger) is normal, chronic overproduction can have negative effects.

While it is impossible to avoid all stress in life, minimizing stressors and managing the way you respond to stress can have important benefits. To the extent that it is possible, avoiding stressful situations through better time management, setting realistic expectations for ourselves and with others, and learning to say “no” are common recommendations.

Learning how to deal with stressors to avoid the negative effects of stress is also important. Techniques that can be implemented in the heat of a stressful moment include taking a break from the situation, listening to calming music, and progressive relaxation. Even taking a deep breath can help.

Exercise has long been recognized as beneficial for reducing stress and the long-term effects of stress on your health. This includes doing something active during a stressful situation and exercising regularly to improve the way your body responds to stress. While all forms of exercise seem to work, much research and practice has focused on specific types of exercise including yoga and Tai Chi.

Other effective strategies traditionally include meditation and relaxation exercises. More and more research shows that getting enough sleep is also critical for reducing stress and the impact it has on your health. Eating a healthy diet can reduce the effects of stress as well.

The bottom line is that a healthy lifestyle includes stress management as well as a good diet and regular activity. Since all three are essential for good health, it would be wise to eat smart, move more, and chill out!


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More about the benefits of outdoor exercise.

You probably know that exercise is good for you and that going for a daily walk 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 wellbeing.

What you may not know is that where you exercise matters and that 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 recent media reports on the topic make this a good time to share new research and revisit some the benefits of being active in nature. Which I do in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard.

jogger in woods


A couple of recent studies, widely reported by the media, highlight some additional benefits of simply going for a walk outdoors in nature as well a possible explanation as to why. In these studies, participants who went for a walk in a quiet, tree-lined area experienced greater improvement in mood—they felt happier—than those who walked along a busy street in an urban area. The researchers also completed brain scans to determine that the difference in mood was related to changes in blood flow in the brain. The finding that being active in a natural environment caused physiological changes that led to psychological benefits is exciting!

Another advantage of exercising outdoors is that you might get a better workout. This is mostly due to the fact that you will likely walk or run faster outdoors, but other factors like wind resistance add to your effort. Research shows that even though people tend to exercise at a higher intensity outside, they don’t necessarily feel it. In fact, ratings of effort are lower outdoors for the same exercise.

This because the pleasant visual stimuli outdoors distracts you from unpleasant sensations of effort during exercise. This is the same reason that listening to music makes exercise more enjoyable and why fitness centers have televisions on the walls or built into exercise equipment. Think of the outdoors as a really big TV screen!

Almost any indoor exercise can be moved outdoors. While walking, running, and cycling are most obvious, resistance training exercises using body weight and many high-intensity interval training workouts can be modified for outdoors. Yoga and aerobics classes in the park are also great ways to promote both the physical and psychological benefits of exercise.

Much of the psychological benefit of outdoor exercise occurs in the first five minutes, so even short bouts of activity are meaningful. It also means that going for a short walk outside when you have a break at work or walking instead of driving short distances can have positive effects. At home, taking the dog for a walk, playing outside with the kids, or doing yard work are good ways to be active and reap the benefits of being outdoors.

Every little bit of activity you do outdoors will have both physical and psychological benefits to help you become and feel healthier. So, get outside and go for a walk!

 

 

 

 

Affordable care acts

The Affordable Care Act is in the news again, this time because the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled on the legality of subsidies offered to help people afford health insurance. Health care has long been an important and contentious topic in both political and social circles. Given the importance that accessing quality health care has for everyone, it is unfortunate that promoting good health has turned into a political debate.

In addition to expanding access to health care, the Affordable Care Act should also make it easier for people to get preventive care. This is important since preventable chronic diseases including diabetes and heart disease, are among the leading causes of disability and death as well as contributing to high health care costs. It turns out that adopting some simple lifestyle modifications can go a long way toward making you and your family healthier, as well as saving money.

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

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Here are a few affordable care acts you can implement today:

1. Move more

Significant health benefits, including weight loss and improved fitness, can be achieved with as little as 30 minutes of activity per day, but more is better. The activity doesn’t have to be “exercise.” It can include walking the dog, yard work, or house work. Research shows that sitting too much is just as unhealthy as not exercising. Spending less time sitting at work, home, or in the car is another easy way to improve health. And getting up and moving for even a few minutes is better than staying seated for long periods of time. Every little bit of activity really does count.

2. Eat smart

Making dietary changes can be difficult, but a few simple changes can lead to big benefits. Eating more real food including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats and less added sugar is a good place to start. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grain bread, pasta, and cereals are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber and most are low in calories. Eating less added sugar in sweets and processed foods can help you cut down on calories and lead you toward healthier food choices. Controlling portion sizes plays as big of a role in weight gain and loss as the types of food you eat, so pay attention to how much you eat, especially when you eat out. Chances are, it is more than you think!

3. Chill out.

Reducing and managing stress is essential for good health. Uncontrolled stress can lead to high blood pressure, poor immune function, and weight gain. Daily exercise will help, as will using stress management techniques like progressive relaxation. When you can, avoiding stressful situations is wise. Taking time to do something you enjoy each day is a good idea, too. Getting enough sleep (most adults require 7–9 hours) is also important for good physical and mental health.

4. Don’t smoke

Cigarette smoking more than doubles your risk of heart disease and stroke, and is by far the leading cause of lung cancer and other lung diseases. If you smoke, quitting now is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health—and the health of those around you. Nicotine replacement therapy and prescription medications can help, but quitting really does require serious dedication. It’s well worth the effort and the benefits of quitting can be realized almost immediately.

Regular activity, quitting smoking, managing stress, and the types of dietary changes described here can have a profound effect on preventing and treating many health problems. Best of all, these affordable care acts are basically free to implement and can lead to both health and financial savings now and in the future.


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

Start making deposits in your fitness bank

Saving money for emergencies is good advice and important for maintaining quality of life in the event of a lost job or other financial crisis. While this may seem like common sense, many people have been caught without enough savings when they needed it and found it difficult to meet basic needs.

This principle can also be applied to fitness. When you are healthy, you can maintain a high level of fitness. This makes your day-to-day activities easier and serves as a reserve or “bank” to draw on when you need it. Your good fitness now can get you through a health crisis just like saving money can help you through a financial crisis. This health crisis could come in the form of an injury or illness that keeps you from being active for several days or a hospitalization that keeps you in bed for a week, a month, or longer. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

The problem with periods of inactivity, like bed rest or hospitalization, is that there are severe physiological effects that occur within days and get worse over time. You may have noticed this as weakness and fatigue after spending a few days in bed with a cold. Muscle strength declines at a rate of over 1% per day of bed rest, and can be 50% lower following as little as three weeks. That 50% reduction in strength could limit a person who was already deconditioned to a point where he or she would have difficulty completing the most basic activities of daily living.

A person who was fit and strong when they went into the hospital would certainly be better off when released. And older adults fare worse than younger individuals. According to one study, the decline in strength seen in older men in just 10 days was equivalent to the change measured after 28 days in men 30 years younger.

It’s not just the muscles that are affected, the bones get weaker, too. In fact, 12 weeks of bed rest can reduce bone density by as much as 50%, exposing patients to a greater risk of fracture. This is due to the reduced stress on the bone from not standing and walking as well as the lack of muscle activity. Two of the most effective ways to build bone density are putting stress on bones through weight-bearing activity and the action of the muscles pulling on the bones from resistance training. Because bed rest eliminates both of these stresses, bone density declines rapidly.

One unique study had healthy young men complete three weeks of bed rest back in the 1960s. They all experienced a rapid decline (over 20%) in their aerobic fitness, but recovered quickly after the experiment ended. These individuals also had their fitness tested again 30 years later. It turns out that the decline in fitness in those young men in three weeks of bed rest was greater than the decline in fitness that occurred over 30 years of aging!

The good news is that most patients are encouraged to move around as much as possible. Some receive in-patient physical therapy or rehab, even after major surgery, to help lessen the effects of prolonged bed rest. It is important to take advantage of these opportunities if you, or a loved one, are hospitalized.

There are many reasons to exercise and be fit, but the most important reason may be to develop a fitness “bank” you can draw on if you become injured or hospitalized. Since the effects of bed rest are seen in people of all ages, everyone can benefit from a good fitness foundation. Just like putting money in the bank, doing a little now can have great benefits later when you need it most.

Finally, some smart advice: First, achieve and maintain a high level of fitness now, just as you would save money for a rainy day. You never know when you will need it. Second, if you are hospitalized, take advantage of opportunities to move, whether that is limited to moving from bed to a chair or if it includes short walks or even inpatient exercise–if the medical staff approves, of course. While many well-meaning friends and family members will tell you to rest and not move, true bed rest is almost the worse thing you can do.

For example, inpatient cardiac rehabilitation targets patients who are recovering from heart attacks and even open heart surgery. The goal is to get these patients up and moving as quickly as possible to prevent long-term consequences of bed rest.


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

Start planning for your summer vacation now.

If you intend to take a vacation this summer, the time to start planning is now. Of course, you need to make figure out where and when you want to go, make travel arrangements, and plan activities. 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 many people are accustomed to.

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


family hiking

There is good reason to choose an active vacation. Simply spending time outdoors can reduce stress and make you feel better 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. Most vacation destinations are selected in part because there are interesting sights to see or are easy to get around without a car. This means you will be on your feet a lot more than usual.

Think about a family trip to Disney World. It is not uncommon for people to be on their feet for 12 hours and walk 10–15 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.

Since regular exercise promotes endurance and strength, being fit can make it easier to get through long days on vacation. If you spend much of your time sitting at work and home, visiting a museum or standing in long lines at a theme park can be daunting. But if you spend more of your day up and moving you will have an easier time in these situations. A whole day walking around sightseeing can be exhausting, but less so if you are accustomed to taking long walks. That isn’t to say that you should start walking for 10 hours each day, but doing activities that last for at least an hour will help.

Here are some tips to help you prepare for your next active vacation. You should limit your sitting time and spend more time standing and moving around at work and at home. This will help you get ready for long days on your feet. Dedicating 30 minutes each day to being active will build endurance, and you can get bigger benefits from doing more. If your vacation will include vigorous exercise, building strength through resistance training and flexibility through stretching or yoga can help you avoid injury.

Your goal should be 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.

Want to know how to lose weight? Ask the experts.

For a great many people, losing weight is a struggle. For starters, selecting a diet to follow or program to join can be a difficult decision. In fact, the great debate about which diet is the best seems to create more confusion than answers. Add to that the conflicting reports about what to do for exercise, and the confusion grows. Then, the real challenges begin. Knowing what to do is relatively easy compared learning a whole new lifestyle involving what, when, why, and how to eat and exercise. Losing weight is hard work, far from the effortless portrayal in advertisements, in which the fat just seems to melt away.

There are some people who make losing weight look easy. No question, these people have to plan to eat healthy meals, dedicate time for exercise, and deal with cravings just like everyone else.  But it seems as though they have figured out the secret of how to lose weight. It turns out that there isn’t really one thing that people do to be successful, but there are some common behaviors that the “successful losers” share. Following the advice of people who are successful at losing weight and keeping it off can help you achieve your weight loss goals.

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


The good news is that this advice is available. The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) is a collection of information submitted by individuals who have succeeded at long-term weight loss. These “successful losers” have lost an average of 66 pounds and kept it off for over five years, with some losing as much as 300 pounds! Best of all, they share the secrets of their success. Almost all of them increased their physical activity and modified their diet, suggesting that eating less and moving more are necessary for successful weight loss.

Closer to home, I am loosely involved with a local, workplace-based weight loss and fitness program. The comments from the participants about what they are doing and challenges they are facing is especially interesting. The experience of participants in this program supports the findings from the NWCR and provides more specific information about what works.

First, nearly all of the participants have changed what they eat. Some follow a specific diet while others report that they are simply eating less or eliminating certain foods, such as fried foods or desserts. The Paleo diet and eating less processed foods seem to be popular approaches, but participants mention a wide variety of diets and weight loss programs.

Second, almost everyone has become more active. For some, this means going for a 30 minute walk every day while others do more, including exercise at a gym or training for a half marathon. Some participants note that they are progressing from shorter bouts of light intensity activity to longer, more vigorous exercise. This is a natural progression that further increases fitness and energy expenditure.

Finally, many of the participants report that some sort of support has helped keep them on track. This includes social support from coworkers, friends, and families, many of whom have joined in the health improvement process. But support also comes in the form of devices and apps that track and provide feedback about their activity and what they eat. The popularity of these tools suggests that they are helpful, but any method to provide accountability would work.

The bottom line is that the participants in this program, just like the NWCR members, are focusing on “eating less” and “moving more” in some way and relying on some form of support to keep them on track. The good news is, there is no one right way to lose weight. The trick is to find something that works for you, given your current health, interests, and lifestyle.

The prescription your doctor should give you, but probably won’t.

What if there was a prescription your doctor could give you that would lower your risk of heart attack, stroke, and most cancers? What if that prescription could also prevent and treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes as well as reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, decrease depression, and improve cognitive function and memory better than any other available treatment? Would you be interested in that prescription?

Imagine that prescription could also help you maintain a healthy body weight, increase your strength, and improve your fitness. And provide all of these benefits without negative side effects. Are you interested now?

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

exercise-rx


That prescription exists, but it isn’t a drug or other medical treatment. It is regular physical activity! Research shows that if you have a low level of physical activity you are at greater risk of dying than if you smoke, are obese, or have high blood pressure or cholesterol. In fact, physical inactivity is now thought to be the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States.

If you didn’t know this, you are forgiven. Much attention is given to diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity—with good reason, of course—at the expense of focusing on health behaviors like physical activity. This is partly because of the “education” provided by pharmaceutical companies, who develop drugs to treat these conditions and advertise them widely. But physical inactivity has a huge impact on health, largely because a lack of regular exercise can cause or exacerbate these other diseases. Unfortunately, modern medicine tends to focus medications and surgical procedures, so a low-tech approach like taking a 30 minute walk every day is often overlooked.

Even if you do take medications to treat a chronic condition, regular physical activity is still beneficial. In fact, people who exercise are less likely to require medications for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, or high cholesterol. Many people find that they can rely on lower doses of some medications and may be able to stop taking some altogether if they exercise regularly (under the advice of a physician, of course).

May is Exercise is Medicine Month, a time to help everyone recognize the valuable health benefits of regular physical activity. Exercise is Medicine is an initiative focused on encouraging physicians and other health care providers to include exercise in health assessment and in treatment plans for all patients. Unfortunately, the benefits of physical activity and exercise recommendations are not emphasized in medical education. The result is that only about a third of US adults report having received exercise counseling at their last physician visit.

The amount of exercise needed for health benefits is lower than you might think. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that all adults participate in a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week. This can be met by going for a 30 minute brisk walk on five days each week. For children, 60 minutes or more of moderate or vigorous physical activity every day is recommended. For everyone, additional health benefits come from doing more, either higher intensity exercise or longer duration activity and limiting sedentary time.

The Exercise is Medicine initiative aims to increase physician awareness of the health benefits of exercise, but it will probably be some time before exercise counseling becomes the norm. In the meantime, you should ask your doctor about including exercise in your personal health care plan. Then, go for a walk!