Tag Archives: exercise

Happy Walktober! Celebrate by going for a walk outdoors.

 

Now that cooler fall weather is finally here (at least in our area), being active outdoors is more enjoyable. October is a great time to get outdoors and go for a walk! That is the spirit of Walktober, an initiative adopted by health organizations, companies, and communities around the globe.

Walking is a great way to be active to help you control your weight, increase your fitness, and improve your health. The most common form of exercise for most people is walking, and for good reason: walking doesn’t require any special equipment (beyond comfortable shoes) or skills, and you can do it almost anywhere.

You can meet basic physical activity recommendations by walking briskly for 30 minutes most days of the week. Even this amount of walking can lead to a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers as well as improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of wellbeing.

father and son walking in woods

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Take steps (literally) to fight the flu.

It’s time to get a flu shot if you haven’t already. Getting vaccinated is the most important thing you can do to prevent seasonal influenza (flu). But did you know that regular exercise is important for a healthy immune system and can make your flu shot more effective? This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Flu vaccine


Exercise can have a positive effect on your immune system. People who participate in moderate exercise on a daily basis have fewer and less severe colds and have up to 50% fewer sick days than those who aren’t regularly active. Research in animals and humans shows that exercise increases the activity of certain immune cells called helper T cells. This makes the immune system response to viruses, like the cold and flu, more robust. The strongest evidence is seen when the exercise is moderate in intensity and duration, such as a 30–60 minute walk or jog.

More exercise isn’t always better, though. Very vigorous and prolonged exercise can have the opposite effect. Athletes who engage in long, intense training tend to be more susceptible to upper respiratory infections. Research shows that immune function is depressed in the weeks leading up to and after running a marathon, leading to an increased risk of becoming sick. The bottom line is that regular exercise improves your immune system, but very vigorous exercise may not.

Regular exercise also enhances the immune system response to the influenza vaccine. This means that the flu vaccine can be more effective in people who exercise. If you don’t exercise already, you can still benefit: One study showed that a single 45 minute exercise session can improve the immune response to the flu vaccine. You can get this benefit by going for a brisk walk before your flu shot.

There are other steps you can take to reduce your chance of getting sick this cold and flu season beyond getting a flu shot and regular exercise. You should avoid close contact with people who are sick since the flu can be spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. You can also protect yourself by not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth and by washing your hands frequently with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Good nutrition is also important for optimal immune system function. Deficiencies of certain nutrients can have a negative effect on immune function, so eating a balanced diet is essential. That said, there is no support for “boosting” the immune system by taking high doses of vitamins, minerals, or other supplements, despite the claims made by supplement companies. In fact, the majority of nutritional supplements have not undergone appropriate testing and for those supplements that have been tested, the results are not consistent with the claims.

Poor sleep habits are associated with suppressed immunity and more frequent illness. Sleep deprivation can also reduce the positive immune response to a flu shot. High levels of stress increase susceptibility to colds and the flu and can lead to more sick days from work or school. Stress and poor sleep habits tend to occur together, creating a double negative effect on the immune system.

In order to have your best chance of staying healthy this year you should exercise every day, eat a healthy diet, manage your stress, and get enough sleep. Additionally, follow the traditional advice to get a flu shot, wash your hands frequently, stay away from people who are sick, and stay home yourself if you are ill.


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Function and fitness follow form.Why doing exercises properly can help you get fitter, faster.

When it comes to exercise, the most important thing is that you do it! When you are starting out, almost anything you do will have health and fitness benefits. As little as 30 minutes per day of moderate aerobic activity can improve your endurance and even one set of a few resistance exercises once or twice per week can increase your strength. Doing more, either longer exercise time or intensity, will result in bigger improvements in fitness.

Getting the most out of your workouts requires doing exercises properly. Using equipment appropriately and having good form can help enhance your gains from training. Proper technique is commonly thought to reduce the risk of injury, but it also has as much to do with the effectiveness of the exercise itself. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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A health and fitness remodeling project

Losing weight are getting in better shape are common goals. Given that almost 40% of Americans are considered obese and less than 25% meet minimum exercise recommendations, there are many people who could benefit from changing their eating and activity habits.

Much of the time the focus is on losing lots of weight quickly. Many popular diet and exercise programs require making big changes to eating and exercise behaviors. These changes can promote rapid weight loss, but many can’t be maintained as lasting habits. But these changes do help a lot of people lose significant weight, at least for a while.

There are also many people who want to lose just a little weight, maybe 5–10 pounds, and get in better shape. This usually means building muscle and shedding fat, but not really losing much weight, a process that I call “remodeling”.

jogger in woods

Here is a story about Shannon (not her real name), and her health and fitness remodeling project. Continue reading

Vacation is over…it’s time to get back to the gym.

Summer is winding down so many of us will be getting back to our usual routine. Maybe you had an active vacation this summer and maintained your fitness.  More likely, you took relaxing on your vacation a bit too seriously and fell out of your normal exercise routine.

Athletes have long known that even a short break from training results in significant decreases in fitness and performance. You may have noticed this yourself after taking time off. Two recent studies that you may have read about in the news suggest that taking time off from exercise can have a negative impact on your health.

Let’s explore how and why this happens, and what you can do to prevent it.

Exhausted after workout


When you start an exercise program your body adapts in ways that improve your strength and endurance.

Your aerobic fitness and endurance are enhanced by both cardiac and muscle adaptations. Your heart actually gets larger and stronger to pump more blood to your muscles. Within the muscles there is an increase in the number of capillaries, the small blood vessels that deliver blood to the muscle, and mitochondria, the part of the cell that produces ATP, the energy the muscle uses to contract. Together, these adaptations allow the muscle to produce more ATP without fatigue, allowing you to exercise a higher intensity for a longer time without fatigue.

If you do resistance training (and you should!), you get stronger and your muscles get bigger, called hypertrophy. Lifting weights causes microscopic damage in the muscle, which leads to inflammation and soreness. This sounds bad, but your muscles respond by rebuilding stronger, allowing you to generate more force and causing the muscle to grow in size.

These adaptations are also a major reason that exercise makes you healthier, too. Your blood pressure, blood glucose, and blood cholesterol are all improved because of how your heart, blood vessels, and muscles respond to exercise. Additionally, exercise results in changes to certain hormones and how your body stores and uses or stores glucose and fat. The end result is that exercise has far-reaching beneficial effects on your health that simply can’t be matched by any other intervention, including medications.

So, when you stop exercising for a period of time you start to lose these adaptations. This causes both your fitness and health to decline. And it happens quickly, in as little as two weeks!

Two recent studies demonstrate that regularly active adults who suddenly limit their usual activity for two weeks experience significantly impaired blood glucose control, increased fat storage, and lower fitness. It is important to note that in both studies these changes did not fully return to baseline after resuming normal activity for an additional two weeks. This means that the benefits of exercise were lost quickly and took a longer time to return to normal.

This is also true for aerobic fitness and muscular strength. Research done on athletes who stop training, perhaps due to an injury, shows that fitness declines rapidly with the first two weeks. Worse, it can take many more weeks to regain those fitness losses. You may not be a competitive athlete, but the same principle applies to you when you take time off from exercise.

Make it your goal to maintain some level of activity, even when you are on vacation. Time off can mean doing less, but it doesn’t have to mean doing nothing. Even a little exercise can help you maintain your fitness, keep you healthy, and make it easier when you return to the gym.


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Preseason sports safety

It’s hard to believe, but preseason practice for high school sports will be starting soon. This is an exciting time of year for athletes, coaches, and fans alike. Unfortunately, even the fittest young athletes can suffer injuries (or worse) during preseason training and competition during the season. Among the biggest concerns are the rigorous training schedule, exercise in the heat, and head injury. Fortunately, there are steps that coaches and parents can take to ensure the safety of young athletes during practice and games. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Preseason practices typically emphasize conditioning—getting athletes in shape for the season. While coaches may expect players to arrive at practice already in shape, the reality is that many athletes still need to improve their strength, endurance, and flexibility. Preseason conditioning usually consists of vigorous exercise designed to improve fitness rapidly. Many coaches also use this time to “toughen up” the players or to weed out those who are not suited for the sport. For most young athletes this approach is safe and effective, but there is a risk of injury or, more rarely, collapse or death with intense training.

The risk of injury or death is made worse by the high heat and humidity that is common at this time of the year. For this reason, many coaches hold conditioning sessions in the morning or evening, when it is cooler. Even then, exercise alone poses a challenge to maintain a normal body temperature. Adding equipment such as pads and helmets for football players increases the risk for hyperthermia, which is even greater in the sun on a hot day. A high sweat rate makes dehydration more likely, so frequent water breaks are essential. Unfortunately, some coaches may be tempted to limit water breaks in a misguided effort to build toughness. This is absolutely inappropriate! Dehydration and hyperthermia can lead to heat stroke, which can be deadly.

This topic was covered in an NPR  interview with Dr. Douglas Casa of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. You can also watch a video in which Dr. Casa discusses hydration and preventing heat illness in young athletes.

Another concern, especially among football players, is the risk of concussion. It turns out that concussions are more common than previously thought in football players and repeat concussions, even “minor” ones, can cause long-term problems. New recommendations for all levels of football call for a better assessment of athletes who suffer head injuries and prevent injured athletes from returning to play. This is important during practices as well as games. While the focus is on football, nearly all sports that involve contact have a risk of concussion.

The topic of concussion is addressed in this video of a lecture given by Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, Professor of Exercise and Sport Science at UNC-Chapel Hill and MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award winner.

These risks can be reduced by good year-round conditioning, altering practices to reduce heat injury risk, education to reduce the likelihood of concussion, and careful assessment when a concussion is suspected. These responsibilities fall on the coaching staff and the certified athletic trainers who should be present at all practices and competitions. Certified athletic trainers have the knowledge and skills to assess environmental conditions and monitor athletes for signs of heat stroke, concussion, and other injuries. You can learn more about sports injury prevention and the role of certified athletic trainers in keeping young athletes safe from the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA). All athletic trainers working in our area are certified by the NATA.

All players should also undergo a physical exam prior to participation in sports. The risk of injury can be further reduced by making sure all players are in shape prior to the start of practice. Coaches should find incentives to motivate their players to build strength and endurance in the off-season. Parents should make sure their young athletes are prepared for the physical requirements of their sport and aware of the risks of participation.

While injury is always possible, the risks can be minimized through careful planning and communication among coaches, parents, athletic trainers, and the athletes themselves.


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Go ride your bike!

Summer is a great time to go for a bike ride. Aside from being a great way to get around, bicycling can improve physical, mental, and social health, and has environmental and economic benefits. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
Bike ride


Going for a bike ride is a good way to meet physical activity goals. For most people, bicycling would help meet the minimum recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per day. At faster speeds, biking is an excellent exercise to improve fitness. For kids, riding a bike is a fun way to be active and teaches important movement skills.

Riding outdoors can promote enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger, and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity, including bicycling, may improve attention, learning, and productivity in adults and children.

Bicycling is often done with others, whether that is a family bike ride or exercising with a cycling group. This strengthens social connections and allows people to share in the enjoyment of being active. Even if you ride alone, you are far less isolated from other people and your environment compared to driving a car. These connections to the community are an important part of health and happiness.

Replacing car trips with cycling is good for the environment, too. Every mile you drive releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the environment. Additionally, spending more time sitting in your car can also have negative effects on your mental and physical health. Biking has no such effects on the environment and has important health benefits including improved fitness, weight control, and greater feelings of wellbeing.

As an added bonus, driving less will mean using less gas. Even though gas prices are lower now than in recent years, every mile you don’t drive saves money. Plus, it costs far less to purchase and maintain a bike than it does a car, so it makes economic sense to ride your bike instead of drive when possible. If you think you drive too far bike, think again. Most people commute less than five miles to work and nearly half of all car trips are less than two miles. Both are reasonable distances to bike. Even if you have longer distances to travel, you could probably replace some car trips with active transportation.

Obviously, biking everywhere isn’t practical. It requires access to safe bike lanes and sidewalks that connect people’s homes to work, school, and other destinations. Sadly, this infrastructure doesn’t exist in most communities (including ours), which were built to support cars, not people. Whether or not we bike for exercise or transportation ourselves, we should all act as advocates for changes in the community that will make bicycling more realistic for everyone.

Something as simple as a family bike ride around the neighborhood or biking to work or to visit a friend can have important health, environmental, and economic benefits. Whenever and wherever you ride, keep in mind that common sense says you should always obey all traffic laws and wear a helmet.

Finally, if you haven’t been out on two wheels for some time, don’t worry—it’s just like riding a bike!


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