Tag Archives: fitness column

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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Honesty is the best policy when it comes to your health

Have you ever justified your weight by saying you are “big-boned”? What about your eating and exercise habits? How often do you really eat out? How many days did you actually get to the gym last month? Are you being honest with yourself when it comes to your health? And are you asking others to be honest with you?

Being honest about your health is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


Being honest with yourself is essential for initiating health behavior changes and setting good goals. For example, someone who tells themselves they need to lose “a few pounds” may really need to lose much more and may not take their weight loss as seriously as they should. Convincing yourself that you are doing more exercise than you really are may mean that you won’t see the fitness or weight loss results you were expecting.

This type of self-deception is easy to do. Take body weight for example. The current standard for determining if you are at a healthy weight is body mass index (BMI), calculated from your weight and height (kg/m2). It requires a bit of math, so using a mobile app or online calculator is a good idea.

A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered normal, 25-29.9 is overweight, and if your BMI is 30 or higher, you are classified as obese. To put this in perspective, a BMI of 30 is equivalent to about 25–30 pounds of excess fat.

Let’s say your BMI puts you in the obese category, suggesting you should lose weight. But then you think about an article you read about how BMI isn’t accurate because you can be considered obese if you have excess muscle, not fat. And then there was the story on the news suggesting that it is okay to be obese as long as you are physically fit. So, maybe you don’t need to worry about your weight!

See how easy it is to tell yourself that you don’t really need to lose weight? In reality, BMI is an accurate method of assessing your body fatness; the inaccuracies reported in the news almost always involve athletes or people with lots of muscle mass developed through physical labor. Be honest…is that really you? It’s also true that people who are fit and fat can be healthier than people who are thin and sedentary, but it requires a lot of exercise to reach that level of fitness. Again, are you really that fit?

Probably the best test is to take a good look in the mirror and be honest about what you see. Try to “pinch an inch” of fat around your belly. One inch isn’t necessarily a problem, but take notice if you can pinch a handful of fat. Measuring your waist circumference (or looking at your pants size) can give you the same information. People who have a high BMI because of extra muscle, like athletes, have thin waists. If your waist circumference is greater than 35 inches ( women) or 40 inches (men), you have excess fat.

This honesty also applies to others, including your doctor. Many physicians are reluctant to discuss weight and weight loss with their patients, and many patients don’t want to hear what they interpret as a personal attack. Don’t be one of those patients! Ask your doctor for an honest assessment about your weight and the impact it might have on your health.

This is a real problem. According to one report, only 39 percent of obese people surveyed had ever been told by a health care provider that they were obese.     To help combat this problem, the American Medical Association has developed resources to help physicians better communicate with patients about their weight.

Making changes to diet and activity habits is a difficult process, to be sure. Telling yourself that you don’t need to make them only delays getting started and can lead to poor health in the meantime. When it comes to your health, honesty is the best policy!


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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!

 

 

 

 

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.

Skip the smoothie, have a burger? Fast food for exercise recovery.

Many athletes use specialized supplements before, during, and after exercise to improve performance and enhance strength and endurance gains from training. Many non-athletes also use similar supplements, even though they may not need them. And a recent study suggests that fast food, literally meals from McDonald’s, can work as well as more expensive sports supplements for promoting muscle recovery following intense exercise. I try to make sense of all of this in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.



SONY DSC

After exercise, many athletes consume specialized beverages and foods that supply nutrients to help their muscles recover. These recovery drinks generally contain some combination of carbohydrates (sugar) and protein and come in liquid, shake, or smoothie form. There are also energy bars specifically formulated for use after exercise. Research shows that these carbohydrate-protein recovery drinks and foods enhance muscle recovery and adaptations to training in some athletes. Even if you aren’t an athlete, you may consume these products after you work out. Let’s explore when and for whom these recovery products might be useful.

Intense endurance exercise—think of a distance runner, cyclist, or triathlete—uses muscle glycogen as a fuel. Muscle glycogen is a storage form of glucose, sugar that the muscle converts into energy. During prolonged exercise sessions that last at least 60–90 minutes, muscle glycogen levels can be severely depleted. Resynthesizing that muscle glycogen is a priority following exercise.

Athletes who are engaging in intense resistance training to build muscle and strength may also benefit from a recovery drink. Weight training stimulates protein synthesis in the muscle, so it makes sense that consuming additional protein would be beneficial. As new muscle protein is formed, both strength and muscle size are increased.

It has also been shown that combining the carbohydrates with protein results in more rapid muscle glycogen replenishment and increases muscle protein synthesis. This is why many specialized recovery drinks and foods include a combination of carbohydrates and protein. The best time to consume carbohydrates to restore muscle glycogen levels is immediately following exercise. Similarly, the muscle is most responsive to extra protein immediately after a resistance training session.

Perhaps these recovery drinks, bars, and shakes aren’t even necessary. Sports nutritionists have long recommended conventional foods and beverages for athletes after exercise. Research shows that chocolate milk is just as effective as more expensive supplements for replenishing muscle glycogen and promoting muscle protein synthesis. Remarkably, according to a study published last week, fast food may work just as well!

In this study cyclists were fed either commercial recovery aids or food from McDonald’s including pancakes, sausage, juice, a burger, fries, and soda after they completed an intense exercise session. Importantly, the meals contained equal amount of calories and nutrients. It turns out that there was no significant difference in how quickly muscle glycogen was replenished or in performance in a subsequent exercise bout between the two conditions. While the authors don’t recommend eating more fast food, this study suggests that foods not typically thought of as sports nutrition products can be effective for muscle recovery following vigorous exercise.

But what about people who engage in regular exercise to improve fitness or lose weight? The benefits of recovery drinks in athletes exist because the intense training causes changes in the muscle that allow the extra carbohydrates and protein to have a positive effect. Training at a lower intensity is unlikely to create this stimulus in the muscle, so these nutrients would not have a significant benefit. Simply put, most people don’t train hard enough to need a recovery drink.

The bottom line is that these recovery aids are not always necessary and you can get the same benefits from regular food. Something else to keep in mind is that these supplements, especially in shake or smoothie form, can be high in calories. It is entirely possible to consume more calories in a recovery beverage than you burn during exercise. This could diminish the effect of exercise on weight loss and may actually lead to weight gain. For most of us, a sensible diet with regular exercise is the key to meeting fitness and weight loss goals.

Numbers you need to know to prevent and treat heart disease.

February is American Heart Month, an ideal time to assess your risk of heart disease and take steps to improve your health. When it comes to heart disease, there are several numbers, including your blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose, you (or your doctor) may be monitoring. But there is another set of numbers that are equally important for preventing and treating heart disease that you may not be familiar with: 0, 5, 10, 25, and 30.

What these numbers mean and why they are so important is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


 

Blood test results

0 is for no smoking. Cigarette smoking more than doubles your risk of heart disease and stroke, is by far the leading cause of lung cancer and other lung diseases, and is responsible for over 400,000 deaths per year. If you smoke, quitting now is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. Nicotine replacement therapy in the form of gum, lozenges, and patches as well as prescription medications can help, but quitting really does require serious dedication. It’s well worth the effort and some benefits of quitting can be realized almost immediately.

5 is for eating five fruits and vegetables each day. A healthy diet is one important aspect of good health. While there is no one single measure of a healthy diet, adequate fruit and vegetable consumption is widely considered to be essential for good health. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber and most are low in calories. At a minimum, you should eat five servings per day with an emphasis of fresh fruits and vegetables. Your real goal should be to include fruits and vegetables in all meals and snacks, but five servings per day is a good start.

10 is for 10,000 steps per day. Regular physical activity is essential for good health. Almost any activity counts, and a good goal is to be as active as possible throughout the day. You can track your physical activity using a pedometer (step counter) or an app on your phone. A target of 10,000 steps per day is a commonly cited goal, but you should try to take as many steps as possible. You can do this by minimizing the time you spend sitting, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and walking instead of driving when possible. More steps are better, even if you don’t get to 10,000.

25 is for maintaining a healthy body weight, or a body mass index (BMI) of less than 25. The BMI is a measure of weight relative to height. A BMI of 18–25 is considered healthy, 25–29 is considered overweight, and 30 and higher is considered obese. The risk of health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers goes up with BMI, so maintaining a healthy body weight is good for your health. If you are overweight you should lose weight, even if you don’t achieve a BMI of less than 25.

30 is for 30 minutes of exercise per day. In addition to being as active as possible throughout the day, you should dedicate a minimum of 30 minutes for exercise or other activity. Considerable research shows that as little as 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity leads to improved fitness and health with greater benefits coming from longer duration or higher intensity activity. This can include exercise—a brisk walk or jog, lifting weights, or other aerobic exercise—as well as other activities like housework and yard work. Your goal should be to sit as little as possible, move as much as possible, and make time each day to be active.