Tag Archives: fitness

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

Exercise: The secret weapon for cancer prevention and treatment.

Exercise has broad and significant health benefits, making it among the most important healthy behaviors you can adopt. These benefits include improved muscular strength and endurance, stronger bones, and better cardiovascular system function. Exercise is also essential for maintaining a healthier body weight and body composition and improving metabolic health through blood glucose and lipid regulation.

But exercise causes changes at the cellular and hormonal levels that have even broader effects. Among these is a reduction in inflammation, which has long been linked to a lower risk of heart attack. Accumulating research suggests that reduced inflammation and improved immune system function may be an important way in which exercise reduces the risk of cancer. The role of exercise in cancer prevention and treatment is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

cancer exercise group


While we typically associate the immune system with communicable diseases like cold or flu, our immune system plays an important role in the body’s defense against cancer. Conditions like obesity, poor nutrition, and a sedentary lifestyle can promote chronic inflammation. Among other negative effects, inflammation can interfere with the normal functioning of the immune system. This impairs your cells’ natural cancer-fighting capacity, making it more likely that cancer will develop and spread. Exercise can reverse the immune system damage caused by chronic inflammation, reducing the risk of cancer development and progression as well as making it less likely you will become sick from a cold or flu.

The idea that exercise can reduce the risk of cancer isn’t new. I have written previously about the fact that regular physical activity can lower breast cancer risk by as much as 30%, improve survival, and reduce the risk of recurrence. A recent study confirms that high levels of physical activity can significantly lower the risk of breast cancer along with many other common types including colon, bladder, lung, kidney, and endometrial cancers.

In addition to helping reduce the risk of cancer development and recurrence, regular exercise can help you handle cancer treatment better. To be sure, cancer treatment can lead to extreme physical consequences including losses in weight, muscle mass, strength, and endurance. At least some of this is due to more time resting and less time being active, the effects of which 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 the flu. 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 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. Bed rest can also reduce bone density, exposing patients to a greater risk of fracture.

The fitter you are when you begin treatment, the fitter you will be at the end because you have “saved” more strength and endurance in your fitness bank. You simply have more you can lose before you get to a point at which you can’t complete your normal activities. In fact, maintaining physical activity is a key component of cancer treatment. And post-cancer exercise programs are becoming more common as a way to help women recover from cancer treatment and rebuild strength, endurance, and feelings of wellbeing.

The best approach is to be active now to reduce your risk of cancer (and many other chronic diseases) and build strong muscles and bones to help you successfully handle any cancer treatment or periods of other illness you may encounter later.


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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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Just do it…together! Why exercise is better with family, friends, or your dog.

It’s common to see people walking or running in pairs, and at the gym many people like to work out with a partner. Group exercise classes and boot camp programs are popular among novices and seasoned exercisers alike. Joining a team that trains together to walk or run in a race is a good plan for completing your first 5k or 10k event.

Having another person or a group of people to exercise with is a great way to increase your motivation and enjoyment. This makes it more likely you will stick with your exercise program, leading to better fitness and health. But there are additional benefits to exercising with others that may help you get started and continue your fitness program. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Boot camp workout


Exercising with others provides a level of motivation and accountability that is important, especially for people who aren’t self-motivated. Knowing that you are meeting a friend for a walk or meeting a training partner at the gym makes it less likely that you will find an excuse to skip a workout. While guilt isn’t the best reason to exercise, for many people it is the one thing that will get them moving.

Did you know that exercising with others can also help you get a better workout? It’s true. When you are exercising with another person or a group you can get feedback on your technique. Doing exercises properly can reduce the risk of injury and improve your gains strength, endurance, and flexibility.

You can also get ideas for new exercises and training techniques that can make exercise more enjoyable and less monotonous. Many people find that having a friend to walk or run with makes the time seem to go by faster. The friendly “competition” that can come from a partner or group can push you to train harder, making the exercise more beneficial.

A group dynamic is an important component of many popular exercise classes and programs. At the gym, participants in classes from aerobics to Zumba and spin to yoga benefit from the support and motivation of exercising with others. And programs like boot camps, CrossFit, and F3 are popular largely because of the camaraderie of the other group members.

The benefits may be even greater if you exercise with someone who is more fit than you are. Research shows that when someone is exercising with a partner who they perceive to be more fit they will work out harder and longer than if they were exercising alone. You can benefit from finding a partner or group members who are in better shape than you are. Be careful, though, since exercising with people who are much fitter than you can have the opposite effect and you may get discouraged.

Your exercise partner doesn’t even have to be another person to be effective. Research shows that walking with a dog can improve your adherence to a walking program and lead to greater improvements in fitness compared to walking with a human companion. While a friend might make excuses to skip exercise, a dog will always look forward to a walk. Don’t worry if you don’t have a pet; one study used dogs at a local animal shelter as walking partners.

You can take advantage of the benefits of exercising with a partner easily by asking a friend to go for a walk. It’s something that will benefit you both and it will be a good opportunity to spend time together. No more excuses…get moving!

The effect of involving others in your behavior change process is also helpful for losing weight and quitting smoking. This is true even if the other person (or people) aren’t participating with you—simply telling others about your plans to change can help make you more accountable and improve your chances for success.


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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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Stay cool and get fit in the pool

It’s hot! Whether you are swimming laps or splashing in a lake, swimming is a great way to stay cool. Swimming is also an excellent exercise for improving your fitness and helping with weight loss.

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

Swimmer


There is nothing that feels better than going for a swim on a hot summer day. Beyond being a fun way to cool down, swimming is a great way to get in shape. Swimming is also an excellent exercise for injury rehabilitation or for people with certain conditions like arthritis.

The fitness benefits of swimming are well established. Since swimming is a whole-body exercise it uses all of your major muscle groups, building strength, endurance, and aerobic fitness. Highly trained swimmers have VO2max values, considered the best measure of aerobic fitness, that are similar to runners and cyclists. If you have doubts about the fitness benefits of swimming, think about how muscular and lean Olympic swimmers are.

Depending on the stroke and speed, swimming ranges between 5 to 10 METs. (METs are units used to measure the intensity of activity; one MET is equivalent to sitting at rest) For example, doing the backstroke at a moderate speed is about 5 METs while swimming laps freestyle with vigorous effort is about 10 METs.

This range is similar to walking at 4 mph up to jogging at a 9 minute per mile pace. What if you are just spending time in the pool or lake rather than swimming laps? Swimming leisurely is 6 METs, still a decent workout.

Swimming is a great way to burn calories, too. Even at a moderate pace, swimming laps for 30 minutes can burn over 200 calories. The exact energy expenditure depends on the stroke (butterfly is highest, backstroke is lowest) and the speed, but for most people swimming will burn as many calories as spending the same amount of time exercising on land.

There are two major reasons for this. First, water is denser than air, so you need to expend more energy to move your body through the water. Second, swimming is a whole-body exercise which requires more muscle activity compared to walking or jogging which mostly involve the legs.

You may be surprised to learn that novice swimmers expend more energy per lap than elite swimmers. For example, one study showed that competitive swimmers expend only 280 calories to swim a mile, while less experienced swimmers burn about 440 calories to cover the same distance. The reason for this is that experienced swimmers are more efficient, so they expend less energy.

Aquatic exercise is popular for both therapeutic and fitness purposes, especially for people who don’t tolerate exercise on land well. When you are submerged up to your waist, 50% of your weight is supported; when you are up to your chest, about 75% is supported. This reduces the impact of exercise in the water, perfect for people who have arthritis, osteoporosis, severe obesity, or who are recovering from injuries.

Exercise in the water doesn’t have to mean swimming laps. Water aerobics, aqua walking or jogging, and resistance training using foam “weights” or webbed gloves offer safe ways to increase strength and endurance for almost everyone. Most fitness facilities that have a pool offer group aquatic exercise classes and you can find instructions online for exercises that you can do in your own pool.

The hot summer weather makes swimming and other water exercise appealing. But even if you don’t use the time for exercise, spending time playing in the pool or lake can still burn as many calories as going for a walk and is a great way to have fun and cool down!


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