Tag Archives: fitness

Ever feel like the world is working against you. It’s our toxic activity environment

Last week I introduced the idea that we live in a “toxic environment,” which provides easy access to high-calorie, unhealthy, inexpensive food and promotes physical inactivity.  The focus was on the toxic food environment, so now it is time to explore our toxic activity environment which makes easy to be inactive and can discourage activity. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Second chance New Year’s resolutions

 

It’s hard to believe, but summer is winding down and a new school year has begun. As teachers, students, and parents know, this is the real beginning of the new year. For those of us involved in education, the start of a new school year is a perfect time to make goals for the upcoming year, whether they are related to school or not.

This is a lot like making New Year’s resolutions on January first. Hopefully, you are still on track with the resolutions you made. Sadly, research suggests that only 8% of people actually achieve their goal (more data here).

There are a host of reasons for this. Some of the most common resolutions—quitting smoking, losing weight, and getting in shape—are also some of the most difficult behaviors to change because they require making significant lifestyle modifications. To make things worse, many people set unrealistic goals or try to take on too much at once.

Many people who fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions this year will recycle them next year and try again. In fact, most people who manage to successfully quit smoking or lose weight have tried many times in the past. Sometimes experience, even a bad experience, is the best way to learn what does and doesn’t work for you.

But there is no need to wait until 2023 to restart your stalled New Year’s resolutions or finally get around to doing what you planned months ago. Setting a date to begin a behavior change is an important step in the process so, why not make the end of summer and the start of a new school year the time to revisit your resolutions and try again?

Here is some advice to help make this second chance to start or restart your New Year’s resolutions successful.

Be realistic. Many people fail to keep their resolutions simply because they don’t set realistic goals or aren’t realistic about what it will take to meet those goals. For example, running a marathon is an ambitious goal for almost anyone, especially someone who doesn’t exercise at all. A resolution to work up to walking or jogging five days per week, with a goal of completing a 5k run/walk is more achievable.

Focus on learning. Making most health behavior changes involves learning as much as doing. Something as simple as eating healthier meals requires learning about the nutrients that make some foods healthier than others, learning to read food labels to select healthy foods, and learning how to cook and prepare healthy meals. If your resolution is to learn about healthy meals, you will be able to achieve that goal and be well on your way to eating a healthier diet.

Manage your time. Most health improvement projects require taking time to learn about, implement, and maintain those healthy behaviors. If you resolve to manage your time to include exercise or meal preparation in your daily schedule you will be much more likely to meet your goals. Trying to add these new activities as “extras” to your already busy day will inevitably lead to them getting squeezed out.

Plan ahead. Most people already know that changing health behaviors can be challenging, even under the best circumstances. It’s no wonder that holidays, travel, and other life events can complicate or even derail an otherwise successful diet or exercise program. Make it your resolution to think about what you can do before, during, and after these (and other) disruptions occur to keep yourself on track.

Hopefully these steps will help you keep your resolutions, achieve your goals, and make this a happy, healthy year. As a bonus, you can take January 1, 2023 off!


 

Recovering from vacation: getting back in shape after time away from the gym.

After two years of staying close to home you may have taken a vacation this summer. Maybe you had an active 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.  Research shows that taking time off from exercise can also 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 used by your muscles. 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.

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!

Research shows 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 do not fully return to baseline after resuming normal activity for an additional two weeks. This means that the benefits of exercise are 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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Swimming is fun and excellent exercise, so get fit and stay cool in the pool!

It’s hot! Whether you are swimming laps or splashing in a lake, swimming is a great way to stay cool and fit this summer. 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

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Fitness and recovery from illness

Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. Among other health and fitness benefits, it can have a positive effect on your immune system. People who participate in moderate exercise daily have fewer and less severe colds and have up to 50% fewer sick days than those who aren’t regularly active.

Research 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, flu, and coronavirus, more robust. The strongest evidence is seen when the exercise is moderate in intensity and duration, such as walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming for 30–60 minutes.

Improving your fitness through regular exercise is also important for recovering from 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.

Patient walking in hospital


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 with each 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.

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 from the 1960s had healthy young men complete three weeks of bed rest. 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 inpatient physical therapy or rehab 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. Since the effects of bed rest are seen in people of all ages, everyone can benefit from building a foundation of good fitness through regular exercise.


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Celebrate Walktober 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 well being.

father and son walking in woods

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It’s hot! So get fit and stay cool in the pool.

It’s hot! Whether you are swimming laps or splashing in a lake, swimming is a great way to stay cool and fit this summer. 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

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Unfit for service. Another consequence of obesity and poor fitness in our youths.

Obesity and poor fitness, in combination or alone, have serious consequences on both an individual and societal level. This includes poor health now and in the future as well as an economic cost (in the billions per year!) that includes medical expenses as well as indirect costs such as increased absenteeism and lower productivity in the workplace.

This is particularly alarming in children since obesity at a young age sets up a cycle that leads to lower levels of activity that can make the condition worse over time. In both children and adults, overweight and obesity are associated with low physical fitness and many people who are at a “normal” weight are unfit as well.

Unfortunately, the common pattern of inactivity and obesity can limit the ability to function optimally at school, work, or in leisure-time activities. In fact, many young people are ineligible for military service because of physical limitations due to poor fitness and being overweight. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


Military fitness

A report from the Council for a Strong America finds that being overweight is the major reason that civilian military recruits are deemed medically unfit for service. Military training and service is physically demanding, requiring a high level of strength and endurance. These attributes are more likely to be lacking among overweight recruits.

Equally troubling is the fact that poor physical fitness disqualifies a high percentage of young men and women who are at a “healthy” weight. A 2010 report, written by a panel of retired military leaders, raises these same concerns, and has the ominous title, “Too Fat to Fight.” (A follow-up report, “Still Too Fat to Fight,” suggests that the situation hasn’t improved).

Interestingly, this is not a new problem. Large numbers of draftees who failed the induction exams due to physical reasons during WWI and WWII resulted in changes in physical education and nutrition programs in schools. Poor fitness among American children also led to the formation of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in the 1950’s and an emphasis on physical fitness testing and education among school-aged children. In recent years, participation in physical education has declined, resulting in the current generation of overweight, unfit young people.

A recent study also examines the impact of obesity and poor fitness on careers in the military. Not only are many young people disqualified from military service, those who do enter basic training are more likely to sustain injuries that delay or terminate their training. These injuries are more likely to occur in recruits who are obese and unfit at entry. Furthermore, the prevalence of obesity and lower levels of physical activity is higher in states in the south and southeast. Considering that these are among the states send the most recruits to basic training, this limits a great many people from potential military service.

Taken together, these reports suggest that the continuing trend of obesity and poor fitness among American children may have national security implications. This emphasizes the fact that schools are critical to improving the health and military-readiness of our children.

Changes to school lunch and physical education programs are needed, but this is not a new recommendation. In fact, nutrition and exercise recommendations for children and schools already exist, but they are not followed, largely for political reasons. Perhaps the current condition of poor health and fitness among military recruits will motivate our leaders to implement effective exercise and nutrition programs in schools.


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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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Celebrate Walktober 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 well being.

father and son walking in woods

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