Tag Archives: healthy choices

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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Your Health & Fitness holiday gift guide: What you should really give your friends and family this year.

You probably have a friend or family member who is planning to start an exercise program, try to lose weight, or otherwise improve their health in the upcoming year. The right gift from you could help them get a good start on their New Year’s resolutions. With so many options for books, DVDs, exercise equipment, apps, and other gadgets, it can be difficult to pick the right gift. No worries, the Health & Fitness holiday gift guide is here to help you select something that will really help. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Holiday shopping


Most gift guides for health and fitness include things that people might need to get started and succeed on a weight loss or exercise program. Activity trackers are popular for monitoring exercise and providing motivation. Many runners use GPS devices or apps to record and share their runs. A host of websites and mobile apps provide nutrition analysis of meals to help with meeting training goals or weight loss. Almost all of these allow sharing with others over social media networks to foster a group dynamic, providing support, and even a little healthy competition.

All of these apps and devices can be helpful to someone starting a health improvement project and make great gifts. But an even better gift is something that really will help your friends and family members be successful. Here are the Health & Fitness holiday gift ideas:

Time. The most common reason that people quit an exercise program or struggle with weight loss is because of time. That includes time to exercise, obviously. But it also includes time to plan, shop for, and prepare healthy meals and snacks. This year, give the gift of time. Commit to helping your friend or family member plan time to focus on their program and dedicate yourself to taking on some responsibilities to help them do that. 

Help. In addition to helping find time, you should commit to actually doing things to facilitate your friend or family member’s health improvement program. Taking on chores and projects around the house, picking up the kids after school, and helping with shopping and cooking are examples of things you can do.

Support. Anyone who makes a major lifestyle change needs the support of others to be successful. Your role can be to provide encouragement, ask about progress, and take your friend’s program into account when planning meals and other activities together. You should also be ready to provide a gentle (or not-so-gentle) nudge when you see them getting off track.

A buddy. People who take on an exercise program with others are more likely to stick with it and be successful. So get involved with your friend or family member. Going for a walk together during a break at work or developing a healthy eating plan as a family is an excellent way to play along. Chances are, these healthy changes will benefit you, too.

These gifts may not have the wow factor of a shiny exercise gadget, but they are the things that will really help your friends and family members be successful. And that’s the best kind of gift to give. After all, no one ever quit an exercise program or failed at losing weight because they didn’t have the right nutrition app or the latest activity tracker. The real reason people struggle is because of factors like time and support from family and friends in the real, not virtual, world.


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

 

Just in time…tips to prevent holiday weight gain.

Thanksgiving is this week which means the holiday season is upon us. It is a time for spending time with family and friends, shopping, and eating. The bad news is that weight gain between Thanksgiving and the new year is a very real possibility. The good news is that the typical holiday weight gain is less than you might think. The even better news is that this weight gain can be prevented.


First, the bad news. Research shows that, on average, people gain about one pound during the holidays. Even subjects who said they were trying to lose weight over the holidays ended up gaining about 0.5 pounds on average. The problem is that this extra weight is not lost during the spring or summer, meaning that holiday weight gain is a major contributor to the gradual increase in weight, about one pound per year, most people experience over time.

Now for the good news: The weight gain that typically occurs during the holidays can be prevented. Since people tend to gain less than one pound, even small modifications to activity or diet can make a difference. Here are some strategies:

  1. Stay active. The average holiday weight gain could be prevented by walking about one mile, or about 20 minutes, per day. Since time may be a factor, you can turn a shopping trip into a chance to be active by taking an extra lap around the mall or parking further away in the parking lot. Go for a walk before or after a family meal or party—and take your family and friends with you.
  1. Stay away from the food. Most holiday parties include lots of food, and usually not the healthiest choices. You can reduce the amount you eat by limiting your time near the food—literally, fill your plate and move away from the food. Using a smaller plate will reduce the amount of food you take, too. Getting rid of the candy dish on your desk at work or the plate of treats on the countertop at home are also smart ideas.
  1. Don’t drink your calories. Alcoholic beverages, soda, and juice all contain calories and can add up to a big part of your total calorie intake. For example, egg nog can contain over 300 calories per glass. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your favorite drinks, but enjoy them in moderation.
  1. Plan ahead. If you are trying to watch what you eat, have a healthy snack before you go to a party. You will feel less hungry so you will probably be less inclined to eat as much. If you are bringing a dish to the party, make it something healthy that you like.
  1. Focus on family and friends, not food. The holidays are a time to enjoy special meals and events with family and friends, and that should be your focus. You should enjoy your favorite foods and drinks, just do it in moderation.

You can prevent holiday weight gain by watching what you eat and staying active. It is easier to keep the weight off than it is to lose it later, so a little extra effort now is worth it in the long run. Considering that many people plan to exercise and lose weight after the holidays, you could get a jump start on your New Year’s resolutions along with making this a happy and healthy holiday season.


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

 

The truth about restaurant salads

If you are looking for a healthy option for lunch or dinner at a restaurant, especially if you are trying to lose weight, chances are you will consider a salad. It turns out that at most fast-food and casual dining restaurants, salads may not be the low-calorie or low-fat choice you were expecting. However, ordering a salad can still be a healthy option, as I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Big salad


We think of salads as being a healthy choice because they contain lots of vegetables which are low in calories and high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. But most restaurant salads are more than just vegetables. At a minimum, you would add salad dressing and many salads also include nuts, fruit, chicken, bacon, or cheese, all of which add fat and calories.

Salad dressing alone can add hundreds of calories. Creamy dressings like ranch and blue cheese tend to be higher in both calories and fat than vinaigrettes. In many cases the salad has more calories than the sandwich or entree you would have ordered instead.

As an example, consider the Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Crispy Chicken at McDonald’s. This popular salad contains 490 calories and 29 grams of fat. Compared to a Big Mac, which has 540 calories and 29 grams of fat, this salad doesn’t seem like such a healthy option. You could improve the salad by switching from fried chicken to grilled chicken and save 180 calories and 15 grams of fat.

The real problem is the ranch dressing—one packet contains 200 calories and 17 grams of fat. You could skip the dressing altogether, but a more reasonable approach is to switch to the Low-Fat Balsamic Vinaigrette, with only 35 calories and 1.5 grams of fat. Want to really cut calories? The salad with the vinaigrette dressing and no chicken has only 230 calories, almost 300 fewer than the version with crispy chicken with ranch dressing or the Big Mac!

Despite the fact that many restaurant salads have calorie and fat content similar to burgers and other entrees, it doesn’t make them a bad choice. The salad does contain several cups of vegetables, which means it is higher in vitamins, minerals, and fiber than a burger. The salads at McDonalds have about twice as much fiber as most sandwiches.

Think of it this way: the salad may be equivalent to a burger as far as fat and calories go, but it comes with a serving (or more) of vegetables. And the salad is even healthier when you consider that the sandwich would undoubtedly come with fries! One more point: I use McDonald’s as an example here, but the same holds true for salads at other fast food and casual dining chain restaurants.

What if you are at a restaurant and want to order a salad? What can you do to make it healthier? You could order a side salad. Given the huge portions at most restaurants, this smaller serving might be enough. You can also limit the toppings, especially meat and cheese, and choose a lower-calorie dressing. Another tried and true option is to ask for the dressing on the side so you can add just as much as you want. And don’t forget, you can always share one of the large salads with a friend or save half for another meal.

The bottom line is that salads at restaurants can be as high in calories and fat as other “unhealthy” menu items, but they do provide a serving of vegetables you might otherwise miss. And by making a few choices, you can create a salad that is a healthy, low-calorie option.


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

 

It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility.

Eating well and being physically active are two of the most important things you can do to promote good health. But knowing you should do these things does not always mean it is easy to actually do them.

Despite the simplicity of the message “eat healthy and exercise,” many people struggle with knowing exactly what to do and how to do it. This is largely due to the complicated and ever-changing nature of nutrition and exercise information and the fact that most people receive no education in these areas.

You may even feel like the information you read and hear is designed to confuse you. That may be true, considering that much of the nutrition information we get comes from food companies that are trying to convince us to buy their products. Even scientific research can yield conflicting results, challenging even the most knowledgeable professionals, myself included, to make sense of it. And even if you do decide to make eating or activity changes, the “best” diet or exercise program claims may make you wonder if you made the right choice.

Given this, it’s not your fault if you struggle to understand basic health information and recommendations. But it is your responsibility to learn as much as you can to make the best choices for you and your family.

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

Man shopping in supermarket

This won’t be easy, of course. The popular media, as well as social media, promote confusion and false promises about nutrition by making claims that some foods are “toxic” while others are “superfoods.” The old good carb, bad carb or good fat, bad fat arguments have been given a new life as eat this, not that lists. The problem is that many of these claims are not supported by science. The research that is done often yields complicated or conflicting results that aren’t explained in a way that actually helps people make good decisions.

The same is true for exercise. No one doubts that exercise and physical activity are essential for good health, but there are conflicting claims about specific benefits of exercise and what the best form of exercise really is. This can lead to the idea that if you aren’t doing the right exercise, it doesn’t count. Nothing could be further from the truth! While there are reasons why some athletes might want specific types of training, the majority of people can benefit from simply spending less time sitting and going for a walk each day.

So, what can you do? Given the confusing and changing nutrition recommendations it’s best to focus on what hasn’t changed. That is, to focus on eating real food rather than processed, prepackaged foods. Planning meals and snacks to include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, lean meat, eggs, and dairy should give you plenty of healthy fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.

Instead of worrying about the “perfect” exercise, make it your goal to do something active for at least 30 minutes every day.  Beyond that, dedicating time for aerobic, strength, and flexibility exercise will bring greater benefits. Remember, the best exercise for you is the one you will do! Seek advice from people you trust and credible professionals, but remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Your responsibility isn’t to understand all of the nutrition, exercise, and health information you hear. It’s to make an effort to make a few simple, healthy choices despite that confusing information: Sit less, move more, and eat real food.


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

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.

2013-10-24 15.59.46


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.
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 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