Tag Archives: physical activity

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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When it comes to weight loss, calories count (but don’t count calories)

When it comes to losing weight, calories count. Thanks to a host of wearable devices and mobile apps, counting calories has never been easier. This matters because losing weight almost always means cutting the calories that you eat and increasing the calories that you burn. This concept of “eat less, move more” is the foundation of nearly every effective weight loss program. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

fitbit


Modern wearable devices and mobile apps allow you to track your weight, what you eat, and your activity fairly accurately. Many apps can measure the intensity of exercise by using the GPS and accelerometer features of your phone itself or by syncing with a wearable bracelet or belt clip. Some include heart rate to make the estimates even more precise. Using this technology, you can count steps, measure how many miles you walk or run, and estimate how many calories you burn.

Other apps can help you track what you eat. Whether you are counting calories or concerned about the amount of protein you are eating, diet analysis apps can show you what you are really eating. Most require you to enter the foods you eat and the app calculates calories, nutrients, sugar, salt, and water intake based on standard databases. In order to get accurate results, it is important to estimate portion sizes accurately, something that is challenging even for experts. That said, these apps can be useful for tracking what you eat to help you learn about your eating patterns to develop healthier habits or meet specific goals, such as eliminating added sugar from your diet.

Activity trackers and exercise apps are especially popular for improving fitness and promoting weight loss. Both the physical activity that you do throughout the day and dedicated exercise are important for good health, physical fitness, and weight control. This technology can help you know what to do, when to do it, and how much you did at the end of the day.

Even if you aren’t concerned about exactly how many calories your burned in an exercise class or how many steps you took during the day, these devices can help you develop healthier habits. Many people are simply unaware of how sedentary they are during the day or are unrealistic about how intense their workouts really are. For many people, an accurate report of how many steps they took or how many calories they burned is helpful for gauging their success and identifying things they can improve.

While these tools can be helpful, it is important to emphasize the importance of developing healthy habits in order to improve fitness, lose weight, or keep it off. A focus on “micromanaging” steps or calories may cause you to lose sight of the “big picture” changes you want to make. For example, you should strive to be as active as you can throughout the day, even if you have already met your step or calorie goal.

Keep in mind that there are very few people who failed to meet their fitness or weight loss goal because they didn’t have the latest activity tracker or fitness app. Real success comes from making lifestyle changes to incorporate healthy eating and activity habits that you can maintain without constant reminders. While technology can help you make those changes, it does not replace the dedication needed to develop lasting eating and activity habits to promote good health.


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
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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!


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

Traveling this summer? Go for a walk while you fly!

If you travel for work or have vacation plans this summer, that may mean spending time on planes and in airports. It usually also means a lot of sitting. But it doesn’t have to. In fact, you can easily find ways to include physical activity in your air travel plans. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

walking in airport


Airports, especially large airports, are built for walking. If time permits, you can easily walk long distances while you wait for your flight. Even if the airport has a train or other transportation between terminals, there is almost always a way to walk. If you have enough time, you can take a walk around the entire airport, giving you an active way to pass the time. You can always get at least a few minutes of activity by taking a short walk rather than sitting in the gate area waiting for your flight to board.

While airports are not designed with exercise in mind, some do encourage walking by posting information about distances between terminals. Passageways that showcase art, shopping, or other information make walking through the airport a more pleasant experience. Some airports even have dedicated spaces for exercise and a few have added yoga rooms for travelers to use. If you are travelling with children, many airports have areas that allow kids to move and play.

Prolonged sitting has health consequences, whether it is done at home, work, or on a plane. There has been some concern about the development on blood clots in the veins in the legs as a result of sitting still on long flights. This condition is commonly called “economy class syndrome,” since the tight seating makes it challenging to move around. While the risk of blood clots appears to be low for most people, this concern has made people aware of the importance of moving during flight.

Breaking up sitting, even for short amounts of time, is beneficial. On the plane you can usually get out of your seat and stand up, stretch, and walk around a bit. This is easier if you book an aisle seat. If not, your seat mates will need to stand up to let you out. Far from being an inconvenience, though, they should thank you for giving them a short break from sitting. While you are seated you can do leg exercises, too. The safety information card at your seat likely has suggestions, but even moving your legs and feet can improve circulation and make you feel better.

The American College of Sports Medicine has a task force on Healthy Air Travel with the mission to educate travelers and airport administrators about ways to encourage activity among travelers. Over time this should lead to more amenities and greater promotion of walking and other activity at airports. In the meantime, here are a few simple steps you can take to take advantage of opportunities to move while you travel:

  • Book an aisle seat so it is easier for you to get up and out of your seat during your flight
  • Walk rather than using motorized transportation and walkways in airports
  • Check the airport website to find places to walk and other amenities (like a yoga room or play area for kids)
  • Wear comfortable shoes—you will be doing a lot of walking!

 


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

Good reasons to go for a bike ride

May is National Bike Month, a time to remind people of the many benefits of bicycling and encourage everyone 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. In fact, May 20 is National Bike to Work Day, a perfect chance to try commuting by bicycle. 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!


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

Your Park Prescription

Since Earth Day just passed you are probably thinking about ways you can “go green” to reduce your impact on the environment. Many of these choices are also good for your health. For example, choosing food from local farms is associated with fewer “food miles” and a lower environmental footprint. It is also likely to be picked at the peak of freshness, meaning it is richer in nutrients, not to mention flavor. Walking or biking instead of driving is another way to protect the environment while you protect your health.

When it comes to exercise, you can literally “go green.” Being active outdoors in nature leads to enhanced feelings of energy, improved mood, and diminished fatigue, anxiety, and anger compared to similar activity conducted indoors. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity may improve attention and productivity in adults and children. Even though the physical, mental, and social benefits of activity in a natural environment are well established, most recommendations just focus on activity, not where it is done. Making the outdoors your destination for activities for you and your family is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

father and son walking in woods


The National Park Prescription (Park Rx) Initiative is designed to encourage people to make the outdoors their destination for exercise and family activities. In fact, April 24th was National Park Rx Day. The idea is to promote access to and use of parks, trails, and other green spaces and highlight the health, environmental, social, and economic benefits of having these resources in our communities. The benefits of parks can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of age or ability, so enhancing public lands should be a high priority.

This isn’t new of course, but it’s nice to have a reminder. At playgrounds you commonly see as many children playing in the trees that surround the swings, slides, and monkey bars as you see on the playground equipment. Grassy areas serve as picnic spots, impromptu sports fields, and places to run and play. Trails through the woods offer a place to hike and bike as well as trees to explore and climb. Lakes, rivers, and streams (called water trails) are perfect for rowing, paddling, and swimming. And many public parks and green spaces have paved trails so that people of all ages in strollers or wheelchairs can enjoy the outdoors.

Fortunately, there many excellent parks and natural areas to explore in the Aiken area. Aiken State Park, several county and city parks, and neighborhood playgrounds make it easy to find a place to be active outdoors. There is no better place to experience nature than the vast Hitchcock Woods, located right in the heart of Aiken. Community organizations like the GAIT Foundation are dedicated to expanding access to natural areas for all types of outdoor activates. This makes it easy to find a place to walk, run, bike, hike, climb, swim, paddle, push, or ride.

It also makes it easy to follow the Park Rx. Being active is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health and wellbeing. Activity in a natural environment has additional physical, mental, and social health benefits. Share these benefits with others by planning outdoor activities with your family and friends. For maximum effect, you should do this as often as possible—everyday is best. And it doesn’t need to be a day long excursion. Even taking the dog for a short walk, playing outside with the kids, or doing yard work are good ways to reap the benefits of being active outdoors.


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

Your Heart Month action plan

Heart disease, sometimes called coronary artery disease, is the leading cause of death in the United States. Despite improvements in prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, it is still responsible for nearly 600,000 deaths each year, mostly from heart attacks. Millions more are at increased risk because of certain biological and behavioral risk factors. Some of these risk factors cannot be changed, such as age, sex, and family history, while others can be altered to reduce risk. These modifiable risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and physical inactivity. You can learn much more about heart disease from the American Heart Association.

Since February is Heart Month, this is an ideal time to assess your own risk of heart disease and take steps to improve your heart health. If you aren’t sure where to begin, my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week includes four simple steps you can take to assess and lower your risk for heart disease. If you aren’t sure where to begin, these four steps should be a good start to prevent and treat heart disease.

Heart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Here is your Heart Month action plan:

  1. Assess your risk. If you haven’t done so recently, you should see your doctor to have your risk factors evaluated. This includes tests for blood glucose and blood lipids (including total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol and triglycerides), measurement of your blood pressure and body weight, and an assessment of other health factors such as your family history, whether you smoke, and your level of physical activity. You may be able to find a health fair or other event in the community at which you can have many of these measurements made, but only your doctor can help you determine the best course of treatment given your personal risk profile.
  1. Be active everyday. The benefits of as little as 30 minutes per day physical activity are well-established and impact heart disease risk in a multitude of ways. Physical activity helps with weight control, lowers blood pressure, improves blood lipids, and prevents and treats diabetes. Think of this as a great health “deal.” By modifying one risk factor—inactivity—you can also promote beneficial changes in four others—obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes. There is no other treatment, drugs included, that can have such a broad impact on reducing heart disease risk!
  1. Improve your diet. If you are like most Americans, your diet is too high in unhealthy fats, salt, and added sugar and lacking adequate whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and fiber. This type of diet is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. All of these conditions are risk factors for heart disease, so you may literally be eating your way to a heart attack. Changing what you eat to include more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat meat and dairy and minimizing added sugars, fat, and processed foods can help you lose weight and prevent or treat high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
  1. Quit smoking. There is no way around this one—quit! Ask your doctor about prescription medications that can make quitting easier. Nicotine replacement therapy in the form of patches, gum, and lozenges can help manage cravings and are available over the counter. Ultimately, though, quitting smoking is a behavior change that takes motivation, willpower, and time. But it is worth it—your risk of heart attack goes down within days and can drop 50–70% within five years after quitting.

The potential impact of these steps is great. Knowing which risk factors are most concerning can help you and your doctor make the most effective treatment decisions. Even modest changes in diet and activity can lead to improvements in risk factors and reduced heart attack risk. The best news is that you can start today by putting down your next cigarette, going for a walk, and eating a healthier dinner. Your heart will be glad you did.


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