Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Cost of Inactivity

To stay healthy throughout life, you've got to move it! 
Very few things in life are static, especially the human body. From birth through old age, the body is continually changing. It is important to realize that when we put off regular exercise, our bodies are not just frozen in time, they’re fading. Physical activity stimulates most organs to work at their best. We are made to move, and if we don’t, all body systems are affected, right down to the cellular level, where our ability to transfer oxygen for energy can be diminished. This is evident in a person's inability to run between airline gates to catch a connecting flight, or carry laundry baskets up and down the stairs. Inactivity impacts the brain, muscles, heart, blood vessels, bones, liver, gut, sleep, anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and the ability to use glucose (to name a few).


Insulin sensitivity deteriorates with inactivity. Type 2 diabetes is characterized by the body’s inability to utilize the insulin it produces. The cells of the body become insulin resistant. Insulin carries sugar from the blood into the cells of the body. Without the ability to do this, blood sugar levels rise and diabetes develops.

Type 2 diabetes is a sedentary disease, in that regular exercise reverses the damage. Insulin sensitivity increases with exercise and the cells of the body become better at taking in and processing glucose. The impact of activity on diabetes is striking. Every two hours of weekly TV watching is linked to a 14% increase in the risk of diabetes. Conversely, every hour of brisk walking per week confers a 34% lower risk of developing diabetes. That’s something to think about the next time you are too tired or busy to put on your athletic shoes.

The Heart

Exercise affects the heart in several ways. Not only does it strengthen the pump, but it also impacts the pipes. In recent years, researchers have discovered that physical activity makes the lining of blood vessels more flexible, from the largest artery to the smallest capillaries. This allows blood vessels to relax, permitting more blood to be sent to the heart. Think of it in terms of pumping blood through a rubber hose instead of a concrete pipe. This is particularly important if a vessel is partially blocked.

Regular exercise also increases HDL (good) cholesterol. This is the type of cholesterol that leaves the arteries instead of sticking to them. For those who already have heart disease, exercise can lower your risk of dying from it. Take that to heart!


Active people are 25% less likely to have a stroke than sedentary folks.

Exercise affects the arteries to the brain in the same way as the heart. Most strokes occur when a blood clot gets stuck in a partially blocked artery leading to the brain. Hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. High blood pressure is a risk factor for any type of stroke, and regular aerobic exercise lowers blood pressure in 75% of people.


If you don’t use it, you lose it. The metabolic cost of maintaining muscle is high. Muscles require a lot of energy, so if you don’t use them, they become a luxury for the body to maintain. As we age, we become increasingly inactive and lose muscle mass. Anyone can rebuild muscle with strength training. The earlier you start, the better, but even those of advanced age can benefit from carefully pumping a little iron. Strong muscles can help to prevent the frailty that makes older people lose their independence. Regular exercise is one way to stay out of a nursing home.


Inactivity and weight gain go hand in hand. When you lose your muscle mass because of inactivity, you need less energy (calories) to maintain what is left. Due to inactivity, it becomes possible to gain weight with a modest calorie intake, and nearly impossible to lose weight. The rate of weight gain is slow, perhaps 1-5 pounds a year, but over 10 years the pounds add up and the loss of physical fitness is significant.

In order to avoid becoming overweight or obese, 45-60 minutes a day of physical activity is needed. If you’re already overweight or have lost a lot of weight, you need more – between 60-90 minutes of physical activity a day to avoid regaining weight. If this seems daunting, just 30 minutes of exercise a day is enough to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases without significant weight loss.


Bones are living tissue. Every day, minerals move in and out of our bones in response to the demands of daily living. If you stress bone, it responds. If you don’t, the balance between bone gain and loss shifts toward bone loss. Research shows that strength training preserves bone better that walking or running, and can increase bone density. The amount that a bone is stressed, or overloaded, determines whether bone formation is stimulated. A small number of repetitions (8-15) with a heavy load can do the trick.

Regular physical activity has also been shown to prevent certain types of cancer, depression, dementia, and improve immunity. If exercise were a pill, it would be called a wonder drug.

To reduce health risks associated with inactivity, at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise five days a week or 20 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise three days a week are required. To maintain lost weight, 60-90 minutes a day of exercise is needed. To build muscle and prevent bone loss, strength train at least twice a week with a weight heavy enough to lift eight to fifteen times.

The good news is that it is never too late to start moving. People well into their 90s can benefit from regular exercise. And if you’ve been moving all along, you can reach your 90s with vitality and independence. The only “magic bullet” out there that I know of is physical activity. So commit yourself to exercise. Schedule it in your date book. As a well known athletic company says, “Just do it!”

Monday, January 3, 2011

Small Changes for a Healthy New Year

Start with small achievable goals
Another year has begun. It’s a good time to start a diet and exercise program, many of us think. We have to be ready to do more than think. Like getting married or starting a family, there is no perfect time to begin a health regimen. What’s most important is to have the resolve to make small changes in your lifestyle that will be far-reaching over the long run, and to stay the course. Change too many undesirable habits at once, and you could end up abandoning your efforts altogether.

The changes that you make must have significant value to you. It is not enough to just want to lose weight, exercise more or eat healthier. There needs to be some type of internal motivation that drives you to achieve these goals. Take the time and explore why it is important for you to make these changes, and then start making (and mastering) one small change at a time.  The following is a list of lifestyle changes that current research has shown will benefit your health, from promoting weight loss to decreasing the risk of cancer. Some you may already do; others you may need to work on. Take it one small step at a time.

Eat Breakfast. It’s the best way to control your weight. Start the morning with whole grain cereal. Breakfast is a great place to get fiber in your diet. Look for cereals where the first ingredient listed on the label is a whole grain, like oatmeal or whole wheat. Add berries or other fruit and a full cup of low fat milk.

Exercise. Give up the excuses; you have to do it to stay healthy. Sixty to ninety minutes of daily exercise is recommended to promote weight loss and maintenance. If you can’t meet these recommendations don’t be discouraged, any movement helps.

Eat Low Fat Dairy. The jury is still out on whether low fat dairy can promote weight loss, but dairy is important for other reasons. The calcium that it provides can stave off osteoporosis and has been linked to improving blood pressure. Recent studies have shown that men who consume low fat dairy regularly have a reduced risk for developing type 2 diabetes and gout. Women that get plenty of calcium and vitamin D may have a reduced likelihood of developing PMS. Get 2 to 3 servings daily of milk, yogurt or low fat cheese.

Add Vitamin D. It promotes the absorption of calcium and is very important for bone health. It may also improve muscle strength, reducing the risk of crippling falls in the elderly. Vitamin D has also been shown to reduce the risk of developing the most aggressive form of prostate cancer. It may be difficult to get enough vitamin D from your diet. If you live in the northern half of the country, your skin isn’t making any vitamin D from October through March. Vitamin D supplementation is recommended for most people, but the amount of supplementation is still being debated. Supplementing with 1,000 to 2,000 IUs of vitamin D daily is considered safe, however some people may require more. The rest of the year, expose some skin (arms and legs) without sunscreen to the sun for 20 to 30 minutes. People with darker skin may require up to six times more sun exposure.

Eat More Fruits and Vegetables. The evidence is mounting, if you don’t eat enough of it, you’re at a health disadvantage. From arthritis to weight loss, fruits and vegetables have been shown to improve health. No wonder the dietary guidelines increased the daily servings. Eat the rainbow. Five to thirteen daily servings are recommended.

Eat More Dark Leafy Greens. Some vegetables are better than others. This is where Popeye was right. Spinach and other colorful greens may help prevent cataracts, stroke, and the cognitive decline associated with aging (and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease). This is one of the biggest changes that most people need to make in their diets.

Choose Healthy Fats. Switch from saturated animal fats and trans fats to monounsaturated and polyunsaturated vegetable oils. All fats have about 120 calories per tablespoon, so don’t add vegetable oil, but replace unhealthy fats with it. Olive oil is good, but so is canola oil. Minimize fats from dairy and meats by choosing lower fat varieties.

Eat More Fish. It’s the easiest way to get those omega-3 fats that are so good for us. Plan a fish meal twice a week (yes, tuna fish sandwiches count, but fried fish is a no-no). Omega-3 fats are good for your heart, immune function, and your brain (those who eat fish twice a week show less mental impairment with age). They have also been shown to fight inflammation, which benefits your joints too.

Hydrate. The first thing you should do in the morning and the last thing you should do before bed are to drink 1-2 cups of water. Sip water all day long and eat foods with high water content such as cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, soup, apples, and oranges (you get the picture). Being well hydrated will also help you look your best.

Get An Extra Hour of Sleep Each Night. Sleep is when your body repairs the physiological damage done each day. Most of us burn the candle at both ends and then trudge through the day feeling like a zombie, going from one cup of coffee to the next. A good night’s rest will help us look and feel our best and can help our weight loss efforts too.

During the next few weeks, I will discuss each of these recommendations in more detail. I will provide more practical tips and recipes that can help you make 2011 an incredibly healthy year!