Time to make your new school year resolutions

Today is the first day of school for my kids and the first official day back for me and my colleagues at USC Aiken. So, it seems like a perfect time to make and plan for New School Year resolutions. It’s also a good time to assess your progress on your New Year’s resolutions and restart (or finally get started) on your goals. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


It’s hard to believe, but summer is winding down and the start of a new school year is upon us. As teachers, students, and parents know, this is the real beginning of the new year. For those of us involved in education, the first day of school is a perfect time to make new 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 your resolution. 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.

But there is no need to wait until 2015 to restart your stalled New Year’s resolution 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 a New School Year resolution and try again now?

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 everyone, especially someone who doesn’t exercise at all. A resolution to work up to jogging five days per week, with a goal of completing a 5k run is more realistic and achievable.

Focus on learning. Making most health behavior changes involves learning as much as doing. Something as simple as eating a 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 off!

Don’t go into (health) debt!

We are all aware of the hazards of being in debt. Too many individuals and families have gotten themselves in a poor financial situation by spending too much and not saving enough. For most, this debt has developed over several years and will have an impact lasting years into the future.

Unfortunately, this is not the only debt we face. Many of us are also in a health debt crisis. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Poor eating habits and increasingly sedentary lifestyles have led to an obesity epidemic. This is important since the three leading causes of death among adults (heart disease, stroke, and cancer) are directly linked to poor diet, inactivity, and obesity.

Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are among the conditions that make up our health debt. Even if we have not been diagnosed with these or other health conditions, our lifestyle has put us on that path.

Whether our doctors have told us or not, many of us are in poor health. And our overall health and potential complications get worse each year, so the longer we are overweight and inactive, the worse our health is likely to be in the future. That is our health debt crisis.

Another example of a health debt is smoking, the cause of nearly 90% of lung cancer cases. Lung cancer doesn’t develop after the first cigarette; it takes years of smoking to cause cancer. One estimate suggests that there is a 20 year time lag between smoking and lung cancer diagnosis.

During this time smoking is causing damage to the lungs that leads to cancer, but it is usually undetectable. The cancer process is underway long before it causes symptoms, and since smokers are unaware of it, they continue to smoke. Quitting smoking begins to erase this debt but former smokers suffer poor health even after they quit. In some cases, the debt can’t be completely paid back.

Aside from poor health and reduced quality of life, health debt carries a financial cost. The medical costs attributed to obesity alone are estimated to be $147 billion per year, and a typical obese patient spends over $1,000 more per year on their own medical care than someone at a healthy body weight. The financial burden is both collective and individual, meaning we all pay for it.

Just as financial debt is due to an difference between the money we save and what we spend, much of our health debt is due to an imbalance between the energy (calories) we save and spend.

We have been spending too little energy through activity and saving too much of the energy we eat in the form of fat. Each day we consume more calories than we burn, we store that extra energy as fat. Even a small difference each day adds up over time.

Putting it in these terms, the pathway out of health debt is clear—spend more energy by being more active and cutting back on the calories we eat. Like a financial debt, even though the solution is easy to identify, putting it into place requires making some difficult choices.

But it doesn’t have to be a painful process. Even small changes in activity and diet can lead to weight loss and improved health over time. Make it a priority to be active every day and try to spend less time sitting. Pass on second servings at meals and skip desert once in a while.

Remember, the health debt wasn’t created overnight. It was the result of small changes over time, some of which we may not have noticed. Fixing it will take time, too.

Are fat-free and sugar-free foods healthy? Maybe not!

Have you ever felt confused by the health claims made about some foods? If so, you are not alone. Nutrition is isn’t always easy to understand and, unfortunately, misleading information on food labels only makes it worse.

There are a great many foods that seem as though they would be healthy choices for weight loss or good health in general. Surprisingly, some of these low-fat and low-sugar alternatives aren’t as healthy as you might think.

This is because, in many cases, the claims on the label only tell part of the story. This isn’t to say that the information is false, but it does require some interpretation to understand whether these foods are really a healthy choice.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week includes two examples of label language that seems to indicate a healthier option, but may not necessarily be the case:

1. Fat-free

Cutting back on fat intake is a good way to reduce calories and is typically recommended for weight loss. It is also a major part of traditional recommendations to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease, although recent research suggests this may not be so important.

In order to meet a demand for lower fat and lower calorie foods, manufacturers have long offered fat-free versions of popular items. Cookies, snack foods, and salad dressings are among the most popular fat-free foods, especially for people who are trying to lose weight.

However, the number of calories in the fat-free foods may be the same as the full-fat versions because manufacturers often add sugar to make these lower fat foods taste as good. This is often the case for cookies, cakes, and other fat-free baked goods.

In the end, these fat-free foods may not really be lower in calories. And common sense tells us that the best way to reduce calories is to eat fewer of these snack foods and dressings in the first place.

 2. Sugar-free

Reducing sugar intake is also a popular way to limit calories in many foods and beverages. Currently, sugar is viewed as a major contributor to obesity and poor health in general, so this also makes some foods appear to be healthier than they really are.

While it is true that sugar-free versions of desserts and snack foods do usually contain fewer calories, the alternative sweeteners used instead raise some concerns. While there is no good evidence that these sweeteners are harmful, they certainly don’t make these foods any healthier.

It is important to note that the concern is with foods that have added sugar, such as packaged or prepared desserts, baked goods, and snacks. Foods with naturally occurring sugars like fruits, fruit juices, milk, and some vegetables are not worth worrying about.

Again, the most reasonable approach to creating a healthy diet is to eat fewer foods with added sugar, not looking for foods that replace added sugar with artificial sweeteners.

The Bottom Line

The problem for most people isn’t that they are eating cookies with too much sugar or salad dressing with too much fat, it’s that they are eating too many cookies and using too much dressing in the first place. Lowering fat or sugar in these foods does little to make people healthier.

The only way to do that would be to limit the intake of these processed foods in favor of more “real” food. Indeed, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and natural oils (like olive oil) are widely thought to be healthful, certainly better than processed and modified alternatives.

Exercise makes you healthy–and happy!

By this time, everyone knows (or should know) that regular exercise is good for them. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of physical activity.

The benefits of exercise are not limited to physical health. Additional benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of wellbeing. Being physically active can even help you feel better about yourself, too.

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

These positive effects of exercise have been demonstrated in clinical research as well as in surveys. Controlled studies are considered the standard for understanding the beneficial effects of exercise, but population-based surveys are also important.

This is because large surveys help us understand what “real people” experience in the “real world,” while research studies frequently involve small numbers of subjects in controlled settings.

Consider the results of several large surveys conducted over the past few years that examined the relationships between exercise and happiness, stress, feelings of energy, and satisfaction with appearance.

In one survey, people who exercised at least 30 minutes on more days per week reported greater levels of happiness and lower levels of stress than those who exercised on fewer days. The same trend was seen when people were asked about having enough energy and feeling well-rested. Exercise, especially done regularly, makes people feel good!

A more recent survey looked at how exercise relates to how people feel about themselves, specifically their appearance. The results showed that more days per week of exercise led to people reporting a greater satisfaction with the way they look.

While the study didn’t delve into why this is true, several factors are likely. Most obviously, exercise helps with losing fat and building muscle, both of which would certainly improve appearance. But exercise also improves feelings of wellbeing, health, and confidence, all factors that might relate to how satisfied people feel with themselves.

It is worth mentioning that you don’t have to do extreme amounts of exercise to achieve these benefits. The surveys of exercise and happiness and stress, for example, found that the biggest difference came between people who exercised 0–1 days and those who were active on at least two days per week. The benefits increased with more days of exercise, but the differences were smaller.

This is consistent with research showing that the biggest health benefits are realized by people who do not exercise, then start a moderate exercise program. There are additional health improvements with longer or more intense exercise, but the differences are smaller.

This fits with the current U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines which call for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. Practically, this can be met by walking for 30 minutes on five days or by running for 25–35 minutes, 2–3 days per week.

This dose of exercise is consistent with improving both physical and mental health in controlled studies. According to the surveys mentioned here, it is also in line with people feeling happier, less stress, more energy, and a greater satisfaction with their appearance.

The bottom line is that exercise can make you feel better and feel better about yourself. And that seems like a perfect reason to make activity part of your daily routine!

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. You can also find more information about the fitness and health benefits of swimming from something I wrote previously.


There is nothing that feels better on a hot summer day than going for a swim. But 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 back to the last Olympics and how muscular and lean the swimmers looked.

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 more dense 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!

Pass your vacation fitness test this summer

Going on vacation can be relaxing for you and your family. But depending on what you do, it can also involve lots of activity. Hiking, watersports, even a long day at a theme park can be a good test of your fitness.  My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about how an upcoming vacation is a good reason to get in shape.


Vacations are a great chance to get away, relax, and recuperate. They also present an opportunity to be active through hiking, cycling and many other pursuits. But even sightseeing and visiting theme parks can require far more activity than many people are accustomed to. In fact, many vacation activities are a good test of your fitness.

Unfortunately, many people find out the hard way—sore feet and achy legs, for example—that they weren’t prepared for this level of activity. The good news is that regular exercise can prepare you for your next vacation so you can focus on having fun, not your tired body.

There is good reason to choose an active vacation. Spending time outdoors can reduce stress and walking on the beach or snorkeling in the ocean seems like fun, not exercise. The end result is that being active on your vacation adds to the restorative effect of taking time away from your usual routine.

In one study people who had a physically active vacation reported that they felt mentally and physically fitter, felt more balanced and relaxed, could concentrate better during work, were in a better mood, and felt more recuperated than those who took it easy.

Even if you don’t choose a vacation to participate in a specific exercise you will likely spend time being active. Most vacation destinations are selected in part because there are interesting sights to see or are easy to get around without a car. This means you will be on your feet a lot more than usual.

Think about a family trip to Disney World. It is not uncommon for people to be on their feet for 12 hours and walk 10–15 miles in a single day. Most people don’t do that much walking in a typical week! This can lead to blisters, muscle soreness, and fatigue, limiting what you can do and, at the very least, making your time less enjoyable.

Since regular exercise promotes endurance and strength, being fit can make it easier to get through long days on vacation. If you spend much of your time sitting at work and home, visiting a museum or standing in long lines at a theme park can be daunting.

But if you spend more of your day up and moving you will have an easier time in these situations. A whole day walking around sightseeing can be exhausting, but less so if you are accustomed to taking long walks. That isn’t to say that you should walk for 10 hours each day, but regularly walking or do other activity for over an hour will help.

Here are some tips to help you prepare for your next active vacation. You should limit sitting and spend more time standing and moving around at work and at home. This will help you get ready for long days on your feet.

Dedicating 30 minutes each day to being active will build endurance, and you can get bigger benefits from doing more. If your vacation will include vigorous exercise, building strength through resistance training and flexibility through stretching or yoga can help you avoid injury.

Your goal should be enjoy your vacation and the extra activity it will likely include. In addition to the numerous other health benefits, improving your fitness through regular physical activity will help you appreciate your vacation time more with less stress, meaning you can return home relaxed and ready to take on your usual routine.

Time to be active.

Regular physical activity is essential for good health and wellbeing. Despite the clear benefits of being active, less than half of Americans meet even minimum recommendations for exercise and other activity.

As a way to get people moving, they are encouraged to incorporate physical activity into their daily routine. This includes taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking further away and walking to their destination.

However, the perception that these “steps” take longer than the less active alternative may serve as a disincentive for many people. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

However, research suggests that this is not true. Studies conducted by my students at USC Aiken show that these more active forms of transportation do not necessarily take longer than the less active alternatives. In fact, in most cases the active way is quicker!

In one study, we examined the time required to ascend and descend one floor using either the stairs or elevator in a building on the USC Aiken campus. The results showed that the time required to take the elevator was about twice that to use the stairs (36 vs. 16 seconds). The increased time on the elevator was due to waiting, in some cases almost one minute, for it to arrive.

It is worth mentioning that this study was conducted in a building with two floors. To be sure, the elevator would be quicker if you were going up or down several floors. But let’s be honest, not many buildings in our area have enough floors for this to be relevant. For most of us, the stairs will be quicker most places we go.

In another study we compared the time required to park in the first convenient parking space in the parking lot as opposed to driving around searching for a space closer to the destination. We asked several people to record the time required to enter their destination after either parking in the first convenient space compared to searching for a parking space closer to the destination on campus and at businesses in the community.

The time required to search for a parking space closer to the destination was significantly greater than the time required to park in the first convenient parking space on campus and at stores. Driving around looking for a closer spot meant that it took an average of three minutes to enter the destination building. It took people about half that long if they parked further away and walked.

These studies show that taking a few extra steps in the parking lot or on the stairs is actually quicker than driving around and parking closer or using the elevator. This information might help people decide to be more active. And these small changes may lead to further healthy choices.

Of course, simply using the stairs instead of the elevator or talking the first available parking spot isn’t going to replace regular exercise. But making activity a part of your everyday routine is an important part of developing a healthy lifestyle.

Now that you know that active choices won’t necessarily slow you down, what ways will you save time by being active?