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?

Calories Still Count!

The debate about whether diet and exercise are the cause of or good treatments for obesity has been going for some time. A familiar point of argument is the role of total calories vs. the source of those calories.A new model of how obesity illustrates how calories in, calories out may not be the initial step in the cascade of physiological and behavioral factors that lead to significant fat gain. But this doesn’t change the fact modifying eating and activity behaviors are a key step in the development of obesity—and the key to weight loss.This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Eat less, exercise more. Calories in, calories out.

These phrases are probably familiar to you if you have tried to lose weight. This is because these concepts make up the traditional explanation for why people gain weight and the most common method of losing weight.

More and more research suggests that gaining and losing weight might involve more that the simple math of counting calories. It may be that the source of the calories matters as much as the total amount that you eat.

However, this doesn’t mean that you can ignore the calories you eat and expend through exercise and other activity. While it may be true that the quality of the food we eat is important, calories still count.

A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association proposes an alternative to the classic model of how weight gain occurs. Traditionally, an imbalance between calories in and calories out causes obesity. According to this model, eating too much and not being active enough results in increased fat storage.

The new model suggests that diet quality, especially the type and amount of carbohydrates, combined with genetics and lifestyle factors including getting enough sleep and excessive stress leads to fat accumulation. The excess fat alters levels of hormones and other factors that stimulate hunger and inhibit energy expenditure, including physical activity.

In the new model, increasing fat mass comes first and excessive food intake and inadequate activity follows. The end result is the same, though: a small increase in body fat turns into obesity.

This seems to suggest that carbohydrate intake, especially from refined grains and sugars, is the main culprit. This is good news for people who follow and promote low-carb diets! It also gives the impression that exercise isn’t as important as previously believed.

But a closer look at the new model shows that obesity—storage of excessive body fat—really is the result of too many calories in and too few calories out. The difference is that the eating and activity behaviors is driven by other factors.

The fact of the matter is that diet quality, genetics, and factors such as stress and sleep do play a role weight gain. Changes in hormones, sugars, and fats in the blood are real and powerful physiological signals that certainly contribute to obesity.

But so do changes in how much we eat and how active we are. It would be wrong to disregard these behavioral factors and the important role they play not only in body weight regulation, but in health in general.

Furthermore, the traditional calories in, calories out model of weight gain leads to a sensible treatment for obesity: Eat less, exercise more. Even though these simple recommendations can be challenging to implement, certainly in the long term, people who follow this advice do lose weight.

Even in the new model, calories in must be greater than calories out to lead to the significant fat gain that characterizes obesity. Additionally, the focus on the food quality is also consistent with this idea. People who get more of their calories from refined grains and sugars tend to consume more total calories.

As of now, the only treatments we have for obesity focus on changing energy intake and energy expenditure. This almost always involves altering eating and activity behaviors and frequently includes other lifestyle changes including stress management and getting enough sleep.

Given this new model of obesity, the best way to lose or maintain weight is not new at all: Eat less, move more, chill out!

When normal isn’t normal.

The typical American is overweight, doesn’t get enough exercise, eats too few vegetables and fruits, too much sugar, and too many calories. Unfortunately, we have come to consider this combination as “normal.” While this situation may be common, it is definitely not normal. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

For most measures of health, a normal value is consistent with good health. A “normal” blood pressure is in a range that is associated with a low risk of stroke, for example. Someone with LDL (bad) cholesterol that is considered “above normal” has a greater risk of heart attack than a person with a normal LDL value.

But for many health indicators, having a normal value is not the norm. According to the most recent recommendations, a normal blood pressure is less than 120/80 mmHg. However, nearly 60% of adults have a blood pressure that is above normal, meaning they have hypertension or prehypertension.

A person who has a body mass index (BMI) in the normal range, between 18.5 and 24.9 kg/m2, is considered to be at a healthy body weight. But two-thirds of adults are overweight, with a BMI above the normal range. Similarly, participating in regular exercise should be considered normal. But it’s not, since fewer than half of adults meet minimum recommendations for physical activity.

The problem is that the term “normal” is frequently used to refer to what is typical, rather than what is healthy. Obesity is so common that a person who is at a healthy weight may look out-of-place. So many people look for ways to avoid physical activity that a person who walks instead of drives is considered abnormal. The person who comes away from a buffet with a less-than-full plate or who has a salad for dinner often gets strange looks. One of the reasons that people get noticed for doing these things is because they stand out from the crowd.

In reality, though, many of the health behaviors we consider to be abnormal—regular exercise, a healthy diet, or a lean physique—are, historically, completely normal. Until relatively recently, most everyone was active much of the day and spent little time being sedentary. Likewise, the consumption of the processed foods that are such a big part of our current diet was rare even a few decades ago.

It is likely that, by considering unhealthy behaviors to be normal, we have created a situation that discourages people from adopting a healthy lifestyle. As anyone who has tried to change their health habits knows, it can be a challenge, especially if everyone else maintains their typical eating and activity pattern. It’s not easy to be “the one” who only eats healthy food or who takes time to exercise every day.

Maybe we need to redefine normal health behaviors to reflect what is healthy rather than what is most common. When walking or biking rather than driving becomes the norm there will be greater incentive to provide safe places for pedestrians and cyclists to travel. When a healthy diet is considered normal it is more likely that restaurants will offer more nutritious options.

In the end, we would all benefit from changing our definition of normal. And a normal diet and activity pattern will go a long way to promoting a normal BMI, blood pressure, and cholesterol.


How to encourage people to use the stairs? Make it fun!

This isn’t new, but it is a neat way to encourage people to take the stairs.