Even more reason to go for a swim.

Earlier this week I wrote about the benefits of swimming for health, fitness, and weight loss. Even if you aren’t swimming laps, spending time playing in a pool, lake, or ocean can be a healthy way to stay cool in the summer heat.

A piece in the New York Times this week explains that swimming also has benefits for the brain as well. This isn’t surprising given that any type of exercise can enhance brain blood flow, boost levels of neurotransmitters, and improve cognitive function. But, as the author explains, swimming seems to have a more pronounced effect than exercise on dry land.

Even more reason to go for a swim!

Source: Pool of Thought – The New York Times

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Stay cool and get fit by going for a swim

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 about how muscular and lean Olympic swimmers are.

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!

How Square Watermelons Get Their Shape, and Other G.M.O. Misconceptions – The New York Times

Earlier this week I wrote about organic food and whether it is really healthier. To be sure, organic food can be a healthy alternative to conventional food, but many times the difference may not be as great as commonly believed. In some cases, organics simply may not be the smartest choice.

GMO corn

One reason why people choose organically produced foods is that they don’t contain GMOs, or genetically-modified organisms. Many people believe that GMOs are dangerous or, at the very least, make foods less healthy.

Unfortunately, just like with organic food, there is a great deal of confusion about GMOs in food. An article in the New York Times addresses some of the misconceptions about GMOs.
In an effort to inform consumers about the presence of GMOs in their food, the U.S. Senate recently passed GMO-labeling legislation that has received much criticism. No doubt this is something we will hear more about in the future.

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

Should you go organic?

Organic food, including produce, milk, and meat, are becoming more popular among consumers each year. In fact, sales of organic foods now account for over $40 billion per year and further growth is expected. There are many reasons to account for this increase, including potential health benefits and environmental impact. Despite the popularity of organic foods, there is little evidence that eating organic has significant health benefits. But organic foods may still be a good choice for you and your family. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard  this week.

Good food display

A review of over 200 studies of organic foods published in 2012 suggests that organic produce, milk, and meat are not necessarily healthier. This study received a great deal publicity, much of it critical of the conclusions of the report. There are some studies that show that organic fruits and vegetables contain higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants, but this finding is not consistent. Organically produced milk and meat may have higher level of omega-3 fats, which are associated with heart health.

These differences may not be completely attributable to organic farming techniques. The higher vitamin content in some fruits and vegetables may be due to ripeness, since organic produce might be more likely to be picked at peak ripeness than conventional fruits and vegetables. This is not always the case, though, since some organic food is shipped a great distance—literally halfway around the world in some cases—meaning it was picked before it was ripe. The elevated omega-3 fats in organic milk and meat may be due to the fact that most of these cows get more time to graze on grass than cows on conventional farms that eat more grain.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report on organic foods for children which presents a balanced review of organic foods and sensible advice for adults and children. After reviewing the research, they concluded that there is no direct evidence that consuming organic food improves health or lowers the risk for disease. But they do note that organic foods, with lower pesticide levels, may be a smart choice for children who are more likely to be harmed by chemical exposures.

The take-home message is that organic foods are at least as healthy as conventional foods. But there are other reasons why you may choose to buy organic beyond the potential health benefits. Organic farming may be better for the environment due to reduced water contamination by pesticide run-off and healthier soil. Pesticide application also poses potential risks for farm workers. Additionally, there are issues of animal welfare that some consider important. Many people also feel that organic farming is more traditional and the way food “should be” produced.

Given that this information about organic food, what should you do? First, eat fruits and vegetables in abundance, whether they are organic or not. There is substantial evidence that fruit and vegetable consumption is essential for good health. The same is true for whole grains and lean meat. Second, given that organic foods tend to be more expensive, be selective about what you buy, such as organic versions of foods that tend to be higher in pesticides (you can find lists of the “dirty dozen” and the “clean fifteen” online). Wash all produce before you eat it whether it is organic or not. Finally, make sure your food choices, organic or otherwise, are part of a lifestyle that includes a healthy diet and regular physical activity.


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

How to survive an alien invasion. And other more likely threats to your health.

The film Independence Day: Resurgence, the sequel to the 1996 film, opened in theaters last week. The movie is about an alien attack that threatens to destroy the earth. The film has all the makings of a summer blockbuster and will certainly have people talking about alien invaders. It may even prompt some to prepare for an alien attack. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Alien invasion

All evidence suggests that an alien invasion is highly unlikely. Just in case, though, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response has provided advice for surviving a host of disasters that are common in Hollywood blockbusters, including an alien attack. The intention is that preparing for epic disasters also means that you will be prepared for more realistic natural and man-made catastrophes.

I would like to share some health and fitness-related steps you can take to help you survive an alien invasion as well as other more likely threats to your health. After all, you are far more likely to suffer a heart attack than an alien attack, but it makes sense to prepare for both.

The first thing that is clear is that you need to be physically fit to escape or fight alien invaders. Roads and other transportation infrastructure tends to get destroyed in an extraterrestrial strike, so you may have to travel on foot and carry a heavy load of supplies, likely over long distances.

Building speed and endurance through prolonged aerobic exercise and high-intensity interval training can give you an advantage. Developing muscular strength through resistance training would certainly help, too. A comprehensive fitness program at a gym or at home can help you achieve these goals. Even going for a brisk walk everyday will help.

What you eat now can also help you prepare for the aftermath of an alien assault. Both running away from alien attackers and walking for days to a safer place requires that you have adequate stores of carbohydrate and fat. A high carbohydrate diet will increase your storage of muscle and liver glycogen, the primary fuels used for intense exercise so you will have more energy available to sprint and run.

Don’t overeat, though. Maintaining a healthy body weight is beneficial, too. The heavier you are, the more weight you have to carry in your escape, which is likely to slow you down.

Even though the possibility of an extraterrestrial apocalypse is remote, preparing now makes sense. Just as the CDC recommends that you be prepared for aliens in an effort to make sure you are ready for other more likely disaster scenarios, getting in shape to fight or flee attacking aliens also increases your chances of surviving more probable health threats.

Regular aerobic and strength exercise, maintaining a healthy body weight, and eating a healthy diet are the best ways by which you can reduce your risk of a host of health problems. The benefits of these healthy habits include a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and some cancers along with prevention and treatment of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. These are exactly the type of risks you should be preparing for.

So, as you watch Independence Day: Resurgence think about what you can be doing now to prepare for both an alien invasion and more realistic threats to your health. Visit the CDC website to learn how to prepare for Hollywood-sized disaster scenarios as well as credible information about exercise, nutrition, and health. Then, get started on getting yourself in shape—the aliens will probably attack without warning!

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


What children gain and lose over the summer

Summer vacation is a rite of passage for children. Long summer days to play, go to camp, and relax are an important part of growing up. But many educators and health professionals are concerned about what gets lost, and what gets gained, when kids are away from school.

Kids playing outdoors

Summer learning loss is a real concern. It is estimated that children lose, on average, two months of reading skills and one month of overall learning over summer break. Those losses must be made up when school starts again in the fall, so teachers spend about six weeks re-teaching material that was covered in the previous grade. That is six weeks that children are not learning at grade level, which certainly has an impact on achievement over time.

Not all kids are affected equally. Much of the disparity in summer learning losses falls along socioeconomic lines. Some children have more opportunities than others to continue learning over the summer through formal educational programs and camps and informal encouragement to read.

To address this issue, many institutions implement summer “school” through classes, on-line learning programs, and encouraging reading at home. Some target the students who need them the most while other programs are instituted for all children. In fact, all three of my kids are completing online learning programs this summer.

Learning losses are not the only concern with an extended break from school. Many children gain more weight over the summer than during the rest of the year. Furthermore, fitness gains made during the school year are frequently lost over the summer. While poor nutrition and a lack of activity in schools is a real concern, many children get more exercise and eat better at school than they do at home. Being at home over the summer can lead to poor eating habits—too much unhealthy food or not enough food in general—and lack of chances to be active.

This is important because the combination of poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and obesity has physical, psychological, and social consequences for children that frequently persist into adulthood. Overweight and obese children are at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even stroke – conditions usually associated with adulthood. Even if an overweight child does not have these conditions now, he or she is likely on that path. In fact, many experts predict that children born today will be the first generation in history to have a shorter lifespan than their parents due to obesity-related diseases that begin in childhood.

Children who are overweight are also more likely to suffer other consequences including lower self-esteem, social functioning, and academic performance. Overweight children are also less likely to play sports or participate in other forms of physical activity, which creates a cycle leading to poorer health and, potentially, poorer academic success.

Now that school is almost out for the summer, this is a critical time of year to focus on good nutrition, physical activity, and continued reading and learning to help prevent a summertime slump in health and academics. Schools can only do so much, so adults should model good diet, activity, and reading behaviors themselves. A good place to start is by turning off the TV and reading a book or going outside to play. It’s something all of us—adults and children—will benefit from.

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

What’s in your grocery cart?

The next time you go grocery shopping, take a look at what is in your cart. Since the first step toward a healthy diet is buying nutritious food, what you put in your cart says a lot about what you and your family are eating. Most of us know that eating out increases the chance that we will consume too many calories and too much fat, sugar, and salt. For this reason, shopping for groceries and eating meals at home can lead to a healthier diet, as long you are buying healthy food to begin with. Your shopping cart, what’s in it—and what’s not in it— is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

grocery cart

If you are like the typical American, your grocery cart falls short of recommendations for good health. In fact, according to a USDA report, food purchases have less than a 60% adherence with current dietary recommendations. The report also shows that people who live in the Northeast and West tend to make healthier choices than people living in the South and Midwest, where obesity is more common.

This report also reveals that we are purchasing almost the opposite of what is recommended. People bought four times as much refined grains as recommended but only one-quarter of the recommended whole grains. Our carts are missing fresh vegetables and fruits but contain too many processed frozen foods. We buy less fish and poultry and more red meat than we should. And, finally, we bring home far more beverages and foods containing added sugars than is recommended.

What we should be buying (but aren’t):

What we should eat

What we are buying (but shouldn’t):

What we do eat

The contents of our shopping carts closely mirrors the typical American diet, suggesting that we eat what we buy. A diet high in refined grains, red meat, and added sugars and low in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean sources of protein is linked to obesity, heart disease, and some cancers. Shopping habits can have a big impact on health, so changing what we buy can be beneficial.

The good news is that there are a few simple steps you can take to improve the healthfulness of your grocery purchases. First, plan your meals before you go shopping, make a list, and stick to it. Impulse purchases, the things we see and just can’t pass by, are likely to be unhealthy foods. Second, shop the perimeter of the store. This is where you find most of the fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat. The interior aisles contain primarily packaged and processed foods that tend to be high in sugar, salt, and fat. Third, buy fresh fruits and vegetables when you can. Frozen vegetables are a good alternative, too. Be careful with canned vegetables which can be high in salt and fruit juices which may contain added sugars.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Grocery stores are designed to get you to buy more of the most profitable foods, from the floor plan to the displays and placement of the food items. You have to be vigilant to avoid temptation and make good choices, but you don’t have to be perfect. Even relatively small purchasing changes can improve your diet and your health. Try buying more fresh vegetables this week and focus on whole grains next week. Over time, you will find that your cart will be filled with healthier foods for you and your family.

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