School gets out, weight goes up. Why now is the time to focus on preventing childhood obesity.

Obesity is a major concern for adults, linked to several leading causes of death and numerous other health problems. What you may not know is that obesity is also a serious health issue for children. It is troubling to note that nearly one-third of school-aged children and teenagers are over a healthy body weight and nearly 20% are considered obese. Remarkably, 10% of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, are also considered obese.

This is important because the common combination of poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and obesity has physical, psychological, and social consequences for children that frequently persist into adulthood. There are many reasons why childhood obesity occurs and much that can be done to prevent it. Now that school is almost out for the summer, this is a critical time of year to focus on good nutrition and activity to help prevent unhealthy weight gain in kids. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Childhood obesity cartoon


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. 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. Considering that the consequences of obesity are made worse by low levels of activity, this creates a cycle leading to poorer and poorer health.

There are numerous potential causes of obesity in children, but the most likely suspects are too little activity and excessive calorie intake, largely because of added sugars. Fewer than half of all kids meet the minimum recommendation of 60 minutes of activity each day and many children spend as much time watching television or playing video games as they do in school. We shouldn’t be surprised that we have a childhood obesity problem!

While poor nutrition and a lack of activity in schools is thought to contribute to the problem, many children get more activity and eat better at school than they do at home. A recent report suggests that children gain more weight over the summer than during the rest of the year. Furthermore, for many kids, fitness gains made during the school year are frequently lost over the summer. Since summer vacation is rapidly approaching, this is a critical time to help our children stay fit and healthy.

The good new is there is much we can do. Ensuring that children get plenty of healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, reducing the consumption of added sugars, and eating appropriate portion sizes will go a long way to addressing the diet aspect of obesity. Making sure that kids of all ages have opportunities to be active while limiting time spent sitting, especially in front of a screen, are equally important.

Since children don’t make most of the decisions about their activity and diet, it is important to recognize the role that parents, grandparents, and other caregivers play. More often than not, obesity is a family issue. This means that  solving the problem is a family issue, too. Adults should model healthy behaviors by making diet and activity changes themselves. A good place to start is by turning off the TV and going outside to play or for a walk. It’s something all of us—adults and children—will benefit from.

Start planning for your summer vacation now.

If you intend to take a vacation this summer, the time to start planning is now. Of course, you need to make figure out where and when you want to go, make travel arrangements, and plan activities. If your vacation will involve activities like hiking, cycling, or swimming, you also need to make sure you are ready for that level of activity. Even sightseeing and visiting theme parks can require far more activity than many people are accustomed to.

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 summer vacation so you can focus on having fun, not your tired body. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


family hiking

There is good reason to choose an active vacation. Simply spending time outdoors can reduce stress and make you feel better 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 start walking for 10 hours each day, but doing activities that last for at least an hour will help.

Here are some tips to help you prepare for your next active vacation. You should limit your sitting time 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.

Biking to work is a good thing. And not just this week.

This week is National Bike to Work Week, a good time to remind yourself why biking to work is an excellent alternative to driving. For many people, distance and safety make biking to work challenging, maybe even impossible. But you probably can replace at least some car trips with biking or walking.

Infographic: Bike To Work Week: Bike Lanes Aren’t Just For Show | USA TODAY College.

Losing weight is easy, not finding it again is the hard part.

Earlier this week I wrote about tips and tricks from people who are successful losing weight. While some people may make it look easy, losing weight is challenging, to be sure. But maintaining weight loss can be even more challenging.

Many people think that they are finished once their diet or weight loss program ends. The truth is that the end of the diet marks the beginning of the next phase: keeping the weight off. In fact, many people have successfully met their weight loss goal only to gain the weight back later. In fact, some people do it every year, losing and regaining the same 10 (or more) pounds over and over.

There is a practical reason why this happens. In order to lose weight and keep it off people need to learn a whole new lifestyle involving what, when, why, and how they eat as well as daily exercise. These lifestyle changes are difficult to make and can take months or years to fully adopt. In many cases, the weight loss program ends before people make lasting behavior changes. This makes it all too easy to revert to old habits.

While there are literally hundreds of diets and weight loss programs to choose from, “weight maintenance” programs are far less common. The good news is that following the advice of people who are successful at losing weight and keeping it off can help you maintain your weight loss.

The members of the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) — the “successful losers” have lost an average of 66 pounds and kept it off for over five years the — provide insight into how they keep the weight off. Most report continuing to maintain a low-calorie, low-fat diet and doing high levels of activity. Almost 80% eat breakfast every day, 75% weigh themselves at least once a week, over 60% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week, and 90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day.

Many people worry whether they are following the “best” diet or weight loss program. The specific diet may not be as important as what you do when it ends. Notice that the majority of successful losers still control what they eat and nearly all exercise each day. This suggests that going back to the way you ate before you lost weight is unrealistic. And if you aren’t exercising, at least walking, every day already, now is a good time to start.


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
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Want to know how to lose weight? Ask the experts.

For a great many people, losing weight is a struggle. For starters, selecting a diet to follow or program to join can be a difficult decision. In fact, the great debate about which diet is the best seems to create more confusion than answers. Add to that the conflicting reports about what to do for exercise, and the confusion grows. Then, the real challenges begin. Knowing what to do is relatively easy compared learning a whole new lifestyle involving what, when, why, and how to eat and exercise. Losing weight is hard work, far from the effortless portrayal in advertisements, in which the fat just seems to melt away.

There are some people who make losing weight look easy. No question, these people have to plan to eat healthy meals, dedicate time for exercise, and deal with cravings just like everyone else.  But it seems as though they have figured out the secret of how to lose weight. It turns out that there isn’t really one thing that people do to be successful, but there are some common behaviors that the “successful losers” share. Following the advice of people who are successful at losing weight and keeping it off can help you achieve your weight loss goals.

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


The good news is that this advice is available. The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) is a collection of information submitted by individuals who have succeeded at long-term weight loss. These “successful losers” have lost an average of 66 pounds and kept it off for over five years, with some losing as much as 300 pounds! Best of all, they share the secrets of their success. Almost all of them increased their physical activity and modified their diet, suggesting that eating less and moving more are necessary for successful weight loss.

Closer to home, I am loosely involved with a local, workplace-based weight loss and fitness program. The comments from the participants about what they are doing and challenges they are facing is especially interesting. The experience of participants in this program supports the findings from the NWCR and provides more specific information about what works.

First, nearly all of the participants have changed what they eat. Some follow a specific diet while others report that they are simply eating less or eliminating certain foods, such as fried foods or desserts. The Paleo diet and eating less processed foods seem to be popular approaches, but participants mention a wide variety of diets and weight loss programs.

Second, almost everyone has become more active. For some, this means going for a 30 minute walk every day while others do more, including exercise at a gym or training for a half marathon. Some participants note that they are progressing from shorter bouts of light intensity activity to longer, more vigorous exercise. This is a natural progression that further increases fitness and energy expenditure.

Finally, many of the participants report that some sort of support has helped keep them on track. This includes social support from coworkers, friends, and families, many of whom have joined in the health improvement process. But support also comes in the form of devices and apps that track and provide feedback about their activity and what they eat. The popularity of these tools suggests that they are helpful, but any method to provide accountability would work.

The bottom line is that the participants in this program, just like the NWCR members, are focusing on “eating less” and “moving more” in some way and relying on some form of support to keep them on track. The good news is, there is no one right way to lose weight. The trick is to find something that works for you, given your current health, interests, and lifestyle.

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Ginger ale label

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The prescription your doctor should give you, but probably won’t.

What if there was a prescription your doctor could give you that would lower your risk of heart attack, stroke, and most cancers? What if that prescription could also prevent and treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes as well as reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, decrease depression, and improve cognitive function and memory better than any other available treatment? Would you be interested in that prescription?

Imagine that prescription could also help you maintain a healthy body weight, increase your strength, and improve your fitness. And provide all of these benefits without negative side effects. Are you interested now?

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

exercise-rx


That prescription exists, but it isn’t a drug or other medical treatment. It is regular physical activity! Research shows that if you have a low level of physical activity you are at greater risk of dying than if you smoke, are obese, or have high blood pressure or cholesterol. In fact, physical inactivity is now thought to be the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States.

If you didn’t know this, you are forgiven. Much attention is given to diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity—with good reason, of course—at the expense of focusing on health behaviors like physical activity. This is partly because of the “education” provided by pharmaceutical companies, who develop drugs to treat these conditions and advertise them widely. But physical inactivity has a huge impact on health, largely because a lack of regular exercise can cause or exacerbate these other diseases. Unfortunately, modern medicine tends to focus medications and surgical procedures, so a low-tech approach like taking a 30 minute walk every day is often overlooked.

Even if you do take medications to treat a chronic condition, regular physical activity is still beneficial. In fact, people who exercise are less likely to require medications for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, or high cholesterol. Many people find that they can rely on lower doses of some medications and may be able to stop taking some altogether if they exercise regularly (under the advice of a physician, of course).

May is Exercise is Medicine Month, a time to help everyone recognize the valuable health benefits of regular physical activity. Exercise is Medicine is an initiative focused on encouraging physicians and other health care providers to include exercise in health assessment and in treatment plans for all patients. Unfortunately, the benefits of physical activity and exercise recommendations are not emphasized in medical education. The result is that only about a third of US adults report having received exercise counseling at their last physician visit.

The amount of exercise needed for health benefits is lower than you might think. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that all adults participate in a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week. This can be met by going for a 30 minute brisk walk on five days each week. For children, 60 minutes or more of moderate or vigorous physical activity every day is recommended. For everyone, additional health benefits come from doing more, either higher intensity exercise or longer duration activity and limiting sedentary time.

The Exercise is Medicine initiative aims to increase physician awareness of the health benefits of exercise, but it will probably be some time before exercise counseling becomes the norm. In the meantime, you should ask your doctor about including exercise in your personal health care plan. Then, go for a walk!