Exercise for the health of it

177522302My sister seems to think she can eat as much as she wants over the holidays and not gain weight as long as she exercises more. I’m skeptical. Who’s right? 

It really depends. The key is to balance calories you take in with the calories you use up.

But most weight-loss specialists say a combination of diet and exercise — not one or the other — is what’s needed, especially when indulging in special treats.

That makes sense. Figure it this way: If you estimate an average Christmas cookie has about 100 calories, and your sister eats as many as she wants — say, five? — that’s 500 calories she will need to work off if she doesn’t cut back calories somewhere else. For a 160-pound person, that’s an extra hour of high-impact aerobics, or nearly two extra hours of walking at a moderate to brisk pace. And that’s just to counterbalance the cookies. It doesn’t count any other bouts of excess.

Recent research backs up this line of thinking. A Texas Tech University study published in September in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition involved 148 people from mid-November to early January. Half said they regularly exercised almost five hours a week. The others didn’t exercise regularly.

Guess what? The men in the study gained an average of two pounds during the holidays, and women gained about a pound. Participants who were obese tended to gain more. But the amount of exercise a person engaged in just didn’t seem to make a difference. The researchers weren’t sure why; it could be that people who exercised a lot also consumed more calories. The study wasn’t designed to answer that question.

Still, your sister’s idea has merit: Physical activity offers more benefits than just expending calories.

In fact, another study, published in November in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, indicates that you’re never too old to reap those benefits.

The study involved data from 3,500 people who took part in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging between 2002-03 and 2010-11. With an average age of 64, every two years the participants reported their level of physical activity.

After eight years, the researchers found that those who engaged in moderate or vigorous physical activity at least once a week were three to four times more likely to remain healthy.

While the study doesn’t prove cause-and-effect, it’s clear that engaging in exercise — during the holidays and year-round — can be the gift that keeps on giving.

Take a stand against sitting

115028169I know how important physical activity is for you. But I’ve also heard that just the act of sitting for long periods (like I do at my desk every day at work) can be hazardous to your health. If this is true, what can I do about it?

Recent research has, in fact, made a connection between too much downtime — that is, down-on-your-butt-time — and increased health risks.

In a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers examined data over 8.5 years from nearly 241,000 adults ages 50 to 71. The people in the study did not report any cancer, heart disease or respiratory disease at the beginning of the study.

The researchers asked participants to estimate the number of hours of overall sitting time per day, as well as the number of hours spent watching television. Both types of sedentary behavior were associated with higher mortality over the course of the study.

The greatest risk was noted for those watching the most television: Compared with those reporting one hour of television viewing per day, participants who reported seven hours of TV viewing per day had a 50 percent greater risk of dying, even after adjusting for other risk factors, such as the amount of physical activity the person engaged in otherwise.

The researchers weren’t certain why television viewing would have a different effect than other types of sitting, but wondered if people just had more difficulty estimating their total sitting time than their TV-watching time.

At any rate, your question is a valid one: Many people today sit for long periods both on the job and at leisure. The overall effect can be profound.

What can you do? Get creative and find ways to get moving:

  • At the office, stand up, stretch, and take a quick walk if you can once an hour. Set an alarm as a reminder.
  • Stand up whenever you talk on the phone — and opt to make a phone call more often instead of sending an email.
  • Encourage your colleagues to have “standing” meetings. They’re usually shorter and more productive, as well as healthier.
  • Examine your TV watching. Do you really enjoy what you watch, or has it just become a habit? If you can pare down your viewing, use the extra time to take a walk through the neighborhood, clean up some clutter or run the vacuum cleaner. Even small amounts of additional movement can be helpful.

Get moving, for a lot of reasons

80379902I know that getting enough exercise is recommended to reduce the risk of heart disease. Is that just because doing so helps you maintain a healthy weight, or is there a separate benefit? 

Your instincts are on the mark. While both a healthy diet and regular physical activity can reduce a whole host of risk factors related to heart disease — such as maintaining a healthy weight, reducing blood pressure and cholesterol, and managing blood sugar levels — they both have heart-healthy benefits in their own right.

Inactive people are nearly twice as likely to develop coronary heart disease as people who are physically active, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Physical activity helps the heart in a number of ways. Regularly engaging  in moderate to vigorous activity strengthens the heart muscle, which helps improve your heart’s ability to pump blood to your lungs and throughout your body. That allows more blood to flow to muscles, and increases oxygen levels in your blood.

The microscopically small blood vessels throughout your body, called capillaries, also widen. This allows them to deliver more oxygen to tissues.

Aerobic exercise benefits your heart and lungs the most. That’s the type of exercise that moves the large muscle groups in your arms and legs. Walking, jogging, running, swimming, biking, dancing, tennis, basketball, skateboarding, jumping rope and doing jumping jacks are all examples of aerobic exercise.

Even working in the yard and garden — digging, hoeing or raking — or doing housework counts as aerobic exercise if the activity is vigorous enough to increase your heart rate.

You know you’re exercising hard enough to have an effect if the activity causes noticeable increases in your breathing and heart rate. You’re doing moderate-intensity activity if you can still talk, but not sing, while doing the activity. If you find you can’t say more than a few words without stopping for a breath, you’ve reached the level of “vigorous” activity.

If you’re currently not very active, build up gradually to 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity activity per week — that’s 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Just 10 minutes three times a day counts toward that goal.

If you already have heart problems or have other risk factors — if you’re overweight, if you smoke, if you have diabetes or high blood pressure, for example — first check with your doctor about what type of exercise is right for you.

Keep physically fit at any weight

I’ve seen conflicting information about whether or not being obese is actually harmful to your health. Can you clarify?

You’re not crazy. Depending on how studies are designed, how large they are, and a number of other factors, results can seem to conflict with each other. And, since more than one-third of U.S. adults are currently classified as obese, this type of research generally gets (and deserves) a lot of attention.

Some research suggests that obesity increases the risk of disease and death no matter what. But other studies indicate that being obese isn’t necessarily predictive of negative health outcomes. One recently published study is a good example.

The study, conducted at the University of South Carolina, suggests that nearly half of the obese people who participated in the study were just as healthy, metabolically speaking, as their normal-weight counterparts, and they had no increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer or death.

The study examined 43,265 participants in the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study between 1979 and 2003. Participants completed detailed questionnaires on their medical and lifestyle history, and they had a physical exam that included measurements of their height, weight and percentage of body fat, as well as metabolic measurements including blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and fasting glucose levels. They also took a treadmill test that measured their level of cardio-respiratory fitness. The participants were followed until they died or until the end of 2003.

The researchers found that 46 percent of the obese participants were metabolically healthy, and they also had a better fitness level than obese participants who had high blood pressure, high triglycerides or other metabolic measurements of concern. It appears that being fit — at least as measured on a standard treadmill test — is a better measure of health risks than what the scale says.

The take-home message? No matter what your weight, do what you can to stay or become physically fit. Take a brisk walk first thing in the morning or every evening after supper. Take an aerobics class, start swimming, or join a local gym. Make it a habit to take the stairs, even if you have to climb three or four flights, instead of taking the elevator.

Of course, if you’re not used to much physical activity, first check in with your doctor or health professional to make sure there are no underlying health conditions that you need to be aware of. But once you start, keep being active — no matter what the scale says.

Behavior changes key in weight loss

What are some of the things people do (besides eating less) to help them lose weight successfully?

That’s an interesting question. Most people, for obvious reasons, focus on food when trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

But behavioral scientists studying successful weight loss have found a few strategies beyond cutting calories that seem to work for many who have lost weight and kept it off.

In a recent study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers at the University of Minnesota studied behaviors of more than 400 people who successfully lost at least 10 percent of their body weight in the past year. The researchers grouped the behaviors in four major categories:

  • Regularity of meals: People who tended to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner routinely were more likely to have better success at weight loss during the past year. They were also more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • TV-related viewing and eating: Participants were asked how often they ate snacks or meals in front of the television, how much TV they watched on an average day, and how often they ate after 7 p.m. Those who were more likely to engage in those behaviors tended to have a higher BMI (or body mass index, a standard measure of body fat based on height and weight) and higher fat and sugar intake.
  • Eating away from home: These behaviors include eating out at a restaurant (sit down or fast food); eating food provided by an employer or another employee at work; purchasing food at a convenience store or a gas station; and purchasing food items for a fundraiser. People who did these things more often had a higher fat and sugar intake and a lower fruit and vegetable intake, and engaged in less physical activity.
  • Intentional strategies for weight control: Participants were asked how often they wrote down the amount and type of exercise they engaged in, as well as the calorie content of the food they ate; how often they planned meals and exercise in order to manage their weight; and how often they used meal replacements. Those who did these things more often saw many benefits: they tended to have a lower BMI; they experienced greater weight loss in the last year; they had a lower fat and sugar intake; they ate more fruits and vegetables; and they engaged in more physical activity.

Take a look at the behaviors and see if any of them make sense to incorporate in your life. Adopting a few healthy strategies can make a big difference.