Holiday weight gain is real. HERE’S HOW TO PREVENT IT.

By admin
November 17, 2019

By Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist

It seems like summer just ended and already the holiday season is upon us. In addition to spending time with family and friends, the big events of the season seem to involve shopping and eating. This will almost certainly result in big numbers on your credit card bills and on your bathroom scale! Holiday weight gain is an unpleasant reality for many people, but there is something you can do.

Research shows that, on average, people gain about one pound during the period between Thanksgiving and New Years Day. Winter is the beginning of a time when eating patterns change and not only do people tend to eat more in general, but they also eat more fat. This, combined with a seasonal decline in physical activity, can contribute to unwelcome weight gain. Interestingly, a difference of just 50 calories per day is all that is needed to cause a one-pound weight gain over the holidays, so small changes in eating and activity behaviors that you might not notice now can lead to weight gain that will get your attention later.

The problem is that this extra weight may not be lost during the spring or summer. This means that holiday weight gain can be a major contributor to a gradual, but lasting increase in weight, about one pound per year, that most people experience over time. People who are overweight to begin with tend to gain more weight over the holidays than people who start at a normal weight. This seems to be true in children, young adults, and middle-aged and older adults. Let’s face it, holiday weight gain can be a reality for everyone.

The good news is that the weight gain that typically occurs during the holidays can be prevented. Since most people tend to gain just one pound or less, even small changes to what you eat and your activity can make a difference, without taking away from your holiday cheer. Maintaining weight requires making changes to both eating and activity behaviors. These are difficult to change in the best of circumstances, so eating less and making time for more activity during the holidays is extra challenging.

There is one strategy that seems to help, though. One study used daily self-weighing as a way to track weight changes over the holidays. The subjects who tracked their weight every day had essentially no change in weight compared to a gain of six pounds in subjects who did not weigh themselves. The people who gained weight between the week before Thanksgiving to the week after the New Year did lose some of it over the next three months, but only about half of what they gained.

The thinking is that if you see that you gained a little weight over a few days, you can make small changes to what you eat and your activity to combat it. If you aren’t tracking your weight, you could be in for a big surprise when you step on a scale after the New Year, and you may not lose that extra weight after the holidays. Regular weigh-ins can be an important tool for losing weight and keeping it off.

While changing what you eat can make a big impact on your weight, dieting during the holidays is difficult. But increasing, or at least maintaining, your activity or exercise may be more reasonable. In one study, people who increased their activity were able to prevent weight gain and those who were much more active actually lost weight over the holidays! Plus, becoming more active now will give you a jump start on your New Year’s resolutions.

Here are a few simple tips to help prevent holiday weight gain:

Stay active. The average holiday weight gain could be prevented by adding one mile of walking, or about 20 minutes, per day. Since time may be a factor, you can turn a shopping trip into a chance to be active by taking an extra lap around the mall or parking further away in the parking lot. Go for a walk when you have free time – and take your family and friends with you. Even caroling can be a festive way to get in a little extra holiday activity.

Stay away from the food. Most holiday parties include lots of food, and usually not the healthiest choices. You can reduce the amount you eat by limiting your time near the food – literally, serve your plate and then move away from the food. Using a smaller plate also will help reduce the amount of food you take.

Create no food zones. Get rid of the candy dish on your desk at work or the plate of treats on the countertop at home. You are less likely to eat food that isn’t right in front of you.

Don’t drink your calories. Alcoholic beverages, soda, and juice all contain calories and can add up to a big part of your total calorie intake. Many beverages, including hot chocolate and coffee drinks, can easily contain hundreds of calories. This doesn’t mean you can’t have your favorite drinks, but enjoy them in moderation. And make water your beverage of choice at other times.

Plan ahead. If you are trying to watch what you eat, have a healthy snack before you go to a party. You will feel less hungry so you will probably be less inclined to eat as much. If you are bringing a dish to the party, make it something healthy that you like.

Focus on family and friends, not food. The holidays are a time to enjoy special gatherings with family and friends, many of which involve food. Let the fellowship be your focus. You can still enjoy your favorite foods and drinks, but make the people your priority not the pigging out.

Give yourself a break! Healthy eating and exercise are always important, but they are more difficult to do around the holidays. According to one study, even people who were trying to lose weight over the holidays ended up gaining about a half pound. So, do your best to maintain your healthy habits, accept that you may struggle and make a commitment to get back on track after the New Year!

The mystery behind muscle cramps during exercise… and potential causes and treatments

By admin
September 24, 2019

By Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist

Muscle cramps are a common condition experienced during endurance exercise and many sports. Known as exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC), these sustained and painful muscle contractions tend to occur during prolonged exertion including exercise and physical labor that results in fatigue. Despite their frequency, the cause and treatment for muscle cramps is not well understood by many recreational and competitive athletes.

Muscle cramps that occur during exercise are widely thought to be caused by dehydration and electrolyte imbalances in the muscle. This makes sense, as muscle cramps seem to be more likely during prolonged exercise in a hot, humid environment in which sweat loss could cause a loss of both water and salt from sweat. Sometimes, EAMC are erroneously referred to as “heat cramps,” even though they can occur in cooler conditions. Furthermore, dehydration and electrolyte imbalances would affect the entire body, whereas muscle cramps occur only in the working muscles, typically the gastrocnemius in the lower leg. It is also worth noting that the most effective treatment for muscle cramps – stretching the affected muscle – does not replace fluid or electrolytes. These observations suggest that EAMC have a cause other than fluid and electrolyte loss during exercise.

Research also does not support the notion that dehydration or electrolyte abnormalities are the cause of muscle cramps that occur during exercise. For example, in one study of competitors in an Ironman triathlon, there were no significant differences between those who experienced muscle cramps and those who did not in blood electrolyte concentrations or body weight changes (an indicator of dehydration). The development of EAMC was related to faster race times and a history of cramping. Other studies in a laboratory setting show that muscle cramps still occur even when electrolyte balance and fluid replacement is maintained. These findings and other research led to the development of an alternate theory of the cause of muscle cramps during exercise.

Understanding the cause of EAMC requires a brief primer in muscle physiology. Muscle contraction occurs when nerves, from the spinal cord, called motor neurons, stimulate the muscles to shorten and produce force. The force production by the muscle is controlled by a host of receptors that either stimulate or inhibit the muscle. One of these, the muscle spindle, responds to stretch and causes muscle excitation. Another, the Golgi tendon organ (GTO), inhibits muscle activation and causes relaxation, in part to prevent excessive force production. Working together, the muscle spindle and GTO regulate force production during exercise.

You can easily experience the muscle spindle and GTO in action. The patellar tendon reflex, in which a tap on the patellar tendon causes your quadriceps muscles to contract and “kick” your lower leg, is due to simulation of the muscle spindle. You have probably noticed that you can stretch farther if you hold a stretch for a long time. This is caused by the GTO inhibiting the stretched muscle, allowing it to relax and lengthen even more.

Just as repeated muscle contraction over time can lead to muscle fatigue, the pattern of the motor neurons stimulating the muscle can also be altered during prolonged, intense exercise. This causes an excessive stimulation of the muscle spindle and decreased activation of the GTO, resulting in uncontrolled muscle contraction – a cramp. This also explains why stretching is an effective treatment for muscle cramps. By engaging the GTO, the muscle relaxes and the cramp is eventually relieved.

The prevention of muscle cramps is obviously of great interest, especially for athletes who are prone to develop them. Given that muscle fatigue is a condition underlying most cramps, adequate training and conditioning to increase endurance is important. Acclimating to hot, humid conditions and staying as cool as possible during exercise may also help delay fatigue. There are a number of popular preventive strategies, including increasing fluid and electrolyte intake, consuming specific foods and beverages like pickle juice and bananas prior to exercise, and taking substances like quinine. However, experimental evidence for these strategies to reduce EAMC is lacking and their effectiveness is based mostly on anecdotal reports.

There is another potential approach to prevent and treat muscle cramps. Remarkably, ingesting spicy foods or food extracts like cinnamon, ginger, or peppers may reduce the intensity and/or duration of muscle cramps. The mechanism for this involves the activation of nervous system receptors in the mouth that send signals along the spinal cord, which can inhibit muscle contraction. Limited research suggests that this strategy may reduce muscle cramps during exercise, but it is too soon to know how effective it is. In the meantime, the best way to prevent muscle cramps is to prepare yourself through training and nutrition for both the environmental conditions and exercise itself. And if you get a muscle cramp during exercise, immediate stretching is the best way to relieve it.

Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., is an ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of South Carolina Aiken.

Eat Slowly… Then Fast

By admin
July 08, 2019

By Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist

What you eat is an essential part of achieving and maintaining good health. What you may not know is that how and when you eat can be just as important. This is especially true if your goal is to lose weight, but changing the way you eat also can slow the aging process and reduce your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. Ongoing research and practical experience suggest that eating more slowly and incorporating periods of fasting can help with weight control and improve your health.

Eat Slowly…
Eating less is an important goal for losing weight and keeping it off. One effective way to limit the amount of food you eat is to eat more slowly. Perhaps your mother admonished you to slow down at meals when you were young. This was good advice, for both practical and physiological reasons.

When you eat, your stomach fills, triggering the release of hormones that signal your brain to reduce your appetite. The result is that as your stomach fills, you feel less hungry. Eating quickly, like many of us do, allows you to take in more calories before your brain gets the message that you are full. Practically speaking, eating slower means you will eat fewer calories during mealtime. If you slow down at meals, you start to feel full before you eat as much. Research shows that this can lead to lower calorie intake during the meal. In addition to controlling how much food you consume, eating more slowly is a good way to enjoy meals, both the food and the company, more fully.

…Then Fast
Another approach is to extend the time between meals or limit eating to fewer hours per day. This form of fasting may affect your metabolism in ways that can help with weight control and improve your health. Restricting when you eat has been shown to have multiple health benefits from weight loss to reducing the risk for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. There are two main ways to incorporate fasting into your diet – intermittent fasting and time-restricted eating.

Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern in which you have some days or times of day that you don’t eat. This could mean a day or more without eating each week or month. An example is the 5:2 model, in which you eat your normal diet for five days and then spend two, water-only fasting days per week. While this is effective for modest weight loss and improved glucose and lipid metabolism, it isn’t easy to do.

Time-restricted eating, in which you limit your eating to a 4 to 8 hour period each day with a 16–20 hour fast, may be easier to follow. In the popular 16:8 plan, you eat only during an 8-hour period and fast for 16 hours. The concept of not eating between meals, especially between dinner and breakfast, isn’t new, but research shows that having a longer fasting period each day may help you lose weight, without counting calories. Even without this evidence, adopting a fasting period between dinner and breakfast, which should be about 12 hours, seems prudent. At the very least, it will keep you from snacking in the evening, which so often involves unhealthy choices.

Why it works

Intermittent fasting and time-restricted eating are thought to improve health by giving tissues time for growth and repair. For hours after you eat, your cells are processing the nutrients you consume. But cells also need time to repair damage to prevent abnormal function and growth. This can help prevent cancer development, reduce the risk of heart disease, and slow the cellular aging process. These processes are most active when your cells are not processing the food you eat, which is why longer periods without food are thought to be beneficial.

The time of day you eat may matter, too. Your body follows circadian rhythms that dictate cellular growth and repair, hormone levels, and brain activity. Most simply, this is a sleep-wake cycle, in which you are active and eating during the day, with growth and repair occurring at night while you sleep. There may be a benefit to confining your eating to earlier in the day so that the nutrients from your last meal are absorbed, processed, and stored before you go to sleep allowing that time to be dedicated to restorative processes. You can do this by eating your largest meal at lunch rather than at dinner.

You also need to consider the interaction between eating, exercise, and sleep. Intermittent fasting alone won’t make you any healthier if you are eating a poor quality diet, not exercising, and not getting enough sleep. In fact, inadequate sleep can disrupt your circadian rhythm diminishing the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise. We have long known that eating well, exercising daily, and getting adequate sleep are a winning combination for good health; eating more slowly and restricting your eating to certain times of day or days of the week may make those efforts even more effective.

Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., is an ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of South Carolina Aiken.

Prescription Drug Prices on the Rise

By admin
July 07, 2019

Healthcare remains one of our most pressing issues as the country gears up for the 2020 election. In addition to concerns over rising health insurance premiums and worry over whether protections for coverage of pre-existing conditions will continue, the spiraling cost of prescription drugs is at the top of the list for a vast majority of people.

Prescription drug prices have increased so significantly that far too many patients are having to choose between their prescriptions and food or rent, with disastrous effects on their health. For many it is now a life or death situation. Imagine, one brand-name drug prescribed for people with type 1 diabetes increased by 54% in 2014 alone, and prices are still on the rise, far exceeding current rates of inflation. Cost increases are across the board, from older name-brand drugs to newly developed drugs and generics. It seems the pharmaceutical industry has us over a barrel and it’s literally killing us. Something has to give.

It’s hard to imagine anything productive coming out of Congress, but we’ll never know if we don’t try. We have one powerful stick to apply. We have a voice, and when we put it together with a multitude of other voices, and translate it into potential votes, it just might attract some attention. Our elected representatives are accountable to us and we need to let them know that it’s time to stand up to big pharma.

I know it sounds like a civics lesson, but what we need is some strong legislation to prevent price gouging on life-saving drugs and get rid of loopholes that let drug companies keep their monopolies on some brand-name medicines. We need to change existing laws to allow the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada, let Medicare negotiate drug prices and apply penalties to drug companies whose U.S. prices far exceed the prices in other developed countries.

Write to your congressman and senators, call their offices and lodge your concerns, blow up their emails and Twitter accounts, organize with other concerned friends and neighbors in your community, attend town halls and make your feelings known when your elected representatives are at home for summer recess. This is not a partisan issue. Exorbitant prescription drug costs are hitting everybody in the pocketbook.

In the meantime, if you are struggling to pay for your prescription drugs, talk to your prescribing physician. You may qualify for a prescription assistance program that can help with the cost of your medicine.

No American should have to choose between eating and paying for their prescriptions.

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