Fitness & Well Being

 

Doing cardio

Cardio exercise is healthy, but deciding how much to do depends on your goals.

 
Photo: sportsandsocial/Flickr
With so much conflicting information about fitness in the media, maybe you're wondering "how much cardio should I do?"
 
The short answer: it depends.
 
The amount of cardiovascular exercise you'll want to engage in should be predicated on your goals.
 
  • Are you training for a marathon or other race?
  • Is weight loss your goal?
  • Want to fit both strength training and cardio in your routine?
  • Don't have a lot of free time to squeeze in a 45-minute run?
  • Just want to get in better shape?
 
For general guidelines, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity exercise three to five times per week.
 
What does moderate intensity mean?
If you can't carry a conversation during a jog, swim, bike or other aerobic activity that gets your heart pumping for a sustained period of time, you're working out too hard. This is especially true if you're new to exercise or concerned about flooding your body with the stress hormone, cortisol. 
 
Moderate intensity is generally viewed as, after a proper warm up (think: brisk walk for five to 10 minutes), elevating your heart rate to about 50 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate.
 
There are more scientifically precise ways of determining your maximum heart rate. The best method, especially for those who are around 40 years old or older and overweight is to do a treadmill stress test administered by a medical professional.
 
One formula that's often used for the general public is to take your age and subtract it from 220 and then multiply that by anywhere from .50 to .65, which will give you a heart rate guideline for moderate intensity.
 
The Karvonen formula is also cited as more reliable, though you'll have to know what your resting heart rate is to figure out your moderate intensity training range based on this formula. 
 
I'm training for a marathon. How much cardio should I do?
Before answering that question, first ask yourself why you want to train for a marathon. Is it just to prove that you can achieve a monumental task? Make sure you have a thorough understanding of sports nutrition and don't have any underlying health issues (an irregular heartbeat, for example).
 
If you're cleared by your physician and have studied sports nutrition extensively, you'll want to do cardio at least 5 days a week for several weeks if not months prior to a race. Each session should last well over an hour.
 
I lift weights and want to keep muscle. Won't too much cardio burn away my muscle mass?
If you're concerned about cardio exercise wasting away your muscle tissue, two to three moderate intensity cardiovascular sessions per week of 30 minutes should be enough.
 
Keep in mind that it's possible to sustain your heart rate at an aerobic capacity for 30 minutes or more during weight lifting. Full-body exercises like deadlifts and squats use your whole body and will tax your heart. To keep up your heart rate, consider focusing on muscular endurance by lowering the amount of weight lifted and increasing the amount of repetitions.
 
If you're concerned about staying as strong as possible, don't lift too light but do jump rope in between lifts to keep your heart rate up.
 
I don't have time to do 45 minutes of cardio at one time. What should I do?
Split up your routine. Performing two 20-minute sessions of cardio per day (jumping rope, climbing stairs or bleachers) a day has been proven to be just as effective, if not more so, than one continuous cardio session.
 
Cardio conclusion
Elite athletes and endurance exercisers thrive on doing high-intensity cardio for prolonged periods, provided that they supplement with adequate nutrition and rest. The average person would do well getting their heart rate up to at least a moderate intensity level five to six days per week. Striking a good balance between resistance and cardio exercise will be most beneficial. Pick an exercise program that accomplishes both to save time. Get clearance from your doctor before starting any exercise program.
 
Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, Calif.

 

Woman taking a vitamin

The health benefits of taking a supplement are debatable. In some cases, it might even be dangerous.

 
Photo: ZUMA Press
Here's a tough pill to swallow: supplements are a $25-billion-a-year industry, but are they necessary? Could it be that you’re literally peeing your hard-earned money down the toilet, or worse, doing more harm than good by consuming too many supplements? It’s certainly food for thought.
 
Many medical professionals and nutritionists argue that supplements are necessary because:
  • Most people don't eat enough fruits and vegetables
  • Most people eat processed foods, which lack essential nutrients
  • The soil in which our food is grown is depleted, thus lacking essential minerals
  • Pregnant women and the elderly need more vitamins than food provides
  • The consumption of pharmaceuticals, which may interfere with vitamin absorption
 
But what about for those who exercise regularly, eat balanced whole foods at every meal, don’t smoke, and drink alcohol moderately? Are supplements necessary?
 
Some research says 'no'
An article last year on Slate.com mentioned a study that was published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), which concluded, “The evidence for routine use of multivitamin and mineral supplements to reduce infections in elderly people is weak and conflicting….”
 
Another peer-reviewed study mentioned in the article was penned by several researchers at the Division of Public Health Sciences, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. After following up with more than 160,000 post-menopausal women during the 1990s, for an average of eight years, the researchers’ study “provided convincing evidence that multivitamin use has little or no influence on the risk of common cancers, CVD (cardiovascular disease), or total mortality in postmenopausal women.”
 
Debunking supplements doesn’t stop there. Experts at the National Institutes of Health five years ago argued that there’s no clear evidence that vitamins prevent chronic diseases.
 
So what have researchers concluded from supplements? Researchers have inconclusively concluded the following:
 
  • Health benefits from taking multivitamins is still up for debate.
  • Some people may be getting too much of certain nutrients.
  • There may be possible interactions between multivitamins and minerals and prescribed or over-the-counter medications.
 
That’s a bummer. My cabinet is stocked with supplements. Surely my antioxidant pills are highly effective?
Marketing gurus have helped companies make millions by touting the latest antioxidant product du jour, be it the acai berry, mangosteen, blueberry, Omega 3s…the list goes on.
 
But research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association says that not only can some antioxidant supplements be ineffective, they can be hazardous to your health. The 2007 study of more than 232,000 people concluded that antioxidant supplements can "increase the risk of death."
 
Gulp. Talk about a bitter pill to swallow. Why would antioxidants be bad for you? Researchers theorize that we shouldn’t be as vigilant about free radicals as we are; our body actually needs some amount of them to perform certain functions like regulating blood sugar levels.
 
Is there anything these studies bashing supplements have missed?
Perhaps. Nutritional experts would argue that not all supplements are created equal. Certain brands are derived from whole-food sources, while other, more mainstream brands are laced with synthetic ingredients. The aforementioned research did not indicate what brand of vitamins the subjects were taking.
 
Certain vitamin supplements are time-released, while others flood the digestive system all at once, jockeying for position to be absorbed by the body, only to be flushed out by the kidneys.
 
Conclusion: Take supplements on an as-needed basis
If you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor about supplements; you may be advised to take supplemental folate. Susceptible to cold sores? You may need supplemental lysine, an amino acid. Concerned about prostate health? Saw palmetto or a bevy of other natural supplements might be the right choice. Digest food poorly? Hydrochloric acid and pepsin might be beneficial. Taken antibiotics lately? Consider recolonizing your digestive tract with probiotics. Most of your immune system lies within your gut, so if you’re going to choose one supplement to take, consider one that aids digestive health. If you eat a poor diet, a multivitamin split in half and taken in the morning and evening might be more effective than a diet full of junk food. But do your research on which multivitamin to take.
 
Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, Calif.

 

We've got tips for how you can bring down your blood pressure numbers naturally.

 
Are you one of the approximately one in three American adults with high blood pressure? If so, here are some general guidelines on how to lower blood pressure.
 
Perhaps it's the stressful job you've had for years — or the stress of finding a job — that's caused your systolic (pressure while heart beats) and diastolic (pressure in between beats) to soar above "140 over 90" (mmHg), the standard benchmark for high blood pressure.
 
If you're diabetic or have kidney disease, the National Institutes of Health recommends maintaining a blood pressure under 130/80.
 
Besides stress, other factors can lead to high blood pressure, including:
 
  • Race and ethnicity (African Americans are more susceptible to high blood pressure)
  • Gender
  • Age (blood pressure tends to rise with age)
  • Unhealthy lifestyle habits like smoking
  • Genetics
 
High blood pressure itself usually has no symptoms, but if left untreated, it could potentially lead to coronary heart disease, kidney failure or stroke. There's a good reason high blood pressure, or hypertension as it's also known, is referred to as "the silent killer."
 
To lower blood pressure, you'll want to do the following:
 
  • Eat a little dark chocolate
  • Drink moderate amounts of alcohol (2 drinks maximum per day)
  • Exercise
  • Quit smoking
  • Take potassium
  • Manage stress
 
You had me at dark chocolate. Really, dark chocolate helps lower blood pressure?
The above list of ways to lower blood pressure is by no means in order of importance. Exercising, meditating and managing stress, and of course, cessation of unhealthy lifestyle choices are paramount to combating high blood pressure.
 
But, yes, dark chocolate has been clinically proven to help lower blood pressure. In a study published in BioMed Central, researchers compiled over 50 years of clinical trials that measured the effect of cocoa on blood pressure. The conclusion: dark chocolate was more effective in reducing blood pressure than the placebo, especially for those with hypertension or pre-hypertension.
 
You also had me at "drink alcohol." That lowers blood pressure as well?
A 2001 study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health studied the health of approximately 20,000 Spaniards and found that those who drank moderate amounts of any alcohol enjoyed better overall health. The Mayo Clinicreports that heavy drinkers who cut back to the recommended level of one to two drinks a day may be able to lower blood pressure by a few points. It's probably a good idea, however, to abstain from alcohol if alcoholism runs in your family, or if you are on medication. Ask your doctor if it's safe for you to consume alcohol in moderation.
 
I hate exercising. Even if I did like it, I don't have time to go to the gym. What should I do?
Exercising makes the heart muscle pump blood more efficiently. Improve your cardiovascular capacity and your heart won't have to work as hard pumping blood. You don't have to run a marathon or train for a triathlon to get your ticker in better shape. If you have to, wake up earlier or come home from work earlier or take a longer lunch break and take a brisk walk.
 
Walking at a decent pace most days of the week for 30 minutes will significantly improve your cardiovascular health. With your doctor's clearance, try walking up a steep flight of steps one to three times per day. (A good measure of a decent pace: you should be slightly winded while carrying on a conversation.)
 
Gentle yoga, tai chi and breathing classes all may help to lower blood pressure. You don't have to partake in extreme exercise to lower blood pressure. A University of New Mexico study concluded that although hypertensive individuals were once recommended by the medical establishment to avoid resistance training, moderate levels of it as well as aerobic exercise will reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
 
Ok, I'll give exercise a try. How else can I lower my blood pressure?
Foods and supplements rich in potassium may help lower blood pressure, according to some clinical studies, including a small-scale study at Harvard Medical School. Eliminating or reducing caffeine intake can also help lower blood pressure. If you're on high blood pressure medication, don't quit cold turkey; talk to your doctor first or consult a Naturopath.
 
Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, California. His blood pressure is slightly elevated because of deadlines.

 

Stressed woman.

Stress affects us the same way it did our ancestors. Learn how the body responds and what you can do to minimize the damage.

 
Photo: Jupiterimages
How many sabre-toothed tigers tried to maul you to death today? Hopefully, the stressors in your life don’t involve an apex predator chasing you through the bush. Still, ever wonder, “What does stress do to the body?”
 
Stress affects us the same way it did our cavemen ancestors. We are still wired for stress physiologically much the same way we were millennia ago, with our primordial fight or flight response well alive within us to keep us alert and safe.
 
Though not all stress is bad, we need a break from bad stressors, otherwise our health may begin to deteriorate.
 
Modern humans battle bad stressors that might not seem like a fight or flight scenario—staying in an unhealthy or challenging relationship with a partner; financial hardships; job dissatisfaction; drug and alcohol abuse; nagging mother-in-laws— all this distress may cause the body to:
 
  • Elevate blood pressure
  • Increase heart rate
  • Slow down digestion and metabolism
  • Flood the bloodstream with chemicals like adrenalin and cortisol
  • Tense up muscles
 
Have a white-knuckle commute on the freeway to work every morning? Welcome to this modern life’s version of the caveman being chased by the sabre-tooth tiger. Though you might not have to flee your car and run, the same chemical cocktails are coursing through your body as the caveman’s.
 
Cortisol: Like adrenaline, it helps us deal with stress, but too much of it can be harmful
Cortisol is one of those chemicals. Excessive cortisol can be damaging to the body.Research has linked it to body fat storage around the abdomen. In turn, piling on the pounds around the belly can lead to heart disease.
 
Excessive cortisol flooding the bloodstream can lead to adrenal exhaustion. Some doctors believe that adrenal exhaustion (think: someone who is constantly tired) is the main culprit behind every chronic disease. Some doctors think that the mainstream medical profession fails to recognize adrenal burnout as a real health concern.
 
WebMD reports that 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are stress-related, but in its assessment of stress on the body, nowhere does it mention adrenal fatigue due to excess cortisol, which is sometimes referred to as “the stress hormone.”
 
Failing to cope with bad stress, and thus severely fatiguing the adrenal glands (which rest over the kidneys), has a domino effect on the body’s many symptoms and functions, including:
 
  • Hormonal (hormonal pathways can be disrupted)
  • Musculoskeletal (you won’t burn fat as efficiently and gain muscle)
  • Immune (adrenal fatigue from bad stress wreaks havoc on the immune system)
  • Digestive (bad stress slows digestion, chronic digestion problems may arise)
  • Cardiovascular (adrenal fatigue can lead to heart palpitations and other problems)
 
Eating the wrong foods can also lead to adrenal exhaustion
As if mounting bills and a tenuous marriage weren’t enough stress to make your blood vessels dilate, your pupils enlarge, your breathing rapidly increase and your sweat glands kicking into overdrive, perhaps reading that eating an unhealthy diet also plays a major role in contributing to adrenal fatigue.
 
How? Eating the wrong foods over many years can break down the mucosal barrier in your gut. Think of the mucosal barrier as the body’s second skin as well as the body’s first line of defense against pathogens, or unwanted nasty critters invading your gut.
 
Your immune system lies mostly in your gut, so if over the years you continue eating poorly, the integrity of the mucosal barrier system becomes severely compromised. In the long run, digestion is compromised. With most of your immune system residing in your gut, your immune system will weaken.
 
Proper course of action for those with adrenal burnout
Concerned about what stress has done to your body? Seek a medical professional or alternative health practitioner who understands adrenal fatigue and knows how to restore hormonal pathways (Stress robs the body of certain hormones like pregnenolone to produce cortisol; over time this leads to more imbalances.) A nutritional approach to battling stress should also be applied.
 
How has stress affected your body? Let us know below.
 
Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, California.

 

depressed woman

To boost serotonin levels, you'll want to pay attention to diet, exercise, sleep and stress levels. Our expert has a few tips to help you get a natural lift.

 
PICK-ME-UP: Serotonin levels can influence our moods, making us feel a little down in the dumps. Diet, exercise and minimizing stress can help keep serotonin levels healthy. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
All of us are susceptible to catching a case of the blues every now and then — it's part of the human condition.
 
For those who have been battling blue moods more frequently, here's how to increase serotonin, one of the body's natural mood-enhancing compounds.
 
If you're currently taking antidepressants (which boost serotonin levels), don't stop taking your medication without first consulting your doctor. Those with severe depression may not be able to naturally boost serotonin levels.
 
But for those with moderate mood swings, there are plenty of ways to naturally increase serotonin.
 
Boost your immune system
The majority of your immune system and your serotonin lie in the gut. The healthier your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the healthier your immune system. The healthier your immune system, the more serotonin you'll have.
 
Making sure your immune system is operating to its fullest capacity — and thus increasing the likelihood you’ll boost serotonin naturally — means you'll want to pay attention to the following:
  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Sleep
  • Exposure to sunlight
  • Stress levels
  • Intimacy
 
The food-food connection
Eating cakes, cookies, pastries and any other comfort foods with refined sugars and white flour might give us a temporary mood lift but it can suppress the immune system. Carbohydrate-rich foods may indeed actually increase serotonin levels, but only temporarily.
 
A cupcakeThat sugar crash you feel after you've eaten a simple carbohydrate like a brownie leads to low-blood sugar levels and the release of insulin. Insulin spikes can lead to the release of adrenaline, which in turn caninterfere with the production of serotonin.
 
So while carbohydrates may indeed boost serotonin, the high feeling you'll get after a sugary snack is a false friend. Opt instead for slower burning carbohydrates like oatmeal and whole grains. These foods have the amino acid tryptophan, which is converted into serotonin.
 
Alcohol and caffeine should also be enjoyed moderately as excess levels can interfere with the body's natural ability to produce serotonin. Limit coffee to one cup in the morning.
 
Does exercise increase serotonin?
There have been numerous studies linking exercise to elevated natural mood enhancing neurotransmitters and chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins.
 
The good news about exercise and serotonin is that it doesn't take a two-hour workout to boost serotonin levels. Most medical experts recommend 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five to seven times per week.
 
In other words, you don't need to train for an Ironman competition to reap the benefits of your body's ability to increase serotonin. Actually, high intensity exercise can stress the body. Although high intensity exercise can produce a powerful endorphin effect, it can also lead to elevated levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone.
 
Splitting up three 10-minute moderate intensity exercise sessions can be very effective at increasing serotonin.
 
StressSpeaking of stress
Even if you exercise moderately and daily, eat a healthy balanced diet, and don't abuse stimulants, your body's ability to increase serotonin will be diminished if your job and relationship are stressing you out.
 
Take control of stress. One way to do this is to keep your nervous system operating like a finely tuned engine.Meditation can be profoundly effective at keeping stress at bay and boosting your immune system.
 
Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man ... increase serotonin
Although everybody is biochemically unique, most of us have similar circadian rhythms. In a healthy human body, cortisol production should be lowest at night and highest first thing in the morning. Staying up late can stress the body’s immune system. If possible, shut off all lights and as many electronic devices as possible by 10 p.m.
 
And speaking of light, try to get 15-20 minutes of sunlight exposure per day to activate production of serotonin. If you live in an area that gets little natural sunlight at certain times of the year, there are full spectrum lights that can prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
 
HuggingHugs, not drugs … and lots of laughter
Intimacy and laughter are well known to elevate serotonin and endorphin levels. But too much serotonin can actually suppress sex drive. This is acommon side effect of antidepressants. When you artificially flood the body with serotonin, the body becomes satiated, eliminating the desire for sex.
 
If you are on antidepressants and have the desire to boost your sex drive, speak with your doctor about some of these ways to increase serotonin. You may eventually be able to ditch the drugs.
 
Judd Handler is a health writer based in Encinitas, Calif.
 
Photos: Eva Blue/Flickr; Samael Kreutz/Flickr; Ed Yourdon/Flickr

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