When we think of a ‘gym’, we all have certain expectations. Gyms are great if you need a lot of equipment or weight, space, and options, but are not right for everyone.
Private gyms can offer many benefits as well. Below are some pros and cons to consider before making your next move.
Did You Know?
The pandemic has changed many things, one of which is our habits around leaving the house. For example, revenue declined 22% in gyms and health centers in 2021 compared to 2019, but increased by 66% in the online fitness industry.
However gyms continue to be an important part of our day, with over 200,000 gyms and/or clubs in US, with an industry value of over $87 billion worldwide.
The industry has also been growing by 8.7% in recent years, reflecting the benefits of exercise for mental as well as physical health.
Why People Use Gyms
Big Equipment. Most of us (75%) use the strength training machines, suggesting this is a big draw. Equipment that is large and expensive is difficult to have at your home without a dedicated space and knowledge of use.
Interest in health. As of 2022, 39% of people in US are gym members. This suggests almost half of us are showing an interest in our health.
Lose Weight. Almost half of those gym members (41%) want to lose weight. The wide array of options includes cardio equipment, circuit training, classes, weights, as well as yoga.
Improve physical health. The rest want to gain strength or muscle, stay in shape, or improve a medical condition. People tend to associate going to the gym with physical health and improved strength and fitness.
Improve mental health. There are now also known benefits of exercise for mental health, with mediation of depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as reduced risk for Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
Why Use a Private Gym
More value. They provide more personalized services, a more comfortable atmosphere, and better results. Since only 34% of gym-goers are happy with price-performance ratio of their gym, this suggests a gap between the amount people are paying and the value they are receiving.
More Flexibility. This was a benefit during the pandemic, with a la carte options and pay-by-session. According to Policy.net, budget gyms and boutique studios have continued to do well despite the decline of gyms due to lower cost options.
Better Results. According to a Journal of Strength and Conditioning Association study, working with a personal trainer can improve results. For example, chest press strength improved by 42% vs. 19% in self-trained individuals, and 7% vs. 0.3% increase in aerobic capacity (i.e. cardio).
Less intimidating. Many women find it difficult to go to gyms, with one recent UK Poll of 2,000 adults showing women are twice as likely (28%) as men (16%) to find a gym intimidating. Men are also twice as likely to feel completely comfortable in a gym (15% of men vs. 7% of women).
Less stressful. Even though exercising is supposed to relieve stress and anxiety, 10% of women say going to a gym increased stress, and 7% said they felt even worse afterwards. Nearly half of women (49%) were most apprehensive about the free weights and weight-based machines. Over half the women surveyed (61%) said they would prefer to work out in a female-only space.
More comfortable. Men and women alike also feel uncomfortable and not able to concentrate on their workout in gyms, and thus may not be getting the most out of their time. For example, the survey also showed reasons for finding gyms stressful include lack of exercise knowledge (26% in women vs. 16% in men), feeling uncomfortable (26% in women vs. 19% in men), and for women as though they are being stared at (22%), and for men finding equipment intimidating (17%).
Gyms offer many options but can be intimidating and uncomfortable. Private gyms are more limited in options but offer more flexibility and better results.
KATY HARRIS, MSPH, CSCS
Katy Harris MSPH, CSCS is a Master of Public Health, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, health and wellness business owner, and ultimate player who runs the WellLife Studio in Chapel Hill, NC.
Storer, Thomas, et al. “Effect of Supervised, Periodized Exercise Training vs. Self-Directed Training on Lean Body Mass and Other Fitness Variables in Health Club Members.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24276303/.
Ever wanted all the chips, chocolates, or jelly beans in the bag in a single sitting? You are not alone, and studies report cravings are present up to 90 percent of the population.
What Causes Cravings?
There is no straightforward cause of cravings, and we all experience them somewhat differently. Let’s take a look at some common causes, then some solutions to help limit and possibly avoid these powerful biological urges.
We do know from the literature that all of the following can influence cravings.
Type of food
Time of day
Type of Food
The type of food you are eating, especially foods like chocolate (the most craved food), or other high-calorie, sweet and savory foods, can increase your cravings for those foods (see Meule, 2020 for review). Studies show these cravings can be unlearned following long-term energy restriction, which suggests a conditioned food response (e.g. think: Pavlov’s dog). In addition, how strong the craving is, not current hunger, seems to predict higher salivary flow and higher chocolate consumption.
Cultural differences can also influence cravings, for example rice in Japan, suggesting cravings are directly related to what you eat.
Time of Day
The time of day is also a factor, as cravings for savory and sugary foods tend to increase into afternoon and evening, while cravings for healthier foods like fruits tend to decrease. A study from 2015 showed just 5 days of sleep deprivation led to increased energy expenditure by 5%, and resulted in gaining almost a pound, despite changes in hormones that signal excess energy stores. Participants then reported delays going to sleep and waking up earlier. Therefore even though our energy needs increase slightly at night, our energy intake often exceeds needs (see Meule, 2020 for review).
Gender differences also play a role, with studies showing overweight and obese females are 1.1 times more likely (i.e. twice as likely) to report eating relieves negative emotional states than males, and females experience more food cravings despite similar rates of binge eating and obesity. Women deprived of sleep for 5 days also showed a decline in dietary restraint and weight gain compared to males. Women have also been found to have significantly more cravings for chocolate and sweets than men, and eat more calories and more sweet food in response to stress. Another study found cravings occured in 77% of women who experienced stress, and were associated with altered hormone levels (e.g. higher leptin), larger hip circumference, and altered body composition.
In men, diets high in protein up to 25% of overall calories show reductions in cravings up to 60%.
For women, it is important to know we are more susceptible and should take steps to get enough sleep and avoid stress.
In the 1800’s, a physician treating a gunshot injury at close range noted the rate of digestion was slowed when the patient was angry or irritable, indicating that his emotional state affected the stomach – suggesting a ‘gut-brain’.
Formally referred to in the literature as the ‘gut-brain axis’, many people may have experienced how mental or emotional states can influence the stomach, and the other way around (e.g. overeating in response to stress). This system of nerves, hormones and receptors in the gut, together with the gut microbiota (tiny organisms that live in the gut), communicate with the brain as digestion continues from the stomach to the small intestine.
First, special sensors in the gut (called mechanosensors) send signals to the brain through the vagus nerve to sense fullness, often credited for our ‘gut feelings’. An empty stomach triggers the mucus in the gut to release the hormone ghrelin. This hormone then acts on reward systems in the brain resulting in a powerful drive to eat, including areas such as the hippocampus involved in spatial learning and memory.
Next, hormones such as cholecytokinin and the vagus nerve continuously send signals to the brain about fullness to establish meal patterns, with the brainstem and hypothalamus helping promote feelings of satisfaction and happiness (see Berthould, 2008 for review).
Finally as the stomach fills, it releases the hormone leptin to signal fullness (see Coll et. al, 2007 for review).
Cravings and the Brain
Many brain areas signal the stomach to eat, including the reward areas, cognition, and learning. The body’s need to maintain consistency (called ‘homeostasis) leads to many complicated changes that regulate energy use from food and the signals back to the brain.
For example, hormones released by the fat cells, gut, and pancreas act on the hypothalamus (fullness), the brainstem, and autonomic nervous system to affect appetite. Human studies show reduced cognitive performance and brain activity in areas such as the thalamus, hypothalamus, and amygdala following disruptions in gut microbiota. In patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a brain imaging study (fMRI) showed reduced activation of the amygdala and frontolimbic regions and gut bacteria after negative emotional stimuli.
Because your brain and gut are connected, there is a feedback loop and what you typically eat your body is going to want, regardless of nutrient value (see Meule, 2020 for review). This gut-brain and can bypass any higher thinking areas in the brain for more primitive, immediate needs for survival. This system of energy storage evolved for feast or famine and protects against unevenness of food supply, and is an advantage against the risk and cost of obtaining food. We are therefore prone to obesity in an environment where energy-dense foods are readily available in large portions (see Rogers & Brunstrum, et. al, 2016 for review).
Calorie Restriction & Hunger
Cravings can serve a biological function to prepare the body for digestion and consumption (e.g. salivary flow) and motivate food seeking behaviors. Cravings for a specific food, or ‘selective hunger’ can also be distinguished from hunger (‘nonselective’), where any food will do (see Meule 2020 for review).
However, excess energy storage (a.k.a. fat) can start to act on its own to influence appetite. Commonly called ‘starvation mode’, as fat on the body increases (picture a bathtub), eventually the amount the stomach can hold (picture a saucepan), is negligible in comparison, and hunger is then related to temporary appetite (see Rogers & Brunstrom et. al, 2016 for review). Studies in rats show fat sends signals to the brain to reduce feeding frequency. Over time, resistance to leptin (hormone that senses fullness) disrupts the negative feedback of body fatness on appetite (also Geliebter et. al, 2004), and after repeatedly consuming large meals increases tolerance to the filling effect of food.
So while most people and health professionals assume that hunger is related to depleted energy stores (also Assanand et. al, 1998) the relationship between hunger and appetite seems to be weaker than originally thought. For example, symptoms of low blood sugar reported by athletes competing in marathons include feeling sudden fatigue and loss of energy as liver and muscle glycogen stores are depleted, but rarely report normal hunger. Others report symptoms of hypoglycemia like sweating and shakiness, which are also relieved by carbohydrates but are rarely accompanied by reports of feeling ‘hungry’. In addition, Kahathuduwa et al, 2017 reviews studies showing that cravings decrease following extended caloric deprivation, and seem to be more related to perceived deprivation rather than actual nutrient deficiencies.
Whereas ‘appetite’ (a desire to eat), is the emptiness of the upper gut combined with the anticipated reward for food, hunger has an association with energy depletion (for review, see Rogers & Brunstrom et. al, 2016). In an environment of energy-dense and easily available foods, our cravings do not seem to be related to actual hunger but are linked to obesity through increasing appetite (i.e. desire to eat).
Since we cannot control this gut-brain mechanism, we can purposefully engage in healthy eating and take probiotics when recommended by a nutritionist or physician.
Stress is associated with increases in the hormone cortisol, which can lead to low blood sugar and ‘emotional eating’. Because we are very sensitive to changes in blood sugar due to homeostasis, the very act of not eating is also associated with cortisol release, activating the ‘fight or flight’ mechanisms and reducing blood flow to the stomach.
Furthermore, dieting has been shown to be effective in only 10% of people, whereas weight loss surgery is 50% effective by targeting fullness signals in the upper gut (see Berthoud, et. al, 2008 for review). As a result, many insurance programs only pay for surgery. Studies show that diets are easy to break, and the effort it takes is distracting and can lead to feelings of failure. Because we are adapted to an uncertain food supply, overeating and undereating is common, and dietary restraint is difficult to sustain and can lead to disordered eating.
How to Avoid Cravings
To avoid this cycle of indulgence and dread, try thinking of your body as a machine that needs fuel, and that when depleted will send signals that it needs nutrients and calories. Like a dashboard on a car, monitor the signals to help your body burn fat and build muscle efficiently.
Clear your pantry.
Avoid sugary beverages, cereals, sweets, sodas, and dairy, since these interfere with normal blood sugar signals. Processed foods are often called ‘foods with no breaks’ because they do not tell you when to stop (remember the Lay’s commercial, I bet you can’t eat just one!). Our cravings are subject to talented and highly paid marketers and fancy packaging with misleading claims, so it takes self-discipline and is easier said than done. Similar to smoking in the 70s, companies are not being honest with consumers about the known dangers of their foods to our health.
Start eating healthy foods.
Choose healthy ingredients since you will crave what you eat, and these foods will tell you when you are full. Depending on your body type and size, aim for a range of 20 to 30 grams of protein (e.g. 3-4 eggs) each meal. Include green veggies and some good fat on the plate (e.g. oil or food source), a serving of beans and/or rice or sweet potato for starch. For athletes and to help burn fat around workouts, include additional protein sources like eggs, beans and rice, or quinoa.
Eat meals at regular intervals.
Aim for 3-4 balanced meals per day before 8:00pm. Eating regular meals will give your body the nutrients it needs throughout the day, reduce stress, and help avoid cravings for unhealthy foods high in sugar and fat. Just making the commitment to yourself will help you will feel better, look better, and be healthier from the inside out!
Reduce stress & get more sleep.
Try to identify points in your day or parts of your life that are stressful, and do your best to avoid them. Start a yoga or mediation routine, even just 5 minutes a day. Try starting a sleep routine about 1 hour before bedtime (e.g. reading, tea) to improve sleep quality.
KATY HARRIS, MSPH, CSCS
Katy Harris MSPH, CSCS is a Master of Public Health, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, health and wellness business owner, and ultimate player who runs the WellLife Studio in Chapel Hill, NC.
Imperatori, Claudio, et al. “Gender Differences in Food Craving among Overweight and Obese Patients Attending Low Energy Diet Therapy: A Matched Case–Control Study – Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity.” SpringerLink, Springer International Publishing, 2 Aug. 2013, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40519-013-0054-7.
K;, Epel E;Lapidus R;McEwen B;Brownell. “Stress May Add Bite to Appetite in Women: A Laboratory Study of Stress-Induced Cortisol and Eating Behavior.” Psychoneuroendocrinology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11070333/.
Leidy HJ;Tang M;Armstrong CL;Martin CB;Campbell WW; “The Effects of Consuming Frequent, Higher Protein Meals on Appetite and Satiety during Weight Loss in Overweight/Obese Men.” Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20847729/.
Markwald, Rachel R, et al. “Impact of Insufficient Sleep on Total Daily Energy Expenditure, Food Intake, and Weight Gain.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, National Academy of Sciences, 2 Apr. 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3619301/.
Pinto-Sanchez, MI, et al. “Probiotic Bifidobacterium Longum NCC3001 Reduces Depression Scores and Alters Brain Activity: A Pilot Study in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.” White Rose Research Online, Elsevier, 1 Aug. 2017, https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/116182/.
Zheng, H, et al. “Appetite Control and Energy Balance Regulation in the Modern World: Reward-Driven Brain Overrides Repletion Signals.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 15 June 2009, https://www.nature.com/articles/ijo200965.
Feeling down is something we can all relate to right now. The pandemic has left us with less social contact and more stress. One study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported an increase in serious psychological distress by almost 10%, from 3.9% in 2018 to 13.6% in 2020. So now would be a good time for all of us to take inventory – how are we feeling?
The answer to this question can relate to your general attitude about life, how you manage stress, your confidence, and your outlook for the future.
Benefits of Exercising for Mental Health
Exercise is known to be part of your physical health, but it can also be a key part of your mental health. The positive impact of exercise on improving mood is not a new phenomenon, but recent research validates our experience and helps us understand how this works in the body and brain.
Some major benefits of exercise for your mental health include:
1) Reducing depression and anxiety, stress, and symptoms associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and trauma.
2) Increasing alertness, cognition, and confidence,
3) Reducing the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia,
4) Improving sleep, and
5) Increasing social interaction
The scientific literature is clear that working out can improve mental health. Below are a few takeaways for exercise prescription from the experts:
Even a simple 12-week resistance and walking program can significantly reduce Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms, as well as depression, waist circumference, body weight, and body fat percentage.
Due to individual differences in hormones and aerobic training, exercise programs should include periodization (increasing and decreasing intensity throughout the year) to avoid overtraining, and be tailored to individual needs.
Exercise outdoors when possible, as studies show people tend to exercise for longer and are more likely to continue when compared to exercising indoors (see Coon et. al, 2011 for review).
Exercise an average of 30 minutes per day elevates serotonin (chemical released by the brain) levels and improves processing of emotions.
Read more below about each of the positive effects of exercise.
Depression & Anxiety
Associations between loneliness and mental health problems are present in both adolescents and adults. Exercise can mediate the symptoms of many mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety (and Stubbs et. al, 2017). Many studies have reported this result, showing exercise improves anxiety and depression symptoms in rats, as well as symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) in humans. For example, one study showed primary care outpatients with low activity levels were 6.0 times more likely to be severely depressed than patients with more normal activity levels.
A physical education survey from 2007 observed that physical exercise can reduce anxiety symptoms, with lower anxiety levels in the group that achieved better aerobic fitness.
There are several ways the body benefits from exercise to reduce stress. Cortisol is a hormone released during exercise as well as psychological stress. However, the differences can teach us about how exercise helps us adapt to cortisol, releasing small amounts in a controlled environment. This gives us more protection when encountering life’s stressful situations.
For example, research shows cortisol levels in the bloodstream are elevated for up to 2 hours post exercise. Aerobic exercise over 60% of max heart rate has been shown to elicit an adaptive response to cortisol, as measured by blood plasma and saliva. While both physical and psychological stress cause a release of cortisol, trained individuals are more able to convert active cortisol into inactive ‘cortisone’ during psychological stress (see Hejnen et. al, 2016 for review). This process is protective against the harmful effects of cortisol, including hypertension, hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), major depressive episode, and anorexia.
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is an executive function and self-regulation disorder defined by both neurological and behavioral characteristics (see ‘What is ADHD’ at cdc.gov). Since this disorder affects emotional processing, verbal and working memory, as well as social skills, it is important to mediate symptoms. Children with ADHD are more likely to develop occupational, educational, and relationship impairments if left untreated. Medication can be effective, but 20% of children experience some adverse side effects.
Physical activity has been shown to be associated with reducted anxiety and mood disorders for which people with ADHD are at risk, as well as physical benefits such as reducing risk of obesity and chronic disease. For example, one study from 2016 in children ages 6-12 showed that a 10-week after school program with 60 minutes of exercise per day improved cognitive and behavioral outcomes such as hyperactive symptoms, verbal working memory, and visuospatial memory. Short bouts (5-minute relay) of intense exercise of 65-85% have also been shown to improve attention and performance for participants with ADHD on a computer game by 30% as compared to their peers who did not do the relay, and by 40% compared to children with no ADHD symptoms.
Other systematic reviews of the literature have also concluded exercise can be effective for reducing depression, and that active games and sports for children can be an affordable and accessible way for all ages and backgrounds to learn social skills with peers and adults.
PTSD & Trauma
Studies in humans show that exercise reduces symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other trauma, associated with an increase brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), These studies also show that even a 12-week resistance and walking program significantly reduced PTSD symptoms, as well as depression, waist circumference, body weight, and body fat percentage.
Exercise can also help mediate and reduce risk for Alzheimer’s and Dementia. The increases in blood pressure associated with exercise allow blood to circulate through the blood brain barrier.
Studies in recent decades have shown the positive effects of exercise on health and brain function, specifically in the brain area known as the hippocampus involved in learning and memory. Existing (and growing) brain cells can then receive nutrients and remove waste, preventing the cell death associated with these diseases (see Malkiewicz et. al, 2019 for review).
Specifically, these neurotransmitters result in increased amounts and time a chemical called Brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) is circulating in the brain (also Ferreira-Vieira et al., 2014). BDNF is positively correlated with cognitive performance, and increases our ability to learn. In contrast, decreases in BDNF have been observed following psychological stress in rats*, as well as humans.
Other studies show exercise resulted in higher alertness, decreased impulsiveness, and increased reaction speed. In addition, physical activity also improved the performance of children on tasks that require attention.
Mechanisms – Dopamine & Serotonin
Exercise also helps modulate hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, two of the chemicals involved in increasing mood, concentration and alertness, outlook, and confidence. For example, serotonin, a neurotransmitter important for emotional processing and memory, increases in the brain following acute exercise due to increases in blood pressure and permeability through the blood-brain barrier. In studies done with rodents, serotonin levels stayed elevated in the cerebral cortex and brainstem following 30 minutes daily of swimming for 4 weeks for up to a week (also Meeusen and De Meirleir, 1995).
Increases in dopamine in other brain areas such as hypothalamus, midbrain, and brainstem have also been shown in animals in response to aerobic exercise. Physical stress has also been shown to be associated with increases in dopamine (also Heyman et al., 2012) in humans, further supporting the beneficial effects of exercise on memory and mood. One study from 2016 showed intense exercise of 65-85% of heart rate max is associated with improved attention. It also notes a correlation with increase serotonin, dopamine, and another chemical epinephrine, which has been corroborated by other peer-reviewed research studies* and literature.
In contrast, psychological stress can increase serotonin levels to the point of depletion, and is associated with decreases in BDNF in the hippocampus.
Increases in Confidence
Exercise increases confidence, which is also lacking in many common mental health disorders. This boost in confidence comes from following through on an aspect of your life that you can control, such as increasing the amount of weight you can lift or miles you can run, versus something you cannot directly control like the weight on the scale.
Exercise is also typically associated with an increase in social interaction, which, when lacking, has been shown to be as detrimental to health as smoking. One 1991 study with elderly adults showed that social contact can be just as effective as exercise for reducing depression symptoms, but exercise also reduces pain, weakness, and shortness of breath. One recent study from 2021 showed participation in sports improved depression symptoms more than medication alone, as well as showing additional benefits for multiple aspects of physical health.
*Only available on PubMed.
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Have you ever tried intermittent fasting or thought it might be a good idea for you? You are not alone!
You may have heard of someone who has tried it, or you have in the past. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. The important thing to know is whether it is right for YOU.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
First, a quick refresher. Although there are many forms, the most common type of Intermittent fasting is based on eating only within a certain window of time each day, e.g. 8 hours each day, e.g. 10am-6pm, but not outside that window (vs. fasting every day, or every other day).
The science behind this is that your liver stores energy from meals for 12-16 hours, like a tank. It is usually empty at breakfast, then refills gradually each meal and is hopefully full before bed.
For intermittent fasting, the goal is to empty your ‘tank’ (glycogen stores), based on research that this stimulates growth hormone and burns fat. If you only eat for 8 hours and fast for 16, you would ideally accomplish this goal. You would also assume you are eating less calories overall.
Brunch is later in the morning after natural fasting overnight, when you get to eat breakfast and lunch at the same time! This is a common example of the liver tank being empty, since the first meal will re-fill it but then you need more for the day.
What about your health?
The main takeaway is that while it has been shown to have many benefits, it is not right for everyone. When done correctly it can be healthy, since it is based on the science behind liver storage. It can also be a natural way to limit calories at night, which can affect metabolism. However, be careful of restricting calories and ‘dieting’, which can have negative effects on your health.
For the positives, it can be particularly helpful in regulating eating patterns, especially at night. One study in mice from 2012 found that when compared to a group that ate at any time and at night, those with normal feeding times had reduced risk of obesity, insulin disruptions, and inflammation. In humans it can also be a good non-pharmacological option for improved health. It can also lower blood pressure and risk for diabetes by increasing fat burning, and can have short-term benefits on glucose metabolism and lipid profile, although results are mixed and more human studies are needed (see article for review).
The foods you eat are not all equal in calories, so even with the Weight Watchers method of staying within certain points, you could miss many nutrients you may need to actually burn fat and build muscle. Your metabolism could also get stuck in ‘starvation’ mode, disrupting insulin and other hormones and the gut microbiome.
(Avoid completely if you are under 18, pregnant, or have an eating disorder or blood sugar condition.)
Decide What is Right for You
Timing meals is an important factor in preventing fat storage. Many of us already do not eat three regular, balanced meals, so our bodies could be lacking in nutrients (although meals may not be lacking in calories!). So it is important to eat healthy foods at regular intervals as a first step, and always reach out to a nutritionist or professional before making changes to your diet.
If you are trying to decide if this is a good option for you, keep in mind there are healthier ways of intermittent fasting, and ways that look more like a diet. Remember your health and weight are more dependent on nutrients than calories, so ask yourself these 3 questions first:
Do I eat 3 balanced meals per day?
Do I eat my meals at regular times each day (e.g. no more than 4-5 hours between meals)?
Do I eat meals after 9pm?
If you answered YES to all these questions, and you still want to try intermittent fasting, that may make sense for you depending on your current eating habits.
If you answered NO to any of these questions, it may not be the best solution for you.
Want to learn more about what is and is not good for your health? Join the WellLife Fall Sustainable Solution starting September 20th! Spots are limited and going fast, sign up today! Early bird specials available.
Katy Harris, MSPH, CSCS is a master of Public Health, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, ultimate Frisbee athlete, and owner of the WellLife Health and Fitness Studio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Since the pandemic began, many of us are now reframing how we approach our health. You might still be suffering the mental and physical effects, or have a new understanding of the importance of a strong immune system. But what does that mean, and what can we do to help our immune system function better?
To help boost the immune system, moderate workouts are best. Too much or too little exercise can have negative effects, making us more susceptible to harmful organisms, chemicals, and preventable disease.
What is the Immune System?
The ‘immune system’ refers to the network of organs, hormones, and cells that help react to the environment and produces chemicals to circulate around the body. We are born with an innate immune system in the lining of the cornea, respiratory tract, and gut with special cells called ‘phagocytes’ that surrounds and kills foreign material.
We then have the ability to develop the ‘adaptive’ immune system, cells made in the body in response to the environment, known collectively as white blood cells due to their light pink color under a microscope and smaller size (about 1% of blood cells) when compared to red blood cells (99%). One type of white blood cell referred to as ‘leukocytes’, originate and mature in the bone marrow (eosinophils, neutrophils, and basophils), whereas the ‘lymphocytes’ also originate in the bone marrow but mature in the spleen, lymph nodes, and thymus (B and T lymphocytes).
Immune cells are like the body’s army, building up their forces in response to invaders, then mobilizing and attacking by producing antibodies to kill them. The white blood cells, including T cells have memory, keeping an exact record of particles they encounter.
What is Inflammation?
‘Inflammation’ refers to the body’s natural response of sending this army of cells to fight off invaders such as bacteria or viruses, or repair an injury. ‘Acute’ inflammation occurs in response to an injury and can cause pain, redness, swelling, and bruising. Chronic inflammation occurs when the body continues to send immune cells even though there is no continued danger. Effectively it ‘learns’ this response if it continues over time. The effect can be localized as with rheumatoid arthritis, or can affect organs and tissues throughout the body, as in type 2 diabetes and prolonged stress.
One foundational study done in 1983 with South African runners in a 56-km ultramarathon showed a 33.3% increase vs 15.3% in the incidence of respiratory infection in the 2-week period following the race. Subsequent studies have shown a similar result, due to increased levels of stress hormones, epinephrine*, and cortisol. However, exercise must be longer than 40 minutes and moderate-high intensity to see raises in cortisol levels in salivary glands.
In contrast, other studies have shown that activity as simple as brisk walking reduced the number of sick days by half over a 12- to 15-week period compared with inactivity, without change in resting immune function (see article* for review). The authors further concluded that there was in effect a ‘summation’ of the acute positive changes from individual exercise bouts that resulted in improved immunity.
Another study from 2008 with 12 moderately trained subjects showed a significant difference of 5% vs. 83% in cortisol levels when comparing the 40% exercise and 80% intensity groups. Further examination controlling for plasma volume and other factors actually showed a decrease in cortisol levels at the lower intensities.
Repeated, Moderate intensity exercise is anti-inflammatory
The beneficial effects of moderate exercise are now well-known, and the protective effect of exercise on the immune system has since been confirmed by subsequent studies (for review). While acute exercise can cause temporary cellular disturbances and raises in cortisol, the body will adapt after repeated bouts, enhancing its ability to respond to pathogens and cortisol in the future. For example, repeated moderate intensity exercise (e.g. 40-60%) improves the immune system response, the efficiency of the oxidative process (i.e. cells burning calories for energy), and increases the efficiency of energy generation*. This in turn allows the body to defend itself against pathogens as well as prevent other chronic diseases related to inflammation such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, as well as cancer and dementia.
An easy way to think of it is that exercise creates a laboratory for cortisol, so your body can be exposed to a little bit at a time, then have a chance to react. There are many examples of this, including lifting weights to build muscle, practicing music or athletic skills, and studying to improve mental function.
Similarly, the body reacts to cortisol slowly over time, enhancing immunity and responding more quickly when confronted with other foreign invaders, from stress, overexertion, or the environment.
Check out a few moderate intensity workouts to boost your Immune system.
Cardio: • Walk or jog @ 60% of effort x 3 minutes • Walk or jog @ 40% of effort x 2 minutes • Continue for 15-20 minutes
Katy Harris, MSPH, CSCS Katy Harris, MSPH, CSCS is a master of Public Health, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, health and fitness studio owner, and ultimate Frisbee athlete who runs WellLife Consulting, LLC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The environmental and health concerns of eating meat have been in the news lately, and meatless burgers seem to be the next new fast food craze.
Many of us like eating meat, but is it really necessary for our health? And is plant-based food the answer?
There are many delicious-looking alternatives to meat on the market, and the food industry is quick to catch on. But let’s stop for a second and think before we take advice from marketers on what is best for our health.
Each person should make their own decision about what is right for them, but below are few things to consider when making choices to benefit both your health AND the environment.
Do I Have to Eat Meat to Get Enough Protein?
Actually, ‘meat’, or ‘red meat’ as it is commonly called due to its appearance, refers mainly to beef, pork, and other land mammals, but there are many other types of complete protein. Protein, along with carbohydrates and good fat, are the three main food groups (macronutrients) we need on a daily basis to stay healthy. However, red meat actually makes up only a small subset of the category of foods labeled as ‘protein’.
Other commonly known categories of protein include poultry (e.g. chicken, turkey, duck, quail), seafood (fish and shellfish), game (e.g. venison), and vegetable sources (e.g. beans combined with rice). So the good news is, there are many other ways to get enough protein from animal sources besides red meat!
For athletes, there are many known benefits of eating red meat as an important source of iron, B12, zinc, and other nutrients (1, 2, 3). If you are making any changes to your diet, see a nutritionist or your doctor to help you determine what changes are right for you.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
To be a quality protein source, the food has to contain all 20 of the essential ‘amino acids’, the building blocks of all cells. This is important because our bodies only make 11 out of the 20 essential amino acids required on a daily basis, and we must consume the other 9.
This food is then referred to as complete protein source. Our bodies digest those foods and use what is left over to produce molecules then called proteins, which then become the building blocks of cells and tissues. It is important for your health to get enough of this food source in your diet on a daily basis to support essential functions such as build muscle, respond to stress, and maintain the immune system.
The amount of protein we need on a daily basis varies depending on your age, height, weight, and activity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends between 10-35% of your diet as protein, or about 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men (4). For food conversions, there are about 7 grams in 1 ounce (in contrast to the weight conversion, which is 28g=1 ounce) (30). This translates to about half a pound (~8 ounces) per day for men and ~6 ounces for women.
If you are more active, the National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends between 1.0 and 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, per day. A good way to estimate your protein needs is about your body weight in grams (e.g. 140 grams if you weight 140 pounds) if you are less active. For an athlete, multiply 1.5x your body weight in grams (e.g. 225 grams if you weigh 150 pounds).
What Foods Have Complete Protein?
All mammal sources of meat, poultry, fish, and game are solely made up of complete protein and are quality sources for this nutrient group. In addition to the easily digestible protein they contain, they also have a variety of health benefits, such as contributing to proper brain function and building muscle (1, 2, 3, 4, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27).
In contrast, most vegetable sources like beans and rice also contain carbohydrate, as well as a fibrous casing. While vegetables can provide an added benefit of fiber and carbohydrates and an important and essential nutrient group, overeating carbohydrates at one sitting or as a ratio of your overall calorie intake (e.g. more than 70%) can spike blood sugar and lead to fat storage, which is associated with obesity and diabetes. In contrast, complete proteins from non-vegetable sources do not contain any carbohydrate. In addition, although eating the combination of beans and rice at some point in the day could meet your needs, the casing on the plant proteins takes energy to break down, and there is a net loss of grams of protein for that food.
It is also important to consider both the pros and cons of eating vegetable sources. Many vegetables do contain nutrients, fiber, and protein, and a plant-based diet has been shown to be associated with lower risk of stroke, cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and lower cholesterol (9,17, 18, 19, 20, 21). However, these studies have more recently been found to be associated with the healthier lifestyles of plant-based eaters rather than with the plants themselves (22, 23).
However, many vegetable sources lack some important vitamins and minerals such as heme for red blood cells, and Vitamins D and B12 (2, 3, 4, 5). Most vegetable sources also need to be combined at some point during the day to provide the complete amino acid profile (REF). Plant products that are exceptions to this rule include quinoa, soy, tofu, and tempeh. Due to the important individual factors in meeting nutrient needs, vegetarians and vegans should see a nutritionist to decide the best foods for them. See Table 2 below for some common complete vegetable protein combinations.
If you do eat beef, sourcing from local, organic, or biodynamic farms will be more likely to ensure both the quality of the food and considerate use of land. Eating high quality meat is important because the fat in conventionally raised beef and pork can be dangerous to our health due to contaminants such as antibiotics, toxins, hormones, and heavy metals (29, 31, 32, 33). In contrast, the fat contained in organic beef and pork is an excellent source of good fat and keeps you full longer.
Table 1: Food Sources of Complete Proteins.
· Meat (e.g. beef and pork)
· Poultry (e.g. turkey, chicken, duck, quail)
· Seafood (fish and shellfish)
· Game (e.g. venison, wild boar, bison, caught while hunting)
· Rice and beans (e.g. black, pinto, chic peas)
· Refried beans (pinto) and corn
· Black beans and flour (e.g. tortilla)
· Tofu, soy, and tempeh products
· Hummus (chic peas) and pita (a grain)
· Grain (e.g. bread, crackers, or pasta) and nuts or nut butter
Protein Sources to Avoid.
Conventionally-raised beef, chicken, and pork. These animals are typically higher in fat, hormones, and heavy metals usually due to unnatural living conditions and a high-fat diet. Eating these foods often can increase cholesterol and weight gain for the general population, but will be less likely to affect athletes since they will burn off the fat. However, bacon and deli meats often contain preservatives. They should be consumed as condiments (a side) in their nitrite-free versions if possible. Since the fat in this meat contains many hormones and additives (e.g. heavy metal residues), be sure to trim the fat off conventionally-raised meat (12, 13, 14, 15, 16).
Chicken is a leaner animal with less fat overall, so the toxins in the fat are not much of a risk. However, the animals are often kept close together and have a higher incidence of disease. Both antibiotics and growth hormones are often included in their diets. These substances then appear in the food and in our bodies and pose a number of personal and public health concerns (8). Choose ‘free range’ chicken and organic meat when possible.
Processed Red Meat: Not all red meat is created equal. Processed meats have been cured or salted to preserve color and/or flavor and include sausage, salami, ham, smoked or canned meat, cured bacon, corned beef, hot dogs, and beef jerky. These foods have known health risks, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes (see 8 for review). These risks are due to the carcinogens or their pre-cursors used in the preserving process, as well as the likelihood of the presence of hormones and heavy metals in these processed meats. Sliced, fresh, or frozen red meat is ‘unprocessed’ and considered generally healthy (10, 11, 12, 13).
Farm-raised fish. These animals are typically higher in fat, usually due to an unnatural, high-fat diet. Look for ‘wild caught’ whenever possible.
Excessive dairy. Dairy contains two types of proteins (casein and whey), but it also contains carbohydrate (the lactose) and fat. Although the healthy part of dairy is the fat (for review, see 36), similar to the health concerns of red meat, products from conventionally-raised animals often contain hormones and toxins and heavy metals in the fat (32,33). For full fat dairy products, choose organic. For conventionally raise products, choose skim or low-fat, but try to avoid the added sugar in many products used to increase fullness (35). Dairy as a main food group has a variety of negative health effects from weight gain to digestive problems and lactose intolerance (34).
Table 2:Pros and cons of vegetable sources
Provide protein and fiber, nutrients
No hormones or toxins
Need to be combined to make ‘complete’
Contain carbohydrate, pesticides
Have a net loss of protein available
Protein Sources to Eat Often.
Lean meats like free range chicken and eggs. One study found a 27% lower risk of stroke by replacing 1 serving of red meat per day with 1 serving of chicken per day (14). Another study found eating eggs at breakfast is associated with reduced weight gain and increased fullness throughout the day (27).
Organic beef. Organic red meat has benefits for health and weight loss, as well as many nutrients not found in vegetable sources (2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19, 24, 29, 31, 32,33).
Fish and seafood. Studies show a reduced risk of heart disease with consumption of fish and seafood (25), even up to 15% (26).
A mix of animal and plant-based proteins. Eating protein from animal sources has the added benefit of increasing muscle mass even in older individuals. Both plant and animal sources have important benefits to health while minimizing the risks of consuming only one or the other (28, 29).
“Sugar is everywhere, and it makes sense, because it tastes great! Food flies off shelves when there is even a little sugar added, and a few sugary pecans can make a bland salad go down that much easier.
A little sugar here and there will not hurt anyone. A small sweet morsel at the end of a meal, even with a meal, will not spike blood sugar as much as a box of candy or large piece of cake all by itself. A small amount can even tell the body and brain that the stomach is full and help signal the end of a meal. For athletes, sugar can be a useful tool in regulating blood sugar in and around competition and grueling practices, travel, and unpredictable meals.
But for many of us, sugar can quickly become addictive, activating many of the similar pathways in the brain. If we eat it every meal, we ‘train’ ourselves to be less sensitive to sugar. It gets easier and easier to consume more and more, and then cravings set in. Then the guilt.
But if you are struggling with this, there are a few simple solutions you can try RIGHT now to start kicking the habit today. Avoiding sugar will have positive effects on your health, and help you look and feel better and younger! Read on for more tips to avoid sneaky additives and stave off the cravings.
Eat at home more
This is a simple solution we can all use to avoid sugar and many other additives. If we are putting others in control what we are putting into our bodies, it becomes much more difficult to know exactly what is causing us to feel bad or gain weight.
There are challenges to this, and adding in more time for grocery trips and cooking may take an adjustment. But the long list of benefits to your health should motivate you, including lower salt consumption, risk of heart disease and stroke, diabetes, hypertension, and more!
Buy Whole Foods
Since you are already going to the grocery store more often, while you are there, choose the whole foods rather than packaged versions whenever possible. Just buying them at the grocery store is easy, but sticking to this can be much easier said than done.
Whole foods go bad more often, so it takes more effort and time to prepare them when you get home. You have to have a plan and know what to cook ahead of time, and you may be busy or stressed or not like to cook or know how.
As with anything, the key is to start slow, and start with foods you know and like and are easy for you to prepare. Gradually start to expand your horizons by trying one or two new recipes per month and then freezing them if you liked what you prepared.
Another good way to keep up foods fresh is to always buy some frozen, some fresh, and prepare some of each type of food every month (i.e. protein source, veggies and fruit, and sauces, oils, and good fats). Whatever you choose, you will get better at it with practice and develop your own healthy eating system.
Avoid Packaged Food
While you are at the grocery store, avoiding packaged food becomes essential to a healthy lifestyle. Not only is it a billion dollar marketing industry designed specifically to pray on your addictions and cravings, but there is actually very little regulation and many work-arounds for additives to food.
In 1994, the The Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act was passed, which allows any claim to be made on a food or supplement package regardless if it is actually true. For example, it can say ‘low fat’ on the package, but when you look at the food label they are allowed to claim ‘0g trans fat’ as long as the amount is less than 0.5 grams. So there are still trans fats in that food you cannot avoid consuming.
For supplements, there is no FDA regulation on what is actually in the bottle, and the only way to know if a supplement has been tested is by using consumer websites like USP.
The safest thing to do is to control what goes in your body by choosing whole foods like fruits and veggies, meat and fish, and whole food sources of good fats like olives, nuts, and avacados, and consulting a doctor or pharmacist when deciding whether certain supplements are right for you.
Avoid ‘Skim’ or ‘Low Fat’ Dairy Products
Many of these products have been processed so the nutrients and good fat have been removed, leaving only the lactose (carbohydrate that causes fat storage) and protein (whey and casein). The process continues by adding sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup to make it takes good again. This applies to many yogart and milk products, as well as cottage cheese, sour cream, and imitation butter products.
As a surprise to many of us, the fat in dairy is the healthy part. So you want the higher fat, lower sugar versions of dairy to get the nutrients and not the blood sugar spikes. Spikes in blood sugar lead to more cravings, weight gain, and less nutritional value in the food.
Gradually Decrease Consumption at Home
The body will not notice more than 20% decrease in something. So, you can apply this rule to sugar in your diet however it makes sense for you. For example, if you are eating sugar 5 times per day, cut it down to 4 times per day. Or, if you are eating 2 tablespoons of sugar with your coffee, cut it down to ~1.5 tablespoons.
Try this for 1-2 weeks, and you will be amazed at how much less you are using on a daily basis.
Good luck with kicking that sugar habit, and you’ll start feeling better right away!”
How long does it take to start a new habit? If you have ever tried or done your homework, you know it typically takes about two to four weeks.
Learning or starting a new habit is a complicated process, similar to a group of people in a company working together to produce a product. The first time you learn something, every ‘department’ is working with the task for the first time, determining what is needed and streamlining action items and timing to complete it more efficiently the next time.
Similarly, a deadline may require many departments to be working in concert and then producing an action at exactly the right time. The next time the group or company is presented with this task, it will be more efficient – the leader will know what to expect and be able to direct workers efficiently, and workers will be able to work together to quickly produce the result.
Your body works the same way, becoming more and more efficient with practice. Repeating the task or action on a daily basis will increase efficiency even more.
The good news is that this means you can pick any time that works for you throughout the year to start making healthy changes. There are health benefit to losing even a few pounds and adding even one day per week of exercise!
You can identify an outcome goal, such as ‘lose 5 pounds’, or you can focus on the behavior that you need to accomplish that goal. Either way works, but to be successful, your focus must be on the behavior you can control each day. You will gain confidence each time you finish that workout, do your yoga, or take the time to cook your next healthy meal.
So good luck starting your new habits. Every day is the first day of your New Year!
It has happened to all of us at one time or another: waiting too long to stop on a road trip, being stuck traveling with no food and no time or place to stop and even grab something small. So by the time you make it to a restaurant, you are starving and end up making a poor choice or have too much to drink before dinner. It can also happen in everyday life, where we are busy during the day at work and struggle with how to eat when we have to try to squeeze in a workout before dinner and life takes over. Sure, we all try to be smart about our choices, but some of us are better at it than others.
Many athletes struggle with figuring out what snacks they should have on hand, what will help them perform best and how to eat healthy in large groups. Keep in mind that your strategy is unique – no one else will be quite like you. But since fueling is so important for athletes, especially for recovery while traveling or competing, or during periods of heavy training or stress, figuring out a routine that works for you is imperative. During these periods, it can make the difference between feeling fast and unstoppable or feeling one step off.
COMMON CHALLENGES AND HEALTHY TRAVEL TIPS
Many of us face similar challenges. In daily life, we hurry from meeting to meeting or to our next obligation (which can include workouts), barely allowing time to eat, let alone cook or go grocery shopping. Traveling also presents the additional challenges of not knowing where your next meal will come from; limited and mostly unhealthy choices; long, unknown periods of time without food; and group decision making. The best we can do is try to prepare ahead of time and make good choices on the road, but it can help to have specific strategies.
Particularly when traveling, there are sometimes long or unpredictable times between meals, it is hard to always get all the food groups, and food quality is usually poor. In order of importance, eating at the right times is the top priority. Second is getting all the food groups, and third is nutrient quality. You can usually find all the nutrient groups, but the quality and timing may suffer. Just remember that eating as often as needed is the highest priority. These common challenges are explained in more detail below, along with some ideas for travel snacks and eating healthy at restaurants.
Challenge #1: Long Periods without Food or Meals
Tips: Plan meals ahead of time, bring snacks, focus on caloric fluid intake.
Athletes may face this challenge while training and working as well as during travel and competition. We can all try to be prepared with pre-made food, but a lunch box is not always practical or possible. It can be difficult to maintain the recommended frequency of food intake on the road, especially when you are not always in control of the circumstances. Groups are a specific challenge for some of us, so when traveling with a group, it is important to stick with people who have similar routines to yours or people who will make sure your needs are met during a grocery-store run.
A few basic healthy snack ideas are outlined in Table 1, but first it is important to understand the overall goal. For athletes, the goal is to stay fueled – getting enough calories when you need them – so timing is most important, rather than worrying about quality when choices or time is limited. The exception to the rule is if you are trying to lose weight, but you still never want to starve yourself, or you will not feel good or perform well. In general, planning ahead means preparing healthy snacks as well as thinking ahead while on the road. Be prepared to fuel every two to three hours, and always have fluids with you: water and fluids with some calories but no added sugar.
What makes snacks healthy is their ingredient quality, as well as having good protein content. Healthy snacks have more good fat, fewer processed carbs and complete protein combinations. Common complete protein combinations include grain and seeds or nuts (e.g., bread with seeds or pretzels and nuts), beans and grain (e.g., hummus and pita) and some legume and grain combinations (e.g., beans and rice, black beans and flour, refried beans and corn).
Challenge #2: Lack of All Food Groups
Tips: Prioritize going to a grocery store as soon as possible, choose meals at restaurants that include all the food groups, choose snacks with all food groups represented.
Missing out on food groups is frequently a problem on the road since meals are not always served in proper proportions, and you have to try and make good choices about what to buy and what to order when you’re out of your normal routine. This can be solved by being prepared and thinking ahead. Prepare well-thought-out snacks that are lightweight and sturdy. Pick foods that are fresh but won’t go bad within a day or two (e.g., pretzels and nuts, dried fruit). When you arrive at your destination, make it a priority to get to a grocery store as soon as you can. It can sometimes be difficult in large groups, but this is an obvious and useful solution. At restaurants, try to think ahead to the next meal, and order some food to go or take leftovers.
When shopping at a grocery store, convenience and taste are often more of a concern than healthy ingredients, but make sure you plan for all nutrient groups. Complete protein can be the most difficult since there is rarely pre-cooked meat available, but in these situations, you can make exceptions if needed and choose Italian dry sausage, the least processed pre-cooked meat possible or hard-boiled eggs. Some people can also eat canned tuna and sardines, which are good ways to get seafood on the road. The nut and grain combinations mentioned in Challenge #1 also make complete proteins and can suffice for most protein needs between meals.
Challenge #3: Healthy Options while Traveling and at Restaurants
Tips: Be as prepared as possible, snack and fuel between meals to help yourself make good choices later, choose the healthiest ingredients available as often as possible.
Hint: Use the activities below to practice making healthy choices!
Making healthy choices is often the biggest challenge facing athletes on the road. Always try to be as prepared and thoughtful as possible using the snack ideas and restaurant meal choices in Tables 1 and 2, but you will likely have to make some exceptions to your personal rules to get the calories you need. When faced with choices at restaurants, healthy snacking before
The more you can snack and stay fueled during the day, the easier it is to make healthy decisions when eating out at a restaurant.
arriving can help improve your choices when browsing the menu. But sometimes the food being appetizing is more important than nutrient quality. After going long periods without nutrients, just getting calories is a top priority for the body.
At restaurants, start with a healthy appetizer if possible, then make the healthiest choice you can based on the ingredients and meal composition. If you do not eat out very often, enjoy yourself, and do not over-analyze every decision. But if faced with these challenges regularly, the healthy meal versions above can help you make better decisions. The more often you can snack and stay fueled and the more often you choose the healthy versions, the better you will feel and the better you will perform!
Activity #1: Healthy Snacks
Instructions: Write down three snacks you could make out of your fridge if you had to go on a trip tomorrow. Make sure to include some of each nutrient group! A snack = half a meal.
Activity #2: Healthy Meals at Restaurants
Instructions: Choose three menus and pick a healthy meal from each. Jot down any modifications you could make to be healthier.