Archive | February, 2011

Brain and Brawn

10 Feb

I can’t remember the last time I spoke to someone who was excited at the prospect of getting older.  People fear different things, but it’s safe to say most concerns surround declining physical and/or mental well-being.  For years, the medical community has promoted cardiovascular exercise as the best for the prevention and intervention of disability and disease.  Aerobic exercise was said to keep the heart and lungs strong as well as aid in neurogenesis, or the creation of new neuronal cells in the brain, especially in those portions of the brain associated with memory and thinking.  While this recommendation still holds true, recent studies are showing that resistance training is as effective, if not more, at stimulating neurogenesis in the same areas of the brain.

Recently, a few studies examining the effects of exercise on the stimulation of Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) were presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience in November.  BDNF is part of a family of proteins responsible for the growth, survival and differentiation of nerve cells, and maybe the underlining factor responsible for exercise induced effects on cognition and mental well-being.  In one study, researchers from Brazil secured weights to the tails of a group of rats and had them climb ladders for five sessions a week.  This study, which measured the levels of BDNF, found that the weight lifting rats compared favorably to the rats that ran on a wheel.  The sedentary rats showed very low levels of BDNF.  The other study presented studied rats that ran on a weighted wheel (resistance being equivalent to 30% of the rats body weight) compared to rats that ran on an un-weighted wheel.  Not only did the rats moving the loaded wheel pack on muscle mass but they also showed significantly greater gene activity and levels of BDNF within their brains.  Although these results are not definitive proof, it is, at very least, an indication that further study is warranted.

One such study is underway at the University of British Columbia where principal investigator, Teresa Liu-Ambrose, has found that older women who lifted weights performed significantly better on various tests of cognitive functioning than women who completed toning classes.  Ms. Liu-Ambrose has hypothesized that the beneficial effect of strength training on cardiovascular health accounts for some of the improvement in function, but also stated “resistance training at first requires an upsurge in brain usage.”  She goes on to mention the involvement and stimulation of the brain during exercise using proper form and technique could contribute to greater cognitive functioning.  In addition to increased cognitive demand, the brain is responsible for activating the appropriate muscles, the necessary type and quantity of muscle fibers (efficiency) and activating the various energy systems that need to be involved.

One word to the wise, conventional wisdom often suggests that if some thing is good, more is better.  When it comes to exercise, this is not always the case.  Another study recently published showed that excessive exercise in postmenopausal women was linked to lower cognitive function.  Although this study was assessed by questionnaire, not known for their reliability, we do know that overtraining stimulates the release of cortisol.  Cortisol in excess has been linked to depression and lower levels of neurogenesis.

Sharon Begley’s January 3, 2011 Newsweek article “Can You Build a Better Brain?”  presented a review of what neuroscience has learned, and has yet to learn, about improving cognitive function. Supporting additional research regarding strength training and the brain is a statement by Columbia University’s Yaakov Stern that “the research so far suggests that cognitive training benefits only the task used in training and does not generalize to other tasks.”  Stern’s input begs the question, if training cognition doesn’t help, what does?  In answer to that, Begley quotes Art Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studied the effect of aerobic exercise.  Kramer found that “A year of exercise can give a 70-year-old the connectivity of a 30-year-old, improving memory, planning, dealing with ambiguity, and multitasking… fitness training [stimulates] the molecular and cellular building blocks that underlie many cognitive skills.  It thus provides more generalizable benefits than specifically training memory or decision-making.”

In relation to anti-aging, the adage of ‘use it or lose it’ is a good guide for the maintenance of movement and cognitive function, and it appears these are no longer unrelated.  These studies suggest that you can engage both the brain and the body by learning and practicing new or complex movements under a safely prescribed load.  My recommendation would be to start with body weight exercises and focus on learning how to move properly and then progress to greater loads.  The other implication of this study is that checking out during your exercise routine and simply going through the motions to just  ‘get it done’ may not be as beneficial.  Practicing movements with the intent of getting better not only improves your physical health, but also may contribute to your mental well-being

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Ten Tips to Help You Get Back into Your Exercise Routine

10 Feb

A short break from your exercise routine can be invigorating, allowing you to come back with a renewed sense of purpose and dedication.  However, not everyone enjoys exercise and the motivation to return to the routine can be challenging.  Even exercise enthusiasts, such as myself, struggle with re-prioritizing time and re-committing to a regular exercise program.  It’s easy for a couple of days to turn into a week or two or three.  Here are 10 tips to help you get back into your exercise routine:

1. Make it convenient – Try scheduling your workout session first thing in the morning, or on your way to or from work.  A lunchtime workout can be convenient, as well as provide an energizing break in your day.

2.    Make it social – Connect with people who share your interests.  For example, join an exercise group, or workout with a partner.

3.    Share and discuss what you are learning – about fitness, your body, nutrition, how you feel when you do and don’t exercise or eat healthier.  This can be done with a friend, a group, a Health and Fitness Professional, or even in a blog.

4.    Chart your progress – Keep an exercise log, write in a journal or blog, mark your completed exercise sessions on a calendar, have a fitness assessment and schedule re-assessment dates, or track distance goals for walking and running.

5.    Make it fun – Do something different.  Training for an event. Take a swim lesson.  Workout with kettlebells.  Kick up your heels and swing your hips in a Zumba class.  Participate in a fitness challenge, or just take time to play.

6.    Avoid all or nothing thinking – Use whatever time you have available to be active.  Even a 10-minute brisk walk is sufficient to get the blood flowing, increase energy, and improve mental acuity.

7.    Make your exercise session YOU time! –  Think of your exercise session as something special you are doing just for you rather than something you have to do.

8.    Reward yourself – for the effort, not just the outcome.  Celebrate the daily or weekly accomplishments, which are just as important as the big goals.  I like to reward myself after a workout with a relaxing soak in the tub.

9.    Engage your brain – Learn more about fitness and nutrition.  Read success stories about people like you.  Learn new exercises.  Join a healthy cooking class or take a dance lesson.

10.    It’s all in the Attitude – Focus on how good you will feel when you are done rather than focusing on all the other things you could be doing.  Think about the progress you are making rather than how far you are from your goal.  Motivation is truly a state of mind.

Aerobic and Anaerobic

10 Feb

I often hear the same question from clients, “Should I do more cardio/endurance or strength training to reach my weight loss and general fitness goals?”  It always depends on the individual, but the best answer is, you need to train using a combination of aerobic and anaerobic exercise.

What is Aerobic and Anaerobic Training?

Aerobic literally means “with oxygen.”  Oxygen is required to keep muscles in motion for a long period of time.  Muscles use oxygen to metabolize carbohydrates, protein and fat to generate energy through an aerobic or oxidative metabolic pathway.  Aerobic exercise includes activities that can be sustained for longer periods of time, such as running, jogging, swimming, cycling, or skiing.  Just as aerobic means “with oxygen,” anaerobic means “without oxygen.”  While you obviously need oxygen to perform anaerobic exercise, your muscles are not using oxygen during high intensity exercise to generate energy.  Instead, the muscles metabolize creatine phosphate and glycogen through the anaerobic metabolic pathways.  This supply is limited and therefore can only sustain short, however intense, bursts of activity.  Anaerobic exercise includes activities like sprinting and weightlifting.

Why we train using aerobic exercise.

Most of us are familiar with the benefits of aerobic exercise.  Just 20 minutes of low to moderate aerobic activity can improve your heart and lung function, blood flow, immune system, and lead to a healthier life.  Aerobic conditioning improves endurance, which enables you to train for longer periods of time at higher intensities. Moderate intensity exercise sustained for longer periods of time can result in greater energy expenditure, which contributes positively to weight loss.  It’s because of these benefits that many people opt to train only the aerobic metabolic pathway.

So why add anaerobic exercises to my training program?

Most daily activities encountered in sport, work, and life require a combination of energy pathways.  During a tennis match you may need to sprint to get to an opponent’s shot and return the ball.  To be efficient in the sport would require anaerobic training, such as sprinting drills and power training exercises.  Additionally, research has found that repeated short bouts of vigorous aerobic exercise, such as running, rowing, and jump roping, not only improves aerobic capacity but also provides greater health benefits when compared to moderate intensity exercise (Swain & Franklin, 2006).  What about everyday activities like lifting several heavy grocery bags into the back of an SUV, or getting your carry on bag into the overhead compartment on a flight?  These tasks don’t take much time but require short bursts of strength and power.  Weightlifting can make these tasks easier and safer.  So, whether your fitness goals are for greater athletic performance or improved health you can benefit from anaerobic training.

Scott Gets His Blood Checked

10 Feb

After a discussion with my mother concerning my family’s health history and heart disease, I did some investigating into heart healthy diets.  I was influenced by the low-carbohydrate research referenced in Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, and the Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain.  According to these books, and a recent review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in March, 2010, in order to decrease cardiovascular risk we should reduce excess body fat and limit refined carbohydrates in our diet, such as processed starches (i.e. crackers, pastas, breads) and sugar.  That sounded like an interesting proposition to test for myself.  In addition, I wanted to challenge the notions that 1) dietary fat does not raise LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), 2) that sugar and refined carbohydrates do raise LDL cholesterol, and 3) a high saturated fat diet would actually increase HDL (the “good” cholesterol) .

I have followed the guidelines of a low-carbohydrate diet for approximately two years that kept overall carbohydrate intake (including fruit and vegetables) to approximately  100 grams per day, ate little to no bread, and consumed a higher-fat diet, especially saturated fat.  While I am at work, with poor meal-preparation and needing to eat between clients, I have two Muscle Milk shakes and/or a protein bar(s) per day.  During the week, I eat an assortment of meat, seafood, nuts, fish and whole eggs.  As for vegetables, I eat primarily dark green veggies, such as broccoli, spinach, arugula and asparagus, but I also include cauliflower and watercress. Additionally, I exercise 4-5 times per week with at least 3 intense Crossfit routines ranging from 8-30+ minutes and 2-3 heavy lifting exercise routines.  I am 35 years old, with two children (4 & 7 years old).  My current body fat is around 10%, I average six hours of sleep six days per week, and I sleep in on Sundays.

There has been an extensive amount of research concerning the benefits and consequences of a deficiency in vitamin D.  With the importance of an adequate vitamin D level in mind, and because I go to work and return home in the dark during the winter (vitamin D is called the “sunlight vitamin” because our bodies make it from sunlight), I inconsistently supplement with 5,000-10,000 IU of vitamin D3.  Unfortunately, a specific test needs to be ordered to determine an individual’s vitamin D level – it is not a part of a regular physical exam blood profile.  So, I was looking forward to seeing my lipid profile and vitamin D level in order to determine how healthy my blood might suggest I am.  Otherwise, exercising regularly and eating a specific diet is not worth missing the lounging around, consuming pies and doughnuts, and watching television. ☺

Here are the results of my lipid profile:

Component                            My Value                        Standard Range*
CHOLESTEROL                        144                                      < 200-  mg/dL
TRIGLYCERIDE                        79                                        < 150-  mg/dL
HDL                                              69                                        > 55-65-  mg/dL
LDL CALCULATED                  59                                        <100-129-  mg/dL
VITAMIN D, 25-HYDROXY    34                                        30-100 ng/mL

*Standard range based on desirable or optimal ranges http://www.reducetriglycerides.com/Arisksheartattacksblp.htm

My physician said my laboratory tests all look great.  At one time, the cholesterol ratio was considered better for physicians to assess a patient’s risk of heart disease, but it appears times have changed.  Physicians are more interested in the raw numbers.  However, my lipid profile is unique in that my HDL cholesterol is actually higher than my LDL cholesterol.  I attribute this aspect of my lipid profile to my higher-fat diet.  Short-term and long-term low-carbohydrate studies consistently show to increase in HDL cholesterol with increased saturated fat intake.

As for the vitamin D results, although I am in the “normal range”, I am alarmed that I am in the low normal range after supplementing with vitamin D3.  The conversion of vitamin D3 in the body is dependent on the concentration of a certain enzyme, and the concentration varies among people.  Although controversial on the optimal level, evidence suggests vitamin D3 level should be above 50 – 80 ng/dL.  Therefore, either I need to increase my vitamin D3 supplementation, get more sun, or a little bit of both.  Either way, I need to have another vitamin D3 test in another three months to see if I am increasing my levels effectively.

In conclusion, I am happy with my results, but the vitamin D test was a novel piece of health knowledge. Everybody should have a yearly physical to record personal markers of health, and identify detrimental changes.

So, when is the last time you had your blood tested?

Body Fat and Hydrostatic Weighing

10 Feb

With our first of four hydrostatic weighing body composition assessments scheduled, the first taking place on Feb. 5th, some of you may be wondering the purpose for these numbers.  As stated in our Event Blast, body composition is a measurement of fat to lean mass (bones, connective tissue, muscle, organ). While bone, connective tissue and organ weight will remain constant the ratio of lean mass to fat mass can change, which is the ultimate goal.  There are numerous health benefits to decreasing body fat, such as reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes, as well as contributing to better joint health.

There is some discrepancy as to what is considered the ideal body fat percentage, but the overall consensus between heath organizations is the following 5 categories:

Essential Fat is described as the fat needed for the body to function both physically and psychologically without adverse affects.  The Athletes category describes people who routinely engage in sport activities at a high-level either professionally or as an amateur.  The Fitness or healthy levels category describes those who engage in physical activity and exercise on a regular basis.  The Average category is based on the general population.  And the Obese category describes those who run the greatest risk of potential health issues.

While decreases in body fat generally don’t occur rapidly, even a 1% decrease in body fat can have a positive impact on health. Which is why knowing your body fat percent, and where you fall on the chart, can be key to improving your health and helping you create realistic weight loss goals.  Studies have suggested creating goals that are measureable and planned have a greater likely hood for success.  Additionally, checking your goal progress with scheduled measurements for 3, 6 or 9 months will let you know if what you are doing is indeed paying off, or if your action plan needs to be re-evaluated.  If you are considering a weight loss program, get measured. Set a body composition goal and create an action plan to reduce your body fat and improve your lean mass. Your body will thank you.

Shrimp Cakes with Spinach Slaw and Coconut Almond Dressing

10 Feb

Shrimp Cakes
Makes 16-18 bite size cakes; 3-4 servings

Ingredients:
1 lb raw shrimp, shelled, deveined and roughly chopped
1 C coconut milk
2 tbsp chopped cilantro
1 tsp minced jalapeno or red chili pepper
2 tbsp finely chopped green onion
*Raw Virgin Coconut oil or olive oil for browning cakes

In food processor, pulse shrimp and coconut milk until slightly chunky.  Add cilantro, pepper, and green onion and pulse until mixture is combined (approximately 10-15 pulses).  Heat several tbsp of coconut or olive oil in a pan over medium heat.  For bit-sized shrimp cakes, use a tbsp measurement to scoop shrimp batter and drop it into the pan.  Will yield 16-18 bite size servings.  Cook each side approximately 2-3 minutes, until nicely browned.  Set shrimp cakes aside.

Salad & Coconut Almond Dressing

Salad Ingredients:
4 ounces fresh spinach leaves (2 massive handfuls)
1 C shredded purple cabbage
2 carrots, grated or finely chopped
1 cucumber, finely chopped
1 lb brown bella mushrooms, chopped

Dressing Ingredients: 1 c per serving approx
2 tbsp lime-juice
2 tsp almond butter
1 C coconut milk
1 tbsp cilantro, finely chopped
1 tbsp mint, finely chopped
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes
Celtic Sea Salt/Fresh Ground Pepper

Mix limejuice and 2 tsp of warm water with almond butter until almond butter has a slight liquid consistency.  Whisk in the remaining ingredients.  Add salt and fresh ground pepper (and additional red pepper flakes if desired) to taste.

Mix the salad ingredients together in a bowl and toss with coconut almond dressing.  Garnish with shrimp cakes and mint leaf.  Enjoy