Too Much (or Not Enough) of a Good Thing

The most recent issue of AARP Magazine [August/September 2022] addressed the issue of what we assume to be good habits to stay healthy that can actually be harmful in some cases. I would link the article, but it is not yet posted to their website; it is entitled “Good Habits That Might Age You Prematurely,” by Leslie Goldman.

Goldman addresses five habits that, in general, are good but call for either moderation or at least some counterbalance.

  1. Staying out of the sun. I recently blogged about this; when we are outside it is very important to use proper sunscreen and other protections to prevent skin damage and/or skin cancer. Avoiding the sun altogether, however, can have negative effects. Circadian rhythms (similar to our biological clocks on a daily basis) are set by the sun; they keep all our systems and organs on 24-hour cycles. When we have little or no exposure to the sun, those rhythms can get messed up and make sleep difficult; sleep, of course, has many benefits. Goldman suggests at least 15-30 minutes each day outside in the morning and late afternoon/early evening, or to make use of a light box at a consistent time each morning.
  2. Eating nutrition bars. As the author notes, it may sound healthy but many are loaded with sugar; the same is true of smoothies and fruit juices. This can lead to all kinds of problems like high blood pressure and heart disease. How can you know if your bar is healthy? Add up the number of grams of proteins and the number of grams of fiber. If that number is higher than the number of grams of total sugar, it is not problematic. Consider other ways to get protein that are not loaded with sugar or overprocessed.
  3. Drinking when you are thirsty. If you wait until you are thirsty, you are too late. Estimates are that 70% of adults between the ages of 51-70 may be chronically dehydrated. This increases the risk for all kinds of problems from urinary tract infections to colon cancer to diabetes. Goldman suggest drinking enough so that you have to urinated every 2-3 hours; additionally, it is a good idea to eat foods that have high water contents like celery, cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon, and peaches.
  4. Walking every day for exercise. I have blogged about this too. Walking is great, but as we age we need to make sure that we vary our exercises and include weight training as well. Weight training helps to rebuild muscle mass that is lost with aging and can also strengthen bones. By the way, the more muscle you have the greater ability you have to store water (see #3 above). Get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise. Work in 2 days of strength training; a fitness professional can help you do this safely and effectively.
  5. Constantly wearing supportive shoes. This was a shocker to me; and I have blogged about this too. Our feet send messages to our brain that help us to keep our balance. If we wear shoes all the time with lots of padding and support, our brain does not get enough sensory stimulation from the feet–and the nerves can lose sensitivity too. Goldman recommends going barefoot for 30 minutes each day, especially while doing activities where you move around so that the whole foot gets stimulation.

As always, if you have questions or concerns, consult with a medical professional that you trust. It is true that moderation and balance are important guidelines–not only in our relationships, leisure pursuits, and diet, but in our other health habits as well!

Cover All Your (Muscle) Bases

In youth, there are certain “rules” that many follow when engaging in resistance training. The reasoning goes that for men to be more attractive they need to concentrate on their arms and chest. Women may feel the need to focus on abdominals and glutes. These rules do not apply in the same ways as we enter older adulthood.

Do not take this to mean that older adults are not concerned about their appearance; rather, as we age we need to take a more holistic approach to the muscles we exercise. It is important to pay attention to the muscle groups that help us to perform the activities of daily living (ADL) such as walking, climbing stairs, carrying groceries, bending down to pick up something we have dropped on the floor, etc., not just the ones that get us noticed when we wear tight clothes! After all, what good is having gigantic biceps and a huge chest if we cannot make our way across the room?

A recent article on AARP’s website by Michele Wojciechowski highlights some of the often-ignored muscle groups that deserve our attention and exercise. The author highlights the following areas: 1) The hip area (the glutes and hip flexors); these are key to walking and getting up from a seated position. 2) The core; this part of the body is from the shoulders through just below the hips and serves as support for the entire upper body. Often, older adults with poor posture have weakened core muscles. 3) The knees–which are not a muscle, but a joint; they are supported by the quads and the hamstrings; keeping those strong and limber is key to walking, climbing stairs, standing, and maintaining balance. 4) Ankles and feet; again, vital to walking but also important in maintaining balance and stability; ask anyone who has had feet or ankle problems and they will tell you that it seriously inhibits mobility. 5) The neck; not keeping the supporting muscles strong and limber will literally cause “a pain in the neck.” It is not uncommon at all to see older adults whose heads are perched out well in front of the chests; this causes problems beyond appearance, possibly affecting sleep, posture, and the ability to drive a car. 6) Hands and wrists; while many are hit by arthritis in this area, others simply allow the lower arm muscles to weaken, which limits the ability to perform fine motor skills like writing, eating, typing.

As I age, I am concerned about my appearance. I always want to put the best version of myself forward. For me this means not only working on the “sexy” muscles, but also on the ones that will keep me active and independent. Do not overlook these muscle groups or they will have a way of calling your attention to them in a way you might not enjoy.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong (Part II)

Two Vintage Red Cross Bandage Boxes

In my last blog post, I wrote about ways to keep yourself safe while working out at home–focusing on having a safe and secure workout space.

Preventing injury requires more than just cleaning up a large enough space and getting possible obstacles out of the way. There are factors to take into account both at home, and at they gym to consider. An article in at http://www.aarp.org points out 5 issues to bear in mind when embarking on a fitness journey; these factors are especially relevant for older adults.

  1. Start slowly. With New Year’s Resolutions on the horizon many of us may resolve to start working out more often. Going from 0 to 60 in 3 seconds may be great for a sports car, but our bodies require us to move forward gently–especially if we have been sedentary for a while. Working out for too long, too often, or with weights that are too heavy is a recipe for injury. Muscles need to get used to the new routine; they need to grow and strengthen before we get more intense. Ease into it.
  2. Speaking of going from 0 to 60, every workout should begin with a warm-up. Typically, a before-workout warm-up should involve dynamic stretches or motions; in other words, they should be comprised of actions similar to those you will do as part of the workout, just at a slower, more gentle pace. The goal is to warm up the muscles and get the blood flowing throughout the body. Static stretches can be done after the warm-up, or (as I prefer) after the workout; static stretches are the ones where you hold a certain position for a given amount of time.
  3. Get the right athletic footwear. Shoes are like tires; some work better in different situations, and some only work on certain models. As we age, many of us develop issues with our posture and the rest of our kinetic chain (think of the hip bone connected to the thigh bone…); proper athletic footwear can help us excel, avoid pain, and stave off injuries. Like tires, they also have a mileage limit; if the treads on your shoes are gone, time to get new ones. I recommend going to a shoe store that only sells athletic footwear; their employees are trained and can get you the right fit for whatever quirks your feet might present. Do not let me catch you barefoot or in socks!
  4. Switch it up. Do not do the same exercise day in and day out. First, you will get bored. Second, you may cause injuries due to overuse. It is also important to work all the various muscle groups; varying the workout can help make that happen.
  5. My favorite one: if you are not sure about how to begin, reach out to a fitness professional. Most gyms have personal trainers or other fitness experts who are happy to help; often, an initial session is offered for free so that you can get acquainted with the gym and its equipment. If you prefer to work out online or one-on-one with a trainer at home, there are personal trainers who specialize in these kinds of settings–and you will probably save money not having to pay for a gym membership. A trainer will make sure that you cover most of the points above and will help keep you on track. There’s nothing like a good personal trainer to keep you accountable to your goals.

Of course, injuries do happen. Sometimes there are accidents, and other times we have physical weaknesses of which we are not aware. While there are no guarantees, the points above are certainly excellent guidelines to keeping your workout–at home or at the gym–less likely to cause an injury.

what? What?! WHAT?!?!

Diagrammatic View of the Ear

As we age, it is important to be aware of our health and fitness in general. Included in this is ensuring that we have adequate hearing ability. Not hearing well can have many implications; impaired ability to understand what is being communicated can cause individuals with hearing loss to simply withdraw from conversations. Social isolation may ensue, which is harmful to our overall health.

A recent article in AARP Bulletin discusses one of the contributing factors to hearing loss: noise. The article notes that exposure to loud noise on a regular basis has negative health effects–and these go beyond hearing impairment; the effect lessened during the pandemic as air and road traffic was reduced, but there is now a rebound.

How can noise affect our health? Noise triggers a part of our brains called the amygdala; this is the area that is responsible for analyzing threats. Loud noises are in that category. The amygdala puts the body on “high alert,” (think fight or flight) causing stress. The more stressed we are and the more often it happens the greater the negative health impact. Chronic stress is related to immune system depression, diabetes, arterial plaque build-up, psychological illness, and possibly cancer. Prolonged exposure to loud noise (by those who live near highways or airports) has been shown increase the chance of stroke; on the flipside, people who live in quieter areas have a decreased chance of stroke.

We do not always have the luxury of being able to avoid noise. Those who live in urban and suburban areas are most likely to be exposed, and it is a price to be paid to be close to work, school, community, etc. What can we do to alleviate these issues? A few solutions suggested are driving with car windows closed to cut out ambient noise, using noise-cancelling headphones when possible, making sure that hearing aids are fine-tuned, and choosing places to dine that are quieter.

As the pandemic hopefully comes under greater control, air and road traffice will return to previous levels and higher. Now is a good time to evaluate our exposure and plan for how to minimize the negative health effects. It is more than just an issue of hearing; the repercussions can touch nearly every aspect of our physical and mental health.

Have You Got Time for a Quickie?

1971 ... 'five minutes to nuclear self-destruct.'

We all know that we should be exercising. Many also know that the recommendation is 150 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity each week; for many people this works out to a half-hour workout five times per week. For many more people, however, it works out to no workout whatsoever; it is difficult to find those 150 minutes each week so rather than try to fit it into a schedule, we give up.

Research shows that there is actually benefit in doing a brief (or even very brief) workout. If it is impossible to find a half hour all at once, 10 minutes three times a day or five minutes 6 times a day–or any combination thereof–seems to work just as well. Even if the 150 minutes is not reached, there is always a benefit to working out no matter the length of time.

Of course, what happens during that “quickie” workout matters. AARP reported on this very topic on its website. There should be at least one minute of intense exercise during the workout that elevates the heart rate. Many, including myself, recommend incorporating High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) into a brief workout. For instance, a 5-minute walk (dancing, stationary bike, climbing stairs, etc.) could include 1 minute at a regular pace, 20 seconds fast, 1 minute back at regular pace, 20 seconds fast, 1 minute regular pace, 20 seconds fast, followed by 1 minute of cool down; that equals five minutes total with 1 minute total of high intensity. Such a workout could be scaled up to 8, 10, 15 or more. It also a good idea to mix it up and not do the same exercise every time; some light weights or even body-weight exercises can be intermingled with cardio too.

When it comes to taking care of ourselves, we all have plenty of excuses why we do not do a better job. A big one is the perception that it takes too long; we are simply too busy to devote the time to exercise. Short workouts take away that excuse. They are brief and can be very effective.

After all, who doesn’t have time for a Quickie?

Adult Playground?

Playground Primary Colors

This is not as bad as it sounds. It is not a sleazy sex club, but rather the brainchild of a group called Friends in Action in Ellsworth, Maine (between Bangor and Bar Harbor).

We know that there are playgrounds in nearly every community for children so that they can get outside, exercise, use their muscles, meet friends, and have fun. Why not a playground for older adults who have the same needs? An article in The Ellsworth American describes the decade-long effort to make this a reality. The playground will have eight pieces of equipment, some of which will even be wheelchair accessible. The cost for the project is about $80,000; Friends in Action raised the funds from individual donations, a grant from AARP as well as a matching grant from the State of Maine.

I do not know if anything like this exists anywhere else, but it is a project worth emulating. Many communities have health trails or outdoor equipment such as chin-up bars, obstacles, etc., but these are usually designed for younger individuals and others who may not have mobility issues. Considering the aging population in the United States, it will be interesting to see if Senior Playgrounds become more popular.

Over and over again, research shows that the more active adults remain, the better their long-term health outcomes. Many older adults “settle” for walking (which is great!), but could benefit from equipment that works to maintain and strengthen muscles. Senior Playgrounds help to meet this need; they also send the message that older adults are just as valued as children in the community. How often do we hear that?

Let me know if you hear of other communities with Senior Playgrounds.

Eating Differently in a Pandemic

April 13, 2018

The most recent issue of AARP Magazine (August/September 2020) featured an article by Ruth Reichl entitled “The Changing American Table.” In it she discusses how food tastes, the taste of food, shopping habits, and eating habits have changed over the last 50 years. It is a fascinating look at the major events and trends that helped to define American cuisine. Here is the link: https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2020/changing-food-trends.html.

What was most intriguing was her take on the effect that the COVID-19 Pandemic has had in the last 6 months. The pandemic disrupted (and still does) our food chain. Packing plants became COVID-19 hot spots, restaurants shut down (some temporarily, others permanently), some food went to waste, and other food simply wasn’t produced. For many Americans, it was the first time that we actually began to fathom all the steps that take place from the farm or sea to our tables.

Americans (you should pardon the expression) are a little late coming to the table on this one. Judaism has always emphasized an appreciation of food–what we may or may not eat, how it is prepared, and how it must be sanctified through blessings before and after the meal. An observant Jew at each meal is reminded through all these steps exactly where the food came from…and the many miracles that accompany its journey to our stomachs.

Reichl noted that during this pandemic many people turned their attention back to the sources. People planted gardens and grew vegetables. Others began cooking and baking from scratch. Many in rural areas did what the norm was a half century ago and went straight to the farm to purchase produce and meat. If there may be one silver lining to COVID-19, it is that it reconnected us to an awareness of the sources of our food…and to the fragility of the system.

Personally, I have been a cook and bake from scratch kind of guy (although not exclusively) for a long time. There are still a lot of processed foods in my diet. Even so, during the last several months, I have found myself trying to go back to the basics. We even planted some basil, tomatoes, peppers, parsley and cilantro!

Whether COVID-19 will have a long term impact on how we view the food we eat is unknown. Certainly there are encouraging signs that we will think more about where our food comes from. On the other hand, we know that many of us have put on a few pounds, simply because we are sitting at home more surrounded by food and because our gyms and other ways in which we are active are not as accessible.

My hope is that our society will learn from the Jewish approach to food. It is a blessing and it is to be enjoyed–but always in the right context and as a way to fuel the human body (not destroy it). A good lesson for a pandemic…and afterwards too!

HIIT for Seniors?

A little reminder

What it is HIIT? It stands for High Intensity Interval Training, which means working out at a lower intensity for a given amount of time, followed by working out at a higher intensity for a given amount of time, in a cycle. For example, a person could walk for two minutes, run for 30 seconds, walk for two, run for 30, etc. HIIT has gotten a lot of hype because the research shows that it is an efficient way to work out.

HIIT now encompasses many modes of exercise. There are HIIT aquatics classes, weight training, and cardio applications. The results are that one can get the same benefit as a regular workout, but in a compacted amount of time…and the benefits can continue for a while after the workout ends. Research shows that when we raise our heart rate significantly, we can continue to burn calories at the higher rate for several hours. That is efficient! And that explains the popularity.

But is it OK for seniors? AARP ran an article on this topic last year: https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2018/high-intensity-interval-training-workout.html. Being a trainer “of a certain age,” I clipped out of the bulletin and took it into the gym, figuring I’d give it a shot.

For many of my hour-long sessions I start out with the beginner’s HIIT suggested in the article: 3 minutes low intensity, 20 seconds high intensity, 2 minutes low, 20 seconds high, 2 minutes low, 20 seconds high, and then 2 minutes of low–for a total of 10 minutes. Of course, how to do HIIT with seniors will differ with each person. A couple of my clients have advanced to the point that we now do 30 seconds high intensity at each interval. Depending on their ability, balance and agility, I use walking on the track, elliptical, NuStep, or a stationary bike. It is sometimes scary at the beginning since many seniors are not used to “pushing it,” for fear of a heart attack, or because they’ve been told that they are too old for that intensity of exercise.

Trainers and seniors alike should be cautious, but from my experience, HIIT can increase cardio capacity, affecting both endurance and power. As my clients progress, I will continue to tweak the formula. Although skeptical at first, I am a believer in HIIT for older adults when done appropriately. I have seen the results myself!

New Study out from NIH and AARP: Over 50? Start Exercising now…

Waiting For Their Turn
Is this what our senior years should look like?

A article in the most recent AARP Bulletin (May 2019, Vol. 60, No. 4, pg. 4) highlights something that those in the Fitness Industry have been saying for years…and now there is even more research behind it.

The study began in 1995 as a joint venture between AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) and the NIH (National Institutes of Health), and tracked the exercise habits of more than 315,000 people ages 50-71. It showed that even if a person has been inactive most of their lives, getting into regular exercise can add years to our lives and quality to those years as well.

The research shows that: “those ages 40-61 who begin exercising after years of physical inactivity can still extend their longevity. They had a 32 to 35 percent lower risk of mortality. The odds of death from cancer and heart disease also decreased. Compared with those who never exercised during the multiyear study, those who exercised their entire lives had a 29 to 36 percent lower risk of death.”

This is good news indeed–especially for fitness professionals who face the skepticism of those who have never been physically active during most of their lives. Of course, the real challenge is changing that behavior in the first place. Those who have felt that exercise or taking proper care of themselves was not a priority earlier in their lives are not necessarily going to “see the light.” Usually it takes a “wake-up call” or “Aha moment” to change the way they act. It should be comforting for them to know that not all is lost; even in their later years, they can have a significant impact on the quantity and quality of years in their lives.

As for change, Judaism has always taught that we are capable of change. Most religious traditions have a similar viewpoint. This is why there is a strong emphasis in the faith community on redemption in its many forms; there is a sense that we can always improve ourselves, and as a result, the world around us. We are not stuck with “it is what it is.” We have the potential to make “it what it ought to be.”

Good news indeed!