Some sensible guidance on exercise, diet, sleep and weight gain

We’re barraged by so much health hokum that it’s a relief when common-sense reminders come along about crucial wellness concerns like exercise, diet, and sleep.

Timely information on these issues has been reported by the Washington Post (here on movement myths and here on sleep and weight), the Athletic on a soccer nutritionist’s insights on healthful eating, and the New York Times on exercise and bodily immunity.

Some of the key takeaways:

Moving more than 30 minutes per day

Beware the popular notion that health gains can be had just by moving for 30 minutes daily. Certainly, at least that much does help, especially considering how research shows how damaging a sedentary life can be to one’s wellness, the Washington Post reported.

But the newspaper also looked at a study of more than 3,700 men and women in Finland, many of whom dutifully exercised for a half-hour. But then what did they do in the other hours of wakefulness?

Researchers discovered lots by giving them movement trackers, finding that the least healthy were those individuals who, besides their daily burst of movement, mostly sat around. Participants in the study who exercised even more — amounting to an hour or more — were significantly healthier than others in the research.

But those who moved around even a bit more, say, by getting up from their work and pacing around, visiting others, doing a few chores, or the like saw key gains, especially compared with the least active participants.

As the newspaper reported, quoting: Vahid Farrahi, a postdoctoral scientist at the University of Oulu and lead author of the new study, and Raija Korpelainen, a professor of health exercise at the University of Oulu in Finland and study co-author:

“The lesson from the research is that in addition to a brisk workout, we need to move lightly and often, cleaning, taking the stairs, strolling the halls, or otherwise not remaining still. The sweet spot in this study involved about 80 or 90 extra minutes of light activity, ‘but any additional movement should be beneficial,’ Farrahi said. You can also try to squeeze in a little more exercise. In this study, people benefited if they doubled their workouts to 60 minutes, total. But, again, ‘do what you can,’ Korpelainen said. Just adding an extra 10 or 15 minutes to a daily walk will matter, she said, even if you do not quite manage an hour of exercise. ‘The goal is to be sitting less,’ said Matthew Buman, a professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, who studies movement and metabolism but was not part of the new study. ‘We can each decide how best to get there.’”

Exercise and infection fighting

As the weather cools and we fret about staying healthy during the cold and flu season, exercise can be a way to stay healthier — though the studies don’t back up the oft-floated notion that activity boosts the immune system.

The New York Times reported this:

“[S]cientists studying risk factors related to Covid-19 have turned up some preliminary evidence about the link between regular exercise and better immune defenses against disease. When researchers reviewed 16 studies of people who stayed physically active during the pandemic, they found that working out was associated with a lower risk of infection as well as a lower likelihood of severe Covid-19. The analysis, published last month in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, has generated a lot of enthusiasm among exercise scientists, who say the findings could lead to updated guidelines for physical activity and health care policy that revolves around exercise as medicine. Experts who study immunology and infectious disease are more cautious in their interpretation of the results. But they agree that exercise can help protect health through several different mechanisms …

“Exercise provides a slew of broader health benefits that may help reduce the incidence and severity of disease, said Dr. Stuart Ray, an infectious diseases specialist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Building a walk, jog, gym trip or sport of choice into your routine is known to help reduce obesity, diabetes and heart disease, for example, all of which are risk factors for severe influenza and Covid-19. Working out can help you get more restful sleepboost your mood and improve your insulin metabolism and cardiovascular health, improving your chances against the flu and Covid-19. It’s hard to know, Dr. Ray said, whether the benefits come from direct changes to the immune system or just overall better health.”

In Europe, a focus on nutrition for soccer elites

The Athletic, a news site laser-focused on all things sports and now owned by the New York Times, recently profiled nutritionist James Collins, describing him as “one of the foremost voices regarding nutrition and football” aka the globally popular sport of soccer. As the site described him:

“Collins has also enjoyed stints with the national teams of England and France, and is currently working with Chelsea, as well as a variety of different teams, sports people and performers through his Intra Performance Group consultancy.”

The onetime diet consultant to the Arsenal soccer team, as well as distance and sprint runners, the Arsenal soccer team, World Cup-contenders, and the UEFA Champions League (in soccer) has experience-based savvy that he has shared widely about optimizing the nutrition of elite athletes — and regular folks, too.

In the Athletic profile, Collins emphasized that:

  • Education and awareness-raising are vital in getting players to eat healthfully. This means that he and other experts must take the time and not talk down to others. They must show them the benefits of a good diet, notably to life performance. They also cannot offer complex, indecipherable dietary guidance to athletes who, like all of us, lead hectic, demanding lives.
  • Because soccer players hail from the entire planet, those who seek to feed them healthfully must be culturally aware and sensitive. Teams and cooks must provide not only nutritious meals, but their plates must also include healthful foodstuffs that will benefit and get appreciated and eaten by people of different ages, races, ethnicities, and nationalities.
  • Sound nutrition does not spring from secret sauces. It must be evidence-based. And if it is sound and appropriate, its guidelines should be published and widely shared, as the Champions League has done with its work.

As the sports site quotes the nutritionist of the guidelines he helped develop for the soccer league:

“We needed to make sure that all of the practitioners in the clubs have access to the best scientific knowledge. The idea was to build this one blueprint, one playbook. Something that covers fueling, recovery, the immune system, junior players, female players — everything we know, so that it can then be applied. We had a team of 31. I really wanted to be representative of football worldwide, not just Eurocentric. We had nine different countries represented, with different scientists from the top institutions, and also practitioners on the ground to make sure it was ecologically valid. We had people from Barcelona, from Mexico, from Real Madrid. Some from the UK, the Australian Institute of Sport, the Boston Celtics — a real mix. We spent three years working on a document that lays out best practice guidelines for the sport.”

For those interested, the guidelines were published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Poor sleep’s negative association with weight gain

Those with concerns about excess weight — and with federal officials saying that just under half of Americans are obese — should not only examine their eating but also their sleep habits.

The Washington Post reported why this is so:

“In recent years, researchers have discovered that our sleep habits strongly influence the amount and types of foods we eat and even whether we gain or lose body fat. Losing sleep can trigger brain and hormonal changes that stimulate food cravings, which can drive us to consume more calories, especially from junk foods rich in fat and sugar. If you’re among the millions of adults who are chronically sleep deprived, research suggests that getting just one hour of additional sleep each night can lead to better eating habits and may even help you lose weight.”

It is true that, as with all things related to nutrition and health, it is a complex challenge to pinpoint any one factor to say it has a definitive role in people’s carrying excess weight. Lack of sleep or poor sleep and overweight is an association. But as the newspaper reported:

“One [clinical] trial found that when people slept just 5½ hours a night over a two-week period they consumed an extra 300 calories a day, mostly from snacks such as pretzels, cookies, chips, ice cream and candy. St-Onge analyzed many of these trials and concluded that, on average, people eat between 300 and 550 calories more on days when they are sleep deprived compared with when they could sleep seven hours or more.”

Americans struggle mightily to get a good night’s sleep, the newspaper also reported. Experts advise that we can help ourselves significantly by setting a regular time to go to bed and by turning off smartphones and electronic devices for a set period as we prepare to sleep.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent health care. This has become an ordeal with the skyrocketing cost, complexity, and uncertainty of treatments and prescription medications, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs.

The areas of diet, nutrition, and exercise have become especially fraught, full of conflicts of interest, bad players, and outright profiteering hokum. It is difficult to the max to control for myriad factors and to study with rigor people and their eating habits and dietary outcomes. That has not stopped wild theorizers, scam artists, and the misguided for a long time from blowing smoke at the public with wild claims.

Experts have provided plenty of evidence about the health harms caused by our poor diet and nutrition, including our excess consumption of salt and sugar. We need to take urgent and appropriate steps to safeguard our wellness by eating in more healthful fashion.

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