Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan


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A powerful lesson for a privileged white woman

Every now and then, an experience comes along that slaps me upside the head.  I had one a week ago in my effort to get to Portland, Oregon. After 7 hours of waiting at the airport gate, then getting on and off the plane on the tarmac, our flight was cancelled.  I figured sleep would be a good idea as 3 AM approached.  No airport hotel rooms were available, so I went to Ozone City, which is in Jamaica, Queens, 15 minutes from JFK airport.  It was at that moment, that I began to notice how alive and aware I felt, in spite of my exhaustion.  Everything was totally different from what I’m used to, from the time I felt stranded and realized I would not make it to the west coast to meet my husband and 2 sons on Thursday night, until the time I finally met up with them on Saturday at 12:30 PM.

From the moment that the Econolodge clerk asked for cash instead of a credit card,  to the hard bed and persnickety climate control, I began to appreciate my ridiculously privileged life even more than I already do, (and I really do count my blessings every day).

The myriad of things I take for granted each day were turned on their heads. Forgive the banality of these daily details but here are some things I now appreciate even more.

Thanks so much for my wicked comfy bed, pillows, sheets and blankets.

Thanks for the perfect temperature in my room at night, and ability to open my windows.

Thanks for the quietude of Newton, complete with occasional sirens and trains, but not equaling the loud voices and TV of my next door Econolodge neighbors, even at 4 AM.

Thanks for the privilege of being able to sleep in the same bed with my husband of 33 years.

After 4 fitful hours of sleep,  I bemoaned the 8 AM (which is a perfectly reasonable hour for those who haven’t gone to sleep until 4 AM)  loud bangs and knocks that came from construction in the next room on the wall against my bed.  When I asked the carpenters next door if they could quiet down, they said they only had 5 more minutes to finish. About 15 minutes later, the banging was replaced by vacuuming for 15 minutes. Giving up on sleep seemed a good idea as I plotted my escape from New York.

Again, I was struck with the good fortune I enjoy in my day-to-day life. Thanks for the privilege to be where I want to be at any time with freedom, mobility, ability, perspective and free will.  Thanks for productive, meaningful, and interesting work that makes me feel good every day I choose, and access to the fitness activities that make me happy. Although I had free will and some mobility in Jamaica, it was not where I wanted to be at that time.  It’s a real life lesson, and makes me think of those who are refugees, fleeing from violence.  Of course, there’s no comparison whatsoever, because so many people are running for their lives, but if I felt stranded, how must they feel?

On the way out the door of the Econolodge, I met Dolores, who is a security guard (pictured here). We had a great talk about breakfast places and how, of course, she wouldn’t know good breakfast places, because breakfast is the easiest meal to make, and it’s best made at home and she lives around there. We also discussed gambling and how we’d both rather save or invest our hard-earned money- she was a lot of fun and very smiley.

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Although I didn’t get a picture of Nugget, the next person I met, he was getting some provisions at the same corner convenience store where I got my most excellent breakfast sandwich.  When he dropped his change, and I bent over to pick it up, he told me thanks, because he couldn’t do it;  he’d had a stroke and went to rehab once a week at a nearby hospital. His breakfast was a can of beer, and the mother in me couldn’t help but ask him if it wasn’t a little early to drink.  He said,  “It’s already 11:30 AM!” and we proceeded to humor each other and talk about rehab and life for a few minutes. His nickname comes from his affinity for Chicken McNuggets from McDonald’s.

I had the day in Jamaica ahead of me, and I considered my options. I hadn’t been able to get a good internet connection for several hours, so thought I’d catch up on my email and writing my blog.  I figured the library would be a good place to get all this done, so my luggage and I set out to find it. Every person I met on the street was friendly and helpful, and happy to tell me where to go (in the nicest way possible!) I happened to be wearing my T shirt that says Bike, Eat, Drink, Sleep, and one guy that I walked by on the street called out, “I got the last 3 down pat !”

When I arrived at the library, the staff were very accommodating, and I was able to use the computers for an additional half hour, for which I was very thankful.  A parade of homeless folks drifted in and out of the library, and were sitting in a circle of chairs behind my perch at the computer. A few of them were very talkative, but I noticed that one man was speaking quietly and pragmatically to the rest of the group. I decided I’d talk to him, and when my internet session timed out, it turned out that he was the only one left in the circle.

I sat down across from him, and we proceeded to have a 2 hour visit.  Ramprasad turned out to be a delightful and engaging man. He told me about his origins in British Guyana, and his Indian ancestors’ emigration to that South American country. He also told me that French Guyana, Dutch Guyana and British Guyana all kept some of their imperialists’ culture, but that France is the only country that maintains jurisdiction over French Guiana, which has kept that name.  The two other Guyanas are independent states.  Dutch Guiana is now called Suriname, and British Guyana is now just called “Guyana”, and is the only country in South America where English is the first language.

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Ramprasad also told me about the people from India, Africa and other countries in the Western hemisphere who were brought to Guyana as slaves, and that slavery was abolished there decades before it was abolished in the U.S.A.  He told me that he’s proud to live in America, and believes that opportunity abounds here, if you’re not lazy.  He is a retired math teacher, and was able to buy a home not far from the library.

It was no coincidence that he was sitting in front of a chess board, as he’s almost a chess master.  He said that kids these days are not patient enough to learn to play chess, and he thinks it’s a great loss, because the game teaches patience.  Each and every move you make has consequences, which is a lesson lost on most kids and teenagers.  I took this rare and perfect opportunity to re-learn how to play chess, which I hadn’t played in many decades. Ramprasad was incredibly patient and was an excellent teacher, and told me why the moves I made were either good or bad. We had a lively game and discussion for the better part of the afternoon, and I really felt honored to be in his presence. Besides feeling almost competent playing chess again, I so appreciated being able to spend time with someone who I never would have had a chance to relax with and talk to at length.

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I have to say, although I missed a day and a half out of a 5 day vacation with my family, the lessons learned from my day in Jamaica, and subsequent 11 hour train ride from Sacramento to Bend, Oregon (which was another worthwhile experience too lengthy for this blog) gave me perspective that escapes me in my normal routines.

Gratefulness in a vacuum is impossible. It’s essential to do what Thomas Friedman, in his book, “Thank you for being late” describes. It is those unplanned, unexpected breaks in normal activities when you find yourself with extra time, when you can have a true experience of “being in the moment”.  Here was a rare opportunity to absorb, process and really reflect on those things that were happening right in front of me, instead of trying to discern what’s important from the million pieces of information that we’re confronted with each day.

“Friedman concludes that nations and individuals must learn to be fast (innovative and quick to adapt), fair (prepared to help the casualties of change), and slow (adept at shutting out the noise and accessing their deepest values).”

I’m interested in all 3 ways of being, but am most enamored with the last one, which occurs all too seldom in my busy life. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on similar experiences. Thanks for reading!

 


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Getting to the marrow of the matter

The research for the benefits of exercise continues to pile up . You’ve heard the studies regarding the effect of exercise on brain health, muscle strength, mood regulation, control of triglycerides and fat metabolism, and bone health.  A new study has found another mechanism by which exercise mediates one of the most active aspects of bone, the marrow. “Marrow, in particular, is a hub of activity, coordinating the formation of bone and cartilage while simultaneously churning out blood cells, immune cells, and cancerous cells.” Marrow also produces fat, and those special fat stores were previously thought to not be used to fuel exercise, unlike fat reserves in other parts of the body. There’s been intense interest in fat in marrow because there’s a strong association between high levels of marrow fat and low bone density.  This new study examined how this fat was influenced by exercise. For the full article, see https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170518140220.htm

The researchers, lead by Maya Styner, a physician and assistant professor of endocrinology and metabolism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, used two groups of mice. One month after birth, one group was fed a high fat diet, resulting in obesity, while the other was fed a normal diet, resulting in the creation of a lean group.  At four months old, half of each group they were given an exercise wheel, and since mice like to run, both groups spent a lot of time running on the wheel. After 6 weeks, the exercising groups of both the obese mice and the lean mice showed significant drops in overall size and the amount of  fat cells in the marrow, reaching nearly identical levels.

“More surprising was the dramatic difference in the number of fat cells present in the marrow, which showed no change in lean mice but dropped by more than half in obese mice that exercised compared to obese mice that were sedentary. The tests also revealed that exercise improved the thickness of bone, and that this effect was particularly pronounced in obese mice.” The research leads us to believe that exercise can burn off fat cells in the marrow, and this in turn builds stronger, thicker bones. This has many implications for people with various conditions that cause osteopenia and osteoporosis, like post-menopausal women and those who have used steroids for extended periods. Other conditions include but are not limited to people with anorexia, diabetes, or arthritis.

There are caveats to this study, as there are in all research that compare mice to humans. Although the kind of the stem cells that produce bone and fat in humans are the same kind that produce them in mice, results are not directly translatable. Another major issue is that because marrow is encased in bone, it is difficult to study.  Previously, toxic tracers used with CT machines was the only way to examine marrow fat.  This study used a sophisticated MRI machine at UNC, eliminating the need for tracers, which can measure activity in living organisms. This will greatly expand opportunities to examine bone marrow activity in human subjects in the future.

What’s the take-away?

  • Exercise has a substantial, significant effect on bone health in everyone, but especially in obese populations.
  • Positive effects were seen after only 6 weeks of exercise
  • Although the exact amount of exercise wasn’t measured, we know that cardio exercise that involves impact (running, walking, weight training) improves bone density

If you haven’t been convinced yet about the importance of exercise, here’s another study to confirm its importance to continued vitality through bone health. So get out there, hit the road,  mountain,  forest, or whatever environment in which you can walk or run that makes your heart sing!


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Wait, What?

When writing my last blog post, I wanted to hear from an inspirational athlete about his journey toward marathon fulfillment. I spoke to Marc Fucarile, who, as a result of the marathon bombing, lost his right leg above the knee and has shrapnel in many parts of his body. He was the last to leave the hospital because of the severity of his injuries. Marc let me in on his motives and how he prepared for the race.

Marc said that one of the main reasons he competes is to be a role model to his 9 year old son, Gavin. He’s showing Gavin through his actions that no matter what happens, you must still show up, and participate to the best of your ability.  Although he says he doesn’t have much time to train for the marathons, he stays in very good shape and has completed them all, and this speaks volumes. His determination and spirit have propelled him to complete several marathons since the bombing in 2013. In the last four years, he has competed in the Los Angeles and New York Marine Corps marathons in the hand cycling division.  He raises money for Semper Fi/America’s Fund which provides “immediate financial assistance and lifetime support to post-9/11 wounded, critically ill and injured members of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, and their families, ensuring that they have the resources they need during their recovery and transition back to their communities”. He also raises money for the Achilles Freedom Team, which is composed of wounded war veterans and civilians who were severely injured as a result of the 9/11 bombings.

In thinking about his story, I came across the 2016 commencement speech of the dean of education at Harvard University, James Ryan.  He posits that there are 5 basic questions that get to the heart of life fulfillment. For the full speech, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBvyBn6crLE

Wait, What?

I Wonder if/what…..

Couldn’t We At Least…..?

How Can I Help?

What Truly Matters?

  1. Wait, What? is that question you get when someone, for example your child, isn’t really listening and suddenly realizes you’re asking something of him/her that requires clarification. It causes one to stop, and make sure you understand something. Did you mean, or are you saying?… is an excellent question to truly understand what is being asked.
  2. I wonder why.. or if…  “Why” creates curiosity and “if” opens up possibilities. It causes people to imagine together, and expands the realm of solutions.  You are not positing an opinion or acting like the expert, but you are inviting collaboration. This is at the heart of brainstorming and potentially important new insights.
  3. Couldn’t we at least?… is an excellent way to get to consensus about an issue, rather than holding a polarized, fixed position. It’s a good way to get started if you feel stuck.  For example, if a discussion began with “Couldn’t we at least agree that children should be well fed when they arrive at school?”,  vs. “We need to increase funds for poor students.”
  4. How can I help? is an excellent way to find out how to truly meet someone’s needs. We may be in the habit of asking, “Can I help? but when you ask the question HOW can I help? you are giving power back to the person you want to help, as they are in the best position to figure out how best you can be of assistance. This brings to mind the typical interaction between couples when a spouse complains about a difficult day, and the partner responds in a “fixing” way, like “you should do this, or that”, when often the best response would be to just listen and empathize.
  5. What truly matters?  is the question that gets to the essence of fulfillment. If you include this in your new year’s resolutions, it may give clarity to help form meaningful goals. Given that you can’t achieve ALL that you want, and you must choose between competing interests, how can you drill down to the truly essential elements of contentment?

The bonus question is ” Did you get what you wanted from this life?” which comes from this poem, Late Fragment by Raymond Carver.

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”
―from Raymond Carver, A New Path to the Waterfall

Back to Marc Fucarile. He’s a young man of 38, so he has plenty of time to continue accomplishing his goals. He’s a motivational speaker, and volunteers for an organization to help others who have lost limbs due to injury or illness. He may have begun with the question- how can I help, or I wonder…, and maybe ended up with what truly matters- fully engaging in life no matter what the circumstances, and to be beloved by his son and others he has helped.

What answers do you have to these life questions? Because the last question was pondered by one who was at the end of his life, this one perhaps may be answered only partially; the others bear some serious reflection.


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Be Inspired

The Boston Marathon never fails to provide a reliable, annual boost of inspiration for all who pay attention. There are so many amazing “firsts” and anniversaries, so many obstacles overcome, and so many regular people (albeit super motivated ones) who compete and succeed in finishing or even qualifying.

There’s Kathrine Switzer, who celebrated her fiftieth anniversary of running the Boston Marathon at age 70 by running again this year. As the first female Boston Marathon runner in 1967, she was forcibly almost thrown off the course when a race official tried to deter her from participating. Not only did she finish, but she proceeded to dedicate her life to empowering women in sports through the many foundations she created. In addition to being an iconic athlete, Kathrine is a marathon winner (1974, NY), TV commentator and speaker. She states:

“Running is not just about fitness and competition; it’s about changing our lives. Most of us run because it makes us feel significant, powerful, and in control, not just because we want to compete. When people who have never had a sense of accomplishment before suddenly gain it, it transforms every aspect of their lives. They become increasingly fearless. People always realize they can do more when they first do something at all. Confidence grows, and with it, so does vision.”

Just sub out the word “running” for any difficult, consistent practice you do and you’ll reap the benefits stated above.

18switzer-web-master768.jpg                     Kathrine Switzer, age 20, being accosted by a race official in 1967

Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a dancer who was observing at the finish line when one of the bombs exploded,  lost one of her legs due to a critical injury.  She competed in the 2014 marathon with a prosthetic limb. Perhaps even more amazing is her return to dancing with a prosthetic limb, once again proving that if you want to achieve your life’s passion, determination may count more than the odds against you. I’ve never seen a person with a limb amputation dance, but here she is –   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDbN8R6Gb6Qmarathon62.jpg                            Adrianne Haslet-Davis running in the 2014 marathon

Marc Fucarile is an excellent example of one who will not let anything stand in the way of his goals and ambitions.  A former runner, he now competes in the handcycling division as a result of losing his right leg. More on that after I speak with him this week.

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Although the last person I’ll mention did not run a marathon, you’ve got to give him a pass since he was born before World War I.   Fauja Singh, a former marathon runner,   finished the Hong Kong Marathon’s 10-kilometer (6.25-mile) race in 1 hour, 32 minutes, 28 seconds in 2013. To read more about him, see  https://www.boston.com/sports/boston-marathon/2013/02/24/oldest-marathon-runner-finishes-last-race-at-101

It’s impossible not to be inspired by people who spend time training hard regardless of obstacles.  I appreciate the perspective that comes with observing other people who have overcome all kinds of adversity to make their mark, and show that life goes on, no matter what the circumstances. We can all take a page from their “surmounting all odds” playbook.

As Kathryn Switzer says,  “Life is about participating, not spectating”.  Last, but not least, and perhaps most important is her Rule # 1: ” Just put on your shoes and go!”


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Taking a daily multivitamin- should you or shouldn’t you?

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Myths abound about the efficacy of taking a daily multivitamin. The April 12 edition of the Wall St. Journal’s Health section featured two eminent professors of medicine and epidemiology squaring off regarding this issue.  While no definitive conclusion was reached, their discussion may inform your decision.  The most conclusive evidence quoted shows a small benefit that may be offset by the risks of thinking that a multivitamin can take the place of other healthy habits.

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Dr. Meir Stampfer of Harvard Medical school believes that a multi-vitamin serves as a type of low-cost, and relatively low-risk nutritional insurance.  He believes that the vast majority of Americans don’t reach optimal levels of vitamin and mineral values in their bloodstream, so a multivitamin is an inexpensive way to insure that this happens.

Many studies have shown that a large portion of Americans are deficient in two vitamins in particular; Vitamin D and vitamin B-12. It’s difficult to absorb Vitamin D from diet alone. The most effective way to produce vitamin D is to get at least 15 minutes of daily sunlight exposure to your face and arms (at a minimum) to receive the benefit. Inadequate levels of this vitamin can lead to reduced bone and muscle strength and increased risk of various cancers. Once again, this must be weighed against too much exposure to sunlight without protection, which can lead to skin cancer. Vitamin B-12 is another common deficiency in Americans. Many people over 65 have difficulty absorbing this vitamin from their diets, even if they have adequate intake, because they lack the stomach acid necessary to release B-12 from food that contains it. This is where supplements may be effective, as acid isn’t needed for B-12 absorption from pills. A lack of B-12 can contribute to nervous system disorders like neuropathy, causing pain, numbness and weakness in hands and feet.

This leads to a logical question- why not take just the supplements needed, instead of a multi-vitamin?  For instance, if you suspect you have one of these deficiencies, it’s sensible to get a lab test to determine if a specific deficiency exists. Dr. Stampfer believes that taking a preventive approach that may cover all the bases is better than taking them after damage is done. He add that you may be obtaining other vitamins that are lacking like A and B-6, which are also commonly deficient.

Dr. Stampfer admits that definitive research on multivitamins is scarce, though the one major long-term study done on 14,641 physicians over 14 years did show an 8% reduction in cancer risk, but this may be due to a variety of factors. Many physicians maintain healthy lifestyles which include exercise and a nourishing diet , and it’s hard to separate confounding factors. He maintains that the safety and low cost of multi-vitamins offset the minor risks. The major issue Stampfer sees are that people may pay less attention to the lifestyle modifications that we know improve quality and longevity of life, such as exercise, a healthy diet, and avoidance of smoking and excessive alcohol intake.

Dr. Eliseo Guillar of Johns Hopkins University offers the flip side of multivitamin use. He maintains that there is sparse evidence of their efficacy, which was concluded from a broad review of data from many studies. He sees no consistent evidence of a beneficial effect on cardiovascular disease or cancer, or mortality on individuals who have no known nutritional deficiencies. Dr. Guillar says that a balanced diet is a much more effective way to absorb all the vitamins and minerals that we need. Although having a balanced diet is not always easy, multivitamins are not a panacea for this problem. As for the commonly seen deficiencies in Vitamin B-12 and Vitamin D, he believes that laboratory testing is the only sure way to know whether these deficiencies exist in an individual, and if you have one, you should take supplements to address the specific problem. If you believe that a multivitamin addresses the problem, you may delay getting to a clinician who can address the actual problem thoroughly, delaying proper treatment.

Guillar’s thesis is that energy, time and effort are better spent on encouraging and motivating people to eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, whole grains, legumes and lean proteins like fish and chicken. It’s important to limit processed foods like meats, cheese, salt and sugary snacks and drinks and insure that your food is nutrient-rich. Consistent exercise and maintaining a weight within 5-10 pounds of your ideal weight is key.  Guillar maintains that “Controlling well-established risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels is an effective way for individuals to reduce the risk of disease” .

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There are a few other considerations regarding multivitamin use.  Since there’s little FDA oversight of their manufacture, they may not contain the potency values listed on the bottle. Also, taking a multi-vitamin when unnecessary will just result in expensive urine – excretion of most of what you ingest. It’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor if you begin taking a multivitamin and have a medical condition that would contraindicate its use. Taking more than the stated dosage, or in combination with other vitamins and supplements can also result in unwanted side effects. Too much of certain vitamins may be harmful.

So, what’s the take-away?  If you suspect you have a vitamin deficiency, manifested by excessive fatigue, numbness, muscle weakness, or other noticeable symptoms, you should get lab tests to determine if you actually have one, or if these symptoms are a result of another disorder.  If you do have a vitamin deficiency, a nutritionist or physician can prescribe the right diet or supplements to help your specific condition. If you’ve been taking multivitamins, have no adverse effects, and believe they help you stay strong and healthy, continue, but know that you will excrete whatever is not needed. If you eat a healthy diet, and have none of the above symptoms, you likely do not need to begin taking one. Getting adequate sunlight, eating a diet rich in the foods mentioned earlier, controlling risk factors through regular check-ups with a physician, and last but not least, regular exercise are your best bets for long-term health and longevity.


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What types of exercise benefit your brain the most?

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In this blog, you frequently read about the many ways that exercise benefits your mind and body. But are there certain types of exercise that can cause brain matter to respond more positively than others?  I’ve always advocated cross-training, which is any combination of cardiorespiratory, strength training, stretching or balancing exercises. Cross-training may include running, cycling, dancing, weight training, core strengthening (like pilates), and yoga. A new study has examined the effects of dance on the brain, specifically in the white matter, and the results are promising.

The white matter of the brain include the nerve fibers, called axons, which pass information between our neurons in the brain and spinal cord. As we age, there is a fraying of the brain’s internal wiring, which causes changes in memory and processing speed, among other functions.

The study, conducted by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, took 174 healthy, but mostly sedentary, subjects between the ages of 60-79, and gave them pre- and post-tests of aerobic capacity and cognitive processing speed, measured by MRI. They were then divided into 4 groups and tasked with doing some form of physical activity 3 times a week for one hour. One group did brisk walking, another did brisk walking and took a nutritional supplement (beta-alanine), a third group performed strength, balance and stretching exercises, and the fourth group did country dancing, where they learned choreography set to music. The dance activity combined step sequencing with social interaction, as people switched partners, changed directions, and the group moved themselves into various formations.

For the full article see www.nytimes.com/2017/03/29/well/walk-stretch-or-dance-dancing-may-be-best-for-the-brain.html?

The results yielded some expected, and some unexpected results. Expected changes were that all the participants showed some improvement in the integrity of certain structures in the brain. The unexpected results were that declines were seen over just 6 months in the quality of white matter, but this did not necessarily correlate with cognitive changes. Other unexpected changes were that the dance group showed the most substantial improvements, particularly in one aspect of the white matter, which has to do with processing speed.

The most substantial changes were seen in the fornix, which plays an “important role in the encoding, consolidation, and recall of declarative and episodic memory.” Along with episodic memory (Metzler-Baddeley et al., 2011), it also influences “working memory, motor performance and problem solving (Zahr et al., 2009)”  The full study, complete with the neurological analysis, can be seen at  http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnagi.2017.00059/full. This article also details previous studies that compared the effect of various exercise regimens on brain structure and function.

The take-away is this: people who do less sitting and more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on a consistent basis showed “less negative change in the FA (one measure of structural brain health) providing the first evidence of objectively measured lifestyle activities on change in white matter health.”

More specifically, activities like dance that combine physical, cognitive, and social aspects, seem to have a greater impact on one’s overall mental state. Dance also incorporates sensorimotor aspects, such as audio, visual, vestibular (balance) and kinesthetic (movement); these are based components that together have a mitigating effect on depression and memory loss. If you like to dance, maybe it’s time to incorporate it into your routine. Your brain and booty will thank you for it!


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Why you should care about your posture, and what you can do to improve it

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Gone are the days when the reminder to stand or sit up straight came directly from your teacher or parent. What will take the place of those all important cues to improve your posture and reap the many benefits? In the 1950s and 60s, it was actually part of the school curriculum to practice good posture by walking with shoulders back, head held high, and eyes gazing straight ahead. I wonder how doomed this generation, and the rest of us, who use smartphones and hunch over computers for many hours a day will be when we have to deal with the aftermath of these bad habits.  I see people staring at their devices while crossing busy streets, their heads at right angles to their necks, and worry for both driver and pedestrian. Beyond the dangers of the oblivion that too much attention to devices cause, lie the problems of neck, shoulder and back pain that are a frequent result of these positions.

You’ve all heard that good posture makes you look better, younger, and slimmer (as if that’s not enough motivation) but did you know that it also can improve mood, self-perception and energy? A multitude of experiments have been done that examine how posture affects quality of life. One study out of San Francisco State and Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan concluded that subjects who assumed slouched postures reported a drop in energy levels.  Another experiment looked at the interplay of posture and success at job interviews.  Amy Cuddy, the “power posture” guru, and Northwestern University’s Adam Galinsky and Li Huang, found that the effect of good posture superseded the effect of role, work experience or qualifications when interviewing for jobs. Another positive effect of good posture is that it improves breathing capacity. Pulmonary function is least restricted in the upright posture, and better in standing than sitting. When you lean against a seat back, your low back is in a flexed position, which also reduces lung function.

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Finally, when researchers at Ohio State University and the Autonomous University of Madrid  asked students to write their best and worst attributes while they assumed either a slumped or upright posture, the slouched students rated themselves lower and expressed less confidence than the upright ones. This has interesting implications for which comes first, – reduced confidence, then slouching, or does slouching lead to feelings of less confidence?

Poor posture is caused by the convergence of several factors: tight pectoral (chest) muscles, weakened and overstretched upper back and posterior neck muscles, rounded shoulders and upper back muscles (which causes tightness and weakness), and tight hip flexor muscles.

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But, fear not! Some simple exercises can make a difference in reducing tightness and improving strength in all the right places. All of these are best done standing, except when otherwise indicated.

  • Chest muscle massage – Stretch out tight chest muscles by rolling your shoulders back and down,  make a fist with your right hand and press your knuckles into the pectoral muscle which is just to the right of the your left armpit and to the left of your right armpit. Use a circular motion to find any soreness in that muscle, covering an area of about 4 inches. If you feel soreness in this area, it means your pectoral muscles need the stretch and massage.

  • Shoulder external rotation – Roll your shoulders back and down, try to keep your back neutral position, and move the wrists until your palms face forward  and your thumbs point away from your body. Hold for 5 seconds, release and repeat.

  • Chin tuck – stand up against a wall with hips and shoulders touching the wall, allowing your natural spinal curves to remain in place (low back and back of neck will not touch the wall). With heels 2-3 inches from the wall, lift through the top of your head, while bringing your chin down toward the throat, simultaneously pressing the back of your head against the wall for just a few seconds. If you need to use a pillow for the back of your head so it reaches the wall, do so,  and don’t strain. Limit this exercise to repetitions of 3, and don’t press for too long against the wall, as neck muscles can be delicate.

  • Kneeling hip flexor stretch – Get in a kneeling lunge position, with one knee cushioned on the floor and the other knee bent 90 degrees in front of you with foot flat on the floor. Be sure to lift the crown of your head toward the ceiling and keep your spine long and upright, driving the hip of the kneeling leg forward to achieve the stretch. You can also gently move the back leg further back to intensify the stretch, and repeat several times as needed.

  • Hip hinge- Bend from the hips, placed outstretched arms on a back of a chair to make a 90 degree angle with your body. Make your back as flat as possible, by lifting your tailbone, moving your hips back, and keeping your arms in your shoulder sockets. If you can, remove your arms from the chair, and bring them out to the side, maintaining your flat back. If this is too stressful, do one arm at a time, and lift and lower, squeezing your shoulder blades together as you lift slightly.

One of the primary causes of poor posture is increased use of technology. However, technology also offers some solutions. Below are some technological posture aids to remind you when you’re slouching.

  1.  Lumo lift- This is a small wearable device on which you set your target position. It vibrates gently when you slouch, and can connect to a smartphone via a free app. It can log posture hours, steps taken and calories burned. Check it out at lumobodytech.com .

  2.  The Work Break Timer- Stand Up! – This free app through your smartphone allows you to set alarms that remind you to take breaks throughout the day. Go to the app store and find www.raisedsquare.com/standup .

  3. Alex Posture- Alex hooks onto the ears and rests on the neck at the base of the skull to assess head and neck position. The device vibrates if the head droops out of its optimal position – based on user setting – for longer than 2 minutes. You can also track your progress through the Alex App. Go to alexposture.com .

  4. UPRIGHT – this device attaches to the small of the back to help you train the back muscles to hold proper alignment for extended periods of time. It will also vibrate if you slouch. Check out uprightpose.com .

  5. ZIKTO – Worn on the wrist, ZIKTO walk helps maintain good posture when walking. Through a series of motion sensors, the device analyzes your walking patterns and vibrates gently if the wrist moves out of predetermined alignment parameters. See zikto.com .

The above exercises and tech tools are excerpts from the IDEA fitness journal, April 2017. See http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/30/health/posture-teching-care-of-health-crane/index.html  for some more reading on the subject.

A few caveats of using these postural aids is that even if you use them regularly, it’s best to try to tune in to your body, and be aware of where your own body is in space. Your muscle memory will kick in after you improve your postural habits if you remain conscious of your slouching, and soon, it will become easier to stand and sit up straight.

With help from equipment-free exercises and the above technological aids, you can improve not only posture, but your overall sense of wellbeing. And, just think, wouldn’t your parents be proud!