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Now, two new studies uncover the wisdom in that tried-and-true advice. And they find that success may come quicker than most people realize.

In one study, Christian Roberts and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that lifestyle changes helped reverse serious heart disease risk factors in less than one month among 31 obese men they studied. That study was published online Jan. 10 in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

A second report — this time by Stephanie Chiuve and colleagues at Harvard University — found that men who followed five healthy habits had an 87 percent lower risk of getting heart disease than men who ignore these behaviors. The health habits included eating a prudent diet, exercising regularly, controlling weight, not smoking and drinking in moderation.

That study, which tracked more than 51,000 men for over 16 years, was published in the July 3 online edition of the journal Circulation

While both studies were done in men, the findings are expected to apply to women, said Chiuve. She noted that a separate study of women, published about five years ago, found that healthy behavior quickly reduced their risk of heart disease.

Following all five healthy habits is best, she says, but even if you change one or two habits, that’s good, Chiuve said. The most important one to change: smoking.

“Not smoking was associated with the lowest risk for heart disease,” Chiuve said. Next up was maintaining a healthy body weight — that means sticking to a body mass index (BMI) below 25. For reference, a person 5 feet 5 inches tall who weighs 145 pounds has a BMI of 24, for instance. Statistical overweight begins at a BMI over 25.

“The other three [factors] — exercise, eating a healthy diet, drinking in moderation were all equal,” Chiuve said, in terms of reducing heart disease risks.

Some changes can reduce risks particularly quickly, she said. “Within two weeks, eating a healthy diet can reduce blood pressure.”

Roberts’ group found relatively speedy results from healthy changes, too. In his study, he followed men who had recently entered a residential program for improving their health. They ate a high-fiber, low-fat diet, taking in more than 40 grams a day and less than 15 percent of total calories from fat. They also walked for about 60 minutes a day.

After just three weeks of this behavior, about half the men reversed their tendency to type 2 diabetes or a cluster of other heart risk factors — such as elevated blood pressure, insulin levels or high cholesterol — that together are called the metabolic syndrome.

“We measured 15 or 20 different things,” he said. “The lipids [such as cholesterol] tend to change very quickly,” he said.

“Body weight [reduction] has a much longer course,” he said. While many people focus on body weight reduction, thinking it’s the prime factor driving health-related changes, that’s not always so, Roberts said.

“Some people think the body weight [change] causes the cholesterol to drop. It’s not the body weight per se, but many other mechanisms. The cholesterol can drop independent of body weight,” he said.

Simply adding more fiber to the diet and taking out saturated fat, he said, could be beneficial for your lipid profile, as can regular exercise.

“An editorial written in concert with this paper suggests the concept that you have to change for several months is erroneous,” he said.

What is needed, he said, is to consider the changes a new life plan, not a temporary fix.

More information:
For more on heart-healthy lifestyles, visit the American Heart Association.

Stephanie Chiuve, Sc.D., research fellow, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; Christian Roberts, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor, physiological science, University of California, Los Angeles; July 3, 2006, online edition, Circulation; Jan. 10, 2006, online edition, Journal of AppliedOriginally published on Healthday.com

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For millions of overweight, couch-bound Americans, the word “exercise” conjures up visions of hectic aerobics classes, marathon running or hours-long workouts at the gym.

It’s all a bit daunting.

But new research is beginning to change that view. Study after study is showing that small amounts of physical activity — even walking the dog — can boost health in unexpected ways.

“For some people, it’s as simple as parking their car on the far side of the parking lot and walking, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. But the more you do, the better,” said Dr. Gerald Fletcher, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., and a spokesman for the American Heart Association.

More and more, fitness experts and physicians are discovering that exercise, like medicine, works on a dose-response basis — even a little is good, moderate amounts are better, and vigorous exercise provides even more rewards.

Some evidence from the recent literature:

A Duke University study of 133 overweight people found that a moderate fitness regimen involving a brisk one- to two-mile walk, four or five days a week, offered big improvements in cardiovascular health;A similar study, this time from the University of Florida, Gainesville, found that walking just a half-hour a day for five or more days a week greatly boosted the heart health of middle-aged “couch potatoes”;In a Seattle study, an hour per week spent gardening cut cardiac arrest risk by 66 percent; an hour per week spent walking slashed that risk by 73 percent;People suffering from the painful condition peripheral arterial disease (PAD) also reaped real benefits from walking just three times a week, a Northwestern University study found;And a University of Missouri-Columbia study found that even our four-legged friends can help: Researchers found that overweight individuals who walked their dogs each day dropped an average of 14 pounds over the course of a year — beating the results of most weight-loss plans.

Fletcher said it’s important to get into a good exercise routine, preferably engaging in physical activity at the same time of day, each day. “Also, if you try and exercise two or three times a week, but then take a few days off, that’s not as good as doing something most days,” he said.

If walking a mile or two seems tough to visualize, he recommends driving it first in your car — watching the odometer to see just how far a distance it is from your home. “Then, walk to that point each day,” he said. Often, a little bit of exercise feels so good it gradually turns into a little bit more, he said.

“You can get more vigorous as you go,” Fletcher added. “We consider (walking) a 20-minute mile ‘moderate’ exercise. Walking or running that mile in 15 minutes gets into the area of ‘vigorous exercise.’”

Besides helping to shed pounds and bring a healthy elasticity to your step (and arteries), exercise can help clear the mind, too.

“What the studies are showing is that exercise, at least when performed in a group setting, seems to be at least as effective as standard antidepressants in reducing symptoms in patients with major depression,” researcher James Blumenthal, a professor of medical psychology at Duke University in Durham, N.C., toldHealthDay.

Right now, just sitting on the sofa for long stretches is probably giving millions of Americans the blues, Fletcher pointed out. “Only about 25 percent of us exercise properly, and about 20 percent do absolutely nothing. The rest are in the middle — sometimes they do it, sometimes they don’t.”

Before beginning any exercise routine, it’s important to check with your doctor, particularly if you have a history of health problems. Then, once you get clearance, get moving.

The key, Fletcher said, is to start your physical-activity routine with small steps — literally.

“Walk a little, bike,” he said. “Remember, anything you do is better than nothing at all.”Originally published on HealthDay

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