Monthly Archives: September 2016

Should You Know About What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Exercising

hh1There comes a point in almost every fitness lover’s life when they consider throwing in the towel after a workout—both figuratively and literally. Blame it on your looming work deadlines, or the stubborn needle on the scale, or even just plain old boredom.

That’s normal. But here’s why you shouldn’t follow through on the temptation to just quit: There are plenty of benefits to exercise, but they’re not permanent. In fact, many of those hard-earned gains will start to disappear in as little as two weeks, says Farah Hameed, MD, a sports medicine physician with ColumbiaDoctors.

Here’s exactly what you can expect to happen to your body if you give up exercise:

Within 10 days: Your brain might start to change

For years, researchers have suspected that exercise is good for your brain, too—according to one 2013 review, it might be able to help offset age-related memory loss. Now, a new study in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that even a short vacation from your workout might cause changes to the brain.

In the study, when a group of long-term endurance runners took a 10-day exercise hiatus, their subsequent MRIs showed a reduction in blood flow to the hippocampus, the part of the brain that’s associated with memory and emotion. The researchers point out that although the runners didn’t experience any cognitive changes over the period, more long-term studies are needed.

Within two weeks: Your endurance will plummet and your vitals may spike

After just 14 days, you might have a harder time climbing a flight of stairs or keeping up with your colleagues during the monthly kickball game. The reason you’re so winded? Skipping sweat sessions causes a drop in your VO2 max, or the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use. It can dip by about 10% after two weeks, says Dr. Hameed. It only gets worse from there: After four weeks, your VO2 max can drop by about 15%, and after three months, it can fall about 20%—“and those are conservative estimates,” Dr. Hameed notes.

Staying even slightly active can help: One 2009 study found that male kayakers who took a five-week break from their training saw an 11.3% drop on average in their VO2 max, while those who worked in a handful of exercise sessions during each week only saw a 5.6% drop.

Even if you don’t notice a change in your speed or strength, you might experience a sharp rise in your blood pressure and blood glucose levels—something that could be more serious for people with diabetes or high blood pressure, says Dr. Hameed.

Researchers from South Africa found that a two-week exercise break was enough to offset the blood pressure benefits of two weeks of high-intensity interval training; another 2015 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that people who did an eight-month bout of resistance and aerobic exercise saw an improvement in the blood glucose levels, but lost almost half of these benefits after 14 days of inactivity.

Within four weeks: Your strength will start slipping

Dr. Hameed estimates that some people will notice their strength declining after about two weeks of inactivity, while others will begin to see a difference after about four weeks. The silver lining: Our strength probably diminishes at a slower rate than our endurance, and one 2011 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that when one group of men stopped doing resistance training, they still had some of their strength gains up to 24 weeks later.

Within eight weeks: You might gain fat

Dr. Hameed estimates that people will start to notice a physical change—either by looking in the mirror, or at the number on the scale—after about six weeks. Even elite athletes aren’t immune to the rebound. A 2012 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that competitive swimmers who took a five-week break from their training experienced a 12% increase in their levels of body fat, and saw a boost in their body weight and waist circumference. (We should also point out that these athletes weren’t totally sedentary—they still did some light and moderate exercise.) And a 2016 study found that elite Taekwondo athletes who took an eight-week hiatus from exercise experienced an increase in their levels of body fat and a decrease in muscle mass, too.

That said, there’s a difference between breaking up with exercise for good and taking a well-intentioned rest. The distinction: “You need to do some type of activity [every day],” says Dr. Hameed. For example, maybe you just ran the Chicago Marathon and can’t run another 16 miles, let alone 26—in that case, says Dr. Hameed, you should do some cross-training. (Think: cycling, using the elliptical, or even light walking.) Just don’t quit moving altogether—your body, brain, and waistline will thank you.

Tips to Make Yourself Poop Before a Run

There’s a reason porta potty lines rope around the block at running events: Most runners want to empty out their system before going out and running miles upon miles.

It’s a valid concern—not being able to go to the bathroom before a race means you may get hit with the urge mid-run, and in turn, cramps and gas or a need to pause mid-race and make a bathroom pit stop.

“The vertical movement of running causes things to move through the colon, so not going to the bathroom before a long run or race may increase the chances of feeling something you don’t want to feel while you run,” says Jason Karp, PhD, a running coach and the owner of Run-Fit.

Fear not: We polled the experts on exactly what to do to get your bowels moving first thing (plus what not to do).

Do drink coffee

Hollis Lotharius, a coach at Mile High Run Club in New York City, swears by a cup of Joe to help prompt a bathroom run.

“I am one who likes to run ‘light,’” she says. “I have found that a strong cup of coffee is the best way to dump, pun intended, extra weight prior to stepping out the door.”

And it works, says Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, Health’s contributing medical editor and a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Caffeine is what we call a cathartic,” she explains. “It stimulates the colon to contract and works as a laxative for many people.”

For the non-coffee drinkers, Lotharius has tried and tested a healthy (and yummy) alternative that works for her. “Combine 1 to 2 tablespoons of coconut oil, 1 teaspoon of honey, juice from one fresh lemon, and some grated raw ginger in a mug of hot water,” she says.

Do give yourself plenty of time

“The problem is typically more about not having the time to go before the race start—because of long lines at the porta potties or getting to the race late—rather than not being able to go,” says Karp.

Unfortunately there’s no exact science to how long your body needs before being “ready” to have a bowel movement, Dr. Raj says. “But waking up extra early allows you to have enough time for the crucial steps of eating, having coffee, et cetera.”

Lotharius agrees: “I set my alarm clock an hour early,” she says. “I honestly believe that the one hour less of sleep is far better than the alternative.”

Do eat breakfast

Most people feel an urge to go to the bathroom after eating something, Dr. Raj says. “There is something cause the gastrocolic reflex,” she explains. “When you eat and the food moves into your stomach, there’s a reflex that stimulates your colon to contract a bit.”

The reflex may be more pronounced for some people than others, she adds, but having a bite first thing in the morning is a promising way to get things moving.

Don’t park it on the toilet

It may be tempting to coax your body into going by sitting on the John for a while. But kicking back with a newspaper and waiting it out can end up doing more harm than good, Dr. Raj warns.

“First of all, if you’re sitting for a long time, that suggests that you’re not going naturally and you may be straining or pushing for a lot of that time,” she says. “Also, sitting in that position puts pressure on the veins within the anal area, which is what causes hemorrhoids.”

Instead, move about, eat breakfast, have your coffee and wait for the urge to set in. Then sit down for just a few minutes so that the bowel movement comes on its own.

Do fill up on fiber

Upping the fiber in your diet can help keep you regular and prevent constipation, Dr. Raj says (a smart move whether you’ve got a race looming or not).

Insoluble fiber is the matter in foods that doesn’t get broken down by the gut and absorbed by the bloodstream. It adds bulk to stool in the digestive system, which helps keep it passing through smoothly and frequently.

Increase your fiber intake far in advance of your race so that your body has time to get used to a higher intake if you normally don’t get enough (adults should aim to get between 21 and 38 grams of fiber per day, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine). Try adding one serving a week; eating lots of fiber in a short period of time can cause your GI tract to protest in the form of gas or cramping, issues you don’t want to deal with during a race.

Find insoluble fiber in whole grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Prunes are particularly rich in fiber, with roughly 1 gram per prune. A heads up: Prunes also contain fructans and sorbitol, which are fermentable sugars that can have a laxative effect, so you’ll want to see how your body reacts at a time other than right before a race.

Don’t try a laxative

…even if the label says something promising, like “gentle overnight relief.”

“Laxatives can end up having a painful effect, or they may work so strongly that you’re going for several hours or even the whole next day as opposed to the one, or maybe two, bowel movements that you were hoping for,” Dr. Raj says. “Especially if your body has never seen it before, it may have a super-strong reaction.”

The same goes for smooth-move teas, Dr. Raj adds, which can cause uncomfortable cramping or abdominal pain for some people.

Do warm up

“Typically the more active you are, the more regular you’ll be,” Dr. Raj says. “And physical activity tends to bring more activity to the colon as well.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean doing 20 jumping jacks in your living room will suddenly spur the need to go number-two, she says. But stretching out, doing a dynamic warm up, and getting your body up and moving may be worth a shot.

Don’t stress about it

Constipation can sometimes stem from stress and anxiety, Dr. Raj warns. “So sitting there worrying about whether or not you’ll be able to clear your system while the clock is ticking can definitely block you from going,” Dr. Raj says. Focus on getting your head in the game for your run, maybe try some deep breathing exercises, to take your mind off of your GI concerns.

And if your corral is creeping toward the start line and your poop is still a no show? That doesn’t mean your run is doomed. “I don’t really know why physiologically it would be such a big problem to not have emptied your bowels before a race,” Dr. Raj says. “It’s sort of like giving birth; women are always freaking out that they’re going to need to have a bowel movement midway through. But it rarely happens, even though people are so paranoid about it.”

Karp says the bummer is when you do get a strong urge to go in the middle of a race. “Having that feeling affects you physically and psychologically,” he says, be it in the form of cramps that you need to walk off or as extra stress on your mind about whether you’ll be able to finish without needing to stop for the bathroom.

But if you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go—and tacking on an extra minute to your time is better than having an accident or running in discomfort the whole way. “Don’t overthink it,” Dr. Raj says.

Do practice in advance

Curious about sipping prune juice the night before? Planning to add extra beans and spinach to your dinner plate to wake up and “go”? Take any poop-related tricks for a trial run (literally) weeks in advance, Dr. Raj suggests. You don’t want any surprises about how your body reacts to these changes on race day.

The bottom line: “Give yourself some peaceful time in the morning, and start any new poop-related habits far in advance so that your body has time to adjust and get in sync,” she says.

Some Reason to Work Up a Sweat

Exercise does more than just tone muscle and burn calories in the moment: New research shows that a hormone released during exercise actually helps the body shed fat and keep it off.

The hormone, called irisin, has been shown to play a role in transforming energy-storing white fat cells into energy-burning brown fat cells—a process scientists call “browning.” Now, University of Florida scientists say that irisinhelps inhibit the formation of new fatty tissue, as well.

These findings highlight a new and additional benefit of physical activity, said co-author Li-Jun Yang, MD, a professor of hematopathology in the University of Florida College of Medicine, in a press release, because irisin levels are believed to surge when the heart and other muscles are exerted. (In addition to exercise, studies show that shivering can trigger irisin production, as well.)

To examine the effect of irisin on human fat tissue, the researchers collected fat cells donated by 28 women who’d had breast reduction surgery. In their lab, they exposed some of the samples to the hormone and watched for changes in cell activation and gene expression.

As predicted, they found a nearly fivefold increase in activity among cells that contained a fat-burning protein known as UCP1. “We used human fat tissue cultures to prove that irisin has a positive effect by turning white fat into brown fat and that it increases the body’s fat-burning ability,” Dr. Yang said.

But they made another discovery, as well: After 18 days, the fat tissue samples that were exposed toirisin had a 20 to 60 percent reduction of mature fat cells, compared to a control group. This suggests that irisin actually hinders the process that turns undifferentiated stem cells into fat cells, the authors wrote, and pushes them toward becoming bone-forming cells instead.

The study, published recently in the American Journal of Physiology—Endocrinology and Metabolism, is believed to be the first of its kind to investigate how irisin affects human fat cells. Previous research on animals has suggested that it can improve heart function, boost calcium levels in the body, and reduce plaque buildup in arteries. Next, Dr. Yang and her colleagues hope to study the hormone’s effect on dangerous abdominal fat.

Findings about irisin’s role in regulating fat cells shed some light on a complex issue that scientists still don’t fully understand: how exercise helps people not only slim down, but also stay slim.

“Irisin can do a lot of things,” said Dr. Yang. “This is another piece of evidence about the mechanisms that prevent fat buildup and promote the development of strong bones when you exercise.”

It’s possible that irisin’s benefits could be used to develop weight-loss medications, Dr. Yang said, or even treatments or preventatives for diabetes and osteoporosis. But that likely won’t happen anytime soon; more studies are needed, and it can take years for a new pharmaceutical to be conceived, tested, and approved for sale.

For now, her message is simple: “Instead of waiting for a miracle drug, you can help yourself by changing your lifestyle,” she said. “Exercise produces more irisin, which has many beneficial effects including fat reduction, stronger bones and better cardiovascular health.”

How To Make Your Sleep Will Seriously Suffer

How glued are you to the main screen in your life? Very, if you’re like most of us; survey data suggests that Americans collectively check their phones 8 billion times each day.

All of that smartphone screen time is likely taking a toll on our sleep, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE. People who used their phones more, especially around bedtime, got less and worse sleep than their peers.

That’s concerning, says Dr. Gregory Marcus, one of the study’s authors and director of clinical research for the division of cardiology at University of California, San Francisco. “There’s growing evidence that poor sleep quality is not simply associated with difficulty concentrating and being in a bad mood the next day,” he says, “but may be a really important risk factor to multiple diseases.”

For the 30-day study, 653 adults all across the country downloaded an app that ran in the background of their phones and monitored screen time. The people in the study recorded how long and how well they slept, following standardized sleep scales.

People interacted with their phones about 3.7 minutes per hour, and longer screen activation seemed to come at a detriment. “We found that overall, those who had more smartphone use tended to have reduced quality sleep,” Marcus says.

The study doesn’t prove that using screens more causes worse sleep. (In fact, it might be the other way around: “We can’t exclude the possibility that people who just can’t get to sleep for some unrelated reason happen to fill that time by using their smartphone,” Marcus says.) But other research supports the idea that screens work against slumber. Some data suggests that the blue light your phone emits suppresses melatonin, a hormone that helps the human body maintain healthy circadian rhythms. “We also know that emotional upset, or just being stimulated apart from smartphone use, can adversely affect sleep quality, and that engaging with Twitter or Facebook or email can cause that sort of stimulation,” Marcus says.

Reactions to extended screen time might vary from person to person. But if you have difficulty falling asleep or getting good sleep, look to your smartphone, Marcus says. “Because sleep quality is so important, I think it’s useful for individuals to take these data and at least give avoidance of their smartphones an hour or so before they go to bed a try to see if it helps.”

Three Things Should Doing For Alzheimer’s

Eating a healthy diet, getting regular physical activity, and maintaining a normal weight appear to reduce protein buildups in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study published in the September issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

These lifestyle factors are already recommended for safeguarding against dementia, and have previously been shown to reduce shrinkage and atrophy of the brain. But this is the first study to demonstrate how they can directly influence abnormal protein growth in people who have subtle memory loss, researchers say.

This is significant, the study authors wrote in their paper, because it’s been estimated that up to half of Alzheimer’s cases can be attributed to modifiable risk factors such as low education, smoking, physical inactivity, and obesity. Even a 10 to 25 percent reduction in these risks could potentially prevent nearly 500,000 cases in the United States.

The study included 44 adults, ages 40 to 85, who’d been experiencing mild memory problems but had not been diagnosed with dementia. They provided information about their diet, exercise levels, body mass index (BMI), and other lifestyle factors. Then they were given a PET scan—a type of brain imaging test—to measure different levels of protein in their brain.

The researchers were looking for two specific types of protein: deposits of beta-amyloid plaque and knotted threads of tau protein tangles. Both types are considered key indicators of the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Although the study could not prove a cause-and-effect relationship, it did find “moderate but significant” differences between participants with healthy lifestyles and people without. Specifically, people who got plenty of physical activity and had a normal BMI had fewer plaque deposits and tangles than those who got less exercise and had higher BMIs. The same went for those who followed a healthy diet—in this case, the Mediterranean diet—versus those who didn’t.

“The fact that we could detect this influence of lifestyle at a molecular level before the beginning of serious memory problems surprised us,” says lead author David Merrill, M.D., Ph.D., assistant clinical professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

Merrell says that doctors have long appreciated the fact that exercise and diet can improve muscle and heart function. But there seem to be additional effects they’re just starting to understand: “Some older patients of mine report similar benefits for their sharpness and memory on days when they go for a long walk or eat fish like salmon,” he says.

The new study reinforces the idea that habits that are good for the body are also good for the brain, says Merrill—and that they seem to have an impact on abnormal protein buildup “for years, if not decades, prior to the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.”

In their paper, the authors also suggest that improving more than one of these lifestyle factors may lower Alzheimer’s disease risk more than focusing on any one factor alone. Luckily, they point out, eating healthier, getting more exercise, and losing weight often go hand-in-hand.

Merrell says it’s never too early, or too late, to adopt healthier habits—a belief he puts into practice when treating patients at UCLA. “We try to meet all patients and family members where they are,” he says, “recommending a guided increase in physical activity along with greater adherence to a Mediterranean style diet.” This helps to improve both their physical and mental health over time, he adds, no matter where they started.