Aging Gracefully Blog

Can You Beat Belly Fat?

November 13th, 2014

If you are frustrated by stubborn belly fat, you're not alone!  It's a common aspect of menopause, affecting not only the way we feel and look in clothing, but also our health risk profile.  So what is the story:  Is there any way we can defeat it?

First, the facts.  In 2012 the International Menopause Society conducted a large review of decades of research and concluded that the hormonal shifts of menopause trigger a redistribution of body fat, causing it to accumulate in the abdomen.  Last year, researchers at the Mayo Clinic compared fat tissue in pre- and postmenopausal women and found that at the cellular level two enzymes that work to store fat were more active in the postmenopausal women, primarily because of the drop in estrogen.

While it's been documented that women gain an average of ten pounds as the metabolism slows down around the time of menopause, studies also show they can lose weight through diet and exercise.  As published in the journal Menopause in 2012, one study randomly assigned 17,000 postmenopausal women to either a control group or one that was put on a healthy diet emphasizing foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  After a year the healthy diet group had fewer hot flashes and was three times as likely to have lost weight.

Another study called the Women's Healthy Lifestyle Project followed 535 premenopausal women as they went through menopause.  About half of them were assigned to follow a low-calorie diet and to burn an extra 1000 to 1500 calories a week through physical activity.  After five years the women in the diet and exercise group saw greater reductions in their waist lines and were more likely to have remained at or below their starting weight.

So the proof is in the pudding!  We can beat belly fat by tightening our belts and increasing our exercise output.  Create a lifestyle routine to cut unnecessary calories, make healthy food choices, rev up your cardio in terms of both volume and intensity, and  lift weights to boost your metabolism.

(A reported by Anahad O'Connor in the Ask Well column of the NewYork Times, 4/1/14)

Strength Training Prevents Lymphedema

October 26th, 2014

It's time to update your thinking about preventing lymphedema, a possible side effect of breast cancer treatments that causes a painful swelling of the arm.  A current study shows that strength training exercises can actually reduce the risk of developing this unwelcome complication, improve symptoms if they develop, and prepare women to return to their normal day-to-day activities.

Traditionally, women have been advised against lifting weights and performing repetitive arm movements like scrubbing, pushing and pulling.  While some women altered their lifestyles out of fear of triggering an episode, many others were not able to abide by the old restrictions because of their normal physical demands such as picking up a child, carrying a laptop, or doing housework.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in August 2009, found that weight lifters had fewer problems because they had better muscle tone and endurance.  The program of progressive weightlifting exercises gradually increased the physical capacity of the affected arm in a controlled setting, making it less likely that daily activities that require upper body strength would overstress the impaired lymphatic system.

In the study, the women worked out twice a week for one year.  In addition to the upper body exercises, they also did a cardiovascular warm up, stretching, and abdominal, back and lower body exercises.  Stretches should focus on the chest and shoulders, since tightness in the pectoral area and decreased shoulder mobility can both interfere with normal lymph drainage.  It is important to restore full range of motion in these areas before starting to strengthen them.

Not surprisingly, at the end of a year the women in the exercise group showed an increase in strength over the control group.  More surprisingly, in that time only nine exercisers had a flare up as opposed to nineteen non-exercisers.  Furthermore, the weight-lifters experienced fewer and less severe symptoms.   Some of the additional stated benefits were improvements in mobility, balance and coordination.

 Safety Guidelines for Strength Training: 

1)         Always check with your doctor before becoming much more physically active than you are now.

2)         If you have lymphedema, talk with your doctor to make sure that your lymphedema is stable (i.e. you haven’t had new problems in the last three months).

3)         Wear a custom-fitted compression sleeve while exercising.

4)         Consult with a certified exercise professional regarding proper weight lifting techniques.

5)         Start slowly and progress gradually. Stop if you have pain, increased swelling or discomfort.

6)         In the event of a flare up, have an evaluation by a lymphedema specialist and wait untilthe flare subsides before resuming lifting. 

Of course, this information should not take the place of guidance from your own physician or other medical professional. 

 

 

 

 

Active Lifestyle Reduces Risk of Breast Cancer

October 12th, 2014

As we become more aware of the role that exercise plays in managing our risk factors for developing breast cancer and/or preventing a recurrence, it becomes apparent that being active is one of the top ways to avoid this disease.

Hundreds of studies show that getting exercise and avoiding weight gain can lower your risk of developing breast cancer.  Most studies see a benefit at 30 minutes of walking a day. One large study by the American Cancer Society study tracked 72,000 postmenopausal women for 5 years and found that the most active women - those who engaged in activities like walking, running, swimming, tennis, biking, aerobics and dancing- had a 29% lower risk of breast cancer than the least active. 

How is exercise protective?  In postmenopausal women, since the ovaries are no longer producing estrogen, the main source of estrogen is fat cells.  Reducing body weight and body fat with exercise decreases the amount of circulating estrogen that could stimulate breast-cell growth.   Being heavy increases your risk by as much as 40%.  One study showed that women who gained more than 20 pounds after age 18 had a higher risk of postmenopausal breast cancer than women who gained no more than 5 pounds.

 If you have been exercising and you do develop breast cancer, you will be better prepared to tolerate the treatments.  It's important to keep a positive mind set for getting through the treatment and think about living a healthy life afterward.  You want to create a positive mental environment for your body where it will be nurtured and thrive.

 

 

Happiness Improves Fitness

September 13th, 2014

The mind-body connection continues to amaze.  New research reveals a connection between happiness and increased fitness in older adults.  A large study of men and women aged 60 and older suggests that enjoyment of life contributes to a healthier and more active old age, as well as to a longer life.

Most of us share goals of remaining independent, keeping mentally sharp and staying as mobile as possible as we age.  Researchers at University College London conducted the study to discover whether a positive outlook is related to reduced physical impairment over a period of eight years.  They collected data on:

  • physical health
  • walking speed and mobility
  • depression
  • enjoyment of life
  • and levels of impairment in daily activities

Their findings showed strong associations between physical function and life enjoyment. Older people who enjoy life are at lower risk of developing problems with daily activities and for declines in physical function. Once again, a positive mental attitude contributes to a healthy body.

The study, as reported in Idea Fitness Journal, May 2014, is available in Canadian Medical Association Journal (2014;doi: 10.1503/cmaj.131155).

For more posts on this topic, please see:

Get Fit Now!  Midlife Fitness Predicts Healthy Old Age

Seven Habits of Highly Resilient People

A Tribute to a Special Woman

 

Burn Calories or Fat to Lose Weight?

August 13th, 2014

Which contributes to greater weight loss:  exercising in the "fat-burning" zone or at a higher level of intensity?  The answer lies in the number of calories burned not in which fuel substrate the body uses for energy.

To burn the most calories, you need to exercise at higher intensities.  For example, you burn more calories running for 30 minutes than walking for the same amount of time.  Running consumes calories from readily available fuel of carbohydrates. Walking at a more leisurely pace utilizes slower-burning fat for fuel; however you are using fewer calories per minute than with more intense exercise.

Higher intensity exercise also offers another benefit for weight loss in that it temporarily suppresses your appetite.  A recent study showed that cyclists who rode stationary bikes hard for 30 minutes consumed far fewer calories afterward than when they rode at a more moderate pace.  They also had lower blood levels of the hormone ghrelin, a known appetite stimulant.

According to other new research high intensity interval raining (HIIT), short bursts of intense exercise alternating with recovery periods, may have the potential to lower abdominal fat by creating a surge in hormones that have been shown to drive fat breakdown, especially deep abdominal fat.

So we can conclude that high intensity exercise contributes to weight loss by burning calories, suppressing appetite and reducing abdominal fat.  If you are a fan of moderate exercise, there are several ways to ramp up your program:

  • Know your heart rate training range which determines how hard you should work for light, moderate and high intensity levels.
  • Intersperse faster paced intervals into your moderate cardio activity.  Allow twice as long to recover from a high intensity interval, i.e. if you sprint for 1 minute, allow two minutes of active rest.
  • Add intervals of cardio activity into your strength training program, so that you keep your heart rate elevated continuously.

For more posts on this topic, please see:

Cardio Tune-Up

The 7-Minute Workout

Have You Got IT?  Maximize the Minutes in Your Workout

 

Exercise for Younger Skin

July 20th, 2014

A new study shows that endurance training can reverse skin aging in people who start exercising later in life.  Volunteers aged 65 or older responded to exercise with skin composition very similar to 20- to 40- year olds.

As we age, changes occur within the layers of our skin.  After age 40, the outer layer of the epidermis begins to thicken, getting drier, denser and flakier.  The layer of skin just beneath begins to thin, losing cells and elasticity, making it appear more translucent and less firm.

As recently reported in the New York Times, researchers at McMaster University in Ontario conducted a study to see whether such changes are inevitable. The surprising results showed that at the start of the study the volunteers, age 65 or older, had normal skin for their age.  However at the end of a three month program of 30 minutes of moderate intensity jogging or cycling twice a week, their skin samples compared to those of much younger people.

In order to understand how exercise causes these changes, the researchers further checked for alterations in levels of substances created by the working muscles.  Called myokines, these substances are known to jump start changes in cells far from the muscles themselves. They found that the volunteers had almost 50 percent more myokines after exercising than at the start of the study.  It's unlikely that any pill, cream or injection will ever compare to the skin benefits of a workout! 

For the complete article, click here.