Harvard Health Blog

Join the discussion with experts from Harvard Health Publications and others like you on a variety of health topics, medical news and views.

Can digital fitness trackers get you moving?

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Study after study has shown that Americans don’t get enough activity. In fact, many of us don’t even get our recommended 10,000 steps a day. Could pedometers or digital fitness trackers help? Pedometers are simple gadgets that measure how many steps you take. Digital fitness trackers also measure the pace, distance, duration, and intensity of your activity, and often have accompanying web applications that can evaluate and even graph this information. In a small study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers gave either a standard pedometer or a Fitbit brand digital fitness tracker to 51 overweight postmenopausal women who had been getting about 33 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity. The pedometer group did not have any significant change to their activity levels. But the fitness tracker group increased their physical activity by an additional 38 minutes per week.

Looking for Autism

Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Statistics show that one out of every 68 children in the United States meets the criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). What these figures don’t show is that early intervention and treatment can make a huge difference in the lives of these children and their families. Routine well-child visits are important to monitor health and growth, but they also provide an opportunity to keep an eye on a child’s development. While most children do not have ASD, and some kids are just “late bloomers,” others may show signs of any number of developmental challenges or delays — all of which benefit from therapies at home or at school. Of course, all children benefit from mindful observation of their development and advice and support from their pediatricians, should concerns arise.

Quitting smoking doesn’t have to mean big weight gain

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Weight gain might be one of the most dreaded “side effects” of quitting smoking. Constant reminders of the health dangers of being overweight lead some smokers to think that smoking is “safer” than the weight they might gain if they quit. But that’s just not the case. It’s true that people tend to gain 5-10 pounds in the first six months after they stop smoking. But a recent study suggested that for those who quit, weight gain slows down over the following 10 years after quitting. Over that same time period, people who continued to smoke also gained some weight, though not as much. Over all, kicking the habit doesn’t have to mean a larger waistline, especially if you plan ahead.

It’s NOT a “pink Viagra”

Hope Ricciotti, Editor in Chief, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Women of all ages have questions and concerns about their sex lives. These issues often come up after having a baby, during perimenopause, and well into later life, too. Women’s sexuality is very complex. Brain chemistry, mood, hormones, and the nature of a woman’s relationship with her sexual partner are all important influences. This week, the FDA approved the drug flibanserin for treatment of low sex drive in premenopausal women. This drug is no “pink Viagra,” and its effect on women’s sexual function may be small, but it may be a step in the right direction simply because it draws attention to the value of a satisfying sex life for women and acknowledges it as a legitimate health concern.

Is treating “low T” really safe and effective?

If you’re a man, you’ve undoubtedly heard that lack of energy or sex drive, trouble concentrating, or feeling down or not quite yourself could be related to low testosterone, or “low T” — and that a little testosterone replacement could have you back on your game. But testosterone replacement is tricky business, and its safety and effectiveness remain controversial. Further, there can be many other causes for the symptoms of “low T.” A thorough evaluation to determine whether low testosterone is really the problem, along with a careful weighing of the potential risks and benefits of testosterone replacement, are essential before considering this drug.

Doctor-rating websites offer helpful but limited advice

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Websites that rate doctors and their practices can offer valuable information, but it’s often incomplete. Narrative reviews, in which patients describe in their own words their experiences with clinicians, are usually the most helpful — but could be even more so if they were collected in a standardized format. What’s more, only 40% of doctor-rating sites list information on how well a provider performs in terms of offering timely appointments and following guidelines for preventive screening tests. If you’re looking for a new clinician, it may be most helpful to ask trusted friends and family members for recommendations.

Want to get enough vitamin D? Try supplements — or sunshine

Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Vitamin D holds promise for many things, like building bone, preventing heart attacks and strokes, reducing cancer risk, and more. But that promise isn’t fully backed by science. For example, a controlled clinical trial published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine found that a vitamin D supplements didn’t build bone in postmenopausal women with blood levels of vitamin D below the threshold generally considered necessary for good health. Many researchers are looking ahead to results from an ongoing trial called VITAL, which aims to gather the kind of solid evidence that will let us know for sure whether taking relatively high doses of vitamin D can ward off heart attack, stroke, or cancer. The results are expected by the end of 2017. It’s also possible to get vitamin D the old-fashioned way: go out in the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. with at least 10% of your skin exposed. Stay out long enough to absorb the sun but not long enough to be burned.

Standing up for better heart health

Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health

Spending less time sitting and more time standing lowers blood sugar, cholesterol, and weight — all of which translates into a lower risk for heart disease. So says a study of Australian adults published in the July 30 issue of the European Heart Journal. Every two hours a day spent sitting was associated with an increase in weight and waist size, as well as in levels of blood sugar and cholesterol. As you might expect, time spent walking rather than sitting not only lowered cholesterol and blood sugar levels, but also reduced waist size and weight. Simply substituting two hours of standing for sitting also improved blood sugar and cholesterol levels. By making slight changes in your lifestyle to incorporate more standing, you could add important health benefits.

Stopping foodborne illness — faster testing, vigilance at home

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

The steady stream of reports about foodborne illness is making many people think twice about their food. Foodborne illness sickens 48 million people annually, sending 128,000 to the hospital and killing 3,000. To improve testing for foodborne illness the FDA sponsors a Food Safety Challenge. Purdue University researchers walked away with the $300,000 grand prize, announced last week, for their new method that would dramatically shorten the time it takes to test for Salmonella, a disease-causing bacteria. While faster ways to detect microbes in food are a step in the right direction, we need to take action at home right now. All fresh foods contain at least low levels of potentially harmful microbes. Handling food properly and cooking it thoroughly can prevent most cases of foodborne illness.

A promising new treatment for high triglycerides

Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

Say “fat in the bloodstream” and most people think of cholesterol. But there’s another type of fat shouldn’t be ignored: triglycerides. High triglycerides can increase the risk of having a heart attack. Existing drugs lower triglycerides, but aren’t that good at preventing heart attacks. That’s why a report on a new way to lower triglycerides, published in today’s New England Journal of Medicine, is generating some excitement among cardiologists. The new approach uses weekly injections of “antisense oligonucleotides,” or ASOs. These are pieces of DNA that short-circuit the liver’s production of triglycerides. The NEJM report shows that ASOs can reduce triglyceride levels by as much as 70%. Keep in mind that this was a phase 2 trial, which is designed to test whether a drug does what it is supposed to do (in this case, lower a person’s triglyceride levels). Larger, longer-term studies will be needed to see whether ASOs actually reduce the risk of heart disease, and what sorts of side effects they cause.