Exercise and Fitness

Howard LeWine, M.D.

94-year-old Master track star an inspiration to all

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

A recent article in Parade magazine caught my eye because it has lessons for us all. The article was about Olga Kotelko, a 94-year-old woman, who is a competitive runner and track star. Her age alone is impressive. The fact that she didn’t enter her first Master’s competition until she was 77—an age when many people are hanging up their sneakers—is amazing. The article offers six lessons that anyone can learn from Ms. Kotelko’s daily life. She can be an inspiration for anyone, at any age, who wants to start exercising or to exercise more. You are never too old or too frail to start exercising. Start out with a safe, easy program. Gradually add more and harder exercise. Who knows where you might end—possibly in an event challenging the likes of Olga Kotelko.

Heidi Godman

Easy exercises for couch potatoes

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

If you have trouble finding the motivation to break away from the television and exercise, try couchersizing—staying on or near your couch and exercising during commercial breaks. Why bother? A growing body of evidence links the amount of time spent sitting to illness and even death. And just minimizing long periods of inactivity, like exercising during commercial breaks, can help reduce the risk of injury and may even help you live longer. You can work many different muscle groups while seated upright on a couch. Want to get your heart rate up, work the oblique muscles on the sides of the abdomen. To whittle your waist, try twisting your torso from side to side for the length of a commercial break. You can even exercise while lying on the couch.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Balance training seems to prevent falls, injuries in seniors

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

Most people take balance for granted. They navigate without thinking, effort, or fear. For millions of others, though, poor balance is a problem. Some struggle with long-term dizziness or imbalance. Others suffer balance-related falls and injuries. A new study concludes that exercise can reduce not only the odds of falling but the odds of sustaining fall-related injuries. In many urban areas, there’s no shortage of classes aimed at improving balance. You can find them at senior centers, Y’s and Jewish Community Centers, health clubs, and the like. There’s also a lot you can do at home. The American College of Sports Medicine Standing recommends standing with one foot in front of another, lifting a foot off the floor, and shifting weight in various directions as three examples of home exercises.

Wellocracy aims to help trackers choose and use health apps and devices

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

There’s something satisfying about getting immediate feedback about exercise, sleep, and other activities. That’s why more and more people are joining the “quantified-self” movement. It involves formal tracking of health and habits, usually using apps and devices that feed data to them—from heart rate, activity, and sleep monitors to Bluetooth connected scales. But with so many apps and connected devices on the market, it can be hard to decide which ones are worth trying. Wellocracy, a website launched by the Harvard-affiliated Center for Connected Health, aims to give people impartial information about fitness trackers, mobile health apps, and other self-help technologies. It reviews dozens of sleep trackers, wearable activity trackers, mobile running apps, and mobile pedometer apps, lets you compare apps and devices in each category, provides a guide for beginners and offers tips for adding activity “bursts” throughout the day.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.

For fans, World Series is a marathon, not a sprint

Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Millions of baseball fans will tune in tonight for the opening game of the World Series. Boston Red Sox versus St. Louis Cardinals. Sportswriters are saying it will be an interesting series between two well-matched teams. Football fans have it easy. They have to sit through just one big game to decide the year’s champion. For us baseball fans, it could take seven games spread over nine days to determine this year’s champion. That means fans need to approach the series as a marathon, not a sprint. Pay attention to sleep, exercise, food, alcohol, and emotions. The Red Sox and Cardinals are two very likable teams. Commentators point out that these guys play the game the “right way.” The players themselves say it’s going to be fun. Let’s see if we fans can remember that baseball is a game. This World Series should be fun to watch. Whoever you’re rooting for, have fun watching.

Overweight and healthy: the concept of metabolically healthy obesity

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Carrying too many pounds is a solid signal of current or future health problems. But not for everyone. Some people who are overweight or obese mange to escape the usual hazards, at least temporarily. This weight subgroup has even earned its own moniker—metabolically healthy obesity. Most people who are overweight or obese show potentially unhealthy changes in metabolism, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and insulin resistance. But some people who are overweight or obese manage to avoid these changes and, at least metabolically, look like individuals with healthy weights. Such individuals have near-normal waist sizes, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, as well as good physical fitness. Metabolically healthy obesity isn’t common. And it may not be permanent.

Daniel DeNoon

Combine brief bouts of moderate exercise for health

Daniel DeNoon, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

No time in your busy schedule for a long workout? No problem. Combining brief bouts (less than 10 minutes long) of moderate to vigorous exercise over the course of the day also add up to good health, an interesting new study suggests. The findings reinforce suggestions that people should look for simple ways to get short bouts of moderate to vigorous exercise: for example, by parking at the far end of the lot and walking briskly to the entrance, by taking the stairs quickly instead of riding the elevator, or by plugging in your earbuds and dancing energetically to a favorite song. If you are a professional working a desk job at a computer, set a timer and every half hour get up and do a minute or two of something energetic.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

New trial muddies the water about diet, exercise, and diabetes

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

Long-awaited results from a nearly 10-year trial exploring the effect of changes in diet and exercise among people with diabetes weren’t what most people expected. The Look AHEAD trial found that intensive efforts to lose weight by eating less and exercising more didn’t provide any more protection against heart disease—a common co-traveler with diabetes—than standard diabetes support and education. The spin from some media reports is that weight loss doesn’t reduce heart disease risk among people with type 2 diabetes, but I think that’s the wrong interpretation. The results of the Look AHEAD trial don’t contradict the value of lifestyle changes. People in the intensive change group improved their blood sugar with fewer drugs, saving an estimated $600 per year, they were also less likely to have developed chronic kidney disease and less self-reported vision problems. The Look AHEAD results reinforce for me that diabetes care needs to be tailored to the individual.

Exercise is good, not bad, for arthritis

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

When pain strikes, it’s human nature to avoid doing things that aggravate it. That’s certainly the case for people with arthritis, many of whom tend to avoid exercise when a hip, knee, ankle or other joint hurts. Although that strategy seems to make sense, it may harm more than help. Taking a walk on most days of the week can actually ease arthritis pain and improve other symptoms. It’s also good for the heart, brain, and every other part of the body. Yet a new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than half of people with arthritis don’t walk at all for exercise, and only 23% meet the current recommendation for activity—walking for at least 150 minutes a week. Walking is good exercise for people with arthritis, but it isn’t the only one. A review of the benefits of exercise for people with osteoarthritis (the most common form of arthritis) found that strength training, water-based exercise, and balance therapy were the most helpful for reducing pain and improving function.

Tai chi improves balance and motor control in Parkinson’s disease

Peter Wayne, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

It isn’t every day that an effective new treatment for some Parkinson’s disease symptoms comes along. Especially one that is safe, causes no adverse side effects, and may also benefit the rest of the body and the mind. That’s why a report in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that tai chi may improve balance and prevent falls among people with Parkinson’s disease is so exciting. This and earlier studies are significant because they suggest that tai chi can be used as an add-on to current physical therapies and medications to ease some of the key problems faced by people with Parkinson’s disease. Since the appearance of the New England Journal of Medicine study, tai chi classes specifically for Parkinson’s disease patients have sprung up across the country, and the benefits of tai chi for Parkinson’s disease have been endorsed by the National Parkinson’s Foundation.