Exercise and Fitness

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Surprises from science

Many medical studies confirm what we know or suspect. Every once in a while, though, one surprises us, turning “conventional wisdom” on its head. That just happened with the sudden shutdown of a long-running diabetes trial called Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes). Begun in 2001 and scheduled to last another two years, Look AHEAD was designed to see if an intensive diet and weight loss program could reduce the number of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular problems in people with type 2 diabetes. An early peek at the data showed that the program had little apparent effect, and the investigators concluded it would be futile to continue. This does not mean that we should ignore diet and exercise in treating of type 2 diabetes. Instead, the details of the study results, which haven’t yet been published, are likely to reveal other explanations.

Harvey B. Simon, M.D.

Biking and sex—avoid the vicious cycle

Bicycling is a terrific way to get from one place to another. It’s also an excellent form of exercise. Some men and women avoid bicycling, though, because they worry that it may damage their reproductive organs and harm their sexual function. This mainly happens to people who cycle a lot. And it isn’t inevitable. One problem is the design of many bicycle seats, which put pressure on the perineum, a region of the body that runs from the anus to the sex organs. It contains the nerves and arteries that supply the penis in men and the clitoris and labia in women. You don’t have to give up biking to preserve your sexual function. Take a few simple precautions, like picking a wider seat, and shifting your position and taking breaks during long rides. These precautions will ensure that your passion for exercise doesn’t interfere with your passion in the bedroom.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Investing in fitness now pays health dividends later

What would you pay to keep from getting sick as you get older? How about a daily walk or other exercise? A new study suggests that’s exactly the right investment. In the study, people who were the most fit at midlife lived longer and spent less time being sick than middle-aged folks who weren’t fit. There are many benefits to staying physically active and exercising daily. One important effect of exercise that doesn’t get enough attention is that it improves fitness. Fitness is a measure of how well your heart, blood vessels, blood, and lungs work together to supply muscles with oxygen during sustained exercise. How do you improve your fitness? Increase the amount and the intensity of exercise over time. Don’t rush it. Improving fitness starts within weeks but will continue for months.

Stephanie Watson

Try tai chi to improve balance, avoid falls

Compared to the pumping intensity of spin or Zumba, a tai chi class looks like it’s being performed in slow motion. But this exercise program is far more dynamic than it looks. As an aerobic workout, tai chi is roughly the equivalent of a brisk walk. And as a resistance training routine, some studies have found it similar to more vigorous forms of weight training. It is especially useful for improving balance and preventing falls—a major concern for older adults. Tai chi helps improve balance because it targets all the physical components needed to stay upright—leg strength, flexibility, range of motion, and reflexes—all of which tend to decline with age. It also offers an emotional boost to balance by removing the fear of falling that can make some people afraid to exercise.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Diabetes can strike—hard—even when weight is normal

We tend to think of type 2 diabetes as a disease that afflicts people who are overweight. But it can also appear in people with perfectly healthy weights—and be more deadly in them. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that normal-weight people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes have double the risk of dying from heart disease and other causes than overweight people with diabetes. Such apparent “protection” by excess weight has been called the obesity paradox. It’s been seen with other conditions, like heart failure and end-stage kidney disease. That doesn’t mean gaining weight is a healthy strategy. Instead, it probably means that something else besides weight—like the amount of fat around the waist—may be contributing to the onset and severity of type 2 diabetes. These new findings underscore the importance of strength training for everyone, no matter what their weight.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Trade sports drinks for water

Nicely timed for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has published several articles revealing the “truth about sports drinks.” That truth is this: drink when you are thirsty and don’t waste your money or calories on sports drinks—choose water instead. Before the rise of sports drinks, athletes (and the rest of us) drank water when we exercised or got sweaty. How did we know when to drink, or how much? The way humans have known for eons—thirst. But as the BMJ team describes, sports drink makers spent a lot of money sponsoring less-than-rigorous research damning thirst as a guide to hydration and casting doubt on water as the beverage for staying hydrated. The bottom line is that thirst remains an excellent gauge of hydration, and plain old water is still the best way to replace lost fluid.

Reena Pande, M.D.

Yoga may aid stroke recovery

Thanks to medical advances in detecting and treating stroke, the risk of dying from one is now lower than it used to be. Unfortunately, many stroke survivors are left with a disability. In fact, stroke is the leading cause of serious long-term disability in the United States. A new study from Indianapolis suggests that yoga may benefit some stroke survivors. In this study, 47 stroke survivors were divided into three groups. Some took part in a twice weekly group yoga session for eight weeks, and others received standard follow-up but no yoga. There were several benefits in the yoga group, including improved balance, improved quality of life, reduced fear of falling, and better independence with daily activities. Although small, this study adds to findings from other research that yoga may help stroke survivors in several ways.

Stephanie Watson

A sluggish, unsteady walk might signal memory problems

Is there a spring in your step—or a wobble in your walk? The speed and stability of your stride could offer important clues about the state of your brain’s health. According to new research, an unsteady gait is one early warning sign that you might be headed for memory problems down the road. A group of studies reported last week at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver, Canada, revealed a strong link between walking ability and mental function. What’s behind this connection? Walking is a complex task that requires more than just moving the leg muscles. Walking requires scanning the environment for obstacles and safely navigating around them, all while talking and carrying out various other tasks. The studies found that walking rhythm was related to information processing speed; walking variations and speed were associated with executive function (the mental processes we use to plan and organize); and walking speed became significantly slower as mental decline grew more severe.

Heidi Godman

Don’t gauge exercise benefits on weight loss alone

If you start an exercise program, it only seems fair that you should see your hard work reflected in lower numbers on the scale. If it isn’t, don’t despair—or quit exercising. You are still helping your heart, lungs, and every other part of your body. A study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology looked at the effects of exercise and/or weight loss on cardiovascular health among more than 3,000 men and women who were initially overweight. As I write in the July issue of the Harvard Health Letter, those who exercised consistently and lost weight had the biggest reduction in heart attack risk over six years of follow-up. Exercising without losing weight and losing weight without exercising offered smaller benefits. Although exercise and weight don’t always move in the same direction, they are both important for health.

Stephanie Watson

Staying fit linked to lower breast cancer risk

Daily exercise appears to reduce a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, according to a study published online in the journal Cancer. The type or intensity of the exercise didn’t seem to matter, as long as it was done often. How much exercise is needed to lower breast cancer risk? In this study of 3,000 women, 10 to 19 hours a week (about two hours a day) had the greatest benefit. Age didn’t seem to matter—physical activity reduced breast cancer risk in younger women during their reproductive years and older women after menopause. What did make a difference in the effect of exercise was weight gain—especially after menopause. Gaining a significant amount of weight essentially wiped out the benefits of exercise on breast cancer risk in older women.