Thursday, April 30, 2015

Feel Younger by Staying Flexible

 Many of us lose flexibility as we age, which makes us feel even older than we really are. Simple tasks like bending down and tying shoelaces or reaching for a bag in the back seat of the car become harder. Recreational activities grow more daunting as our range of motion and strength decrease. With an increasing fear of injury as we age, many of us shrink away from these health-maintaining activities.

Is losing flexibility with age inevitable? No. In fact, there are elderly people who can still do leg splits and other feats of flexibility that even contortionists would find enviable! While most of us won’t need that degree of flexibility, I think everyone would like to keep moving easily and freely even as the years go on.

Why do some people stay flexible while others get stiffer with time? While some people are naturally more flexible, the key lies in habits. Just like strength, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Flexibility is largely dependent on the stretchiness of your muscles. Like a rubber band, if you use it regularly, it stays pliable. Let it sit around and it becomes stiff, breaking the next time you stretch it. That’s how you end up with an injury.

On the microscopic level, muscles contain bundles of contractile fibers. They slide back and forth, enabling the muscle to stretch and shorten. When used regularly, these fibers slide readily. Through inactivity, these fibers get stuck to each other, reducing the amount the muscle can stretch as a whole. As more fibers get stuck, the less flexible you become. If enough fibers become stuck, you can end up with an immovable contracture.

When we were kids, we moved and played a lot, keeping us flexible. Now that we’re older, studying and working take up more of our time. These often stationary activities leech flexibility from our bodies. Stretching helps recondition our muscles and restore flexibility. But if you’re like most people, stretching a couple times a week at the gym fails to undo the damage from countless hours of inactivity. This exceedingly common experience is why people often think the loss of flexibility with age is unavoidable.

The best way to counter this kind of damage caused by daily inactivity is to stretch every day. Now, this doesn’t mean you need to do deep stretching sessions every day, which may paradoxically reduce your flexibility. Rather, stretch lightly many times throughout the day, focusing on a different body part each time. Each light stretch helps counter the stiffness that has accumulated since the last stretch. If you sit a lot, stretch standing up. If you stand for most of the day, do some floor and squatting stretches.

If you keep forgetting to stretch regularly, try incorporating it into common actions. For example, instead of spinning your office chair around to get the phone, carefully twist and reach to stretch your neck, back, and shoulders. When walking through a doorway, take a second and hold onto both sides of the door frame. Then lean forward to stretch your chest muscles or lean back to stretch your upper back muscles. When you tie your shoelaces or pick up a light object, stretch your hamstrings by bending over slowly with your knees straight or just bent enough to feel a light stretch.

Do these little stretches consistently and remember to push your limits slightly each time. This will gradually improve your flexibility. Before you know it, you’ll be moving better and feeling younger.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Should You Eat Less Carbs and More Fat?

If you’ve been following the health news recently, you’ve undoubtedly seen articles saying that carbs are evil and fats are no longer considered bad for you. They might even cite a study or two that suggests the notion. Considering how tasty fatty foods are, it is understandable for people to want to see these studies as a green light to eat as much fat as they want. Unfortunately, throwing caution to the wind is not wise in this case. To understand why, we’ll have to take a historical look at our diet.

Decades ago, dietary guidelines that encouraged eating more carbohydrates and less fat were published in an attempt to reduce the rate of heart attacks and heart disease. At that time, it was believed we were eating too much fat. As a result, we started to eat more carbs and fewer fat calories. However, this didn’t do much to improve heart disease and seemed to have caused other problems such as obesity and diabetes to grow in size.

Now, current studies show that the high-carb low-fat diet wasn’t such a great idea after all. Their results suggest that we should eat fewer carbs and more fats compared to that diet. But, they don’t show in absolute terms how much more fat and how much less carbs is healthy. They also don’t prove that a low-carb high-fat diet is good for you.

So yes, we should eat fewer carbohydrate calories than before. Yes, we can probably eat more fat than we were told to before. But no, that doesn’t mean we can safely eat as many fat calories as we want.

If you think about it, this shouldn’t be surprising. Considering that our bodies need fats, carbs, and proteins to function normally, it doesn’t make sense to deprive it of any one nutrient. Carbohydrates are not inherently bad for us. They are the easiest nutrient for our bodies to extract energy from. In fact, our brains run almost exclusively on glucose, a carbohydrate, for energy. Similarly, fats are not necessarily bad. They are an excellent way for our bodies to store energy and they also provide many other important functions throughout the body. Proteins serve as building blocks and also as a source of energy.

On the flip side, too much of anything, nutrient or otherwise, is bad for our bodies. The body can only process so much of any substance at a time. Get too much of it and it becomes toxic. Even absolute essentials such as oxygen and water can hurt and kill us if we get too much of either!

We’ve already seen the effects of high-fat and high-carb diets over the long term. Currently, I’m seeing a trend in articles about high-protein diets since people are avoiding carbs and fat. If these high-protein diets become wide-spread for long enough, I wouldn’t be surprised to see future studies showing deleterious effects. At that point, with strikes against carbs, fats and proteins, I wonder what direction the next trend will take. Perhaps then, people will remember that balance is the key to much of life and health.

As for now, the next time you see an article about a health food trend, skip the hype and take a step back. Look at the context from which the recommendation is being made and see if it makes sense. If a study is cited, consider looking at the actual publication and seeing what it actually says. It may be quite different from what articles about the study say.