Personal Health

News you can use, carefully digested and curated.

RECENT POSTS

Mass. Town Considers First-In-The-Nation Ban On All Tobacco Sales

Brian Vincent poses in front of a large display of tobacco products at Vincent's Country Store in Westminster on Nov. 6. Local officials are contemplating what could be a first: a blanket ban on all forms of tobacco and e-cigarettes, leaving some shop owners fuming. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Brian Vincent poses in front of a large display of tobacco products at Vincent’s Country Store in Westminster on Nov. 6. Local officials are contemplating what could be a first: a blanket ban on all forms of tobacco and e-cigarettes, leaving some shop owners fuming. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Updated 5:43 p.m.

BOSTON — A town in north-central Massachusetts is considering banning the sale of all tobacco products — the first such sweeping measure in the country.

The proposal has Westminster businesses up in arms, while the town’s health board says it’s concerned about the effects of smoking and minors having access to tobacco products.

At a public hearing tonight, the board of health will hear comments about the proposed ban. The town’s health agent, Elizabeth Swedberg, was unavailable for comment today.

In its proposal, the Westminster Board of Health outlined the harmful effects of tobacco, including evidence that it leads to cancer and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The board also said that e-cigarettes could normalize smoking behavior and “serve as a gateway” for ex-smokers to begin smoking again. And the board expressed concern about the allure of tobacco products to minors, saying that despite state laws prohibiting sales to youths under the age of 18, the access to tobacco products by minors is “a major public health problem.”

The proposed ban would prohibit the sale of any product containing, made or derived from tobacco or nicotine that is intended for consumption. Should the ban move forward, first-time violators could be fined $300, and have board of health permits suspended or revoked for further violations.

The American Lung Association and the Massachusetts Public Health Association each said they do not have a position on this specific proposal.

Tami Gouveia, the executive director of the advocacy group Tobacco Free Mass, called the Westminster proposal an important approach to protecting public health. She said boards of health in all communities should look at different policies and approaches to keep their residents healthy.

“It’s important for us to be taking a real hard look at that and to continue to find ways to reduce youth use of cigarettes as well as adult use,” Gouveia said. “When we learned that lead was dangerous when people were exposed and when children were exposed, we removed lead from paint and we removed it from gasoline.”

Gouveia also said the Westminster proposal could help those struggling with nicotine addiction and make it easier for them to quit smoking when they realize the store they frequent can no longer sell tobacco products.

Opponents of the ban say it would hurt local businesses by driving customers — and profits — to neighboring communities. Continue reading

Project Louise: With Two Months To Go, Where Are We?

(Andrew Borgen via Flickr)

(Andrew Borgen via Flickr)

Tick, tick, tick. Two months to go before the official end of Project Louise – though of course I’m now seeing that improving my health is a lifelong project. In any case, Coach Allison Rimm suggested it was time for a checkup. With her, not my doctors.

So we got together last week and reviewed my progress toward the goals I originally laid out for the year. Here’s how that went:

Goal: Reach 145 pounds and feel comfortable in size 10-12 clothing.

Status: I’ve lost 15 pounds, putting me at 174. Clearly, since I am not going to do a crazy fasting thing, I will not reach 145 by the end of the year. On the plus side, however, I am now solidly a size 12, rather than the tight-14-oh-help-please-no-I-won’t-buy-16s I was in January.

More important (since, as all women know, clothing sizes are pretty crazy, arbitrary and variable anyway), I truly believe that the 15 pounds I’ve lost this year are gone forever. This is a huge shift from my previous attempts at weight loss, when I would lose 15 or 20 pounds, then bounce right back up again as soon as I stopped “dieting.” Now, I don’t feel as if I’m on a diet every day; I’m just generally making better choices, eating smaller portions of more nutritious foods, and the scale is heading in the right direction. Slowly, slowly, but I’ll take it.

Goal: Eat healthfully at least five days a week.

Status: Generally, yes. I have “bad” foods once in a while – French fries are my weakness – but I find that I don’t crave them as I used to, I don’t eat as much of them when I have them, and I eat them only when I really, really want to. The random office cakes, cheap Halloween candies, and fast-food burgers have lost their power over me. Continue reading

Project Louise: What To Do About Cholesterol?

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

One of my original goals for this project was: “Lower my cholesterol and triglycerides.” I’ve been doing some serious thinking about that lately, along with a bit of research, and I’d like to share the results with you.

The serious thinking started last spring, when I ran across the current controversy about the risks of statins in postmenopausal women.

A growing number of physicians and researchers are arguing that, for some women like me, the risks of taking statins to lower cholesterol may outweigh the potential benefits. And the risks are scary: muscle pain (and, more rarely, permanent muscle damage), kidney and liver issues and – yikes! – increased risk of diabetes. Aside from being my own biggest fear, diabetes also, ironically, increases the risk of heart disease, the very thing statins are meant to prevent.

All this gave me pause, because my doctor had prescribed a statin a while ago, and my argument to the nurse practitioner (whom I actually see more often than the doctor) that I didn’t really want to take it had been met with a firm insistence that I should. Based on my numbers, she said – total cholesterol around 350, with an HDL (“good” cholesterol) of around 60 – there was no question.

So I took it for about a month, but I felt tired and achy – maybe just because of life in general, but the achiness felt worse than usual. So when I saw the new studies, I thought, “You know what? I’m just going to stop.”

And I did, and I felt better. But I’ve been avoiding going back to the nurse practitioner to tell her. All of which strikes me as the behavior of a naughty child, rather than a mature adult.

So, as a mature adult, this week I sought another opinion. My editor, Carey Goldberg, suggested I talk with Dr. Vikas Saini, a cardiovascular specialist and the president of the Lown Institute. He’s known for promoting the cause of “right care,” or “avoiding avoidable care” – that is, for arguing that modern medical practice too often overtreats patients, with frequently expensive and sometimes disastrous results. This seems self-evident to me, though it has been enough to create huge controversy in some circles.

In any case, I called Dr. Saini and talked with him about statins, in both general and personal terms. After noting that statins have become a fairly polarizing issue in the medical community, he asked a few questions about my personal and family history.

Dr. Vikas Saini

Dr. Vikas Saini

I gave him my numbers, which he agreed create a slightly increased risk – on paper, anyway. But when I told him that both my grandmothers had high cholesterol but lived into their 90s (and neither died of heart disease), and that neither of my parents, who also had high cholesterol, died of heart disease, either, he said that this history “makes me very, very suspicious of any attempt to paint your high cholesterol as a risk factor. It doesn’t add up.”

Well, hurrah. So I’m not being stupid to stop taking the statin?

“I don’t think that’s stupid at all,” Saini said. “I personally wouldn’t do much of anything except check your numbers.”

And, of course, keep increasing my commitment to exercise – “at least get it up to three times a week” – and eat your basic Mediterranean diet with plenty of olive oil, and work on stress reduction. All these factors, he noted, clearly help prevent heart disease. Continue reading

Project Louise: The Zombie Workout Adds Strength Training

Louise's new role model: Rob Zombie. Note the muscle tension achieved by the squat.

Louise’s new role model: Rob Zombie. Note the muscle tension achieved by the squat. (Alfred Nitsch via Wikimedia Commons)

Back to the gym at last! I’ve been working out, far too sporadically and half-heartedly, at home, mostly doing my zombie workout on the treadmill. But as the cooler temperatures have been reminding me that year’s (and Project’s) end draws ever nearer, I knew it was time to get serious. And that meant a call to Trainer Rick.

Rick DiScipio is a kind, patient trainer who always manages to push me without making me feel guilty for not having pushed myself. So, even though I’d been neglecting him for months, he happily scheduled a session and walked me through a simple routine. Because he knew I’ve managed to do some cardio on my own, we decided to focus on some very simple strength training.

The key this time is that it’s all something I can do at home – no more using “no time to get to the gym” as my excuse for not doing a real workout. And Rick suggested that I set a small goal for the first couple of weeks. “Just do it twice a week,” he said. “That’s all. Just twice a week. What you need is to develop the habit.”

What I also need, I’m discovering, is a sense of community – a sense that other people are on this journey with me. So here’s my routine. I hope you’ll join in (assuming your doctor wouldn’t object, of course). Just twice a week.

First, a couple of notes. I don’t know about you, but I have torn out pages of suggested workouts from magazines, bookmarked routines online, bought videos, picked up flyers … and never done any of them. So I am deliberately not making this fancy, because I don’t want you to bookmark it or print it out and then never do it.

Instead, I want you to read through it, realize how ridiculously simple it is, and then try it just once. Continue reading

Project Louise: Can You See The Future?

staircase

 

Slowly, slowly, I seem to be getting somewhere. I think. I’m exercising more than I was, I’m definitely eating better, and all this is contributing to a generally improved sense of well-being. On a good day, anyway. But lately more of them seem to be good.

I owe a lot of this to the exercise that I resisted for months – and I’m not talking burpees. It’s the exercise that coach Allison Rimm kept exhorting me to do, and that I finally did at her workshop this summer: creating a vision statement for my life.

I had resisted for a lot of reasons. I didn’t really see what it had to do with losing weight or working out more; it sounded abstract and a little corporate-mission-statement to me, and, I dunno, it just seemed kind of New Age cheesy, you know? More deeply, I think I subconsciously feared laying out exactly what I want my life to look like because then I’d have to examine, and own, the reasons it doesn’t look like that right now.

But I did it, and last week Allison and I finally sat down together to review it, and I have to tell you: It is a really powerful tool for creating lasting change in your life. In fact, the experience of reading it to another person was so powerful that it actually brought me to tears. Continue reading

If You Build A Crew Program For Overweight Kids, They Will Row — And Get Fitter

There was no comfortable place for 17-year-old Alexus Burkett in her school’s typical sports program of soccer and lacrosse and basketball.

“They don’t let heavyset girls in,” she says.

Alexus was “bullied so bad about her weight,” says her mother, Angelica Dyer, “and there was no gym that would take her when she was 14, 15 years old. There was no outlet.”

But Alexus has found a sports home that is helping her bloom as an athlete: an innovative program called “OWL On The Water” that offers rowing on the Charles River specifically for kids with weight issues.

She has lost more than 50 pounds over half a year, but more importantly, says her mother, “They’ve given me my daughter’s smile back.”

Alexus Dwyer during warm-ups before instruction time. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Alexus Burkett stretches during warm-ups before “OWL On The Water” instruction time. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“It’s given me a lot of good strength and it’s making me more outgoing,” Alexus says. “We’re all best friends and we’re all suffering with the same problem — weight loss — so we’re more inspiring each other than we are competing against each other.”

OWL On The Water offers a small solution to a major national problem: According to the latest numbers, 23 million American kids are overweight or obese, and only about one quarter of 12-to-15-year-olds get the recommended one hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Heavier kids are even less likely to be active, and only about one-fifth of obese teens get the exercise they need, the CDC finds.

“I know I need to be active, but please don’t make me play school sports!” That’s what exercise physiologist Sarah Picard often hears from her young clients at the OWL — Optimal Weight for Life — program at Boston Children’s Hospital that sponsors OWL On The Water.

Many gym classes still involve picking teams, “and my patients are the ones that are always picked last,” she says. “You’re the biggest one, you’re the last one, you’re picked last, and you’re uncomfortable.”

They are strong, powerful people.
– Sarah Picard

School fitness testing is important, Picard says, but it, too, can be an ordeal: “I have kids who sit in my office and tell me that they didn’t go to school for a week because they wanted to miss the fitness testing,” she says.

While many a coach might see bigger bodies as poorly suited to typical team sports, Picard sees them as having different strengths. Particularly muscular strength.

“What I’ve observed is that these kids are much better at strength and power-based activities,” she says. And rowing is particularly good for them, she says, because though it is strenuous, it is not weight-bearing, and thus more comfortable for heavier bodies — yet a heavier, strong body can pull an oar much harder than a smaller person’s body. The program begins by building on that muscular strength, she says, and then works on aerobic fitness. Continue reading

Project Louise: Stop Worrying And Learn To Love The Zombie Workout

Yes, I promised that my next post would be an interview with a stress expert. But I cannot deliver that post to you, because finding the right person to talk to has just been too stressful.

I wish I were kidding. And I wish I could say I had done a thoughtful and comprehensive search of all the possibilities. But we know me better than that by now, right? So let’s just keep this brief and move on: I have not succeeded in interviewing a thoughtful, reliable and accessible expert in the field of stress reduction. I’m sure there’s one out there, and as soon as I find him or her I will let you know.

Meanwhile, though, I have returned to my long-neglected trainer, the wonderful Rick DiScipio, and he’s been giving me some great advice about exercise. So let’s look at that, shall we?

Rick’s watchword for today is “HIIT.” You may already know, as I kinda-sorta did, that this stands for “high-intensity interval training.” Basically, it means that you work at maximum intensity for a very brief spurt – as little as 10 seconds, Rick says – then recover for a similarly brief time, then repeat. It’s quite the thing; do a search on YouTube and you’ll get about 557,000 results. Including this one:

Rick recommended that one to me as an example of “training to failure” — that is, working to the point where your muscles are too tired to do even one more rep. “That’s high intensity,” he told me.

“Notice the slow reps, supersets, force reps, and isometric holds at each point of the exercise,” he added in an email. “My thoughts are everyone should train with intensity because intensity = work = results but training needs to be personalized.” That’s important, Rick points out, because your individual health history, injuries, motivation, energy level and goals will help determine what’s most likely to work for you.

Elsewhere in the vast YouTube library, I came across the one at the top of this post. I haven’t made my way all the way through that video yet – it’s a deceptively simple killer, one that Rick points out is similar to the notorious Insanity workout – but I think it’s the very simplicity of the concept, and of the execution here, that makes it so appealing. Knock yourself out, then catch your breath. Knock yourself out again, breathe some more. I’ve been doing an even simpler version of this on my home treadmill, and I’m finding it surprisingly easy. Continue reading

Project Louise: The Dog Ate My Homework

(Girl.In.the.D via Flickr)

(Girl.In.the.D via Flickr)

Hmm, was that me last week, waxing rhapsodic about that great “back to school” feeling? So, here we are, near the end of my kids’ first week back at school, and I have to say: What was I smoking?

Yeah, it’s lovely to get out the pencil cases and pick out the first-day outfit and meet the teachers and see old friends and try to spot new ones. But it’s also a flat-out crazy week of adjusting to new routines, getting back in the groove, filling out more paperwork than anyone should have to deal with in this electronic age and, oh yeah, getting to work more or less on time.

Unsurprisingly, I find all this a bit stressful. (Can I get an amen?) And that’s why it seemed like such a great idea last week to promise that I would interview an expert on stress, and then let you all know all the great things I learned.

Only here’s the thing: I was too stressed out to get it done. Sure, I could tell you that her book didn’t arrive in the mail as quickly as it was supposed to (which it didn’t), and that therefore I didn’t get back in touch with her publisher to set up the interview before the long weekend (which I didn’t), and that then I came up with a backup plan (which I did) to interview someone else (which I didn’t), but essentially that all boils down to the adult equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.”

So, look, I’m sorry, and I promise – I swear – I more than swear, I’ve told my editor! – to have real information on dealing with stress next week. But meanwhile, let’s just talk about stress for a quick minute. I’ve told you some of mine, but here’s a more complete list:

  • Taking care of a teenager and a 6-year-old
  • Working full-time-plus at a job that requires evenings out fairly often, and even the odd weekend
  • Trying to hold the family finances together in spite of some real (and private) challenges
  • Resolving some seemingly intractable problems in a key relationship (also private, so I wouldn’t even mention it but it’s a huge stressor)
(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

  • Learning to navigate this strange new electronic world we all live in – and, for example, figuring out those lines between public and private, to say nothing of taming an email inbox that daily threatens to crash from its own weight; this sounds trivial compared to everything else, but it’s surprising how much angst it causes
  • Wondering how I’m ever going to fix up the “charming,” “needs TLC” old wreck I live in, enough to either be happy in it or put it on the market
  • Fretting about my health, not just the tired old song-and-dance you’ve been hearing about my weight and cholesterol and so forth, but also that funny-looking mole on my back
  • And did I mention the three dogs and the gecko?

Continue reading

Project Louise: Entering The Home Stretch, Time To Press ‘Pause’

pause button

(Maximilian Schonherr via Wikimedia Commons)

Is it just me, or do we never really outgrow that “back to school” feeling? As a new school year looms for my kids, I find myself similarly anticipating a return to seriousness, a settling down, an evaluation of past progress and a recommitment to getting things done.

Plus, we are now entering the final third of Project Louise – and that has me feeling like I’ve got a lot to do in a very short time! Yes, I work best under pressure; yes, nothing motivates me like a deadline; and yes, I tend to put things off until I really don’t have any choice but to do them. But I confess I’m feeling a bit anxious that I have not lost as much weight as I wanted to by now, and that I am going to have a really hard time hitting my end-of-year goal without some kind of drastic action.

But hold on a minute. The one thing I’ve learned this year is that making permanent change is not about drastic action. It’s about nudging, guiding, steering yourself gradually from one course to another – a gentle gliding curve, not a hard yank of the wheel. So, before anyone gets crazy here, let’s take a deep breath.

(That’s another thing I’ve learned. Breathing is good.)

So. Where are we on this path, and where do we need to go? I say “we” deliberately because I’ve already figured out one thing I want to focus more on in the home stretch: I’d really like to know what you’d like to know. What kind of advice and support do you need in order to reach your own health goals?

Over the past months, we’ve explored a bit about diet, a bit about various kinds of exercise from power yoga to cycling, and a fair amount about personal change. But what’s missing from the picture for you? What kind of experts would you like to hear from, and what would you like to learn?

Here’s one idea to get you started. Next week I’ll be talking with an internist who studies the many effects of stress on our health, and I’m hoping to get some good tips on how to manage stress more effectively. If there’s anything you’d like me to ask her, let me know. Continue reading

Project Louise: ‘The Single Best Thing You Can Do For Your Health’

Maybe you’ve seen this video already — it went viral on YouTube a while back. But I hadn’t, until CommonHealth co-host Carey Goldberg encouraged me to. If you also haven’t, I encourage you to watch it right now.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

So, now that you’ve watched it, I can go ahead and talk about it without worrying that I’ll spoil the big reveal for you. Actually, even if you didn’t listen to me and haven’t watched it, I’m not too worried about that, because the huge secret in this video is simply that (last chance to watch before I spoil it for you!) we should all be walking or exercising or in some way moving our bodies about half an hour every day.

We should all be walking or exercising or in some way moving our bodies about half an hour every day.

Not exactly news, right? But for me, anyway, something about the very simplicity of the video’s presentation made me sit up and pay attention in a fresh way. Dr. Mike Evans, the video’s creator, has made it his mission to present preventative-medicine information in as clear and useful a way as possible — and, to my mind, he’s done exactly that here.

The point: We all have 24 hours in a day. Spend 23 and a half of those hours any way you want, but just use the remaining 30 minutes to go for a walk. And the health benefits will be incredible. He’s got charts and stats and everything to prove it. By the end of the presentation, I just couldn’t wait to get up from my desk and go for a walk.

And I’m going to do that in one minute. First, though, I’ll pass along another link to a Dr. Mike insight — this one from a post on his blog. It’s in the form of an infographic, and I’m thinking of blowing it up and putting it on my wall. Again, a simple and obvious point with a powerful potential for lasting change: There is no one big thing we have to do to make ourselves healthier. It’s all about making a lot of little changes, sticking with them, then making more little changes and sticking with those, too.

Little changes like going for a walk.

OK, I’m out of here.