Why To Exercise Today: It May Make Bullied Adolescents Feel Less Suicidal

How much better can exercise make you feel?

A new study suggests that the mood boost may be profound.

The nitty gritty of the study is that researchers at the University of Vermont report a 23 percent reduction in both suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts among bullied students who exercise four or more days a week. The analysis of national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that across the board, frequent exercise was associated with improved mood for adolescents, both bullied and not.

It’s important to note that the study shows an association only between exercise and improved mental health. Still, lead author Jeremy Sibold, an associate professor at the University of Vermont, and chairman of its Department of Rehabilitation and Movement Science, says this is an important first step. It…”shows a critical relationship between exercise and mental health in bullied adolescents,” he says. “These data do not prove that exercise will reduce sadness or suicidality, but certainly support more research in this area.”

(Nick Tonkin/Flickr)

(Nick Tonkin/Flickr)

The study, published online in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, concludes:

Physical activity is inversely related to sadness and suicidality in adolescents, highlighting the relationship between physical activity and mental health in children, and potentially implicating physical activity as a salient option in the response to bullying in schools.

An accompanying editorial, by Dr. Bradley D. Stein and Tamara Dubowitz of The Rand Corporation in Pittsburgh, says,

“…the evolving literature suggests that physical activity interventions appear to be potentially promising as preventive interventions for some children and adolescents at risk for developing mental health disorders and for augmenting more traditional interventions for children and adolescents being treated for depressive and anxiety disorders and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

The “side effects” of such physical activity interventions are likely to be more positive for many children than those of many other therapeutic interventions and potentially less costly…”

I asked Sibold a few questions about the study. Here, via email, are his answers:

RZ: What’s the biggest surprise in the findings?

JS: We were not surprised really that exercise was associated with less sadness, etc., as exercise has been widely reported to have robust positive effects on a range of mental health markers.

However, our statistics were quite rigorous, and to see the positive associations extend to victims of bullying, including those who report suicidal behavior, was certainly a pleasant surprise and a first in the field we believe. It is also quite concerning that 25 percent of students overall report being bullied in the last year. This is a concern we cannot ignore in our schools. Continue reading

Why To Do Yoga Today: Some Relief For Arthritis Sufferers

Santa Catalina School/Flickr

Santa Catalina School/Flickr

A relative in her 90s recently mentioned she does “floor yoga” at the local YMCA. When I asked what that was, she replied: “We stay on the floor and don’t stand up.” Hey, whatever works.

Yoga is inescapable: A 2012 estimate puts the number of people who practice yoga in the U.S. at 1 in 10 adults or about 20 million people. But these are mostly fit women in snug, stylish pants. What about people who have a lot more trouble moving?

A recent report by researchers at Johns Hopkins found that yoga may benefit the not-so-fit as well: a randomized trial of 75 adults (mostly white, educated women) afflicted with two common forms of arthritis found yoga can be both safe and effective for improving pain, energy, mood and for carrying out daily activities. This is not trivial. While exercise has been found to greatly improve some of the symptoms on arthritis, the leading cause of disability affecting 1 in 5 adults, many sufferers aren’t exercising. From the study, published in the Journal of Rheumatology: “…despite the well-known benefits of physical activity, up to 44% of people with arthritis report no leisure time physical activity and 76% are inadequately active.”

Researchers report improvements after just 8 weeks. From the news release:

Compared with the control group, those doing yoga reported a 20% improvement in pain, energy levels, mood and physical function, including their ability to complete physical tasks at work and home. Walking speed also improved to a smaller extent, though there was little difference between the groups in tests of balance and upper body strength. Improvements in those who completed yoga was still apparent nine months later.

There here is one big caveat: 24% of participants dropped out of yoga, but, as the researchers note, “persistence was still higher than in many exercise programs, with most attending the majority of classes.”

I asked study author Dr. Susan Bartlett, an associate professor in the department of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and McGill University Health Centre, what she would tell patients with arthritis who are currently sedentary about how to approach yoga. Here’s what she wrote:

I would tell them that physical activity is important for everyone, but especially important for people with arthritis, who tend to be less active than the average American.

Often people with arthritis worry that they will aggravate their joints and be in worse pain as a result of being active.  While it is true that certain types of activity (anything percussive like jogging, tennis, skiing) are probably not advisable, keeping muscles moving and joints limber is very important. We’re learning how dangerous under-activity can be (emerging evidence suggests that a sedentary lifestyle is as problematic to health as smoking).

Results of our study suggest that yoga appears to be a safe and effective option for adults who wish to become more active. Further, many people who don’t enjoy traditional activity find that they really enjoy yoga. Yoga is a mind body activity, and while almost all forms of physical activity are associated with both mental and physical health benefits, yoga in particular helps with stress reduction, mood, learning to listen to and respect what your body is capable of doing today. Continue reading

Boston Moms: Let’s Spend Olympics Savings On Gym And Recess For Kids

(Steven Depolo/Flickr)

(Steven Depolo/Flickr)

By Kate Lowenstein
 and Ramika Smith
Guest contributors

We have a suggestion for how to spend some of the billions of dollars that Boston will likely save by not hosting the Olympics: How about we invest even 1 percent of that into the bodies and brains of our children by ensuring they get ample physical education and recess time?

Instead of spending billions to have elite adult athletes playing sports in our city, we can at least give our own Boston Public Schools kids the chance to run and play here.

Most parents of kids in the city’s public schools assume their children get recess every day, as we did when we were kids, but the reality turns out to be quite different. While the CDC recommends that all children get at least 60 minutes of vigorous exercise every day, and at least 30 minutes of school-time physical activity, many of our schools allow for as little as 20 minutes, if that.

Over the past two decades, accelerated by No Child Left Behind’s focus on testing, the tendency has been to reduce or eliminate physical education and recess. And our school administrators and legislators look the other way without recognizing the overwhelming amount of evidence that shows the significant academic and mental health benefits of these physical activity breaks.

Recess and physical education are as integral to a long school day as are Math, Science, and English.

In January of 2009, the journal Pediatrics published a groundbreaking study of 11,000 third-graders, comparing those who had little or no daily recess with those that had more than 15 minutes of recess per day. The findings show that children who have more recess time behave better in the classroom and are likelier to learn more.

In January of this year, The Boston Foundation released a report: “Active Bodies, Active Minds: A Case Study on Physical Activity and Academic Success in Lawrence, Massachusetts.” The report found that only 15 to 20 percent of Massachusetts children are meeting the 60-minute daily recommendation for physical activity and only 10.2 percent were meeting the school-time recommendation of 30 minutes.

It also underscored what we already know from many other studies; that children in schools that provide an adequate amount of time and opportunity (and encouragement) for daily physical activity, in the form of recess, gym classes and movement breaks, have higher MCAS scores in both math and ELA. Continue reading

Roxbury Center Targets Health Disparities In Boston’s Poorest Neighborhoods

Whittier Street Health Center opened its community vegetable garden on June 24. (Courtesy of Chris Aduama)

Whittier Street Health Center opened its community vegetable garden on June 24. (Courtesy of Chris Aduama)

By Marina Renton
CommonHealth Intern

When it comes to health in Boston, it’s hard to deny there’s a great divide across neighborhoods.

Need proof? A 2013 Boston Public Health Commission report found that, from 2000 to 2009, the average life expectancy for Boston residents was 77.9 years. But in the Back Bay, it was higher — 83.7 years — compared to Roxbury, where the average life expectancy was 74.

If you want to get even more local, you can analyze the same data by census tract, where life expectancy varies by as many as 33 years: 91.9 years in the Back Bay area between Massachusetts Avenue and Arlington Street, and 58.9 years in Roxbury, between Mass. Ave. and Dudley Street and Shawmut Avenue and Albany Street. That’s according to a 2012 report from the Center on Human Needs at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

The Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury is trying to tackle the disparities in a very concrete way. With the launch of a new fitness club and community garden, the center is trying to make healthy food and exercise opportunities available and affordable to all, despite geography.

“What we’re trying to do is to remove those social determinants and barriers that are causing these [health] disparities,” said Frederica Williams, president and CEO of the health center.

‘If I Sweat, I’m Doing Something Right’

The fitness club and garden initiatives just launched June 27, but the Whittier Health and Wellness Institute is already drawing in community members.

Eight months ago, Wanda Elliott weighed 256 pounds. On a visit to her Whittier Street physician, she learned her blood pressure was high — high enough that she had to start taking medication. That was the wake-up call that motivated her to change her diet and start exercising.

“I was dragging,” she said.

Elliott began exercising at a local Y but joined the Whittier Street fitness club when it opened. In eight months, she has lost 52 pounds, leaving her 4 pounds shy of her 200 pound goal weight.

“I have two knee replacements, so I have to keep active every day,” she said. Trainers at the center helped her learn to use the exercise machines, and now it feels like a routine, she said.

“I feel addicted to working out. I feel like if I sweat, I’m doing something right,” she said. “From 256 to 204, I feel like a model. I can walk the runway; that’s how energized I feel now.”

Elliott is now off her blood pressure medication. She is working on making changes to her diet “slowly but surely,” drinking more water, eating more salad, and cutting back on red meat. Continue reading

Study: Jolt Of Java Before Exercise Makes Legs Stronger But Not Arms

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

By Marina Renton
CommonHealth intern

Wondering whether you should forgo your Starbucks run in favor of a cross-country run before work? According to a study just out in the June issue of the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, no need to give up your morning cup (or two) of coffee for a trip to the gym. In fact, the caffeine could enhance your performance — particularly your legwork.

The study is titled “Caffeine’s Ergogenic Effects on Cycling: Neuromuscular and Perceptual Factors.” (Vocabulary note: “Ergogenic” means “enhancing physical performance.”) It consisted of two experiments in which young adults consumed caffeine — equivalent to between two and three cups of coffee — and then cycled using their legs and arms.

The researchers found that caffeine improved leg muscle performance but not arm muscle performance, and it decreased sensations of pain and perceived effort in both legs and arms when the exercise was at a moderate intensity level.

The takeaway? Barring any special circumstances — like being adversely affected by caffeine or having heart trouble — you needn’t hesitate to caffeinate before you exercise.

I spoke with Christopher Black, assistant professor of Health and Exercise Science at the University of Oklahoma and lead author of the study. Our conversation, lightly edited:

Could you summarize the study’s results?

There are multiple parts to the study but, in general, here’s what we found: Consumption of a 5-milligram-per-kilogram body weight dose of caffeine — which is the equivalent of maybe two to three cups of coffee depending upon how much you weigh and what kind of coffee it is — improves cycling performance if you ride the bike with your legs. But, that same dose does not improve cycling performance if you ride the bike with your arms. And that’s the big, real-world performance measure of things.

We ascribe that difference of effect to the fact that caffeine improved people’s strength in their legs but not in their arms. And it improved that strength by allowing them to turn on more of their muscle.

In what form were people given the caffeine? Continue reading

Is There A Lesson About Treadmills In Sandberg Spouse Death? Yes: Keep Exercising



In this 2013 file photo, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and her husband David Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, walk to a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

In this 2013 file photo, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and her husband David Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, walk to a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

The subject line of an email I got last night didn’t mince words: “Exercise can kill you.”

Not exactly the conclusion I’d draw from the tragic death of Sheryl Sandberg’s husband, Dave Goldberg, who is reported to have died of head trauma and blood loss after falling off a treadmill while on vacation in Mexico.

Not surprisingly, the flukish, apparently accidental death of a high-profile spouse led to predictable follow-up stories on the dangers of exercising on treadmills.

From Quartz, under the headline, “After Dave Goldberg’s tragic death, it’s worth a reminder: Treadmills are dangerous:”

Treadmills are notorious for causing accidents—occasionally fatal ones. The machines’ powerful motors and fast-moving belts can punish any momentary loss of balance with bruises, sprains, broken bones, friction burns, or worse. Distractions like watching TV or reading while running increase the likelihood of an injury.

The Washington Post reports on the “risks of treadmills in the era of smart phones:”

But his freakish accident actually isn’t that rare. Every year, tens of thousands of Americans are injured on treadmills. Thousands are taken to the emergency room. A handful die.

Data suggests that the problem is getting worse. As high-tech, high-powered treadmills proliferate, so, too, do the digital distractions that make the machines even more dangerous…

“Almost 460,000 people were sent to the hospital in 2012 for injuries related to exercise equipment,” according to USA Today. “The vast majority—nearly 428,000 were treated and released for their injuries—but about 32,000 were hospitalized or were dead on arrival.”

Treadmills account for the majority of such exercise equipment injuries, Graves told The Washington Post in a phone interview. In a study of 1,782 injury reports from 2007-2011, she found that “treadmill machines comprise 66% of injuries, but constitute approximately only 1/4 the market share of such equipment.

But wait, a reality check, please. Stuff happens. Unpredictable, tragic, life-altering stuff. And we, the survivors, need to keep steady and continue to care for ourselves and for those we love. And that includes exercise.

I asked Dr. Eddie Phillips, director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine and an assistant professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, for his take, and he offered this perspective:

Despite the tragic and paradoxical death of a high profile individual exercising on a treadmill to improve his health we must not lose site of the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of increased physical activity for everyone. Treadmill accidents are rare compared to the pandemic of preventable disease and death from physical inactivity in the majority of the population. Avoiding exercise and remaining sedentary ensures universal increased risks of diseases like diabetes and heart disease as well as premature death and increased health care costs. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Avoid Brain Shrinkage As You Age



Middle-age adults take note: the exercise you shirk today may lead to shrunken brain tissue in a couple of decades.

This, according to research presented at the American Heart Association Epidemiology/Lifestyle meeting in Baltimore this week.

After reviewing exercise data taken from more than 1,200 adults who were around 40 years old — a subset of the Framingham Heart Study — researchers found that twenty years later when these same individuals underwent MRI scans, those with “lower fitness levels in midlife also had lower brain tissue levels in later life,” said Nicole L. Spartano, Ph.D., lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Though the findings are preliminary, Spartano says it looks like there’s a link between lower fitness levels and faster brain aging. Since the MRI’s in this study were done on people about 58 years old, the researchers didn’t expect to see high rates of dementia, but they did detect “the beginning of shrinkage,” Spartano said. “We look at the brain MRI as an early warning sign for deterioration. This may give us some idea of decreased cognition a decade or so later.”

Specifically, the researchers evaluated fitness based on how the heart changes in the early stages of exercise. Continue reading

Beyond Carb-Cutting: Resolutions After A Trauma — Sleep, Play, Love



By Rachel Zimmerman

A friend, trying to cheer me up over the holidays, suggested I find comfort in this fact: “The worst year of your life is coming to an end.”

In 2014 I became a widow, and my two young children lost their father. Needless to say our perspective and priorities have shifted radically.

Last year at this time, my New Year’s resolutions revolved around carbs, and eating fewer of them. This year, carbs are the least of my worries. My resolutions for 2015 are all about trying to let go of any notion of perfection and seek what my mother calls “crumbs of pleasure” — connection, peace and actual joy on the heels of a life-altering tragedy that could easily have pushed me into bed (with lots of comforting carbs) for a long time.

As a mom I know with stage 4 cancer put it, when your world is shaken to its core, your goals shift from things you want to “do” —  spend more time exercising, learn Italian, make your own clothes — to ways you want to “be,” knowing that your life can shift in an instant.

So, with that in mind, here are my five, research-backed, heal-the-trauma resolutions for 2015:

A Restful Sleep

Yes, at the top of my list of lofty life goals is a very pedestrian one: sleep. Lack of sleep can devastate a person’s mental health and without consistent rest, the line between emotional stability and craziness can be slim. (See postpartum depression, for one example.) In my family at least, to ward off depression and anxiety, we need good sleep and lots of it; more Arianna Huffington and less Bill Clinton.

Play, Sing, Dance

The beautiful thing about children is that despite tragedy and loss, they remain kids; they are compelled to play, climb, run and be active. Resilience, as the literature says. In their grief, they can still cartwheel on the beach, play tag or touch football in the park. Shortly after my husband died, I tried very hard to play the games my kids liked, which often felt like that scene in the “Sound of Music” where the baroness pretends to enjoy a game of catch with the children. Soon I learned to broaden my definition of play — really anything, physical, or not — that serves no other purpose other than to elicit pure joy. Continue reading

Project Louise: The Project Ends Now … But It Lasts A Lifetime

baby steps, will 668/flickr

baby steps, will 668/flickr

With the end of 2014 comes the end of Project Louise. The official end, that is. My excellent CommonHealth hosts gave me a year of coaching and support to see how much I could improve my health, and that year is now over. But my efforts to keep improving my health will continue, I hope and believe, for the rest of my life.

In part that’s because I haven’t reached all the goals I set for myself a year ago. I lost some weight, but not as much as I hoped; I exercised more, but I still haven’t developed the consistent exercise habit that I know I’ll need in order to make fitness a real and permanent part of my life.

On the other hand, I have made some real changes that I know will last. My diet is much better than it was a year ago – more vegetables, less junk – and, maybe even more important, my relationship with food is less complicated and neurotic. I still sometimes eat “bad” foods, but I don’t hate myself when I do – and that means I don’t go off on a binge.

That change is part of a larger one, one that Coach Allison Rimm urged me to undertake – and one that, frankly, didn’t immediately strike me as relevant to this project. Gently, consistently and with remarkable success, she has encouraged me to speak more kindly to myself, to focus on what I’m doing right rather than what I’m doing wrong.

Gentle Nudging

It turns out that gentle encouragement works much better than relentless criticism – something I knew and practiced in raising my children, yet somehow needed to learn in “raising” myself. In teaching me this lesson, Coach Allison has given me a priceless and lasting gift.

And that newfound sense of patience with myself is connected to the main reason I’ll keep working on this “project,” the single most important thing it has taught me. More than better nutrition, more than motivation for exercise, what Project Louise has shown me is that nothing lasting happens overnight. Change is a continuous process, not an isolated event.

No Overnight Success

We all fantasize about the life-changing moment, the day that divides our imperfect past from our glorious future – isn’t that what New Year’s Eve is all about? But in fact most days are pretty much like most other days; the calendar may change tomorrow, but we all know that Jan. 1 won’t feel much different from Dec. 31. Continue reading

My Body, My Life: How A Kidney Transplant Got Me Back On The Dance Floor



By Grace Clackson
Guest Contributor

In recent years, exercise was not on my radar.  Like many others, I was busy balancing work and family. Honestly, I thought regular gym dates were only for overweight people.  It wasn’t always this way — I loved dancing growing up but just couldn’t make room for it in my adult life.

But all of that changed in 2010.

I found myself more and more fatigued and around the same time my mother died from polycystic kidney disease (PKD), I learned I too had inherited the genetic kidney disorder. Most people with PKD, a chronic kidney disease where clusters of cysts develop primarily within the kidneys, get the disease between their 50’s and 60’s.

I was on the verge of kidney failure at 44 years of age.

Continue reading