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Why To Exercise Today: To Promote Cognitive Health (It’s Official)

(Diabetes Care/Flickr)

(Diabetes Care/Flickr)

The venerable Institute of Medicine came out with a report this week on cognitive aging (yes, that means you…) and a few things that can help avert the inevitable. The panel’s No. 1 recommendation? “Be physically active.” Enough said.

To be clear, “cognitive aging is not a disease,” the report notes. “Instead, it is a process that occurs in every individual, beginning at birth and continuing throughout the life span.”

That process impacts the brain like no other body part, the authors say. And while the extent and quality of cognitive aging (read: decline) varies greatly, many older men and women will experience problems related to the speed at which they process information, the ability to problem-solve and make decisions and, of course, memory. (Lost keys, anyone?)

Putting a little silver lining on things, the IOM news release quotes the chairman of the committee, Dan G. Blazer, the J.P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at Duke University Medical Center, saying that “…wisdom and knowledge can increase with age, while memory and attention can decline.”

So what should we do about our aging brains? The report is clear:

· Be physically active.

· Reduce and manage cardiovascular disease risk factors, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking.

· Regularly discuss and review health conditions and medications that might influence cognitive health with a health care professional. A number of medications can have a negative effect — temporary or long term –on cognitive function when used alone or in combination with other medication.

The committee also identifies additional actions for which there is some scientific evidence to suggest positive effects on cognitive health:

· Be socially and intellectually active, and continually seek opportunities to learn.

· Get adequate sleep and seek professional treatment for sleep disorders, if needed.

· Take steps to avoid a sudden acute decline in cognitive function, known as delirium, associated with medications or hospitalizations.

· Carefully evaluate products advertised to consumers to improve cognitive health, such as medications, nutritional supplements, and cognitive training.

Continue reading

Hey, Guys: Post-Holiday Belly Fat? Better Start Lifting

(Mr.TGT/Flickr via Compfight)

(Mr.TGT/Flickr via Compfight)

If your resolutions included a re-energized commitment to cardio, you might want to reconsider your program.

A recent study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health reports that for men over 40, aerobic exercise alone may not be enough to rid you of your ring around the middle.

The study, published in the journal Obesity, found that men who did 20 minutes of daily weight training gained less abdominal fat than men who did 20 minutes of daily aerobic activity. A combination of cardio and weight training led to optimal results. Continue reading

New Year’s Resolutions: How To Keep Them Alive

(anomalily/Compfight)

(anomalily/Compfight)

By Jessica Alpert

You know the drill. Lose weight. Save more money. Keep in better touch. Or as one of my Facebook friends recently announced “make a new piece of clothing every month.”

I hate the gym in January since it’s crowded to the gills with exercise hopefuls.  By February, the regulars reign again and the wait for the treadmill is nonexistent.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology from researchers at the University of Scranton found that 45 percent of us made New Year’s Resolutions in 2014–and almost 90 percent of us failed at keeping them.

Maybe not a huge surprise but what can we do to maintain those good intentions?

Dr. Philip Levendusky, Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Psychology Department at McLean Hospital, recently shared some tips.

First, is change even necessary?  Do you already work out three days a week and now you’re promising to do six? It’s a worthwhile goal but acknowledge what you already do. “We don’t always have to be striving for perfection or feel like we’re a work in progress,” Levendusky writes.

Next, remember that small changes can make a big impact.  Do you want to be a better partner? Instead of creating a list of 10 promises, start with something actionable and attainable–like being a better listener during dinner.  According to Levendusky, “building goals that can have an immediate and positive response,” may actually help keep you on track beyond the month of January.

Continue reading

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

(SaundiSeptember/Compfight)

(SaundiSeptember/Compfight)

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

Armpit Fat? There’s A YouTube Video For That

By Jessica Alpert

Did YouTube kill the video star?

That’s what some fitness-types are saying. Consumers can access exercise programs of all stripes. From old-world Jack LaLanne to ’80s Jane Fonda, from Insanity to the current YouTube HIIT (high intensity interval training) sessions — the American fitness diet continues to evolve. At the moment, it’s all about free and on-demand.

When Cassey Ho made her first YouTube exercise video, she had her pilates students in mind. Thirty of them. It was 2009 and Ho had recently moved from California to Boston to try a career in fashion buying. A few months later, she checked in on that YouTube video and there were thousands of views.

So she decided to make more.

The Blogilates App allows users to search for fellow "POPsters" in their area. (Courtesy of Cassey Ho/Blogilates)

The Blogilates App allows users to search for fellow “POPsters” in their area. (Courtesy of Cassey Ho/Blogilates)

By 2011, Cassey Ho was posting one video a week, calling her unique brand of pilates “POP Pilates,” essentially pilates to pop music. She named her channel “Blogilates” and an empire was born. Today, Cassey Ho was 1.8 million subscribers to her YouTube channel — 60,000 page views a day and 8 million views a month.

Ho credits humility as key to her success. “I think the reason for it’s [Blogilates] growth is the fact that I love teaching. I genuinely want to help people.”

Reach people she does — Blogilates is now the top fitness channel on the network. Ho also has a book deal, a DVD release and more original designs from her clothing line in the works for 2015.

YouTube has become the DIY video destination, from cupcakes to cosmopolitans, appliance repairs and yes — ab workouts — there’s a video for every problem. Even armpit fat. Huge audiences combined with social media savvy has made the everyday people who dole out this advice into celebrities. “People cry and shake and get crazy when they see me,” says Ho. She occasionally does tours to give live classes around the country. “When you go to Blogilates meet-ups, there are hundreds of people there and I get to hear their stories…and how these videos helped them battle eating disorders, lose a ton of weight. They are so positive and kind — they don’t mind having to wait five hours in line to meet me. They make me want to work harder.”

And it’s these young enthusiastic fans that are driving the YouTube content bonanza. In the first quarter of 2014, according to Nielsen, consumers aged 18-24 viewed 2 hours and 28 minutes of online videos per week — that’s nearly an hour more than the average for all adults.

Cassey Ho isn’t alone. There’s the two friends behind “Tone It Up,” Elliot Hulse who creates videos like “Exercise for Heartbreak and Pain,” and the husband and wife team behind “Fitness Blender” (known simply as Daniel and Kelli). Daniel and Kelli started their channel in their garage — in fact they still record videos there.

According to OpenSlate, a video analytics platform that analyzes all ad-supported content on YouTube, Fitness Blender averages around 8 million views per month. In an introduction video, Daniel explains that they started their channel because they “there weren’t any fitness websites out there that actually focused on fitness — they were all about make-up, all about clothes, all about what you look like — not about what you do.” Kelli adds that “everyone should have access to health fitness information regardless of their income or access to a gym.”

Tolga Ozyurtcu, a clinical assistant professor in the department of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin, says the YouTube brand of exercise is more “personalized and more personal.

“In the past, the marketplace of exercise television or videos had to be more middle-ground…the new stuff is hyper-focused.” Continue reading

Where’s Laurie? When ‘McFitness’ Axes Your Beloved Exercise Instructor

Exercise class members posted this tribute video to instructor Laurie

By Constanza Villalba, PhD
Guest contributor

In the annual survey of fitness trends from Zumba to yoga, one “trend” remains consistently among the top three: the importance of high-quality fitness professionals.

Why are skilled, educated instructors so important to fitness? Many reasons, but one seems to be the relationships they form with the people they teach. One recent study found that people are more likely to remain engaged in their own fitness — and indeed, may even be more satisfied in life — if they have kind, caring exercise instructors who are genuinely invested in the success of their students.

Are Fitness Classes Going The Way Of Fast Food?

– Huffington Post Headline

“The important thing here was the perception of the leader’s interaction and the message they were sending,” says Dr. Theresa Brown of the University of Kansas, the study’s lead author. “Instructors who say, ‘Hey, give it your best effort and focus on your own improvement; don’t worry about what others are doing.’ Those are the instructors whose students stay engaged.”

None of this comes as a surprise to me, or to the roughly 40 people who have joined me in a campaign this fall to bring back a beloved fitness instructor named Laurie, who was fired from our Boston-area gym in August.

When we learned that Laurie had been dismissed without cause, we formed a Facebook group and started notifying other members about the group and the need to coalesce.

We wrote letters complaining to the owners, we wrote Yelp reviews (some of which were removed) condemning the gym’s decision, and several of us even filmed the short video above showcasing Laurie’s skills. Finally, after realizing that the gym’s management had no intention of bringing Laurie back, many of us, myself included, canceled our memberships.

Laurie taught an array of classes, including barbell, step aerobics, power yoga, and kickboxing, all of which were impeccably planned, richly choreographed, and layered so that people of all fitness levels could choose the intensity that suited them. Her skill as an instructor was reflected in the numbers of students she would attract, from 15 to 25 followers for each of her six classes.

We missed her. Many of the gym’s members asked the management about Laurie’s departure. In a public Facebook statement, the new manager said simply that the gym was going in a different direction.

The night I canceled my membership, which I’d had for 14 years, I realized that this “new direction” meant replacing Laurie’s classes — which she had creatively designed and choreographed herself — with prepackaged, so-called “pre-choreographed” classes whose routine is scripted by a corporation that does not allow instructors to vary moves or add personal or creative touches.

A Huffington Post piece by a health coach calls this “McFitness” and asks in its headline, “Are Fitness Classes Going The Way Of Fast Food?”

Grace DeSimone, a group fitness expert, has seen many gyms go through the type of turmoil my gym is going through when they make the transition to pre-choreographed classes. She says people may get unhappy and complain or even quit, but she has never seen class members go to the lengths we did.

Laurie’s style of teaching, DeSimone explains, is called “freestyle,” but that name makes it sound like she’s winging it, which could not be further from the truth. Instead, freestyle is about actively and expertly customizing a workout to the audience at hand, Desimone says.

Desimone understands why gyms shift to pre-choreographed classes. “Even if Laurie has a strong following, the day that she’s out sick or can’t make it in, the gym is stuck,” she explains, “because no one can do it quite like Laurie does.” With pre-choreographed classes, any instructor can take over and teach the same class. Continue reading

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

photo
OWL On The Water participants bring a shell out of the Community Rowing boathouse in Brighton, and to a dock on the Charles River. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)Alexus Burkett, left, helps carry the shell toward the water. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)(Jesse Costa/WBUR)(Jesse Costa/WBUR)(Jesse Costa/WBUR)Coach Sandra Cardillo instructs the kids before they go out onto the water. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)(Jesse Costa/WBUR)Rowing coach Kate Simeon instructs the kids out on the Charles. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)An OWL On The Water boat moves past the Community Rowing facility as daylight fades. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

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

Boston-Origin ‘November Project’ Takes Nation’s Capital By Storm

You heard it here, first: That the November Project — the free, early-morning “fitness tribe” that is the brainchild of two Boston-based crew buddies — would go far.

(What is the November Project? If you’re asking that, you’re probably not a young, fit Bostonian, because the NP is already legend in Beantown. Here’s the full backstory: Two Guys Walk Into A Bar And A Free Fitness Movement Is Born, and the movement has now spread to multiple cities across four time zones and counting.)

Now here it is emblazoned across the virtual pages of the leading newspaper in our nation’s capital: “November Project: Hugs and Fitness.” According to the Post, of the 17 fitness “tribes” that have been launched in various cities, the D.C. contingent is second in size only to the mother of all tribes here in Boston. It’s gathering hundreds to its early-morning workouts — documented in lovely Post photos of burpees against a Washington Monument background. One cannot help but note that the denizens of the cutthroat political culture of D.C. might be particularly in need of both hard muscles and hugs.

The November Project members don’t believe in handshakes, the story notes:

What they do believe in is the grass-roots movement started in 2011 in Boston by Brogan Graham and Bojan Mandaric, two former Northeastern University rowers who made a pact to exercise together throughout the month of November (hence the name). When friends — and, eventually, strangers — began to join them as they ran the stairs of Harvard Stadium, they decided they didn’t just want to get stronger and faster. They had a new goal.
“We want to change the way people see fitness,” Mandaric says.

How far will this thing go? To quote Bojan Mandaric from our 2012 story: “I have no idea…”

The Grown-Up, Full-Body Playground Workout In 10 Moves

(YouTube)

(YouTube)

Perfect timing. Yet another study, just out, finds that fun is good for you. Or rather, as The New York Times puts it:

“If you are aiming to lose weight by revving up your exercise routine, it may be wise to think of your workouts not as exercise, but as playtime. An unconventional new study suggests that people’s attitudes toward physical activity can influence what they eat afterward and, ultimately, whether they drop pounds.”

Responds one commenter: “Finding fun in fitness has to be an essential part of any effort.”

About once a week, I run — or rather, plod — up a giant hill. There’s no way I can call that fun. But at the top there’s a newly renovated playground, and I asked personal trainer Kat Setzer, who writes the How To Be An Athlete roller derby blog, to design a fun but efficient playground workout for real, middling-fit people like me. (As opposed to superhumans like the video hulk in the photo above. What good is a workout when you can’t even do an exercise once?)

Important note: No children were excluded from playground equipment in the making of this workout (none were out in the early morning when we ran through it. And honest, if they’d been around, we’d have given them dibs.) Also, remember to warm up and cool down. And aim for two or three circuits.

1. Swing split squat: Stand one long stride ahead of the swing and put one foot on the swing. Bend both knees until your front leg is bent to 90 degrees. Get your back knee as low as you can. Keep your weight on your front heel if possible. (Think of it as a lunge with your back foot up.) Fifteen times on each side.

Kat Setzer demonstrates the Swing Split Squat.

Kat Setzer demonstrates the swing split squat.

2. Swing knee tucks: Facing the ground, put your hands down in push-up position and your feet on the swing in plank position. Tuck your knees into your chest, then straighten your legs. Repeat. You can make this easier by putting your knees in the swing’s seat and holding a plank. Fifteen times.

Kat Setzer demonstrates knee tucks on the swing.

Kat demonstrates knee tucks on the swing.

3. Box jump onto platform Start in a squat next to a platform that’s 6-12 inches from the ground, feet shoulder width apart, legs parallel. Continue reading