Beauty

14119244_sI recently learned about a booming U.S. industry: brain gyms. They’re mostly online businesses that survey potential members to identify areas of cognitive function that they want to improve. Then, in a matter of seconds, software customizes computer games to help achieve those goals.

An obvious market for these e-ventures is baby boomers, the 77 million of us who want to delay not only the appearance of wrinkles on our face but also the fine lines we imagine to be emerging on our brains. Sure, I thought, as we age it’s great to find botanical products  like our Premiere’s Pain Spray that offer natural pain relief for sore muscles. Wouldn’t it be just as great to find a “natural pain spray” for our brains? Some elixir to keep our aging brains in Olympic athlete condition?

The allure was irresistible and I succumbed, quickly signing up with Lumosity.com, one of the new digital brain gyms. I spent a few minutes filling out their survey and immediately began playing games. It was fun and I’ll definitely go back to “exercise” several times a week. After all, one Stanford University researcher recently found that 12 weeks of Lumosity training significantly improved brain function in a group of study participants.

I keep wondering, though, what parts of my mind am I training inside the brain gym? To help our bodies stay fit we carefully choose specific sports and routines because they’re the ones most likely to meet our unique goals. Shouldn’t we be equally strategic in exercising the facets of our mind we value most?

Personally, I want to preserve whatever brain cells abandon puzzles in favor of deeper thought. If I’m going to stick with a brain gym, it better help me formulate complex ideas about life and how to enrich my piece of it. It needs to train me to understand myself and others, not just memorize sequences of
colored squares on a grid.

How about this: we all just read a good book.  My guess is that by page 27 we’ll feel our brain cells multiplying. The Pain Free Spray for our brains will have us all feeling fantastic!

English: Female Jogger on Coleman Avenue in Mo...

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In their excellent newsletter HEALTHbeat, Harvard Medical School recently reported that, “when it comes to shedding pounds, the key is cutting calories — and it doesn’t really matter whether those calories come mainly from steak, bread, or vegetables.”

Okay, but if you commit to doing regular, calorie-burning exercise can’t you enjoy more fattening food more of the time?

Research suggests that the exercise approach will work – at least for women – if they start out at a normal weight. But for those who are overweight to begin with, exercise won’t be enough. In other words, exercise can keep you thin but it’s not going to make you thin. For that, you’re going to have cut calories and increase exercise.

If you don’t believe it, here’s the research evidence…

The study’s focus… Many studies have shown that physical activity can promote weight loss among people who are overweight or obese, but far fewer have investigated whether it can prevent unhealthy weight gain in the first place. That IS the focus of a study by Harvard Medical School researchers.

The researchers analyzed data provided by 34,079 healthy women, average age 54, who were participating in the long-term Women’s Health Study. Between 1992 and 2007, the women reported their body weight and physical activities every three years. They also provided information on matters that could affect the link between physical activity and weight change, such as smoking, postmenopausal hormone use, alcohol intake, and diet.

Participants were divided into three groups based on their level of physical activity, with energy expended in each group expressed in metabolic equivalent (MET) hours per week. A MET is a unit used to estimate the energy expended during physical activity, relative to the energy expended while sitting quietly.

The results… Not surprisingly, moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking, consumes more METs than lower-intensity activities such as yoga or stretching. In the study, women at the lowest activity level got less than 7.5 MET hours per week, the minimum recommended in federal guidelines (it’s the amount expended in walking briskly for 30 minutes, five days a week). The middle group got 7.5 to less than 21 MET hours per week; and the most active women got 21 MET hours or more per week, which requires at least 60 minutes per day of moderately intense physical activity — or 30 minutes per day of vigorous activity.

Over the course of the study, the women gained 5.7 pounds, on average. Those who exercised less tended to gain more: over any three-year period, women in the low and middle activity levels were more likely to gain 5 or more pounds than the most active women. When the researchers looked only at the 4,540 women who were normal weight (a body mass index of less than 25) at the study’s outset and who had managed to hold their weight in the normal range, they found that these weight-maintainers averaged 60 minutes of moderately intense activity per day.

What it means… Among normal-weight women, the likelihood of putting on weight decreased as physical activity level increased. Among women who were overweight or obese, there was no relationship between physical activity and weight gain.

Thus, for women who aren’t overweight or obese, exercise can keep off excess pounds, but it must add up to about seven hours per week of moderately intense activity such as brisk walking or casual bicycling — or 3.5 hours per week of vigorous activity such as jogging or aerobic dancing.

For women who are already overweight or obese, increased physical activity alone is not enough to prevent further weight gain. These women also need to reduce their calorie intake. But they should still get at least 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity most days for the sake of the many health benefits, which include a reduced risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease and stroke.

Kate Moss in a 1990s Calvin Klein ad

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Marilyn Monroe

Image via Wikipedia

When men are asked to choose the sexiest woman out of a group, researchers find that they consistently (and usually unconsciously) pick a very particular “waist to hips ratio” (WHR).  And happily for many women, a little more bum appears to be exactly what men like best.  How much more? The data shows that over and over, men are drawn to a 0.7 “waist to hips ratio” (WHR).

So while Kate Moss and Marilyn Monroe definitely don’t have the same curves, they’ve both got just enough butt to complement their chest.  By the way, so do Sophia Loren and the Venus de Milo.

Waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) is also the newest and probably the best at-home test for coronary health. Some experts go as far as to say that the best way to predict your risk for heart attack and other obesity-related diseases is simply to divide the width of your waist by the width of your hips.

Bottom line: your waist should be SMALLER than your hips, whether you’re a woman or a man.  For women, a healthy waist-to-hip ratio should be no higher than 0.8  For  men, there’s a little more wiggle room, but nothing higher than 0.95

If your belly has caught up to the size of your hips—even if you’re thin and fit—you’re mucking with your first-impression sex appeal. Maybe even worse, you’re playing Russian roulette with your health. We all know that obesity increases our risk for virtually every health problem, from diabetes to cancer. But recent research findings suggest that not all fat is equally bad for you. It’s what giggles around your waist that you really need to be concerned about. That’s because abdominal fat is more likely than any other fat to initiate metabolic changes that ultimately lead to clogged arteries and heart disease.

So extra fat on a woman’s hips does not appear to predict increased risk nearly as much a flabby belly. Likewise, one man’s beer belly is far more dangerous than another’s wide glide.

WHR has all but overtaken Body Mass Index (BMI) in medicine’s race to determine coronary risk. Still a useful way to determine if you’re overweight, BMI is calculated by dividing you body weight (in kilograms) by the square root of your metric height. The higher your BMI, the higher your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, breathing problems and certain cancers.

But most scientists now agree that there are problems with the BMI, because it ignores muscle and bone structure. It can indicate overweight in healthy athletes and others who have a heavy, muscular build. Conversely it can underestimate body fat in older people who have lost valuable muscle, not dangerous flab. WHR on the other hand, appears to be “consistently and strongly” predictive of coronary heart disease for men and women.

A number of studies make the argument for WHR.  The most recent was published just this past summer by a team at the University of Cambridge in the UK. Principle investigator Dr. Dexter Canoy reports that in following 24,508 men and women (ages 45-79) for nine years, his team found that slightly fewer than 11 percent developed coronary heart disease. And their risk increased continuously as their waist-to-hip ratio went up. Even among obese men, the rate of heart disease was slightly lower among those with a lower WHR. “And in women, at all levels of BMI, waist-to-hip ratios were strongly predictive of heart disease.”

How big a butt is big enough? Well, in the UK study, with every increase of roughly 2.5 inches in hip circumference for men and roughly 3.5 inches in women—the risk of coronary heart disease dropped by 20%.

Of course, packing on inches below your waist is not an intelligent goal. Fat is fat, and none of it is good. The evidence does remain, however: even among the overweight, bigger hips and smaller waists are associated with lower risk. And even if you maintain normal weight, you face increased risk if your waist-to-hip ratio is high.

Free coiled tape measure healthy living stock ...

Christmas cookies and cherry pie. Mashed potatoes, candied yams and homemade turkey stuffing! Surrounded by so much delicious holiday food, it’s terrifying to even think about getting on the  scale come January 2nd.

Or maybe not…

Contrary to popular belief, most Americans gain only one pound over the holidays. Sadly, though, research from the National Institutes of Health indicates that most of us never lose that pound. And so it goes, the slow but steady s-p-r-e-a-d of our waistline.

This holiday, take hope from some new and impressive scientific research. The respected journal Sciencerecently reported on an unusual study in which researchers asked volunteers to spend 90 seconds methodically imagining what it would be like to taste, chew and swallow 30 M&Ms, one after another. Then, when presented with a bowl of real M&Ms, the volunteers ate only about half as many candies as participants who’d been asked to imagine eating only three M&Ms (or none at all).

All this defies conventional scientific thought, which has long assumed that only real sensory input can produce the feeling of fullness (satiation). This study suggests that thought alone may trigger satiation—at least where eating is concerned. The results are likely to generate new investigations into overeating and ways to curb it.

PS… Subsequent testing found that methodical thinking about M&M eating did not suppress cheddar cheese consumption; but in-depth thoughts about eating cheese did. No kidding! So put on your thinking cap.

 

Person Drinking Coffee with Morning Paper

Coffee is Healthy to Drink

I don’t have many health vices. Coffee has always been at the top of the list and, so, I always tell myself it is healthy to treat yourself to some things. I mean, my morning coffee experience–complete with checking email in bed and skimming a trashy gossip magazine before getting ready–makes my day. And I relish the ritual, despite some guilt over the disputed healthiness of regular coffee drinking…

Well…no longer do I feel guilty! Now, research published in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association found that women (exclusively) who sip more than one cup of coffee a day had a 22% to 25% lowered risk of stroke. Even more profound, the researchers found that women who drank no coffee actually had a slightly increased risk for stroke.

While this study lacked control for medication use in its subjects, it’s important to take the findings with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, I admit that my morning ritual looks even better now, guilt-free and all. Cheers to that!

People Sunning Themselves on Blankets in Open Field

direct Vitamin D!

Headlines can be misleading — and recent news about how much Vitamin D we all need is a perfect case in point.

Here’s one headline from the Wall Street Journal: “Triple That Vitamin D Intake, Panel Prescribes.” And another from the New York Times: “Extra Calcium and Vitamin D Aren’t Necessary, Report Says.” While these are just a couple of headlines that may confuse readers, which would you trust?

First, one easy takeaway is that we should be reading our news carefully so that we don’t carry incorrect information from headlines alone. Less easy to sort through is who actually needs more Vitamin D. Now, conventional wisdom has been telling us that low levels of Vitamin D can be linked to depression, various kinds of cancer, diabetes and stroke. And, over the past nine years, supplement sales have risen from $40 billion to $425 billion. Yet — despite the difference in headlines — recent news reports are actually claiming that, across the board, North Americans are getting enough of the vitamin as is from their blood (through the natural process of absorbing direct Vitamin D from sunlight).

For some of us however, it’s crucial that we get more than others. In particular: 1) people over 50 should be increasing their daily intake to support bone strength; 2) people with dark skin contain more melanin, which reduces the skin’s ability to produce the vitamin from sunlight; and 3) people who are obese need extra Vitamin D to make up for the relatively low levels in their blood.

Find out if you’re someone who needs more Vitamin D from the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements.

Colorful Bottles of Kombucha

Kombucha flavors

Not the first, but certainly most recent: the New York Times’ T-magazine posted a new lifestyle article on the growing Kombucha trend.

What is Kombucha? Well, it is a strange fermented, effervescent tea concoction made through a process of 1) adding bacteria and sugar to black or green tea and 2) letting the mix ferment for several weeks.

Once before, in the mid 1990′s, Kombucha gathered a following heavy with do-it-yourself types who made the tea themselves. (Not the safest thing, since there is always a risk of potential contamination if not done under sterile conditions.)

This new craze, however, is unparalleled. Just last year, market researchers reported that sales of Kombucha and other “functional” juice drinks — intended to not just taste good but also provide drinkers with an impressive range of health benefits — totaled $295 million. Primarily due to the probiotic live culture that grows when the tea is fermented, benefits ascribed to Kombucha include: increased function of the immune system, better digestion and diet control, more energy, and healthier-looking skin.

Does it work? In full disclosure, I love Kombucha and would encourage curious individuals to test it out. For a good six months, I drank the tea every day…and didn’t get a cold or the flu once during that period. And while I didn’t suddenly feel any fantastic anti-aging effects of this elixir of life, I did think my skin looked more vibrant; and I absolutely felt that I could eat more and look thinner. Although I came to like the taste, like many Kombucha drinkers, I didn’t start out liking the drink for its taste. Through and through, I drank it for the effects I felt.

If you’re thinking about trying it, I would recommend trying it once to test how you feel. Due to the various unknowns, it’s good to be cautious: in short, there has yet to be any major human trial of Kombucha reported in any major medical journal. More, the newest story, reported this past June) highlighted that the FDA pulled Kombucha from stores due to its belief that the drink may contain higher levels of alcohol than reported.

If you find that you like it and are itching for more, try different flavors and brands: the most popular being GT’s Synergy drinks, which combine Kombucha with fruit flavors. My favorites were Raspberry Rush, Cosmic Cranberry, and the Original unflavored version. Word to the wise: be careful not to shake the bottle since it’s effervescent! I shook my first one to get the mixture going and it exploded all over my kitchen. Otherwise, enjoy!