Monthly Archives: February 2014

Stand Up straight: It’s Good for Your Health

“Sometimes I slouch so much after a day of staring at my computer screen, my chin nearly reaches the dining room table.” A friend who had been a physical therapist in her early career was berating herself for her inattention to good posture. The rest of us sitting around a restaurant table automatically straightened up. Another chimed in with, “I take all these classes that work on my core, which makes me think I am an apple, but once the class is over, I go back to walking like a banana.” Her fruit analogies left us a bit puzzled, but we got the idea. Somewhere in those decades between learning to walk and needing a walker, we had lost that wonderful erect posture of a child and slowly took on the slouch of the no-longer-young.

“Why doesn’t anyone talk about posture?” wondered another. After a few minutes giggling over our memories of the posture pictures that were taken of freshman in some women’s colleges (and were eagerly sought after by neighboring men’s colleges), we wondered whether posture was still emphasized among the young and not so young. When was the last time any of us had read an article emphasizing the need to stand up straight, to adjust the laptop computer so it did not require sinking the neck practically into the belly button to be seen, and walking without the head down as if counting the cracks in the sidewalk? Indeed, the current trend to wearing shoes whose heels resembles stilts (perhaps a trend finally slowing down) rarely even discusses the possibility of breaking one’s neck while negotiating slippery steps or brick sidewalks, let alone standing up straight.

But posture is critically important and not just to make us look taller without wearing 5-inch heels. Good posture can reduce uneven pressure on a knee, hip or back and thus is protective against injuries and pain. Even a small misalignment of the spine can cause nagging back pain, as I learned when I had to wear an orthopedic boot while recovering for a torn Achilles tendon. If I did not compensate for the slight difference in elevation between the foot wearing the boot and the other, my back ached miserably after only a few minutes. Inattention to how we are standing, sitting, walking or bending may cause chronic pain. Who needs that?

There are so many upsides to good posture. Better balance is one consequence of better posture; but does anyone pay attention to this basic aspect of movement unless one is learning to skate, paddle board or ride a bike? Balance is something we take for granted until we no longer can rely on it as happens with, for example, a mild case of vertigo or an icy sidewalk. As we age, we may gradually find balance unreliable while walking on an uneven sidewalk or maneuvering around a small space. All children can walk or even run on narrow elevated curbs. How many grandparents can run after them without falling off?

Not sure how good your balance is? Try standing on one bare foot, with your eyes closed. It is hard to do it for a minute or longer without needing to put your foot on the ground. Indeed, having done this in health clubs, I find it somewhat embarrassing to stand on one foot, with my eyes closed, hoping I won’t hit my head on a nearby machine.

But despite the ubiquity of balance impairment, improving balance, like its first cousin, posture, is pretty much ignored as a fitness goal. To be sure, some yoga positions work on balance and the large rubber balls bouncing around health clubs and half sphere rubber “balance boards” promote better balance while exercising specific muscle groups. However, machines designed specifically to improve balance are by and large non-existent. I suspect that a reason for lack of attention given to posture and balance is that they seem so old-fashioned, hardly cutting edge, exciting workout concepts. Visions of one’s great grandmother walking around with a book on her head come to mind when talking about posture, and lack of balance seems to be something physical therapists work on with movement-limited clients. Presumably people who walk tight- ropes or surf megawaves don’t need too much help in improving their balance, and models with stellar posture would not be strutting down runways during Fashion Week if they shuffled like a bear. But if women’s magazines and upscale health clubs emphasized these two aspects of movement for the rest of us, we would all benefit.

Good posture and balance also have health significance far beyond looking taller without heels or being able to look like a tree in yoga class. These two traits are critically important in preventing falls, one of the major causes of death among the older population. As such, it is important to improve both before they are needed.

Strengthening core muscles, aka your abdominals, and the other muscles that allow you to carry out the movements of ordinary life, have an immediate impact on balance and posture. Ballerinas, gymnasts and tightrope walkers stand and walk straight; their muscular strength won’t allow them to do otherwise. For the rest of us, who do not spend our days in pointe shoes, classes like Pilates and yoga are effective ways to improve our posture and balance-related muscles. Simple exercises to strengthen the thigh muscles can markedly improve difficulty in getting up from a chair without losing balance or keeping a stumble from turning into a fall. The laptop computer slouch can be reversed with back, neck and arm exercises in a yoga class or gently using weights or machines in a health club. The Internet has some clever animated programs on improving balance but it is advisable to read through them beforehand, as some exercises require you to close your eyes. Do something simple, like asking people with whom you work or live, to remind you to stand up straighter or to notice whether your laptop is positioned so you won’ t have to bend your neck to see the screen. Go walking with friends and check out each other’s posture. A reminder to stop stooping while you are moving is much more effective than thinking about it while sitting in a chair.

It may take several months for your balance and posture to improve but they will. And when it happens, be prepared for someone to ask, “Were you a dancer when you were young?”

Our Natural Love for Sugar: Should We Be Doing Anything About It?

Too much sugar is bad for us. The evidence for its association with cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cavities is compelling and should certainly make one hesitate before buying that box of Valentine candy for someone special. But just as the science section of any major newspaper reports the dire consequences of consuming too much of the sugary substance, the Dining/Food section of same newspaper tells us that ultra-expensive, cutting-edge restaurants are promoting dessert-tasting menus.  It is no longer necessary to eat a main course before getting to dessert. Instead, you can go immediately, if you wish, to that luscious chocolate confection. Indeed, allowing people to indulge their sweet tooth makes one wonder what would happen to the menus for traditional meals such as Thanksgiving dinner if the same tactic were tried. Imagine being able to skip the Brussels sprouts, mashed turnips, and dry turkey and fill up instead on pecan, pumpkin, and apple pie?

The drive to eat sweet-tasting foods is with us from birth. Breast milk tastes sweet, probably because of the lactose in the milk. Taste tests carried out with very young babies decades ago showed that they prefer a drop of sweet water to that of salty, bitter and sour. We are not surprised at these results. After all, most of us would, as adults, pucker up our mouth after tasting intensely bitter, sour, or salty flavored water. But as with most natural behaviors, the attraction to sweet rather than the other tastes is protective and indeed life saving. Sweet foods are not poisonous. When our ancestors wandered around the forest looking for something to eat, they quickly learned to choose sweet-tasting foods and avoid those with a bitter or sour taste if they wanted to live another day. Foods with an excessive sodium content are also unhealthy because of their effect on blood pressure.

Before there was sugar, there was honey. The story of Samson  (aka Samson and Delilah) describes how he found a honeycomb in the carcass of a lion. Scooping out the honey, he ate it as he walked home and offered the rest to his parents. But honey was a prized sweet long before Samson. A 12,000 year-old cave painting in Spain depicts a woman collecting honey, and   sugar cane was known to the peoples of Indonesia, China and India more than 8000 years ago. Alexander the Great brought sugar cane to Greece from India around 800 BC, and the Arabs brought sugar to the western area of the Mediterranean. Sicily and southern Spain grew sugar cane and the city state of Venice refined and then exported it. Indeed, sugar was such a desirable and expensive commodity that it was referred to as white gold and was accumulated rather than consumed as a form of equity.

Eventually the cost of sugar decreased, especially when a second source, the sugar beet, was discovered after Napoleon blocked sea trade routes and prevented raw cane sugar from being imported by ship. And when sugar was scarce or too expensive, people found sweet substitutes like maple syrup and honey, fruit such as berries, guava, dates, figs, raisins and even sweet potatoes.

Deprivation of sugar does not lessen its appeal. Rationing of sugar in Great Britain lasted well beyond the end of World War II, but years of going without resulted in what seemed to be an almost excessive consumption when it was finally available. This seems also to be the effect of diets that are stringent in their elimination of sugar. Many years ago, when I was volunteering in a medical clinic promoting a high–protein, carbohydrate-free diet, I heard a woman patient tell another in the waiting room that she was counting the days until the end of the diet so she could eat a hot fudge sundae.  Indeed, bingeing on sugary foods was so commonplace, along with massive weight gain after the diet regimen ended, that eventually the program was abandoned.

So how are we to reconcile the medical consequences of excessive sugar intake with our innate desire to consume sweet foods? The answer may be in the approach taken by the restaurants that now offer dessert as a main course. The diners are not given 50-ounce jugs of sugary Slushees to sip on as they munch on sugar-infused green marshmallow Peeps topped with maple syrup. Rather, they are served miniscule portions of crafted desserts that have an intensely satisfying taste.  Several courses of bite-size confections may be offered and the diners eat them slowly and with great pleasure.  The amount of sugar consumed is small while the enjoyment is immense.

Preaching about the evils of sugar in the hopes that people will reject forever the consumption of this nutrient will, I fear, have the same success as Prohibition.  But I pose that just as people are urged to sip rather than gulp their alcoholic beverages, to drink moderately, and not drink alone, so too, eating sugary foods should be done slowly, if possible, with others, and consumed in small quantities.  Europeans understand the delights of combining delectable pastries and good conversation. Coffee shops are often filled with people in the afternoon drinking tea or coffee, nibbling on mouth-watering pastries and, of course, talking.  The patrons are, by and large, thin, or at any rate, thinner than we Americans, and show no hesitation at ordering squares of thick chocolate cake or large pieces of apple cake (a Dutch specialty).  There is no shame in eating a delicious sugary food anymore than there would be going to a wine bar and enjoying an excellent wine.

As an innate desire for sweet seems to be part of our biological makeup, we should accept it rather than try to preach against it or legislate it into extinction. However, we should change our eating habits so that eating something sweet is a treat to be anticipated and enjoyed rather than gulped and gobbled.  There is no reason we can’t have our cake and eat it too as long as we don’t make cake and other sugar-laden foods one of our four food groups.

Forget the Nutritional Fire & Brimstone (On Special Occasions now that the Game is Decided)

Is it ironic or perverse that just as January (aka, National Diet month) ends, the country is plunged into its first annual national binge day? Sure, there is much more hype about the multi-course Thanksgiving dinner, with its festive and traditional foods, but that dinner at least has a vegetable or two on the table. And although the meal may last an hour or two, the eating does not occupy the better part of a day. Not so with The Game. If one reads about the venue, it seems as if there is more information about what to eat in New Jersey on the days preceding (cheese and onion covered sausage rolls seems to be a winner), than the actual game itself.

Theoretically, the point of game day is to watch the game. Theoretically, it should be possible to do this without constantly eating and drinking. Theoretically, the game should be so compelling that no refreshments should be necessary, except perhaps a few pretzels and some ice water.

The reality is somewhat different. Someone figured out that Americans consume about 30 million pounds of food and over 50 million cases of beer on game day. Chips are the favored snack food. We eat on that day about 11.2 million pounds of potato chips. It is a wonder that anyone can hear the game over the sounds of crunching and the popping of beer can lids!

But why not enjoy all aspects of this day, including the frivolous eating? Despite the constant preaching about the evils of eating foods that really taste good and satisfy some deep hidden craving, I suspect that people will ignore the sermons and eat what they want.

It is unlikely that too many people will be crunching only celery sticks. Potato chips will probably not be replaced by kale chips across the living rooms of America. Advertisers at half time are not going to lecture us about the sins of eating gluten, sugar and salt and then wax on about the joy of eating blocks of tempeh. It is possible that some game watchers will be sipping their colon-cleanse diet drink of lemon juice and pepper? Cleanse diets, I suspect, are suspended and a clean colon will have to wait until the next day. And if a poll were taken to see how many game watchers are into serious discussions about the effect of their snacks on insulin resistance, as opposed to the skill of a particular player, few would be found in the former category.

Perhaps this multitasking day: eating and watching television, or eating and watching the game from the stands, maybe it’s good for us. Maybe it halts, at least for a day, the almost constant barrage of nutritional fire and brimstone. We can stop paying attention, at least for a few hours, to the television gurus and authors who are claiming that every ill we experience or will be forecasted for our personal futures is caused by what we are putting in our mouths. Maybe we can relax about what we are eating for a few hours and not contemplate how many days will have to be spent on the treadmill to compensate for all those Buffalo wings.

To be sure, many of us do not eat nutritionally adequate or sensible diets on most days, not just Super Bowl game day. Munchies, pizza and beer may represent a typical diet for a few, with the consequent weight gain and its medical side effects, i.e. high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Eating a Super Bowl diet all year could have a disastrous effect on whether one will be around the following year to watch the game again.

But Super Bowl game food may push the pendulum of hysterical, “You will die an early death if you eat that!” back to a more common-sense approach to our food intake. It is not really necessary to punish ourselves by completely eliminating the consumption of foods that we love in order to live a healthy long life. Can’t we return to a moderate, sensible approach to changing our diet from an approach that condemns without mercy many ingredients in our food that makes food enjoyable, festive and special? Can we not “cut back” rather than “cut out” foods we are told are poisoning our bodies, such as sugar? (Curiously the sugar police never mention cutting out alcohol completely. I wonder why?)

Let food be part of a pleasurable, albeit possible stressful, game-watching experience. Is game food good for us? Probably not. Will it shorten our life span, cause memory loss, mental illness, sexual impotence and all sorts of other dire problems that we are told could befall us if eat a cheese-drenched sausage roll once a year? Unlikely.

No one knows who is going to win The Game. And eating some wings, pizza or dips will not affect the outcome. But it may make watching the game more fun, regardless of who wins.