Balance basics: How to stay fit and active.

Balance exercises can help you maintain your balance and confidence at any age. Nearly any activity that keeps you on your feet and moving, such as walking, can help you maintain good balance. You can also try balancing on one foot while waiting in line, or stand up and sit down without using your hands. Read on for more about what you should know about improving your balance:

  • There are two main types of balance. Static balance is your ability to control your posture while standing still. Dynamic balance describes how well you can hold your posture when your body moves.
  • If you’re an older adult, balance exercises are especially important because they can help you prevent falls and maintain your independence.
  • Problems with balance can affect the athletic performance of younger people, too.
  • You can improve your balance by doing progressively more difficult balance exercises at least twice a week. Tai chi has been shown to be helpful for improving balance.
  • Standing on a balance pillow, foam square, balance disc or half of a stability ball can help improve balance.

If you have severe balance problems or an orthopedic condition, get your doctor’s OK before doing balance exercises.

Stretch your way to better health.

You might be thinking that it’s hard to carve out time in your schedule for exercise, let alone stretching. But most cardio and strength-training programs cause your muscles to tighten. That’s why it’s important to stretch regularly to keep your body functioning well.

Regular stretching:

  • Increases flexibility, which makes daily tasks easier
  • Improves range of motion of your joints, which helps keep you mobile
  • Improves circulation
  • Promotes better posture
  • Helps relieve stress by relaxing tense muscles
  • Helps prevent injury, especially if your muscles or joints are tight

 

Stretching essentials

Keep these key points in mind:

  • Target major muscle groups. When you’re stretching, focus on your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Also stretch muscles and joints that you routinely use at work or play.
  • Warm up first. Stretching muscles when they’re cold increases your risk of injury, including pulled muscles. Warm up by walking while gently pumping your arms, or do a favorite exercise at low intensity for five minutes. If you only have time to stretch once, do it after you exercise — when your muscles are warm and more receptive to stretching. And when you do stretch, start slowly.
  • Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds. It takes time to lengthen tissues safely. Hold your stretches for at least 30 seconds — and up to 60 seconds for a really tight muscle or problem area. Then repeat the stretch on the other side. For most muscle groups, a single stretch is usually sufficient.
  • Don’t bounce. Bouncing as you stretch repeatedly gets your muscles out of the stretch position and doesn’t allow them to relax, making you less flexible and more prone to pain.
  • Focus on a pain-free stretch. Expect to feel tension while you’re stretching. If it hurts, you’ve gone too far. Back off to the point where you don’t feel any pain, then hold the stretch.
  • Relax and breathe freely.
  • Don’t hold your breath while you’re stretching.

 

Fit stretching into your schedule

As a general rule, stretch whenever you exercise. If you don’t exercise regularly, you may want to stretch at least three times a week to maintain flexibility. If you have a problem area, such as tightness in the back of your leg, you may want to stretch every day or even twice a day.

Think about ways you can fit stretching into your daily schedule. For example:

  • Do some stretches after your morning shower or bath. That way, you can shorten your warm-up routine because the warm water will raise muscle temperature and prepare your muscles for stretching.
  • Stretch before getting out of bed. Try a few gentle head-to-toe stretches by reaching your arms above your head and pointing your toes.

Healthy food can be convenient, too.

You know that the oversized portions, endless bread baskets and heavy sauces at restaurants can thwart your efforts to lose weight. But do you know how many calories you’re eating at your own kitchen table or office desk from foods that were prepared outside your home? This includes takeout foods, ready-to-eat entrees, to-go pizzas and paninis, deli salads, and all the prepared foods made in your local grocery store.

If you’re eating a lot of meals that you didn’t make with your own two hands, you’re in good company. Research shows that spending on takeout and prepared foods has been on the rise in the United States for the past four decades. This trend is a serious contributor to weight gain and other health problems in adults and children.

What’s the connection? When you buy takeout or prepared foods, you’re often trading convenience for calories. Foods prepared outside your home are a timesaver, but they often contain more fatty and sugary ingredients than you would typically use at home. Plus, portions can be big. As a result, grabbing foods on the go can add a lot of calories to your day. In addition, prepared foods tend to be high in salt and low in fiber and other nutrients that help promote overall health.

A deliberate effort to curb your convenience foods or choose healthier options can make a huge difference in your weight-loss efforts. Follow these tips:

  • Eat breakfast at home, or pack it up. It’s ideal to avoid less-healthy takeout and prepared foods as much as possible. But that may seem difficult if you regularly eat on the run. Start one meal at a time. Eat a quick and healthy breakfast — such as whole-grain cereal or whole-grain toast with peanut butter and a piece of fruit — before you leave the house. Or take a healthy option — such as a banana and yogurt — with you rather than picking up a bagel or muffin at your local coffee shop.
    If your mornings are frantic, figure out what you’re going to eat the night before and set out dry ingredients and bowls to save time. Or make a t-go breakfast the night before that you can grab in the morning.
  • Pack a flavorful, healthy lunch that you look forward to eating. It doesn’t matter how healthy your packed lunch is if you skip it and head to a cafe with co-workers — or it leaves you unsatisfied and reaching for a cookie. If you look forward to a turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato on whole-wheat bread and a side of fruit every day, that’s great. If not, pack something you want to eat. Cook an extra chicken breast at dinner. Then slice it and toss it with strawberries, pecans and spinach for lunch. Or put together a whole-wheat wrap with black beans, salsa, lettuce, tomato and a few slices of avocado.
  • Bring along healthy snacks. When you leave the house, take fresh fruits and vegetables with you. Or keep them at your office. Having healthy snacks at hand will reduce your reliance on convenience foods. To save time, cut up veggies or fruit when you return from the grocery store and put them in travel containers. Or pack a few pretzels and a small container of cottage cheese for dipping.
  • Assemble simple dinners. You can assemble a quick dinner from fresh ingredients in the same amount of time it takes to wait in line at your local takeout joint. Rather than running for takeout, go to the grocery store and buy smoked salmon, a whole-wheat baguette and the fixings for a Greek salad — cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, green pepper, red onion, kalamata olives, a sprinkling of feta cheese, and red-wine vinegar and olive oil for vinaigrette. Toss together the salad ingredients and serve on a platter with the salmon and baguette.

    Better yet, put these ingredients on your shopping list and meal plan. This Greek-inspired meal will come together even more swiftly if you don’t have to stop at the store. And like any dish, the more often you make it, the quicker it is to prepare. Don’t care for salmon? Substitute water-packed canned tuna or already-cooked chicken.

Choose wisely when you buy prepared foods. Despite your best efforts to cut back on convenience foods, they may still be part of your diet occasionally. When you do purchase ready-to-eat entrees or takeout meals, avoid fried items and cheesy options. Steamed, broiled, baked or poached entrees tend to be healthier choices. Choose lower-calorie sauces and condiments. Substitute brown rice, whole-wheat bread and other whole grains as much as possible, and load up on fresh vegetables.

Flexibility: Stretch your way to better health

You might be thinking that it’s hard to carve out time in your schedule for exercise, let alone stretching. But most cardio and strength-training programs cause your muscles to tighten. That’s why it’s important to stretch regularly to keep your body functioning well.

Regular stretching:

  • Increases flexibility, which makes daily tasks easier
  • Improves range of motion of your joints, which helps keep you mobile
  • Improves circulation
  • Promotes better posture
  • Helps relieve stress by relaxing tense muscles
  • Helps prevent injury, especially if your muscles or joints are tight

 

Stretching essentials

Keep these key points in mind:

    • Target major muscle groups. When you’re stretching, focus on your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Also stretch muscles and joints that you routinely use at work or play.
    • Warm up first. Stretching muscles when they’re cold increases your risk of injury, including pulled muscles. Warm up by walking while gently pumping your arms, or do a favorite exercise at low intensity for five minutes. If you only have time to stretch once, do it after you exercise — when your muscles are warm and more receptive to stretching. And when you do stretch, start slowly.
    • Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds. It takes time to lengthen tissues safely. Hold your stretches for at least 30 seconds — and up to 60 seconds for a really tight muscle or problem area. Then repeat the stretch on the other side. For most muscle groups, a single stretch is usually sufficient.
    • Don’t bounce. Bouncing as you stretch repeatedly gets your muscles out of the stretch position and doesn’t allow them to relax, making you less flexible and more prone to pain.
    • Focus on a pain-free stretch. Expect to feel tension while you’re stretching. If it hurts, you’ve gone too far. Back off to the point where you don’t feel any pain, then hold the stretch.
    • Relax and breathe freely.

Don’t hold your breath while you’re stretching.

 

Fit stretching into your schedule

As a general rule, stretch whenever you exercise. If you don’t exercise regularly, you may want to stretch at least three times a week to maintain flexibility. If you have a problem area, such as tightness in the back of your leg, you may want to stretch every day or even twice a day.

Think about ways you can fit stretching into your daily schedule. For example:

  • Do some stretches after your morning shower or bath. That way, you can shorten your warm-up routine because the warm water will raise muscle temperature and prepare your muscles for stretching.
  • Stretch before getting out of bed. Try a few gentle head-to-toe stretches by reaching your arms above your head and pointing your toes.
  • Sign up for a yoga or tai chi class. You’re more likely to stick with a program if you’re registered for a class.

 

What you should know before you stretch

You can stretch anytime, anywhere — in your home, at work or when you’re traveling. But if you have a chronic condition or an injury, you may need to alter your approach. For example, if you have a strained muscle, stretching it as you usually do may cause further harm. Talk with your doctor or a physical therapist about the best way for you to stretch.

Healthy meal ideas for hectic days

Do your intentions to eat well seem to fly out the window when you have a packed schedule? Stay grounded with these simple tips, no matter how long your to-do list is:

 

  • Make an effort to eat as a family at least once a day. A pleasant meal that isn’t rushed promotes family bonding and improves the likelihood of eating a well-balanced meal. Be flexible with timing: You may need to eat dinner early or make a plan to always sit down together just for breakfast to accommodate everyone’s hectic schedule.
  • Cook ahead. When you have time to cook, make a double batch and freeze leftovers for quick meals on busy days. For instance, simmer enough pasta for two days. Serve it hot one night with sauce, then chilled in a salad with tuna and low-fat salad dressing the next.
  • Stock your pantry with foods for simple meals. Good examples are whole-wheat pasta, fresh and frozen vegetables, fresh and canned fruits, 100 percent whole-wheat bread, lean deli meats, salsa, canned dried beans, and low-fat or fat-free yogurt and cheese.
  • Go for health and convenience. Some convenience foods are designed to be healthy and lower in calories. A healthy frozen entree or side dish is an option on busy days. Read labels for calories, fat and sodium. Stock healthy versions of quick foods like instant brown rice.
  • Look for shortcuts. Simplify your meal prep and save time by buying pre-cut fruits and vegetables, precooked meats, shredded low-fat cheeses, packaged salads, and frozen or canned vegetables. There’s nothing quicker than fresh fruit, but fruit canned in its own juice (not sugary syrup) is also OK. Rinse canned vegetables with water to remove excess sodium.
  • Keep a list of simple menu ideas. Recipes that include common staples and take 20 minutes or less come in handy on days when you’re rushed.

 

It always helps if you plan meals ahead, but if your house is stocked with healthy choices you can wing it and still eat well. Remember that healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated or involve hard-to-find ingredients.

 

By Mayo Clinic Staff.

7 meatless meal ideas

Meat doesn’t have to be the only source of protein in your diet. In fact, studies show that eating red meat and processed meat can increase your risk of developing heart disease and cancer.

Since meatless meals are built around vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and grains, they offer many nutrients, including protein. Eggs and low-fat dairy foods also are good protein sources. Eating a variety of these foods throughout the day can give you all the essential amino acids — the building blocks of protein — that your body needs. In addition, protein from meatless sources can be just as filling. Another bonus: Buying less meat can also help you spend less on food, as meat usually costs more than its healthy alternatives.

Meatless recipes can offer a world of enjoyable possibilities, including some fun ethnic meals. Start exploring your meatless options — and your cooking creativity — with these ideas:

  • Substitute part or all of the meat with extra vegetables when making lasagna, pasta and stews.
  • Order mushroom and cheese or veggie pizza.
  • Stir-fry vegetables with tofu instead of meat.
  • Make vegetable kebabs.
  • Choose bean burritos or tacos.
  • Make chili or spaghetti sauce with soy-based vegetable crumbles instead of ground meat.
  • Grill portobello mushrooms in place of hamburgers.

 

Instead of building your meals by focusing on meat, think about the colorful and satisfying meals you can create by starting with vegetables and whole grains.

4 ways to make new habits stick

All of us approach the process of personal change a little differently. But anyone can take a cue from these key principles as you work to adopt new habits.

  1. Build confidence. Focus on strategies that play to your strengths and your skills. Consider how you have succeeded in the past, and build your plan from there. Past experiences — good or bad — are learning opportunities and should be seen as a useful tool in tackling new goals with optimism.
  1. Create a routine. An eating or activity schedule can create a better sense of control. Make sure your schedule is one that truly works for your life and not one you can follow only for the short term. That’s why it’s important to set realistic goals — the more successful you are, the easier it will be to stay motivated.
  2. Focus on what you’re adding to your life. Try not to fixate on what you’re giving up, whether it’s certain foods, habits or a little extra TV time. Focus on things like the delicious, healthy meals you are eating and how energized you feel after a workout. Celebrate success as you notice even the smallest positive changes in how you look and feel; it will give you the momentum you need to keep going.
  3. Make your program your own. Take a day off from exercise, or enjoy one of your favorite foods once in a while. The more you make your program work for you, the less likely you are to rebel against it. Figure out what it takes — within reason — to make your healthy lifestyle pleasurable and sustainable.

By following these principles, you can enjoy a lifetime of healthier living — and a healthy weight!

 

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Whole grains vs. regular grains: What’s the difference?

Chances are you eat lots of grains already. But are they the healthiest kind? If you’re like most people, you’re not getting enough whole grains in your diet. Aim to choose whole grains for at least half of all the grains you eat. Read on to learn about the different types and why you should skip refined and enriched grains.

Types of grains

Also called cereals, grains and whole grains are the seeds of grasses cultivated for food. They come in many shapes and sizes, from large kernels of popcorn to small quinoa seeds.

  1. Whole grains. These unrefined grains haven’t had their bran and germ removed by milling; therefore, all of the nutrients remain intact. Whole grains are better sources of fiber and other important nutrients, such as selenium, potassium and magnesium. Whole grains are either single foods, such as brown rice and popcorn, or ingredients in products, such as buckwheat in pancakes or whole wheat in bread.
  2. Refined grains. In contrast to whole grains, refined grains are milled, a process that strips out both the bran and germ to give them a finer texture and longer shelf life. The refining process also removes many nutrients, including fiber. Refined grains include white flour, white rice, white bread and degermed cornflower. Many breads, cereals, crackers, desserts and pastries are made with refined grains, too. These processed foods will not keep your blood sugar levels steady, which is why you will be hungry again soon after consumption.
  3. Enriched grains. Enriched means that some or many of the nutrients that are lost during processing are added back in later.

 

Most refined grains are enriched, and many enriched grains are also fortified — meaning nutrients that don’t occur naturally in the food are added — with other vitamins and minerals, such as folic acid and iron. Enriched grains lack fiber and are not an optimal choice because while they have traces of nutrition, many important vitamins and nutrients are lost during processing.

Choosing whole grains

Eat whole grains rather than refined grains as often as possible. Examples of whole grains include:

  1. Barley
  2. Brown rice
  3. Buckwheat
  4. Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  5. Millet
  6. Oatmeal
  7. Whole-wheat bread, pasta or crackers
  8. Wild rice

 

It’s not always easy to tell which grains are in a particular product, especially bread. For instance, a brown bread isn’t necessarily whole wheat — the color may come from added coloring. If you’re not sure something has whole grains, check the product label or the Nutrition Facts panel. Look for the word “whole” on the package, and make sure whole grains appear among the first items in the ingredient list.

How to enjoy more whole grains in your diet

Try these tips to add more whole grains to your meals and snacks:

  1. Enjoy breakfasts that include whole-grain cereals, such as bran flakes, shredded wheat or oatmeal.
  2. Substitute whole-wheat toast or whole-grain bagels for plain. Substitute low-fat bran muffins for pastries.
  3. Make sandwiches using whole-grain breads or rolls. Swap out white-flour tortillas with whole-wheat versions.
  4. Replace white rice with kasha, brown rice, wild rice or bulgur.
  5. Feature wild rice or barley in soups, stews, casseroles and salads.
  6. Add whole grains, such as cooked brown rice or whole-grain bread crumbs, to ground meat or poultry for extra body.
  7. Use rolled oats or crushed bran cereal in recipes instead of dry bread crumbs.

 

Eating a variety of whole grains not only ensures that you get more health-promoting nutrients but also helps make your meals and snacks more interesting.

Get into the habit: Pack your lunch

Bringing your lunch to work is a breeze with these quick and simple strategies.

How often do you just grab whatever’s available when you’re hungry, even relying on a vending machine to supply your midday meal? Reinvigorate your lunch, save money and eat healthier with the following packing tips:

  • Pick foods from a range of food groups to maximize your energy. Choose fruits; vegetables; low-fat milk, yogurt or cheese; whole-grain bread, cereal, pasta or brown rice; and lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs or beans for your lunches.
  • Think beyond the typical sandwich and chips. Stuff whole-grain pita bread with sliced chicken, cucumbers, red onion, low-fat feta cheese and a dash of light dressing. Make kebabs with cut-up fruits and pair with low-fat yogurt as a dip. Replace peanut-butter sandwiches with another nut or seed spread like sunflower-seed butter.
  • No microwave? No problem. Keep hot foods hot with an insulated vacuum container such as a thermos. Fill with hot stew, chili, vegetable soup or leftovers for a satisfying meal on a cold day.
  • Have easy brown-bag options handy. Pair low-fat cheese sticks and smoked turkey slices with whole-grain crackers, crunchy raw vegetables and a handful of grapes, or try whole-grain pasta salad — made with chicken, vegetables and shredded Parmesan cheese — with low-fat pudding and a crisp apple. Another option: Layer hummus, sliced tomatoes and reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese over whole-grain bread for a taste-tempting sandwich. Add a handful of baked potato chips and a fresh pear for a satisfying meal.
  • Revive leftovers. Don’t let food from the day before go to waste — turn it into a tasty lunch! Pasta dishes can be enhanced with vegetables, such as a serving of broccoli or a handful of baby spinach. Bring salads to life by adding your favorite raw veggies or protein, such as a boiled egg, chicken or tofu.

Packing lunches can be challenging if you aren’t already in the habit. Look within yourself to find barriers to success and plan solutions that work for you…and save money while you’re at it!

Lack of sleep and sitting all day damages the brain

If you are sleep-deprived or if your job has you sitting all day, your brain is being damaged. If both apply to you, that is a double-whammy that no brain can withstand. Regularly getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night can cause the same long-term brain damage as alcohol abuse. Sitting at a desk all day or spending hours watching television damages the brain in a way that can increase the risk of dementia.

Recent research found that getting too little sleep causes the brain to literally eat itself. Specialized brain cells called astrocytes are more active in brains that are sleep-deprived. Astrocytes act like miniature vacuum cleaners, sucking up unwanted cellular debris. While normally this is good, when the vacuuming goes on too long, the astrocytes begin sucking up portions of the brain’s connections called synapses.

Sedentary behavior such as prolonged sitting has been found to be associated with thinning of the medial temporal lobe of the brain. This portion of the brain is crucial to the formation of new memories. Thinning of the medial temporal lobe can be an early sign of cognitive decline and dementia.

 

Published June 18, 2018 by Dr. Daniel Thomas, DO, MS