Health often seems like a numbers game. What’s your blood-sugar level? How many calories are you eating? And are you getting the right percentage of macros (or macronutrients)? The problem is that sometimes we track, count and obsess over numbers that don’t matter very much for our overall health. Or worse, we ignore numbers that do matter.
I was curious about which numbers my fellow dietitians consider the most important. I sought feedback from 20 experts who work in either hospitals or private practice. Here are the data that have the most clinical importance, and the ones they tell their patients to ignore.
The numbers that matter most:
Half your plate. Instead of counting every calorie, dietitians recommend that clients simplify food decisions by using a plate model, where you choose the right proportions of each food. That means filling half your plate with vegetables and some fruit; one quarter with protein-rich foods such as fish, poultry or beans; and the final quarter with whole grains such as quinoa or brown rice. The Healthy Eating Plate from Harvard University is a great example of a plate model.
25 to 35 grams. That’s how much fibre a day we need for optimal health, but most Americans get just 16 grams per day. Getting enough fibre helps lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, prevents certain cancers, eases constipation and keeps you feeling full for longer, which is helpful for weight management. Get more fibre from vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains (or just follow the healthy-plate model, mentioned above).
7 to 8 hours. Are you getting that much sleep every night? Lack of sleep has short-term consequences, such as poor judgment, increased risk of accidents, bad moods and less ability to retain information. Poor sleep over the long term has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. So, turn off the TV, power down your devices and get the rest your body needs.
150 minutes. That’s the recommendation for how much physical activity (equivalent to 2.5 hours) you should get each week, preferably spread through the week in increments of at least 10 minutes. This level of activity helps combat heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, dementia and cancer.
100 mg/dl. Your doctor can test your fasting plasma glucose level to check for Type 2 diabetes (a normal reading is less than 100 mg/dl). Often called a “lifestyle” disease, Type 2 diabetes is largely preventable by eating well and getting enough exercise. If you have diabetes, lifestyle changes can actually help you reverse the diagnosis — but first you need to know your number. A diagnosis of prediabetes is 100 to 125 mg/dl., and a diagnosis of diabetes is 126 mg/dl. or higher.
120/80 mmHg. High blood pressure is known as the silent killer because it often has no obvious symptoms. Left untreated, high blood pressure is a risk factor for having a heart attack or a stroke. That’s why you need to get your blood pressure checked and know whether you are at risk. Normal blood pressure is 120/80 mmHg (millimetres of mercury) or less. Elevated blood pressure is 121 to 129 over 80. High blood pressure is 130 to 139 over 80 to 89.
The numbers that don’t matter very much:
Size 8. Too many people have a diet goal to be a specific size, but the numbers on clothes are inconsistent and arbitrary. A size 4 at one store may fit like a size 8 at a different store, which makes shopping frustrating — and makes your pant or shirt size a very poor measure of your health. If you don’t like the number on your pants, cut the label out. Focus on how you feel, not the number on the clothing tag.
50 years old. Or 86. Or 31, 75 or 27. Age is just a number. You are never too young to need to take care of yourself, or too old to start an exercise program or change what you eat. A healthy lifestyle is important at every age.
1,800 calories. Or whatever number you choose. You don’t need to count every calorie you eat — it’s tedious, often flawed, and it doesn’t help you choose nutrient-dense foods. If you had the choice between 100 calories of broccoli or fries, you’d probably choose the fries, right? But that wouldn’t provide much nourishment and oversimplifies eating into one silly number. If you are a lifelong calorie counter, there’s no need to give it up, but remember that it’s not the most vital number for your overall health.
40-30-30. Or any other ratio of macronutrients, the umbrella term for carbs, protein and fat. Keeping track of macros is a popular diet, and if it works for you, fantastic! But some dietitians warn that it’s difficult to know the precise macro content of every food you eat, which leads to obsessive use of food diaries and macro-counting apps. This promotes a dieting mentality, rather the concept of enjoying food from a balanced plate. There’s nothing magical about counting macros. It’s just a diet.
Below 25. The body mass index (BMI) is a clinical tool that groups people in categories of normal weight, overweight or obese depending on their height and weight. But BMI doesn’t take age, gender or bone structure into account, and athletes are often classified as overweight because BMI doesn’t distinguish between muscle and fat! So, don’t rely on this number as your primary measure of health.
Big changes like cutting out all carbs or training for a marathon are great—but you don’t have to remake yourself to have a dramatic impact on your health. Try a few of these baby steps to get you started in the right direction.
Add a fruit or veggie to every meal
Not ready to give up a bad habit yet? Start by creating an easy good-for-you habit instead. “Less than one in three individuals gets even two servings of fruits and vegetables per day,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, LDN, CPT, author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet. “By adding one serving to each meal, you can get in at least three servings per day and be ahead of the curve. A half of a banana on your breakfast cereal, a small side salad with your sandwich at lunch, and adding 1/2 cup of cooked veggies into your pasta can pack in more fiber, antioxidants, and nutrients—all which have been found to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even certain cancers.”
Work on your hips
“If you have a sedentary job, focus on some hip opening exercises to start and end your day,” suggests trainer Jonathan Hertilus, ACE, owner of BFF Bootcamp in Nutley, NJ. “For instance,” says Hertilus, “hip bridges can be done anywhere—even in bed—as soon as you wake up or right before you go to sleep.” Just a few minutes of hip exercises can do wonders to keep your back and core muscles engaged.
Lose a little weight
Setting a goal to lose 40 pounds or more to get out of the “overweight” category can be daunting. So aim for smaller, more attainable goals, which can make a big difference in your overall health. “Small steps can be very powerful,” says Jill Crandall, MD, professor of endocrinology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and an attending physician at Montefiore Health System.” For people who are at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, which includes many adults who are overweight and have a family history of diabetes, modest changes can reduce the risk of developing diabetes by over 50 percent.” Dr. Crandall suggests focusing on losing about 7 percent of your overall weight—or about 15 pounds for a 200-pound person.
Lighten your load
Cleaning out your purse or backpack could go a long way toward preventing neck, back, and shoulder pain. When you are carrying things, balance your load, and avoid backpacks or purses with more than 10 percent of your body weight,” suggests Robert Hayden, DC, PhD, a chiropractor in Griffin, Georgia.
Be careful with condiments
You might want to take a second to consider before you slather your next salad in ranch dressing. “Ketchup, barbecue sauce, mayo, and salad dressings can all be a major source of calories, sodium, fat, and added sugar,” says Palinski-Wade. “Opt for condiments on the side, rather than on your meal and read those labels!”
Skimp on the sugar—and pump up your probiotics
More and more studies show that sugar wreaks havoc on your health, including slowing your metabolism, impairing brain function, and increasing your risk of heart disease and cancer. But there are other health issues you can keep at bay with a little less sugar and a little more healthy bacteria. “Decreasing intake of sugar and processed food as well as taking probiotics can help decrease yeast infections,” says Jessica Shepherd, MD, MBA, OB/GYN, director of minimally invasive gynecology at University of Illinois at Chicago.
Straighten up your sleep habits
A bad sleep posture could make for more aches and pains when you’re awake. “Most of us don’t really think much about posture while we are asleep—but really, posture while you are asleep is at least as important as when you are awake because the muscles that protect your joints are quite loose while you are asleep,” says Dr. Hayden. “I recommend sleeping in a side posture whenever possible. Make sure your pillow is firm and just high enough to keep your head level with the mattress so that your head is neither pushed up nor down. Use a body pillow to hug, throwing your upper arm and upper knee over the pillow so that the pillow supports the weight of the extremities while you are asleep. This prevents you from inducing torque into the lumbar spine and offloads the weight of the upper extremity from the structures at the base of the neck. This simple approach to rest keeps your body straight and as stress free as possible while you catch those zzzs.”
Drink half your weight in water
We should all be drinking more water, but the old saw about eight glasses of eight ounces of water doesn’t work for everybody. The better formula? “Take your weight in pounds and divide by two, and you will get the number of ounces of water you should drink every day,” says Mitzi Dulan, RD, founder of simplyFUEL. “Start your day with a big glass of ice water. Ice cold water can boost your metabolism slightly because it takes energy for your body to get it to room temperature—drink six glasses of 16 ounces of cold water and burn an extra 100 calories per day.”
Stop the midnight snacking
“Avoid eating after 8 p.m.,” says Dulan. “Often times, late-night eating is really boredom eating. This helps your body focus on burning the fat during the night instead of trying to work to digest the food you just ate before nodding off.”
Shut off your electronics an hour before bedtime
Those last hours before bed may seem like the perfect time to catch up on some work or binge watch a little of your favorite show, but experts say that the light emanating from your screens could be disrupting your sleep. That wavelength of light disrupts melatonin production, and tricks your body into thinking it’s daylight, according to Mark Buchfuhrer, MD, medical director of the Comprehensive Sleep Center at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. The fix? Skip the screens and tuck into a good book, do relaxed stretching, or find another way to unwind in the last hour before your bedtime.
Trade refined carbs for whole grains
“Most people eat plenty of grains, but most Americans consume only one serving of whole grains per day,” says Palinski-Wade. “By swapping out a few refined grains for whole grains, you may reduce your waist circumference and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. If you use white bread for a sandwich, switch to rye. If you like rice, opt for brown rice over white rice. A simple switch can add up significantly.”
Take breaks when you’re traveling
Whether you travel by car or plane, taking frequent breaks to walk and stretch is essential. When flying by air, it can reduce your risk of developing a dangerous blood clot in your leg, called a deep vein thrombosis. “I coach our patients who are driving long-distance to get out of the vehicle periodically and walk around it a few laps,” Dr. Hayden says. “Find a bumper that is the right height to put one foot on it. Step back about two feet, square the pelvis, and lean toward the foot that is on the bumper. This has the effect of a hurdler’s stretch, and it will help stretch those gluteals on which you have been sitting as well as the quadriceps and many of the extensor muscles in the back. Always stretch both sides—if you leave one side tight, you may find yourself walking in circles!”
Cut down on the cocktails
Those studies that show red wine’s positive health benefits may encourage us to raise a few more glasses, but there are really good reasons to limit your alcohol intake, including increased risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, and obesity. Cutting back on the booze can decrease the risk of many different kinds of cancer, including breast cancer, according to Dr. Shepherd. For women, one drink a day seems to be the healthy max, while men can have two.
“Everyone asks me to recommend one exercise that everyone can do to improve their overall health,” says Pat McGuinness, personal trainer at the MAX Challenge in Montclair, NJ, and regional director of programming for New York Sports Clubs. “My answer is always squats! Everyone can do them—modifications are easy—and leg muscles make up more than 60 percent of our total body composition, which means you get more bang for your buck!”
Walk for five minutes every hour at work
Studies have shown that a sedentary lifestyle can wreak havoc on your health. If you can’t get a standing desk to help you limit your time on your seat, make sure you take a five-minute walk break every hour. That can help you minimize the impact of sitting on your health, and ensure you get even more than the doctor-recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week. That can help you reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, according to Dr. Crandall.
Swap soda for fruit-spiked water
Whether it’s diet or sugar-filled, study after study shows that soda isn’t the best beverage—unless you want to gain weight, increase your risk of developing diabetes, cancer, or heart disease, and reduce your bone density. But you don’t have to sacrifice flavor if you give up your soda. “Infuse water with fruit for a tasty alternative that’s sure to impress and refresh,” says McGuinness.
Your exercise choice will evolve in tandem with your fitness level, but the principles that get you moving are constant!
Contrary to popular fitness PR mythology, health success is produced from finding, and implementing, principles, not through discovering the “perfect” exercise or workout.
Your exercise choice will evolve in tandem with your fitness level (for example, over time you’ll need a weighted vs. body weight squat), but the principles that get you moving are constant!
Principle One: Create “systems” that protect you from your lesser self
Know your triggers so you can protect yourself from yourself!
When one is motivated, energized, happy, not exhausted, not in a social situation, at the grocery store, etc, it’s easy to say, “I won’t drink at the party,” or, for me, “I won’t eat the entire box of fudge bars.” Now, following through? Not so easy.
In the grocery store I can tell myself, “Buy the bars; have one every few days,” but I know from experience that at 11 p.m. I will eat the entire box. So, I built a system where I can have them — in safe spaces. My mom keeps a box so I can visit her to have a chat and a bar. I save myself from my lesser self, but I don’t feel deprived (deprivation is health death — see Principle Two.)
Basically, create a safety net; don’t give yourself the opportunity to “go there.”
Become aware of your habits; you can’t guard against your lesser being if you’re not aware of your triggers. Journal your food intake and have “mindfulness moments” before eating. Ask, “Why am I eating? Am I hungry? Tired? Bored?” Maybe you always eat while watching TV. Possible solution? Knit instead; keep your hands busy.
One way the past replicates itself is through lack of presence; if you don’t become aware of your thought loops and habits, you will just replicate them.
Live by the equation “awareness + preparation = success!” Know your triggers. Have a plan. Then a back-up plan! Plan doesn’t work? Learn from the experience. Tweak the plan.
Principle Two: Feeling deprived is the kiss of health death
Never replace a “positive” with a negative “have to!”
Find a healthier, yet still enjoyable, substitution, or re-frame the situation.
New habits won’t stick until you figure out what the original habit offered and find a healthier way to get a similar effect
If drinking with friends provides a “social high,” don’t simply state “I am staying home.” If your 3 p.m. treat offers you a moment of peace, don’t just say,”No afternoon treats.” Walk and socialize with friends. Have herbal tea during your afternoon “me” moment.
If you can’t find a healthier substitute, re-frame the new option as a positive.
Instead of being frustrated “having to” have a salad, feel grateful that you “get to” make the choice. Replace “I can’t eat cake,” with, “How lucky am I that I get to eat berries?” This re-framing is empowering since it involves ownership, which helps fight feelings akin to adolescent rebellion; no one likes to feel forced or deprived.
Principle Three: Realistic expectations are the seeds of happiness and success
Unhealthy habits were not formed overnight. New healthier habits will not form instantaneously.
Stop setting the bar impossibly high! Give yourself time to establish new patterns.
Set the success bar to an appropriate height. Embrace “little wins.” Expect three weekly workouts, not five. Expect less sugar, not no sugar.
Expecting the impossible, such as overnight success or perfection, simply sets one up for failure. Often it produces a mentality that justifies “snowballing,” where when we deviate even slightly off our impossible course (which is inevitable), we let one small unhealthy choice snowball into multiple unhealthy choices. One cookie turns into five, which turns into a bottle of wine and no workouts for a week. Why wouldn’t we? We have framed the slip as a “failure” rather than an opportunity to analyze our goals, program and expectations.
Let small victories domino into larger victories until all of a sudden you have more healthy habits than last month. Trend positive.
Principle Four: Re-frame “failure” as an “opportunity for growth,” BUT don’t mistake “failure” for simply not trying!
Learn from every experience. Every “fall” is an opportunity for self-reflection and growth. If you overeat or skip a workout, aim to understand why. Did you get too hungry, then scarf down everything in sight? Did you skip a workout because of a lack of advanced planning?
Life is your laboratory. Keep what works. Ditch what doesn’t.
The caveat is, failing and growing is not the same thing as being lazy, sloppy or simply not trying. Don’t justify a “fall” with something akin to, “Kathleen said falling is good.”
You have to care, to learn, to be aware.
Principle Five: Stop finding problems for every solution! Find solutions for every problem
Stop focusing on what you can’t control and what you don’t have. Start focusing on what you do have and what you can control!
If you always focus on what you don’t have and what you can’t control, of course you won’t be successful.
Put another way: stop focusing on if the glass is half empty or half full. Learn how to fill your cup. Take ownership. Take control.
There is always a solution — you just have to be aware enough and care enough to find it!
Can’t get to the gym last minute? Do a 20-minute home interval workout. Missing the gym because of a child’s softball practice? Do squats and lunges on the sidelines. Traveling? Use the band!
Frame every day as your “birthday” — a time to begin again. The day will pass regardless; you may as well do something good (and healthy) with it when you can!
Just stay put.
Standup citizens know that if you see a senior board the bus or train, you immediately get up and offer them your seat.
But according to health experts, we shouldn’t be giving up our seat for the elderly on public transportation — rather, we should just stay put.
Yeah, we’re a bit wary about this advice too, but hear us out.
As reported by The Independent, experts claim that offering your seat to seniors on public transport can hamper their health. Instead, they should be “encouraged to stand and discouraged from taking it easy in order to keep themselves fit,” advises Sir Muir Gray, a professor at Oxford.
Think twice before giving up your seat on the bus or train to an older person. Standing up is great exercise for them.
Gray, a clinical adviser to Public Health England, recently explained that the elderly should walk for at least ten minutes a day.
“We need to be encouraging activity as we age — not telling people to put their feet up,” Gray told the British Medical Journal. “Don’t get a stairlift for your ageing parents, put in a second banister.
“And think twice before giving up your seat on the bus or train to an older person. Standing up is great exercise for them.”
A new report in The BMJ advises older people to stay active, as it can reduce the need for social care and allow them to live more independently.
In the report, researchers say the effects of ageing are often confused with the loss of fitness, when it’s really the lack of fitness that ages them, adding to them needing more care.
A lot of illness in later life is not due to older age, but inactivity.
Middle aged and older people “can increase their fitness level to that of an average person a decade younger by regular exercise,” Scarlett McNally, an orthopaedic surgeon at Eastbourne District General Hospital in the U.K., noted.
She added: “A lot of illness in later life is not due to older age, but inactivity.
“The more exercise we do the better.”
This piece of advice matches previous research conducted on the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.
A study published earlier this year noted that too much sitting and not enough physical activity can age cells by up to eight years. And previous research has already linked too much sitting to health problems such as obesity, higher levels of “bad” cholesterol, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Aladdin Shadyab, lead study author, noted, “Discussions about the benefits of exercise should start when we are young, and physical activity should continue to be part of our daily lives as we get older, even at 80 years old.”
Discussions about the benefits of exercise
should start when we are young.
If you know someone who’s older than 60, you should actively (heh) encourage them to get, well, more active.
Some top exercises that will make seniors feel young again include:
- Bicep curls
Boosting physical activity a simple, low-cost global strategy to reduce deaths globally
Each step we take reduces the overall risk of premature death, a global study reaffirms.
Researchers estimate about one in 12 deaths worldwide would be prevented if everyone exercised at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
In Thursday’s issue of The Lancet, researchers in 17 countries reported their findings after asking more than 130,000 participants aged 35 to 70 to fill in questionnaires. They were asked about physical activity during leisure time, work, doing household activities and getting to and from work and errands.
None of the participants had heart disease when the PURE (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiologic) study began.
A global study shows you don’t need to hit the gym to get physical activity.
- Move it! Too much standing is bad, study finds
- Why this specific form of exercise helps keep muscle cells young
‘Get out of your comfort zone:’ Interval training benefits extend to aging
“Over that seven years either preventing or reducing risk for premature death it’s around 25 per cent reduction, and so that would be death from any cause,” said the study’s lead author Prof. Scott Lear of Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Health Sciences in Vancouver.
“And for heart disease, things like heart attack or stroke, it was around 20 to 25 per cent reduction comparing those people who were the most physically active to the least physically active.”
During that time, there were 5,334 deaths, including 1,294 from cardiovascular disease.
“As countries have become more economically prosperous, we’ve what I’d call engineered activity out of our life,” Lear said. “There’s a lot of people who think the only way to get physical activity is by putting out money and going to a gym but that’s not the case.”
The study’s authors called increasing physical activity a simple, widely applicable, low-cost global strategy to reduce deaths and cardiovascular disease in middle age.
The study included:
- Three high-income countries (Canada — Vancouver, Hamilton, Ottawa and Quebec City; Sweden, United Arab Emirates).
- Seven upper-middle-income countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Poland, Turkey, Malaysia, South Africa).
- Three lower-middle-income countries (China, Colombia, Iran).
- Four low-income-countries (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Zimbabwe).
The World Health Organization recommends that adults aged 18 to 64 years to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week, as well as muscle strengthening exercises at least two days a week.
Nearly three in four in Canada did not meet the guideline and almost a fifth of others in the study didn’t.
Almost half worldwide were highly active, clocking 750 minutes a week.
The study shows benefits beyond cardiovascular survival, said Dr. David Alter, a cardiologist and senior scientist at Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.
Exercise pill prescribed
“The fitter we are, the more easily oxygen is consumed by our tissues and organs and the less the heart and lungs have to work to compensate to push that blood through, to push that oxygen through,” said Alter, who was not involved in the research.
Alter calls exercise a medicine or pill with similar dose and effect as pharmaceuticals.
“I was struck by the consistency in how important that exercise pill was for health and survival.”
Other studies show the intensity of exercise, in terms of working up a sweat and getting the heart rate up, does matter for survival, he said.
Doing less intense types of activity, such as climbing stairs, walking a few blocks at a brisk pace, or sweeping instead of vacuuming, all count too. Just do it for longer, Alter advises.
He tells patients and the public to count their activity in three categories:
- Steps, for instance measured with a pedometer.
- Exercise time that works up a sweat.
- Sedentary time spent sitting.
Since the study was observational in nature, no cause-and-effect relationships can be drawn. Participants also reported their own activity levels, which is often overestimated.
The study was funded by Population Health Research Institute, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, Ontario SPOR Support Unit, Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, AstraZeneca, Sanofi-Aventis, Boehringer Ingelheim, Servier, GSK, Novartis, King Pharma, and national and local organizations in participating countries.
Study of 1.2 million people finds links between fitness and verbal comprehension and logical thinking skills.
Young adults who are fitter have a higher IQ and are more likely to go on to higher education, research finds.
Higher IQ is linked to a higher heart and lung capacity, not to muscular strength.
Heart and lung capacity was most strongly linked to verbal comprehension and logical thinking skills.
Professor Michael Nilsson, one of the study’s authors, said:
“Being fit means that you also have good heart and lung capacity and that your brain gets plenty of oxygen.
This may be one of the reasons why we can see a clear link with fitness, but not with muscular strength.
We are also seeing that there are growth factors that are important.”
The researchers found that the link is down to environmental factors, not genes.
In other words, it could be possible to increase your IQ by getting fitter.
Dr Maria Åberg, the study’s first author, said:
“We have also shown that those youngsters who improve their physical fitness between the ages of 15 and 18 increase their cognitive performance.
This being the case, physical education is a subject that has an important place in schools, and is an absolute must if we want to do well in maths and other theoretical subjects.”
The conclusions come from a study of 1.2 million Swedish men doing their military service, who were born between 1950 and 1976.