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Exercise

Start the year out right by substituting green leafy vegetables for breads and other baked goods. METRO photo
Simple modifications can help you achieve your health goals

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

2020 has been a most unusual year. In some ways, it’s been a case study in new habit formation, as many of us altered our routines to adapt to a COVID-19 world.

As our thoughts turn to a brighter 2021, many of us will make resolutions to develop healthy new habits – and in some cases to undo bad habits we’ve picked up during the past year. If this is you, cheers!

Changing habits can be incredibly difficult. You can make it easier on yourself, though. 

Set a goal that is simple and singular. Don’t overdo it by focusing on multiple resolutions, like eating better, exercising more and sleeping better. Complexity will diminish your chances of success. Instead, pick one to focus on, and make the desired impact part of your goal, for example: improve your health by substituting green leafy vegetables for breads and other baked goods.

Manage your environment. According to a study, people with the most self-control utilize the least amount of willpower, because they take a proactive role in minimizing temptation (1). Start by changing the environment in your kitchen. In our example resolution above, that means eliminating or reducing the breads and baked goods in your home and keeping a refrigerator stocked with leafy greens you like.

If one obstacle is the time available to cook when you’re hungry, consider in advance the ways you can make in-the-moment food preparation simpler. This could be as simple as pre-washing and chopping greens when you arrive home from the store or while watching your favorite TV program, or it could be as detailed as precooking meals.

The latter is my personal favorite, and it’s easily accomplished by cooking more than you need for a single meal. For example, rather than chop and roast just the tray of broccoli we’ll eat tonight, we’ll prepare two trays at a time – one to eat today, and one to have in the fridge. I try to always have at least one prepared healthy meal at the ready for reheating, in case we don’t have the time or energy to cook later.

Rally your support network. Support is another critical element. It can come from within, but it is best when reinforced by family members, friends and coworkers. In my practice, I find that patients who are most successful with lifestyle changes are those where household members are encouraging or, even better, when they participate in at least some portion of the intervention, such as eating the same meals.

One reason so many have turned to baking during their at-home time is that it provides a fun group activity with a shared outcome. You can produce the same experience by experimenting with new greens-intensive recipes together. Making pots of vegetable stews and chilis, vegan spinach lasagnas with bean noodles, bean-and-green tacos, and cheeseless eggplant/spinach rollatini can be more fun as a group – with the same delicious outcomes. Bonus: if you double the recipes, you can refrigerate or even freeze the leftovers for reheating later.

Be consistent. When does a change become a new habit? The rule of thumb used to be it takes approximately three weeks. However, the results of a study at the University of London showed that the time to form a habit, such as exercising, ranged from 18 days to 254 days (2). The good news is that the average time to reach this automaticity was 66 days, or about two months.

Choose a diet that targets your health needs. U.S. News and World Report released its annual ranking of diets this week (3). Three of the diets highlighted include the DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) diet, the Ornish diet and the Mediterranean diet. These were the top three for heart health. The Mediterranean diet was ranked number one overall – for the fourth consecutive year – and the DASH diet tied for second overall with the Flexitarian diet. The Flexitarian and Mediterranean diets tied for the top spot for diets that help manage diabetes.

What do all of the top diets have in common? They focus on nutrient-dense foods. In fact, the lifestyle modifications I recommend are based on a combination of the top diets and the evidence-based medicine that supports them.

Of course, if you’ve tried to change your diet in the past, you probably know that not every diet is easy to follow, even after you get beyond the “changing my eating habits” part of the equation. Choosing a diet that works for both you and others in your household can be tricky. And, let’s face it, no one wants to make two meals – or more – to accommodate everyone’s needs.

According to U.S. News and World Report, the easiest to follow are the Mediterranean diet, which took the top spot, the recently redesigned WW (Weight Watchers) diet, which took second place, and the Flexitarian diet, which came in third. If you’re not familiar with a Flexitarian diet, which we noted also tied for the second-best diet overall, its name is a combination of “flexible” and “vegetarian,” and its focus is on increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables and minimizing – but not necessarily eliminating – your intake of animal products. For many, this lack of rigidity can help, whether the goal is to transition to a complete vegetarian lifestyle eventually or to manage different palates around the table.

I encourage you to read more about each of these diets and select one, in consultation with your physician, that will help you meet your personal health goals – from both nutritional and manageability standpoints.

Here’s to a happy, healthy 2021!

References:

(1) J Pers Soc Psychol. 2012;102:22-31. (2) European Journal of Social Psychology, 40: 998–1009. (3) www.usnews.com.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com. 

METRO photo
A good pace and mindset may improve your outcomes

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Medical professionals (including me!) often press you to exercise. This sage advice seems simple enough; however, the type, intensity level and frequency of exercise may not be well-defined. For instance, any type of walking is beneficial, right? Well, as one study that quantifies walking pace notes that some types of walking are better than others.

We know exercise is beneficial for prevention and treatment of chronic disease. But another very important aspect of exercise is the impact it has on specific diseases, such as diabetes and osteoarthritis. Also, certain supplements and drugs may decrease the beneficial effects of exercise. They are not necessarily the ones you think. They include resveratrol and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen). Let’s look at the evidence.

Walk with a spring in your step

While pedometers give a sense of how many steps you take on a daily basis, this number isn’t all that’s important. Intensity, rather than quantity or distance, may be the primary indicator of walking’s benefit.

In the National Walkers’ Health Study, results showed that those who walk with more pace are more likely to decrease their mortality from all causes and to increase their longevity (1). This is one of the first studies to quantify specific speed and its impact. In the study, there were four groups. The fastest group was almost jogging, walking at a mean pace of less than 13.5 minutes per mile, while the slowest group was walking at a pace of 17 minutes or more per mile.

The slowest walkers had a higher probability of dying, especially from dementia and heart disease. Those in the slowest group stratified even further: those whose pace equaled 24-minute miles or greater had twice the risk of death, compared to those who walked with greater speed.

However, the most intriguing aspect of the study was that there were big differences in mortality reduction in the second slowest category compared to the slowest, which might only be separated by a minute-per-mile pace. So, don’t fret: you don’t have to be a speedwalker to realize significant benefit.

Align your mind and body

The mind also plays a significant role in exercise. The results of one study note that a positive mindset while exercising makes a big difference in the exercise’s impact (2). Researchers created two groups. The first was told to find four positive phrases, chosen by the participants, to motivate them while on a stationary bike and repeat these phrases consistently for the next two weeks while exercising.

Members of the group who repeated these motivating phrases consistently throughout each workout were able to increase their stamina for intensive exercise after only two weeks, while the same could not be said for the control group, which did not use reinforcing phrases.

‘Longevity’ supplement may negate exercise benefits

Resveratrol is a substance that is thought to provide increased longevity through proteins called Sirtuin 1. So how could it negate some benefit from exercise? Well it turns out that we need acute inflammation to achieve some exercise benefits, and resveratrol has anti-inflammatory effects. Acute inflammation is short-term inflammation and is different from chronic inflammation, the basis for many diseases.

In a small randomized controlled study, treatment group participants were given 250 mg supplements of resveratrol and saw significantly less benefit from aerobic exercise over an eight-week period, compared to those who were in the control group (3). Participants in the control group had improvements in both cholesterol and blood pressure that were not seen in the treatment group. This was a small study of short duration, although it was well-designed.

Impact on diabetes complications

The majority of Type 2 diabetes patients suffer from cardiovascular disease. The good news is that exercise may improve outcomes. In a prospective (forward-looking) observational study, results show that diabetes patients who exercise less frequently, once or twice a week for 30 minutes, are at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and almost a 70 percent greater risk of dying from it than those who exercised at least three times a week for 30 minutes each session. In addition, those who exercised only twice a week had an almost 50 percent increased risk of all-cause mortality (4).

The study followed more than 15,000 men and women with a mean age of 60 for five years. The authors stressed the importance of exercise and its role in reducing diabetes complications.

Calculate your fitness age

You can calculate your fitness age without the use of a treadmill, according to the HUNT study (5). An online calculator utilizes basic parameters – age, gender, height, weight, waist circumference and frequency and intensity of exercise – to help you judge where you stand with exercise health. This calculator can be found at www.ntnu.edu/cerg/vo2max. Your results may surprise you.

Even in winter, you can walk and talk yourself to improved health by increasing your intensity while repeating positive phrases that help you overcome premature exhaustion. Exercise can also have a significant impact on complications of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and resulting death with diabetes. As a bonus, getting outside during the day may also help you avoid the effects of the “winter blues.”

References:

(1) PLoS One. 2013;8:e81098. (2) Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013 Oct. 10. (3) J Physiol Online. 2013 July 22. (4) Eur J Prev Cardiol Online. 2013 Nov. 13. (5) Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011;43:2024-2030.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com.

METRO photo

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

There are some compelling studies that show exercise’s powerful effects in altering our genes. Recent studies show its impact on specific diseases. Exercise has effects on diabetes and a host of other chronic diseases, including kidney stones, osteoarthritis, cardiovascular disease and breast, colorectal and endometrial cancers (1).

There are also studies on simple ways to motivate yourself during exercise. One showed that those who repeat positive mantras like “feels good” while exercising were able to persist in their exercise routines for longer periods (2).

Why is this so important and why am I harping on exercise during the holidays? Because we are too sedentary, and this is the time of the year when we are inclined to overeat. According to data from the 2015-2016 National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey, we spend 6.4 hours a day sedentary (3). And this percentage is trending up.

Exercise and your genes

While you may be waiting for gene therapy to cure our chronic illnesses, it turns out that exercise may have a significant impact on our genes.

No waiting required; this is here and now.

Photo from Pixabay

In a study, results showed that thousands upon thousands of genes in fat cells were affected when participants exercised (4). The study involved sedentary men and asked them to exercise twice a week at a one-hour spin class. According to the researchers, the genes impacted were those involved most likely in storing fat and in risk for subsequent diabetes and obesity development. Participants’ gene expression was altered by DNA methylation, the addition of a methyl group made up of a carbon and hydrogens. These participants also improved their biometrics, reducing fat and subsequently shrinking their waist circumferences, and improved their cholesterol and blood-pressure indices.

The effect is referred to as epigenetics, where lifestyle modifications can ultimately lead to changes in gene expression, turning them on and off. This has been shown with dietary changes, but this is one of the first studies to show that exercise also has significant impacts on our genes. It took only six months to see these numerous gene changes with modest amounts of cardiovascular exercise.

If this was not enough, another study showed substantial gene changes in muscle cells after one workout on a stationary bike (5).

Exercise versus drug therapy

We don’t think of exercise as being a drug, but what if it had similar benefits to certain drugs in cardiovascular diseases and mortality risk? A meta-analysis — a group of 57 studies that involved drugs and exercise — showed that exercise potentially has equivalent effects to statins in terms of mortality with secondary prevention of coronary heart disease (6).

This means that, in patients who already have heart disease, both statins and exercise reduce the risk of mortality by similar amounts. The same was true with prediabetes and the use of metformin vs. exercise. It didn’t matter which one was used, the drug or the lifestyle change.

Don’t change your medication without consulting your physician.

Kidney stones and exercise

Anyone who has tried to pass a kidney stone knows it can be an excruciating experience. Most of the treatment revolves around pain medication, fluids and waiting for the stone to pass. However, the best way to treat kidney stones is to prevent them. In the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study, exercise reduced the risk of kidney stones by as much as 31 percent (7).

Even better, the intensity of the exercise was irrelevant to its beneficial effect. What mattered more was exercise quantity. One hour of jogging or three hours of walking got the top results. But lesser amounts of exercise also saw substantial reductions. This study involved 84,000 postmenopausal women, the population most likely to suffer from kidney stones.

Sex as exercise

We have heard that sex may be thought of as exercise, but is this myth or is there actual evidence? Try to keep a straight face. Well, it turns out this may be true. In a study published in the PLoS One journal, researchers found that young healthy couples exert 6 METs — metabolic energy, or the amount of oxygen consumed per kilogram per minute — during sexual activity (8).

How does this compare to other activities? Well, we exert about 1 MET while sitting and 8.5 METs while jogging. Sexual activity falls between walking and jogging, in terms of the energy utilized, and thus may be qualified as moderate activity. Men and women burned slightly less than half as many calories with sex as with jogging, burning a mean of 85 calories over about 25 minutes. Who says exercise can’t be fun?

I can’t stress the importance of exercise enough. It not only influences the way you feel, but also may influence gene expression and, ultimately, affects the development and prevention of disease. In certain circumstances, it may be as powerful as drugs and, in combination, may pack a powerful punch. Therefore, make exercise a priority — part of the fabric of your life. It may already be impacting the fabric of your body: your genes.

References:

(1) JAMA. 2009;301(19):2024. (2) Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013 Oct 10. (3) JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(7):e197597. (4) PLoS Genet. 2013 Jun;9(6):e1003572. (5) Cell Metab. 2012 Mar 7;15(3):405-11. (6) BMJ 2013; 347. (7) JASN online 2013, Dec. 12. (8) PLoS One 8(10): e79342.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com.

METRO photo
Diet choices trump exercise for weight loss

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

To quash guilt about Thanksgiving meal indiscretions, many of us will resolve to exercise to burn off the calories from this seismic meal and the smaller, calorically dense aftershock meals, whether with a vigorous family football game or with a more modest walk.

Unfortunately, exercise without dietary changes may not actually help many people lose weight, no matter what the intensity or the duration (1). If it does help, it may only modestly reduce fat mass and weight for the majority of people. However, it may be helpful with weight maintenance. Ultimately, it may be more important to reconsider what you are eating than to succumb to the rationalization that you can eat with abandon during the holidays and work it off later.

Don’t give up on exercise just yet, though. There is very good news: Exercise does have beneficial effects on a wide range of conditions, including chronic kidney disease, cognitive decline, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, fatigue, insomnia and depression.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Exercise for weight loss

The well-known weight-loss paradigm is that when more calories are burned than consumed, we will tip the scale in favor of weight loss. The greater the negative balance with exercise, the greater the loss. However, study results say otherwise. They show that in premenopausal women there was neither weight nor fat loss from exercise (2). This involved 81 women over a short duration, 12 weeks. All of the women were overweight to obese, although there was great variability in weight.

However, more than two-thirds of the women (55) gained a mean of 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of fat mass by the end of the study. There were a few who gained 10 pounds of predominantly fat. A fair amount of variability was seen among the participants, ranging from significant weight loss to substantial weight gain. These women were told to exercise at the American College of Sports Medicine’s optimal level of intensity (3). This is to walk 30 minutes on a treadmill three times a week at 70 percent VO2max — maximum oxygen consumption during exercise — or, in other words, a moderately intense pace.

The good news is that the women were in better aerobic shape by the end of the study. Also, women who had lost weight at the four-week mark were more likely to continue to do so by the end of the study. This was a preliminary study, so no definitive conclusions can be made.

Other studies have shown modest weight loss. For instance, in a meta-analysis involving 14 randomized controlled trials, results showed that there was a disappointing amount of weight loss with exercise alone (4). In six months, patients lost a mean of 1.6 kilograms, or 3.5 pounds, and at 12 months, participants lost 1.7 kilograms, or about 3.75 pounds.

Exercise and weight maintenance

However, exercise may be valuable in weight maintenance, according to observational studies. Premenopausal women who exercised at least 30 minutes a day were significantly less likely to regain lost weight (5). When exercise was added to diet, women were able to maintain 30 percent more weight loss than with diet alone after a year in a prospective study (6).

Exercise and disease

As just one example of exercise’s impact on disease, let’s look at chronic kidney disease (CKD), which affects 15 percent, or one in seven, adults in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (7).

Trial results showed that walking regularly could reduce the risk of kidney replacement therapy and death in patients who have moderate to severe CKD, stages 3-5 (8). Yes, this includes stage 3, which most likely is asymptomatic. There was a 21 percent reduction in the risk of kidney replacement therapy and a 33 percent reduction in the risk of death when walkers were compared to non-walkers.

Walking had an impressive impact; results were based on a dose-response curve. In other words, the more frequently patients walked during the week, the better the probability of preventing complications. Those who walked between one and two times per week had 17 and 19 percent reductions in death and kidney replacement therapy, respectively, while those who walked at least seven times per week saw 44 and 59 percent reductions in death and kidney replacement. These are substantial results. The authors concluded that the effectiveness of walking on CKD was independent of kidney function, age or other diseases.

Therefore, while it is important to enjoy the holidays, remember that food choices will have the greatest impact on our weight and body composition. However, exercise can help maintain weight loss and is extremely beneficial for preventing progression of chronic diseases, such as CKD.

So, by all means, exercise during the holidays, but also focus on more nutrient-dense foods. At a minimum, strike a balance rather than eating purely calorically dense foods. You won’t be able to exercise them away.

References:

(1) uptodate.com. (2) J Strength Cond Res. Online Oct. 28, 2014. (3) ACSM.org. (4) Am J Med. 2011;124(8):747. (5) Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010;18(1):167. (6) Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1997;21(10):941. (7) cdc.gov. (8) Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2014 Jul;9(7):1183-1189.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com.

Daily exercise is protective against breast cancer. METRO photo
Exercise and diet can significantly reduce risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and everyone agrees that awareness is crucial. The incidence of invasive breast cancer in 2020 in the U.S. is estimated to be over 270,000 new cases, with approximately 40,000 patients dying from this disease each year (1).

A primary objective of raising awareness is to promote screening for early detection. But at what age should screening start and how often should we be screened?

Here is where divergence occurs; experts can’t agree on age and frequency. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends mammograms every other year, from age 50 through age 74 (2). The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends consideration of beginning mammograms at 40, but starting no later than 50, and continuing until age 75. They encourage a process of shared decision-making between patient and physician (3).

Just as important as screening is prevention, whether it is primary, preventing the disease from occurring, or secondary, preventing recurrence. Potential ways of doing this may include lifestyle modifications, such as diet, exercise, obesity treatment and normalizing cholesterol levels. Additionally, although results are mixed, it seems that bisphosphonates do not reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Bisphosphonates

Bisphosphonates include Fosamax (alendronate), Zometa (zoledronic acid) and Boniva (ibandronate) used to treat osteoporosis. Do they have a role in breast cancer prevention? It depends on the population, and it depends on study quality.

In a meta-analysis involving two randomized controlled trials (RCTs), FIT and HORIZON-PFT, results showed no benefit from the use of bisphosphonates in reducing breast cancer risk (4). The study population involved 14,000 postmenopausal women from ages 55 to 89 women who had osteoporosis, but who did not have a personal history of breast cancer. In other words, the bisphosphonates were being used for primary prevention.

In a more recent meta-analysis of 10 studies with over 950,000 total participants, results showed that bisphosphonates did indeed reduce the risk of primary breast cancer in patients by as much as 12 percent (5). However, when the researchers dug more deeply into the studies, they found inconsistencies in the results between observational and case-control trials versus RCTs, along with an indication that longer-term use of bisphosphonates is more likely to be protective than use of less than one year. 

Randomized controlled trials are better designed than observational trials. Therefore, it is more likely that bisphosphonates do not work in reducing breast cancer risk in patients without a history of breast cancer or, in other words, in primary prevention.

Exercise

We know exercise is important in diseases and breast cancer is no exception. In an observational trial, exercise reduced breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women significantly (6). These women exercised moderately; they walked four hours a week over a four-year period. If they exercised previously, but not recently, five to nine years ago, no benefit was seen. The researchers stressed that it is never too late to begin exercise.

Only about one-third of women get the recommended level of exercise every week: 30 minutes for five days a week. Once diagnosed with breast cancer, women tend to exercise less, not more. We need to expend as much energy and resources emphasizing exercise as a prevention method as we do screenings.

Soy intake

Contrary to popular belief, soy may be beneficial in reducing breast cancer risk. In a meta-analysis (a group of eight observational studies), those who consumed more soy saw a significant reduction in breast cancer compared to those who consumed less (7). There was a dose-response curve among three groups: high intake of >20 mg per day, moderate intake of 10 mg and low intake of <5 mg.

Those in the highest group had a 29 percent reduced risk, and those in the moderate group had a 12 percent reduced risk when compared to those who consumed the least. In addition, higher soy intake has been associated with reduced recurrence and increased survival for those previously diagnosed with breast cancer (8). Why have we not seen this in U.S. trials? The level of soy used in U.S. trials is a fraction of what is used in Asian trials. The benefit from soy is thought to come from isoflavones, plant-rich nutrients.

Western vs. Mediterranean diets

A Mediterranean diet may decrease the risk of breast cancer significantly.

In an observational study, results showed that, while the Western diet increases breast cancer risk by 46 percent, the Spanish Mediterranean diet has the inverse effect, decreasing risk by 44 percent (9). The effect of the Mediterranean diet was even more powerful in triple-negative tumors, which tend to be difficult to treat. The authors concluded that diets rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and oily fish were potentially beneficial.

Hooray for Breast Cancer Awareness Month stressing the importance of mammography and breast self-exams. However, we need to give significantly more attention to prevention of breast cancer and its recurrence. Through potentially more soy intake, as well as a Mediterranean diet and modest exercise, we may be able to accelerate the trend toward a lower breast cancer incidence.

References:

(1)breastcancer.org.(2)uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org. (3) acog.org. (4) JAMA Inter Med online. 2014 Aug. 11. (5) Clin Epidemiol. 2019; 11: 593–603. (6) Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev online. 2014 Aug. 11. (7) Br J Cancer. 2008;98:9-14. (8) JAMA. 2009 Dec 9; 302(22): 2437–2443. (9) Br J Cancer. 2014;111:1454-1462.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com.

Studies have shown that combined strength and endurance training may lower RHR in women. METRO photo
Certain types of exercise may lower RHR

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

How many of us regularly check our resting heart rate, or pulse, and what can we learn from it?

Resting heart rate is pretty important. In fact, it may play a role in longevity, heart disease — including heart failure, arrhythmias, heart attacks and sudden cardiac death — and even chronic kidney disease.

A “normal” resting heart rate is between 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm). If your resting heart rate (RHR) is above 100 bpm, this is referred to as tachycardia, or a racing heartbeat, and it has potentially serious consequences. However, even normal RHRs can be stratified to identify risks for diseases. What I mean is that, even in the normal range, as your RHR increases, so do your potential risks. Actually, resting heart rate below approximately 70 bpm may be ideal.

The good news is that RHR is modifiable. Methods that may reduce your rate include medications, such as beta blockers, and lifestyle modifications, including meditation, dietary changes and exercise.

Impact on life span

Reducing RHR may be an important component in living a longer, healthier lifestyle. In the Copenhagen Male Study, a prospective study that followed 2,798 participants for 16 years, results showed that those with higher resting heart rates had a greater risk of death (1). There was a linear relationship between the risk of death and increasing RHR. Those who had a resting heart rate above 90 bpm were at a threefold greater risk of death, compared to those who had a RHR at or below 50 bpm. RHR was inversely related to the amount of physical activity.

Thus, the authors concluded that a “healthy” person with higher RHR may still have a shorter life span, with all other factors being equal, such as physical activity and blood pressure.

Predictor of Hypertension?

An analysis of 4,000 young adult participants in the 30-year CARDIA cohort study found that a 10 bpm higher RHR had a significant impact on future hypertension, or high blood pressure, experienced in middle age (2). This association was found with a 10 bpm increase in RHR among black and white men and white women. Interestingly, black women did not show the same association. The study authors hypothesize that this may suggest racial differences in sympathetic nervous activity impacts on hypertension among women. Of course, additional research will be necessary to delve deeper into this.

Heart disease mortality

In the Nord-Trondelag Health Study, a prospective observational study, those who had a higher RHR at the end of the study than they did at the beginning of the study 10 years prior were more likely to die from heart disease (3). In other words, as the RHR increased from less than 70 bpm to over 85 bpm, there was a 90 percent greater risk of heart disease, compared to those who maintained a RHR of less than 70 throughout the two measurements. This study involved 30,000 participants who were healthy volunteers at least 20 years old.

Heart attacks

In the Women’s Health Initiative, results showed a 26 percent decrease in the risk of cardiovascular events in those postmenopausal women who had a RHR below 62 bpm, compared to those who had a RHR above 76 bpm (4). Interestingly, these results were even more substantial in the subgroup of women who were newly postmenopausal, ranging in age from 50 to 64.

Effect on kidney function

I have written many times about chronic kidney disease. An interesting follow-up is resting heart rate and its impact on kidney function. In the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study, results showed that the most severe form of chronic kidney disease, end-stage renal disease, was 98 percent more likely to occur in those with the highest RHR, compared to those with the lowest (5). There were approximately 13,000 participants in the study, with a 16-year follow-up.

The authors hypothesized that this negative effect on the kidney may be due to a loss of homeostasis in the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system, resulting in blood vessel dysfunction, such as increased inflammation and vasoconstriction (narrowing).

Lowering RHR

Studies have shown that combined strength and endurance training may lower RHR in women. METRO photo

A meta-analysis of controlled studies analyzed the effects of different types of exercise on RHR (6). Studies’ interventions included a range of exercises, such as high intensity interval training, including ball and team sports; endurance or strength training; yoga; qigong; and tai chi. Some studies’ participants were limited to one gender.

No surprise, analysis found that all interventions lowered RHR compared to control groups that did not exercise. The greatest results in lowering RHR were in endurance training, yoga, strength training (females only), and combined endurance and strength training (females only).

Can RHR be too low?

Is there a resting heart rate that is too low? Well, it depends on the context. If you are a marathoner or an athlete, then a RHR in the 40s may not be abnormal. For a healthy, physically active individual, it is not uncommon to have a resting heart rate in the 50s. However, if you are on medications that reduce your RHR and/or have a chronic disease, such as heart failure, it is probably not advisable to go much below 60 bpm.

Always ask your doctor about the appropriate resting heart rate for your particular situation.

Thus, resting heart rate is an easy and inexpensive biomarker to potentially determine risk stratification for disease and to increase longevity, even for those in the normal range. By monitoring and modifying RHR, we can use it as a tool for primary disease prevention.

References:

(1) Heart Journal 2013 Jun;99(12):882-887. (2) Hypertension. 2020 Sep;76(3):692-698. Epub 2020 Aug 12. (3) JAMA 2011; 306:2579-2587. (4) BMJ. 2009 Feb 3;338:b219. (5) J Am Soc Nephrol. 2010 Sept;21(9):1560-1570. (6) J Clin Med. 2018 Dec; 7(12): 503.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com.

Walking helps strengthen your joints, bones and muscles. METRO photo
Walking’s benefits extend beyond physical fitness

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

There is great emphasis on exercise in medicine and in society. We have heard it is good for us ever since we were children in gym class striving for the presidential fitness award.

The average reaction, unfortunately, is an aversion to exercise. As kids, many of us tried to get out of gym class, and as adults, we “want” to exercise, but we “don’t have time.” The result of this is a nation of couch potatoes. I once heard that the couch is the worst deep-fried food. It perpetuates inactivity, especially when watching TV. Even sleeping burns more calories.

I think part of the problem, generally, is that we don’t know what type of exercise is best and how long and frequently to do it. These days, for many who depend on gyms, dance studios and other exercise-related facilities for exercise are struggling to find meaningful substitutes.

Well, guess what? There is an easy way to get tremendous benefit with very little time involved. You don’t need expensive equipment, and you don’t have to join a gym. You can sharpen your wits with your feet.

Jane Brody has written in The New York Times’ Science Times about Esther Tuttle. Esther was 99 years old, sharp as a tack and was independently mobile, with no aids needed. She continued to stay active by walking in the morning for 30 minutes and then walking again in the afternoon. The skeptic might say that this is a nice story, but its value is anecdotal at best.

Well, evidence-based medicine backs up her claim that walking is a rudimentary and simple way to get exercise that shows incredible benefits. One mile of walking a day will help keep the doctor away.

Walking has a powerful effect on preserving brain function and even growing certain areas of the brain (1). Walking between six and nine miles a week, or just one mile a day, reduced the risk of cognitive impairment over 13 years and actually increased the amount of gray matter tissue in the brain over nine years.

Those participants who had an increase in brain tissue volume had a substantially reduced risk of developing cognitive impairment. Interestingly, the parts of the brain that grew included the hippocampus, involved with memory, and the frontal cortex, involved with short-term memory and executive decision making. There were 299 participants who had a mean age of 78 and were dementia free at the start of the trial. Imagine if you started earlier?

In yet another study, moderate exercise reduced the risk of mild cognitive impairment with exercise begun in mid-to-late life (2).

Even better news is that, if you’re pressed for time or if you’re building up your stamina, you can split a mile into two half-mile increments. How long does it take you to walk a half-mile? You’ll be surprised at how much better you will feel — and how much sharper your thinking is.

This is a terrific strategy to get you off the couch or away from your computer, another hazard for many of us working or schooling from home. Set an alarm for specific points throughout the day and use that as a prompt to get up and walk, even if only for 15 minutes. The miles will add up quickly.

In addition to the mental acuity benefits, this may also help with your psychological health, giving you a mental break from endless Zoom calls and your eyes a break from endless screens.

If you ratchet up the exercise to running, a study showed that mood also improves, mollifying anger (3). The act of running actually increases your serotonin levels, a hormone that, when low, can make people agitated or angry. So, exercise may actually help you get your aggressions out.

Walking has other benefits as well. We’ve all heard about the importance of doing weight-bearing exercise to prevent osteoporosis and osteoporotic fractures. The movie “WALL-E” even did a spoof on this, projecting a future where people lived in their movable recliners. The result was a human skeletal structure that had receded over the generations from lack of use. Although it was tongue-in-cheek, it wasn’t too far from the truth; if you don’t use them, bones weaken and break. Walking is a weight-bearing exercise that helps strengthen your joints, bones and muscles.

So, remember, use your feet to keep your mind sharp. Activities like walking will help you keep a positive attitude, preserve your bones and help increase the plasticity of your brain.

References:

(1) Neurology Oct 2010, 75 (16) 1415-1422. (2) Arch Neurol. 2010;67(1):80-86. (3) J Sport Exerc Psychol. 2010 Apr;32(2):253-261.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com.

Stocking the fridge with healthy foods is a great way to start off the New Year. Stock photo

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

It is now the second week in January, and most of us have made a New Year’s resolution – or many of them. You’ve taken the first step, but how do you increase the “stickiness factor,” a term used by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, “The Tipping Point”?

Setting a goal that is simple and singular helps. We often overdo it by focusing on multiple resolutions, like eating better, exercising more and sleeping better. While these are all admirable, their complexity diminishes your chances of success. Instead, pick one to focus on, and make the desired impact part of your goal. For example, improve health by losing weight and reversing disease. 

Changing habits is always hard. There are some things that you can do to make it easier, though. 

Your environment is very important. According to Dr. David Katz, director, Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, it is not as much about willpower as it is about your environment. Willpower, Katz notes, is analogous to holding your breath underwater; it is only effective for a short timeframe. Thus, he suggests laying the groundwork by altering your environment to make it conducive to attaining your goals. Recognizing your obstacles and making plans to avoid or overcome them reduces stress and strain on your willpower. 

According to a study, people with the most self-control utilize the least amount of willpower, because they take a proactive role in minimizing temptation (1). Start by changing the environment in your kitchen.

Support is another critical element. It can come from within, but it is best when reinforced by family members, friends and co-workers. In my practice, I find that patients who are most successful with lifestyle changes are those where household members are encouraging or, even better, when they participate in at least some portion of the intervention, such as eating the same meals.

Automaticity: Forming new habits

When does a change become a new habit? The rule of thumb used to be it takes approximately three weeks. However, the results of a study at the University of London showed that the time to form a habit, such as exercising, ranged from 18 to 254 days (2). The good news is that, though there was a wide variance, the average time to reach this automaticity was 66 days, or about two months.

Lifestyle modification: Choosing a diet

U.S. News & World Report released its annual ranking of diets last week (3). Three of the diets highlighted include the DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) diet, the Ornish diet and the Mediterranean diet. These were the top three for heart health. The Mediterranean diet was ranked number one overall, and the DASH diet was ranked second. Both the Ornish and the DASH diets ranked in the top six. 

What do all of the top diets have in common? They focus on nutrient-dense foods. In fact, the lifestyle modifications I recommend are based on a combination of the top diets and the evidence-based medicine that supports them.

For instance, in a randomized crossover trial, which means patients, after a prescribed time, can switch to the more effective group, showed that the DASH diet is not just for patients with high blood pressure. The DASH diet was more efficacious than the control diet in terms of diabetes (decreased hemoglobin A1C 1.7 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively), weight loss (5 kg/11 lb vs. 2 kg/4.4 lb), as well as in HDL (“good”) cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and blood pressure (4). 

Interestingly, patients still lost weight, although caloric intake and the percentages of fats, protein and carbohydrates were the same between the DASH and control diets. However, the DASH diet used different sources of macronutrients. The DASH diet also contained food with higher amounts of fiber, calcium and potassium and lower sodium. 

Therefore, diets high in nutrient-dense foods may be an effective way to lose weight while treating and preventing disease. 

I will share one more tip: Take it day by day, rather than obsessing on the larger picture. Health and weight loss can – and should – go together.

References:

(1) J Pers Soc Psychol. 2012;102:22-31. (2) European Journal of Social Psychology, 40: 998–1009. (3) www.usnews.com. (4) Diabetes Care. 2011;34:55-57.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com.   

Pedometers may help achieve exercise goals

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is the third leading cause of mortality in the United States, although it’s not highlighted much in the layman’s press (1).

COPD is an umbrella term that includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis of more than three months for two consecutive years and/or chronic obstructive asthma. It is an obstructive lung disease that limits airflow. The three most common symptoms of the disease involve shortness of breath, especially on exertion, production of sputum and cough. This disease affects 6.7 percent of the U.S. population (2).

It tends to be progressive, meaning more frequent and severe exacerbations over time. Since it is a devastating and debilitating chronic disease with no cure, anything that can identify and prevent COPD exacerbations, as well as comorbidities (associated diseases), is critically important.

What are the traditional ways to reduce the risk of and treat COPD exacerbations? The most important step is to stop smoking, since 80 percent of COPD is related to smoking. Supplemental oxygen therapy and medications, such as corticosteroids, bronchodilators (beta-adrenergic agonists and anticholinergics) and antibiotics help to alleviate symptoms (3).

One of the underlying components of COPD may be chronic inflammation (4). Therefore, reducing inflammation may help to stem COPD exacerbations. There are several inflammatory biomarkers that could potentially help predict exacerbations and mortality associated with this disease, such as interleukin-6 (IL-6), C-reactive protein (CRP), leukocyte (white blood cell) count and fibrinogen (a clotting factor of the blood).

How do we reduce inflammation, which may contribute to exacerbations of this disease? Some drugs, such as statins, work partially by reducing inflammation. They may have a role in COPD. Lifestyle changes that include a high-nutrient, anti-inflammatory diet and exercise may also be beneficial.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Biomarkers for inflammation

In a population-based study with over 60,000 participants, results show that as three biomarkers (CRP, leukocyte count and fibrinogen) were elevated, the risk of COPD exacerbation increased in a linear manner (5). In other words, the risk of frequent exacerbation increased 20, 70 and 270 percent within the first year as the number of elevated biomarkers increased from one to three, compared to patients who did not have biomarker elevations.

As time progressed beyond the first year of follow-up, risk exacerbation continued to stay high. Patients with all three biomarkers elevated for longer periods had a 150 percent increased risk of frequent exacerbations. These predictions were applicable to patients with stable and with mild COPD.

In an observational study, results showed that when the biomarker IL-6 was elevated at the start of the trial in stable COPD patients, the risk of mortality increased almost 2.7-fold (6). Also, after three years, IL-6 increased significantly. Elevated IL-6 was associated with a worsening of six-minute walking distance, a parameter tied to poor physical performance in COPD patients. However, unlike the previous study, CRP did not show correlation with increased COPD exacerbation risk. This was a small trial, only involving 53 patients. Therefore, the results are preliminary.

These biomarker trials are exciting for their potential to shape treatments based on level of exacerbation risk and mortality, creating more individualized therapies. Their results need to be confirmed in a randomized controlled trial (RCT). Many of these biomarkers mentioned in the two trials are identifiable with simple blood tests at major labs.

Statin effect

Statins have been maligned for their side effects, but their efficacy has been their strong suit. An observational trial showed that statins led to at least a 30 percent reduction in the risk of COPD exacerbations, with the effect based on a dose-dependent curve (7). In other words, as the dose increased, so did the benefit.

Interestingly, even those who had taken the statin previously saw a significant reduction in COPD exacerbation risk. The duration of statin use was not important; a short use of statins, whether presently or previously, had substantial benefit. However, the greatest benefit was seen in those who had been on a medium to high dose or were on the drug currently. The researchers believe that the mechanism of action for statins in this setting has to do with their anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating effects. This was a retrospective (backward-looking) study with over 14,000 participants. We will need a prospective (forward-looking) study and an RCT to confirm the results.

Exercise

stock photo

Exercise is beneficial for almost every circumstance, and COPD is no exception. But did you know that a pedometer might improve results? In a three-month study, those with mild COPD were much more successful at achieving exercise goals and reducing exacerbations and symptoms when they used pedometers, compared to the group given advice alone (8). Pedometers gave patients objective feedback on their level of physical activity, which helped motivate them to achieve the goal of walking 9,000 steps daily. This is a relatively easy way to achieve exercise goals and reduce the risk of COPD exacerbations.

When exercising, we are told to vary our exercise routines on regular basis. One study demonstrates that this may be especially important for COPD patients (9). Results show that nonlinear periodization exercise (NLPE) training is better than traditional routines of endurance and resistance training in severe COPD patients. The goal of NLPE is to regularly alter the time spent working out, the number of sets, the number of repetitions and the intensity of the workout on a regular basis.

This study was randomized, involved 110 patients and was three months in duration. Significantly more severe COPD patients achieved their exercise goals using NLPE than the traditional approach. The group that used NLPE also had an improved quality of life response. The researchers believe that compliance with an NLPE-type program is mostly likely going to be greater because patients seem to enjoy it more.

Chronic inflammation may play a central role in COPD exacerbation. Nonspecific inflammatory biomarkers are potentially valuable for providing more personalized approach to therapy. Drugs that can control inflammation, such as statins, show promise. But don’t forget the importance of lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking and committing to an exercise regimen that is varied and/or involves the use of a pedometer. And potentially a high-nutrient, anti-inflammatory diet will also contribute positively to reducing the frequency and severity of COPD exacerbations.

References:

(1) Natl Vital Stat Rep. 2011 Dec.;59(10):1-126. (2) cdc.gov. (3) N Engl J Med. 2002;346:988-994. (4) www.goldcopd.org. (5) JAMA. 2013;309:2353-2361. (6) Respiratory Research. 2013;14:24. (7) Am J Med. 2013 Jul;126:598-606. (8) ATS 2013 International Conference: Abstract A1360. (9) Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2013; online Feb. 28.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com.    

Pairing a healthy diet with regular exercise is the best way to prevent heart disease. Stock photo
Taking an active role can reduce your risk significantly

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Heart disease is so pervasive that men who are 40 years old have a lifetime risk of 49 percent. In other words, about half of men will be affected by heart disease. The statistics are better for women, but they still have a staggering 32 percent lifetime risk at age 40 (1).

The good news is that heart disease is on the decline due to a number of factors, including better awareness in lay and medical communities, improved medicines, earlier treatment of risk factors and lifestyle modifications. We are headed in the right direction, but we can do better. Heart disease is something that is eminently preventable.

Heart disease risk factors

Risk factors include obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes. Unfortunately, both obesity and diabetes are on the rise. For patients with type 2 diabetes, 70 percent die of cardiovascular causes (2). However, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking have declined (3).

Of course, family history also contributes to the risk of heart disease, especially with parents who experienced heart attacks before age 60, according to the Women’s Health Study and the Physician’s Health Study (4). Inactivity and the standard American diet, rich in saturated fat and calories, also contribute to heart disease risk (5). The underlying culprit is atherosclerosis (fatty streaks in the arteries).

Another potential risk factor is a resting heart rate greater than 80 beats per minute (bpm). In one study, healthy men and women had 18 and 10 percent increased risks of dying from a heart attack, respectively, for every increase of 10 bpm over 80 (6). A normal resting heart rate is usually between 60 and 100 bpm. Thus, you don’t have to have a racing heart rate, just one that is high-normal. All of these risk factors can be overcome, even family history.

The role of medication

Cholesterol and blood pressure medications have been credited to some extent with reducing the risk of heart disease. The compliance with blood pressure medications has increased over the last 10 years from 33 to 50 percent, according to the American Society of Hypertension.

In terms of lipids, statins have played a key role in primary prevention. Statins are effective at not only lowering lipid levels, including total cholesterol and LDL — the “bad” cholesterol — but also inflammation levels that contribute to the risk of cardiovascular disease. The Jupiter trial showed a 55 percent combined reduction in heart disease, stroke and mortality from cardiovascular disease in healthy patients — those with a slightly elevated level of inflammation and normal cholesterol profile — with statins.

The downside of statins is their side effects. Statins have been shown to increase the risk of diabetes in intensive dosing, compared to moderate dosing (7).

Unfortunately, many on statins also suffer from myopathy (muscle pain). I have a number of patients who have complained of muscle pain and cramps. Their goal when they come to see me is to reduce and ultimately discontinue their statins by following a lifestyle modification plan involving diet and exercise. Lifestyle modification is a powerful ally.

Lifestyle effects

There was significant reduction in mortality from cardiovascular disease with participants who were followed for a very long mean duration of 18 years. The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, a prospective (forward-looking) study, investigated 501 healthy men and their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. The authors concluded that those who consumed five servings or more of fruits and vegetables daily with <12 percent saturated fat had a 76 percent reduction in their risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who did not (8). The authors theorized that eating more fruits and vegetables helped to displace saturated fats from the diet. These results are impressive and, to achieve them, they only required a modest change in diet.

The Nurses’ Health Study shows that these results are also seen in women, with lifestyle modification reducing the risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD). Many times, this is the first manifestation of heart disease in women. The authors looked at four parameters of lifestyle modification, including a Mediterranean-type diet, exercise, smoking and body mass index. There was a decrease in SCD that was dose-dependent, meaning the more factors incorporated, the greater the risk reduction. There was as much as a 92 percent decrease in SCD risk when all four parameters were followed (9). Thus, it is possible to almost eliminate the risk of SCD for women with lifestyle modifications.

How do you know that you are reducing your risk of heart disease and how long does it take?

These are good questions. We use cardiac biomarkers, including inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein, blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index. A cohort study helped answer these questions. It studied both high-risk participants and patients with heart disease. The results showed an improvement in biomarkers, as well as in cognitive function and overall quality of life.

Participants followed extensive lifestyle modification: a plant-based, whole foods diet accompanied by exercise and stress management. The results were statistically significant with all parameters measured. The best part is the results occurred over a very short period to time — three months from the start of the trial (10). Many patients I have seen have had similar results.

Ideally, if patient needs to use medications to treat risk factors for heart disease, it should be for the short term. For some patients, it may be appropriate to use medication and lifestyle changes together; for others, lifestyle modifications may be sufficient, as long as patients take an active role.

(1) Lancet. 1999;353(9147):89. (2) Diabetes Care. 2010 Feb; 33(2):442-449. (3) JAMA. 2005;293(15):1868. (4) Circulation. 2001;104(4):393. (5) Lancet. 2004;364(9438):93. (6) J Epidemiol Community Health. 2010 Feb;64(2):175-181. (7) JAMA. 2011;305(24):2556-2564. (8) J Nutr. March 1, 2005;135(3):556-561. (9) JAMA. 2011 Jul 6;306(1):62-69. (10) Am J Cardiol. 2011;108(4):498-507.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.