This was one of my most popular posts and also happened to be among my first few. I thought my new readers would appreciate the low-down on this myth debunked and my faithful readers wouldn’t mind the refresher.
If it could be scientifically proven that regular exercise staves off common, life-shortening diseases despite your genetic make-up, would you feel differently about exercise? We’re not quite there yet, but we are getting closer.
The difficulty in trying to determine how exercise affects our risks of developing common diseases like heart disease and diabetes is that it is hard to conduct long-term clinical trials that definitively link exercise (or lack thereof) to diseases contracted later in life. The most obvious problem is, even if one could design a study with a large, randomized amount of participants, including a control group, in proving there is a difference in disease development over time between those who exercise and those who don’t, one wouldn’t know how much differences in genetics, diet and other environmental factors contributed to disease contraction regardless of exercise.
This conundrum is precisely why it’s invaluable to enlist identical twins in studies such as these. Identical twins have the same DNA and grew up in the same household which means they lived under the same socio-economic conditions, eating the same diet and experiencing the same environmental factors in their formative years.
Thus far, identical twin studies have indicated that, at end of life, those twins who exercised more throughout life than their twin siblings tended to live longer and contract fewer diseases. It’s promising information in linking more exercise to longer, healthier lives. But it’s not perfect. Because, while it’s true that these studies control for DNA, they can’t control for other factors that can diverge for twins after they leave the same household. For example, their diets can become very different after decades living apart, they may be living under different socio-economic conditions, they could be exposed to different pollutants or experience different stress factors due to variances in occupations or relationship issues.
But a new study on identical twins suggests that exercise does make a huge difference on risk factors for diseases linked to mortality. This study from Finland, using the FinnTwin16 database, has been collecting data from identical twins beginning at the age of 16. This is the first large identical twin study that begins at such a young age and follows them as they age.
Not surprisingly, many identical twins remain very similar in lifestyle factors, such as diet make-up and exercise frequency, even after they enter adulthood, leave home and lead separate lives. However, the study was able to identify 10 sets of twin males who did differ greatly in exercise frequency by the time they reached their early to mid-twenties. In all ten cases, one twin exercised regularly while their counterpart didn’t exercise. In all cases, both siblings were exercising regularly when the study began, at the age of 16, but one twin had stopped exercising (usually due to work or family obligations) within the last three years. Also, in all cases, diets remained very similar. Metabolic and fitness tests, as well as brain scans, were conducted on all 20 individuals and the results were startling.
Those who were sedentary had a higher body fat percentage, indications of insulin resistance (an early risk factor for diabetes and other metabolic conditions), inferior cardiovascular capabilities and far less grey matter (especially in the parts of the brain that control motor function and coordination) compared to their active brothers. Considering that these dramatic differences in health indicators occurred after only a few years of a sedentary lifestyle, imagine how different the health of each twin would be compared to his brother over a lifetime.
Getting back to my original question, this isn’t proof that you can overcome a genetic predisposition to common diseases by exercising. This is not a clinical study, which uses a randomized sampling in a controlled testing environment. It is an epidemiological study that relies on questionnaires and surveys to collect data on individuals which can lead to subjective influences on the data and the sample for this study is small and not randomized. However, because the participants are identical twins, this study does offer something that most epidemiological studies can’t, and that is it does control for very important variables, the most important one being DNA. And the results in this study are consistent with other epidemiological and clinical exercise studies that have been conducted on identical twins as well as randomized studies on general populations.
Where this study may lack in proof of causation, I believe, it makes up for in hope. Many studies indicate there is a relationship between frequency of exercise and disease risk. What this study seems to suggest is the relationship exists no matter our DNA. That it isn’t rational to have a fatalistic attitude over bad genes. For me, that means hope informed by science that I have a lot more control over my health than I once thought. I hope, after reading this, you feel that way too.
Click here to read The New York Times article on this study.
My post yesterday about the way women are used in advertising is getting a lot of buzz. It occurred to me that I could make my point even better if I shared with you what I discovered when I was searching for the Stuart Weitzman ad that prompted my post. Whose body is this?
You may answer Kate Moss. And it is true, that is Kate Moss’ face and she is wearing Stuart Weitzman’s shoes and posed for the photo. I don’t think, however, that it is Kate Moss’ body. It may be a version of her real body but it isn’t an exact or even near-exact representation of her actual body. How do I know? Tell me, whose body is this?
Well, the face is the new face of Stuart Weitzman’s shoes – Gisele Bundchen. She has replaced Kate Moss. Why? I have no idea because the bodies in all four of these photos – and we see an awful lot of all four bodies – are exactly the same. The body attached to Gisele’s head bears no perceivable difference to the body attached to Kate’s head.
So, whose body is it? It is the computer generated go-to body of the early 21st century model. She doesn’t have a name because she doesn’t actually exist. The body doesn’t belong to any human alive today.
But, let’s not just pick on Weitzman, Gisele and Kate. Tell me how do the bodies in this ad compare to the bodies of Gisele and Kate in the Weitzman ads?
Seriously, if I cropped the heads out of all of these ads, could you identify which model is which?
Think about this – the age range for Victoria’s Secret models is 18-28, Gisele Bundchen is 34 (mother of two) and Kate Moss is 41 (mother of one). What is the likelihood that all these women, in reality, have nearly the exact same body dimensions and overall appearance? Consider Kate Moss began her modeling career at 14 and Gisele Bundchen around 12. The “ideal” body for a model back when each of them began is very different from the “ideal” body used in these ads today. Who had the crystal ball way back then to know that at ages 34 and 41 and after giving birth to children they would have the same exact body as the newly minted Victoria’s Secret models in their early 20s?
The answer is, of course, there is no crystal ball and the bodies we see in these ads are a fiction. All women should be outraged.
But I would contend that the women who should be most outraged are the women in these ads. Because how long is it going to take for fashion companies to figure out that their IT guys can build a more beautiful, more “perfect” female robo-model on their computers for a fraction of the cost of the current supermodel contract? How can an IT guy do that? It’s already being done in all these ads. This is how:
Now, more and more, the public is learning the truth about these deceitful ads and the fraud of the models with the perfect bodies. We’re already more than half-way there to the time when this curtain gets pulled all the way back to expose the lie and begin to change this ugly reality.
If we care about our daughters, that day can’t come soon enough.
You can read yesterday’s post about the use of women in advertising and participate in my poll on it by clicking here.
My husband showed me an ad similar to this one in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal and asked me if, as a woman viewing it, it bothered me to see a scantily clad woman in a sexually provocative pose in an advertisement that doesn’t do a good job communicating what they are selling:
“Are they selling shoes, a blouse, underwear, hair products? I can’t tell,” he said to me. Well, I had no idea. I’m into fitness, not fashion. I had to look it up. (They sell shoes, by the way.)
But the point of his question wasn’t really about what I thought of an ad that makes it unclear what they were selling, but what I thought about an ad that so clearly wants you to take notice by sexually objectifying a woman’s body. My response was a bit of a shoulder shrug while I pointed out to him that sex sells and has been that way for as long as advertising has been a business. It certainly wasn’t new when Marilyn Monroe was used to sell products and that was over a half-century ago.
What’s different now and what bothers me so much more is the fantasy of the perfect female human body passed off as, not only real, but a goal to be attained by every woman. When Marilyn was used in ads, at the same time, other models and entertainers with all different body types and sizes were used in other ads. There were curvy women, thin women, tall women, short women, long legs, long torsos – a variety that represented the true variety of the female form.
Feminists used to bemoan the popularity of the Barbie doll when I was a child. I didn’t understand it. I loved playing with Barbie. Even as a child, I understood she was a doll. No real woman I knew or saw on TV or in magazines looked as flawless as Barbie. I didn’t think, nor wish, I would grow up to look like Barbie. Nobody grew up to look like Barbie – she wasn’t real, after all.
Today, thanks to advancements in plastic surgery techniques and, even more obvious, technological advancements in professional photo-shopping, every single model looks exactly the same. They may have different hair, eye and skin color, but they all have the same long, thin limbs; the same perky, full breasts; the same full butt; the same cheekbones and full lips; and the same never-occurs-in-nature thigh gap. At the same time, all these models are devoid of cellulite or disproportionately-shaped anything. (See photo and video proof of it here.) Whether they’ve had surgery to make them that way or the photos have been doctored to make their bodies appear that way after the fact, this is the body that is being passed off as perfect and real. It is a lie. But no matter, right?
Wrong. When a girl, teen and, yes, grown woman sees that ad, nine times out of 10, she studies the woman’s body and compares her own to it. She makes note of every aspect in which her own body falls short of the “perfect” body in the image before her. And she is doomed to fail at achieving it. Because these bodies are as fake and unachievable as Barbie’s.
So, yes, that ad bothered me. But not for the same reasons it bothered my husband. It was a good reminder to me because I find myself falling into the body image trap just like everyone else does. Yes, I like the way my body looks when I am living my fittest life. But it shouldn’t be my goal. Being fit is about health, well-being and a fulfilling quality of life. That’s the prize and that is real.
Share your thoughts by participating in my poll:
Fit&Happier Workout of the Month defined: These are 30 minute general fitness workouts designed to offer a complete and balanced approach to strength and cardiovascular training in the most efficient way possible. Strength training workouts will each feature a different form of resistance, or load, so that you can choose the type of resistance based on equipment availability and your preference. These will offer full-body strength training and muscle toning with base exercises appropriate for beginners and progressions for those more experienced in strength training. Cardio workouts are designed to get the most calorie burn possible in the time allotted. Combo workouts combine strength and cardio training into one, efficient, full-body, calorie-burning workout. All workouts conclude with flexibility training as no workout is complete without it. Click on the exercises to link to step-by-step written and video instructions provided by ACE Fitness.
Free Weights: Also known as dumbbells, free weights are a terrific, versatile tool for full-body strength training for general fitness. For women looking to build strength for boosted metabolism and fitness, as well as visibly tone muscles, a range of dumbbells from 3-10 lbs is sufficient. These load amounts are readily available in the weight training area of most gyms. If you want to do this workout at home, while a full set of free weights can set you back $100 and take up a ton of space, it isn’t necessary to have more than 3 dumbbell pairs in order to get the benefit of a full range of load options for these exercises. For example, a pair each of 3 lbs, 5 lbs and 8 lbs dumbbells would cost approximately $40 and give you the ability to workout with 3, 5, 6, 8, 10 or 16 lbs of load, depending on whether you use one or two weights during any given exercise.
I prefer hour-glass shaped, neoprene-coated free weights. They have a no-slip grip, are comfortable in your hands and usually come in a variety of bright colors making them more aesthetically pleasing compared to industrial looking dumbbells. If you have the choice, opt for those that are hexagon shaped at the ends over those that are circular. The circular ended ones tend to roll away from you. And, as you progress to heavier loads for your free weight exercises, the flat edges of the hexagon ended dumbbells are more stable when holding two weights together.
Free Weight Strength & Flexibility Training Workout
Concept: Use free weights and gravity to strengthen the major muscle groups of the body. Utilize the lowest weight possible to reach exhaustion, or maximum effort, between 10 and 16 repetitions. If you can perform 16 or more repetitions with excellent form before reaching exhaustion, you should increase the weight amount. If you lose form before the 10th repetition, you should decrease the weight amount. Where noted, some exercises can also be progressed by switching from a seated to standing position or from a double leg to single leg stance. It’s likely the correct amount of load for you will be different from one exercise to the next.
Maximum effort or muscle exhaustion means you can’t perform another repetition of the exercise without losing form and/or engaging another muscle group. An example being, when performing biceps curls, the biceps are targeted and the movement should be only elbow flexion and extension. As one reaches her maximum effort-point of exhaustion, the biceps may begin to feel strained or “burn” and/or the individual may begin to swing or sway at the hips or torso, engaging hip or abdominal muscles instead of the biceps muscles.
Free weight exercises allow one to work opposing muscle groups by controlling the momentum of the movement against gravity. This is accomplished by moving more slowly on the down phase of an exercise. Using the biceps curl example from above: when you are lifting the free weight against gravity, you are isolating the biceps on the up/lifting phase. Assume it takes a count of 2 to perform the curl movement. If you lower the weight to the start position at a slower pace, as in a count of 3 or 4, you are resisting against gravity’s pull while lowering the weight, which isolates the triceps muscles on the down/lowering phase.
I recommend using a cushioned, no-slip surface to perform this workout, such as an exercise mat or open area of wall-to-wall carpeting. Be sure to have enough unobstructed space around you to allow for full range of motion of arms and legs. Perform this workout 1-3 times per week, allowing at least 48 hours before repeating this workout.
Warm-Up: 2-5 minutes of high knee marching, swinging opposing arms to shoulder height as you lift knees to hip height or any other form of moderate cardio movement you choose. The goal is to raise your heart-rate slightly before working your muscles.
Strength Workout: Perform the following exercise circuit in succession with no rest between exercises:
- Overhead Triceps Extension: 10-16 repetitions. Muscles worked: triceps on the up phase (count of 2); biceps on the down phase (count of 3 or 4). Progression: To increase your load options, this exercise can be done by holding two free weights together, one weight in each hand, parallel and side-by-side to one another.
- Squat: 10-16 repetitions. Muscles worked: core through all movements; hip flexors, hamstrings & shins on down phase (count of 4 or 5); glutes, quads & calves on up phase (count of 3). Regression: To decrease load, hold one free weight with both hands by grasping each end, holding weight parallel to floor at chest height. Progression: When you can perform more than 16 repetitions with perfect form at the maximum dumbbell weight available to you, lower the weight amount and perform Single Leg Squats, 10-16 repetitions each leg.
- Overhead Press: 10-16 repetitions. Muscles worked: shoulders (deltoids) on up phase (count of 2); back (lats) on down phase (count of 3 or 4). Progression: perform standing
- Ab Crunches: 10-16 repetitions. Muscles worked: abs on up phase (count of 2); back on down phase (count of 3 or 4). To perform with free weights: follow instructions for body weight crunches in link while holding one or two free weights at chest level. Hold one free weight by grasping each end with each hand with free weight parallel to the floor; hold two free weights together, side-by-side and parallel to one another.
- Bent Over Flys: 10-16 repetitions. Muscles worked: upper back (rhomboids, traps) on up phase (count of 2); chest (pecs) on down phase (count of 3 or 4)
- After performing each exercise once, rest for 1-2 minutes and repeat the circuit (triceps extensions through bent over flys) for a second set of each exercise. After performing the circuit twice, perform the flexibility workout.
Flexibility Workout: Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds and breathe deeply throughout the stretches.
- Overhead Triceps Stretch: 20-30 seconds each arm
- Warrior I: stretches legs & back, be sure to stretch both sides
- Cat-Cow: targets abs, chest & back, hold each pose for 20-30 seconds
- Cobra: stretches abs & hip flexors
- Childs Pose: a relaxing stretch for your core & glutes to end your workout
Author’s Note: Always consult your physician before beginning any new exercise program.
Check back for these upcoming Fit&Happier Workouts of the Month – April: Medicine Ball Strength Training; May: Stability Ball Strength Training; June: Balance & Strength Training; July: Functional Training (Strength); August: Interval Training (Cardio); September: Schoolyard Play Workout (Combo); October: Outdoor Cardio & Strength Combo; November: Timed Circuit (Combo); December: HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training-Cardio)
Click on the link to view previous Activity-Specific Workouts of the Month: Hockey & Cross-Country Skiing, Snowboarding & Figure Skating, Golf & Softball, Distance Running, Racquet Sports, Swimming, Waterskiing & Surfing, Cycling, Rowing & Desk Jockeys, Track, Field & Court Sports, Throwing & Pitching, Dancing, Downhill Skiing
This month’s Small Step is all about setting yourself up for success. Remember, fitness is a lifestyle not a diet or exercise program with an end date. Even making changes in small, manageable increments, as my program advocates, doesn’t guarantee one won’t get derailed especially if she is relying only on willpower and well-intended plans. What’s needed is an environment that promotes a healthy lifestyle but also reduces the situations in which one gets pulled back into old, unhealthy habits. So, this month, your challenge is to make simple, permanent changes in your environment that can accentuate the positives while eliminating the negatives in your fitness quest.
What follows are considerations for the most common environmental pitfalls and how to turn them into advantages for you. Weaknesses vary from person to person. For some, having ice cream in the house isn’t much of a temptation. For others, it’s impossible to resist on a regular basis. Therefore, it’s important to take an honest, thorough assessment of the obstacles that present the biggest challenges to fitness for you. You might identify some challenges that aren’t listed here. You can use the examples here to come up with your own strategies to manipulate your environment to thwart those pitfalls as well.
Make the foods that tempt you hard to get and the healthy ones easy to get: Purge your home, vehicle and office of junk food and always have on hand healthy snacks to satisfy urges.
Junk food encompasses the obvious like candy, chips and baked goods. But other empty calorie snacks are those that contain mostly simple carbohydrates, like refined flours and sugars, and little to no protein, fiber or healthy fats. Keep in mind, if a snack contains almost all sugars or refined flours, your body quickly absorbs those foods, causing insulin levels to sky-rocket and then plummet, leaving you with a sudden drop in energy levels and hungry again in a short amount of time. Having a snack with a combination of protein, complex carbohydrates and fats, plus a little fiber, gives you sustained and even energy levels and makes you feel fuller and more satisfied for a longer period of time.
*Nuts/nut butters, seeds, popcorn (popped in canola or olive oil), cheese and whole fruits and veggies are superior to highly processed snack foods like pretzels, crackers, cereal bars and most commercial granola bars. Yogurt can also be a pitfall wrapped in a healthy reputation. Better to opt for plain Greek yogurt that has some fat than to opt for the sugar-filled, no-fat, “light” flavored yogurts. See my previous post on stocking a healthy pantry for more healthy eating strategies.
Be smart about food shopping so you won’t replace what you’ve purged with more junk: The basic rules of thumb for food shopping are: have a list and stick to it, don’t shop when you’re hungry, shop the perimeter of the store first (where the majority of healthy, whole foods are located) and then go down only the aisles that contain the remaining items on your list. For more tips, see my healthy food shopping post.
Know your bad eating habit triggers: We all have our moments of weakness. It’s at these times that the pull is very strong to slide back into bad habits. Telling yourself that you will simply say “no” is a strategy for failure.
- Time of day: The most common times of day when there is a strong urge to eat high-calorie, high sugar foods are mid-afternoons and evenings. Having snacks, such as between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner, are necessary for most people. A mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack shouldn’t be avoided but one has to be ready with correctly portioned, high-quality snacks in order to avoid over-eating readily available, poor snack choices. If you’re away from home at these times, always have with you a pre-measured, pre-prepared, healthy snack (*see above). On the other hand, snacking in the evenings is rarely a good idea. If you’ve eaten three meals and a few snacks in a day, chances are you’ve consumed all the calories and nutrients your body needs. Try flossing and brushing your teeth right after dinner. This does two things. First, it creates an annoying inconvenience if you eat something – you’ll have to floss and brush again. Secondly, it’s an actual physical signal to your digestive system by way of the brain that eating is done for the day and it’s time to prepare for sleep.
- Mindless eating: Eating while distracted by something else – TV, reading material, electronic devices – is a recipe for over-consumption of calories. You aren’t paying attention to what you’re eating, so you over eat. It also creates a trigger by association. If you eat breakfast in front of the TV every day, your body associates eating with watching TV at other times of the day, tricking you into thinking you’re hungry when you’re not. Make it a rule to eat all meals and snacks at a table without distractions.
- Emotional eating: Emotional eating means you self-medicate with food at times when you’re most vulnerable – stressed, sad, angry or even bored. These vulnerable times are weaknesses at their very peak. This is why emotional eating is such a tough habit to break. Try taking a walk, preferably outdoors. But, even going up and down a flight of stairs or a couple of laps inside a building can be enough to keep you from food-medicating. Another option is to call or instant message a trusted confidant. Take a warm shower or bath or even just wash your face. Try meditation, relaxation and breathing exercises, or journaling. What you need to do is find another physical stimulation, outside of food, to break the funk.
Always be ready to be active: You can’t take advantage of a spontaneous invitation to take a walk or a free hour to head to the gym courtesy of a last-minute lunch date cancelation if you’re wearing a skirt and heels. Always have a bag with sneakers and workout clothing in your car or at your office.
Manipulate your social environment: It’s true the things around us influence us a great deal. But nothing influences our behavior, good and bad, more than the people around us. Take inventory of the people in your life – friends, family and co-workers – and place them into one of two categories: good influencers and bad influencers. People who are fit or are actively working to be fit are your good influencers and those who are not fit or not actively trying are your bad influencers.
- Harness the good influencers: Tell them about your quest to be fit and your willingness to enlist their help and support. You’re likely to find new workout partners and people with whom to exchange healthy recipes.
- Limit the damage of bad influencers: This isn’t about cutting loved ones from your life, it’s about changing what you do when you’re together. They, like the good influencers, need to be told about your quest to be fit and you’d like their support. The best thing would be to enlist them to partner in your quest but many won’t be receptive. If you can’t recruit them, social gatherings with your bad influencers should avoid food as much as possible. Arrange phone chats while you’re out exercising. If you’re spending time together in person, go shopping, get mani/pedis, go to a museum, movie or on a relaxing stroll through a park. Find something you enjoy doing together that doesn’t involve food.
If you’re new to the Small Steps series, you can read about the philosophy and strategies of the series here. Know the Small Steps strategies don’t need to be done in any particular order and are independent of one another. So, you can begin the series with this post, continue throughout the rest of the year and pick up what you missed next year.
Author’s Note: I am an exercise professional, not a nutrition professional. My diet recommendations are based on the most current science-backed information provided by nutrition professionals in the fitness industry. Mine are general recommendations that are in line with the guidelines published by the US Dept of Health and Human Services for apparently healthy individuals. If you have a health condition that requires dietary restrictions, I recommend consulting a medical doctor or registered dietician before making any changes to your diet. Always consult your physician before beginning any new exercise program.