Archive | Health and Beauty

Tips For Adulthood: Five Trends In Exercise

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Having just spent five days hiking up in England’s glorious Lake District, I’ve got a new found commitment to exercise. True, we spent a fair bit of our holiday touring pubs, napping and watching movies. But it was really invigorating to wake up every day and take a long hike as a family.

Which got me thinking – again – about exercise. I’ve noted before that I’m not a fitness freak nor naturally athletic. But my husband is and that – together with recent research showing that middle age is a critical time for preventing physical health declines in later life – has made me increasingly aware of just how important it is to exercise regularly.

So I’m always keen to learn about new strategies for keeping we mere mortals healthy. To that end, here are five new trends in exercise:

1. Barefoot Running. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I learned about this one from my husband. Apparently, the new rage in running is to do it barefoot. Why is that, you ask? According to the experts, one of the reasons that running is such an injury-prone sport is that when we wear running shoes, we are actually training our feet to run in a way that is neither natural nor good for them. Specifically, while running shoes force your heel to hit the ground first with a force equal to as much as three times your body weight, “natural” – i.e. barefoot – running encourages a low-impact strike on the ball of your foot. Among other things, this natural running technique explains why Kenyans have consistently been such great distance runners. Barefoot running provides comfort, safety and best of all…it’s free!

2. High Intensity Training. Here’s another new trend in exercising, also courtesy of my husband (Coincidence? Maybe.) New research suggests that many of us could benefit from as little as three minutes of high intensity training (HIT) a week. That’s right, three minutes. So, for example, you get on an exercise bike, warm up by doing gentle cycling for a couple of minutes, then go flat out for 20 seconds. Then wait a couple of minutes and do another full-intensity 20-second work out. Then take one more break and a final 20 seconds going all out. Why does this work? There are two reasons. On the one hand, when you do HIT, you are using not just the leg muscles, but the upper body as well (including arms and shoulders), so that 80% of the body’s muscle cells are activated, compared to 20-40% for moderate intensity jogging or cycling. Active exercise also helps your body break down its stores of glucose (sugar). Great news for the time-pressed among us. And really, who isn’t pressed for time?

3. The Nano Workout. In a similar time-saving vein, but engineered to induce far less sweat, is the Nano Workout. The Nano Workout is the brainchild of Joakim Christoffersson, and is premised on the idea that many of us don’t have the time, energy or ambition to spend hours on end at the gym. Instead, Christofferson offers a series of exercises that are “based on the situation you are in and using the natural conditions the situation provides.” The idea is that by breaking down your day and analyzing the most common situations you find yourself in – whether at the desk, in the kitchen, or on the bus – you can achieve a more healthy life, no matter what your day looks like. So the next time you’re watching TV, try that hip flexor. There’s no time like the present.

4. Folding Bikes. I’m a huge fan of the collapsible bike.  But according to Cassandra Daily, the fondness that the Millennial Generation has demonstrated for cycling has led to a whole new breed of folding bikes that correspond to the nomadic, minimalist lifestyle that Gen Y leads. My own personal favorite? The Bergmönch – a bike that doubles as a backpack-slash-bicycle. Best not tell my husband about this one.

5. Perineal Strengthening. Yeah, that’s a fancy word for strengthening your vagina, particularly after childbirth. Guys may wish to look away at this point or stick their fingers in their ears, although I’d advise them first to read this fantastic post by Claire Lundberg in Slate on her own vaginal re-education classes in France. (Yeah, I know. Where else?) There are all sorts of things women can and should be doing to maintain the health of their pelvic floor, which becomes increasingly weak as we approach middle age, leading to all sorts of encumbrances, incontinence chief among them. Perineal strengthening  is something I suspect is going to get more and more play in the U.S. and elsewhere over time. After all, it benefits everyone. (Hint, hint…)

Image: Run free by Today is a good day via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.



Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons Girls Should Play Sports

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I spent this morning at a cross-country race at my daughter’s school, watching kids aged seven to eleven run their hearts out on Hampstead Heath.

I’ve had a change of heart recently on sports. As a die-hard drama-geek growing up, I neither played a lot of sports nor cared very much for them. My view was that pretty much all of the main benefits you got from sports were easily replicated in other activities. As a result, and as I’ve fessed up here before, I‘m really not a sports mom in any way, shape or form.

But lately I’ve been rethinking the value of sports for my kids. Part of this is that my son is an avid soccer (football) player and fan. But a lot of it has been watching what being good at sports has meant for my daughter.

Women’s Sports Foundation research shows that boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 9 — and their parents — are equally interested in sports participation. However, by the age of 14, girls drop out of sport at a rate that is six times greater than boys.

That’s a real shame, because there are all sorts of reasons that girls, in particular, should be playing more sports. Here are five:

1. It boosts their self-esteem. It’s no secret that, on the whole, girls tend to have lower self-esteem than boys. Girls’ self-esteem tends to peak at around nine years old and then drops precipitously, while boys’ self-esteem tends to plateau in adolescence. Girls are also particularly likely to be critical of themselves, with one-quarter of older girls reporting that they did not like or hated themselves. In contrast, only 14 percent of boys said they felt this way. Sports builds confidence because, as a friend of mine put it recently, it teaches you how to improve your “personal  best.” Girls who are active also tend to be more optimistic, which has a direct bearing on motivation, and therefore achievement. In a recent study, 80 percent of female Fortune 500 executives identified themselves as former “tomboys.”

2. It teaches valuable life skills. Sports also teaches valuable life skills. When you work with coaches, trainers, and teammates to win games and achieve goals, you’re learning how to be successful. Above all, you’re learning how to function within a unit, and to work collectively with others towards the achievement of a goal. That skill is crucial for success in the work place; it’s also crucial to success in family life. My own view is that girls tend to rely excessively on one or two friends when they’re young, while boys tend to have more diffuse friendships. Sports is one way of countering this “best friend” bias in girls, while at the same time teaching them how to be both cooperative and loyal to the friends that they do have.

3. It keeps them healthy. In addition to being fit and maintaining a healthy weight, girls who play sports are also less likely to smoke. Later on in life, girls who exercise frequently are less likely to suffer from breast cancer or osteoporosis. As little as four hours of exercise a week may reduce a teenage girl’s risk of breast cancer by up to 60%. And in a world that’s obsessed with female body image, sports is a healthy way to keep yourself in shape, rather than starving yourself or endlessly dieting.

4. It improves academic outcomes. Being good at sports also has positive spill-over effects for school. Girls who play sports have, on average, higher grade point averages, better SAT scores, lower high-school drop out rates and a better chance of staying in college. Indeed, one study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that government policies aimed at directing more resources towards female sports may have been responsible for roughly one fifth of the 50 percent increase in female college attendance and college graduation between 1980 and 2000.

5. It’s fun. Again, no glass ceiling here. But as I watched the cross-country races this morning, I couldn’t help but be taken with the pride, satisfaction and ear-to-ear grins on the faces of the girls as they crossed the finish line, even if they didn’t win. And that, in and of itself, was worth the price of admission.

Image: Girls Soccer 18 by via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.


‘Doonesbury’ On Ultrasound As Rape

How does Garry Trudeau really feel? This week, the creator of the popular “Doonesbury” comic strip launched a new series depicting vaginal ultrasounds as GOP-approved rape.

The strip, which will run all week in newspapers around the world, is a response to the law passed by a Republican-majority Texas legislature last spring that requires a woman who wants an abortion to first have a vaginal sonogram so that she can hear the heartbeat of her fetus.

Similar, albeit less extreme, bills have been passed in Virginia, as well as in Oklahoma and North Carolina, where they are on hold pending legal battles, and are being contemplated in Alabama, Kentucky, Rhode Island and Mississippi.

In the comic strip, a woman turns up at an abortion clinic in Texas and is told to take a seat in “the shaming room.” A state legislator then asks if she’s been at the clinic before and, when she says she’d been there to get contraceptives, he replies: “Do your parents know you’re a slut?”

Read the rest of this post on The Washington Post’s She The People blog


Image: Doctor by jscreationzs via

Abortion Research: Is It Ever Unbiased?

In an election year in which women’s reproductive health issues are already front and center, allow me toss one more log onto the fire. A new study has been released challenging the notion that abortion has long-term mental health effects for women.

The study – which was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research – is actually a refutation of an earlier study in the same journal which purported to show that mental health disorders (like panic attacks, depression, substance abuse and post traumatic stress disorder) were higher in women who had terminated their pregnancies.

This initial study was used to inform a number of recent state efforts to restrict abortions, including – most recently – the controversial Virginia proposal that would have required women to undergo a transvaginal ultra-sound before going ahead with the procedure.

But apparently, the methodology in the original study was deeply flawed. By including all lifetime mental health disorders of the women in their sample – rather than only those instances occurring after the abortion took place – the study’s claims were utterly unsubstantiated.

Read the rest of this post at The Washington Post’s She The People blog


Image: I had an abortion by Willem Velthovenen via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

What Downton Abbey Teaches Us About Teen Sex

At a moment when the popularity of the British TV melodrama, “Downton Abbey,” seems to have hit its apex in the United States, I’m hopeful that we Americans can take another cultural cue from the Brits.

Last week, a controversial bill calling for teenage girls to be given compulsory lessons in sexual abstinence was pulled at the last minute from the House of Commons order of business.

It was proposed by Nadine Dorries, a Conservative member of Parliament who is concerned that British society is “saturated in sex.”

“Teaching a child at the age of seven to to apply a condom on a banana is almost saying: ‘Now go and try this for yourself,’” Dorries told the Guardian when the bill was first proposed.

The bill was taken off the agenda before a protest by a coalition of feminists, humanists and abortion rights activists assembled outside of Parliament could even begin in earnest. It had already been roundly criticized by members of all three major political parties in the U.K. , including many Conservatives.

The general sentiment seemed to be that — however you feel about abstinence as an effective means of birth control — there wasn’t much sense in confining sexual education to only one gender. As one columnist in the Guardian noted, “And what about those boys? Should they just sit quietly in a corner with their fruit and their Durex Extra Safe?”

Read the rest of this article at The Washington Post’s She The People blog


Image: Untitled by Riley Alexandra via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

Tips For Adulthood: Five Determinants of Emotional Health

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve been thinking a lot about middle age of late, and what it is – exactly – that makes us more or less happy as we round this phase of life.

It might be that my 46th birthday looms on the horizon next week, which makes me feel like I’m already entering the second half of my existence. (For reasons I can’t explain, I have apparently decided that I’m going to live to 90.)

Or it might be that Blue Monday (the third Monday of January, purported to be the saddest day of the year) just passed. Fictitious or not – that milestone always prompts me to reassess my emotional state and decide if I’m happier or sadder than I was at this time last year.

To that end, I’ve taken a keen interest in recent research on emotional health in adulthood and what makes for happier grown ups:

1. Maternal Care – While the research is still confined to rats, it looks like maternal care influences brain chemistry into adulthood. Most of us would probably agree that this statement is likely true. But scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg have demonstrated that intensive maternal care during infancy promotes the development of a specific hormone in the brain, which in turn controls the development of anxiety and stress responses. While the study still needs to be extended to humans, the preliminary results suggest that how much your mother dotes on you when you’re very young may be key to understanding things like post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders as you age. Ditto the adverse effects of maternal favoritism.

2. Religiosity – Another important factor in determining emotional well-being in adulthood is how religious you are. Modern happiness research leaves no doubt that religious people are happier than their contemporaries. This is something that has been born out both within societies and across them. Interestingly, however, American Jews scored the highest of any religious group on a “well-being” index within the United States, even though more than half of Jews are non-religious. So disregard all that kvetching and moaning; behind it all, Jews are actually feeling OK. (Perhaps that’s why I identify so much with them?)

3. Imaginary Friends – Oh! How excited I was to learn this:  a recent study out of NYU shows that having imaginary friends in childhood lays the groundwork for a more stable emotional adulthood. And that’s because through these imaginary friendships, what you’re actually doing is practicing how to express your emotions without fear of censorship or derision, all the while bolstering your creativity and verbal skills. As someone who grew up with a best friend called Con Brick Chair – and must listen endlessly to my own daughter chattering away in her imaginary play – I’m so pleased to hear that this behavior may actually be functional!

4. Early Sex – On the less encouraging end of things, research also suggests that early sex could trigger mood swings in adulthood. Again, the research has so far been conducted only on animals. But it implies that there may be an appropriate “age” to begin having sexual relationships, and that adolescents begin too young, this may have negative consequences for anxiety and depression later on. (Interestingly, being sexually active doesn’t seem to affect their school performance.) Something tells me that – if born out on real teens – these results might be of interest to politicians!

5. Choosing Happiness – I was delighted to happen upon a summary in the New York Times of a new book by Karl Pillemer called 30 Lessons For Living Well. In it, Dr. Pillemer – a human development scholar at Cornell University – interviewed more than 1,000 Americans from different economic, educational and occupational strata to get their personal views on what has made them happy throughout life, ranging from marriage to careers to aging itself. The article is fascinating on many counts, but one particular result stood out. Almost every single one of the interviewees concurred that happiness is a choice, not the result of how life treats you. So regardless of what happens to you early on in life, the consensus from those who’ve been there is that you are in charge of how you react towards those stimuli and for adopting a pro-active approach to being happy.

It’s nice to end on a positive note, no?


Image: Self Portrait by kasi metcalf via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Diet Books Dumped in U.K. Protest at Parliament

“There’s not a single part of my body that I’d want to change, even if I could,” a woman commented to me the other night at dinner.

“Liar,” I wanted to say back.

It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with the tenor of her remark. We were discussing the ongoing breast implant scandal in the United Kingdom, which has the government and private medical clinics here squabbling over who should pay to replace faulty silicone breast implants: the companies that put them in, or the government that certified their safety.

My dinner partner correctly observed that the real culprit in the scandal was body image: the idea sold to all of us that we’re meant to look a certain way. And the horrific lengths to which we go — vomiting, starving ourselves, paying inordinate amounts of money to plastic surgeons to add or subtract a curve — to comply with that ideal.

But I don’t really think there’s a single one of us — certainly not female — who hasn’t fallen prey to the lures of an Atkins Diet, a Slim Fast regime or a Weight Watchers program at some point. I have one friend who couldn’t contain her delight when she discovered that her anti-depressant doubled as a dieting pill. “A twofer!” she exclaimed to me giddily over the phone.

Read the rest of this article at The Washington Post’s She The People Blog


Image: scale by vividBreeze via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

What UK’s Breast Implant Scandal Tells Us About Health Care Reform

These days, product recalls are nothing out of the ordinary. From children’s toys to Tylenol, you locate the offending item, send in your receipt, and with any luck, get a refund. But when the recall in question concerns a breast implant – as it does right now in a scandal here in the U.K. – then the process is a quite bit more complicated.

In case you haven’t heard, silicone breast implants made with P.I.P. – an industrial grade silicone – by a French company have now been declared faulty, exposing women to ruptures, leaks and possible risks of cancer. Over the past 12 years, some 300,000 of these implants were sold to women around the globe in more than 65 countries, predominantly in Europe and South America. (The United States banned this product and declared it unsafe.)

The French government has recently recalled all P.I.P. implants and agreed to pay for their removal, but only for women who’d had the original surgery done in France. The British government maintains that the link between P.I.P. implants and cancer is far lower than suggested by French data. It has agreed to pay for any removal on implants performed by the National Health Service (NHS) over the past decade (primarily those linked to breast cancer reconstructive surgery). But this accounts for only about 5% of the 40,000 women who’ve had implants in this country during that time.

As for the remaining 38,000 or so cases, the government is urging private clinics to perform the recalls for free on moral grounds. (As a last resort, the government will step in to pay for removal of implants put in in a private clinic that has closed or is unwilling to provide the service.

And this is where things get interesting.

Read the rest of this story at The Washington Post’s She The People Blog


Image: breast implant 5 by matthewlucas via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Drink Coffee

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Ever have one of those mornings where you wake up, jump in the shower, turn on the radio and hear the best news you’ve gotten in ages?

No, not world peace. But close.

Apparently, coffee is now good for you. It holds a host of physical – not to mention psychological – benefits which scientists are only now beginning to appreciate.

In a household where our espresso machine holds a hallowed place, this is definitely grounds for rejoicing. I haven’t been this excited since I learned that sugar made a comeback.

So hear ye, hear ye: five reasons to drink (more!) coffee:

1. It reduces depression in women. This just in. A new study out of Harvard University shows that women who regularly drink coffee — the fully caffeinated kind — have a 20 percent lower risk of depression than nondrinkers. This comes on the heels of previous research showing that the risk of suicide decreases with increased coffee consumption. So by all means, toss out that Paxil and fire up some French Roast.

2. It lowers the risk of lethal prostate cancer in men. But it’s not just the ladies who will benefit from more java. In another study out of Harvard (what are they drinking there? ahem!) men who drank six or more cups per day had a 60 per cent lower risk of developing the most lethal type of prostate cancer and a 20 per cent lower risk of forming any type of prostate cancer compared to men who did not drink coffee. Given that prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in men, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

3. It may protect against head and neck cancers. A study from the University of Utah showed that people who drank more than four cups of coffee a day had a 39% decreased risk of cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx combined, compared with those who didn’t drink coffee. Regular consumption of coffee has also been linked to a lower risk for brain tumors, reduced rates of colorectal and endometrial cancer as well as liver cancer and cirrhosis.

4. It may ward off Alzheimer’s disease. Several studies looking at how caffeine affects brain development  in mice have confirmed that caffeine significantly decreases abnormal levels of the protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease. When aged mice bred to develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease were given caffeine – the equivalent of five cups of coffee a day – their memory impairment was reversed, according to a report issued by the Florida Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centre. Should these results be replicated on humans, it might suggest coffee as an effective treatment for this disease, rather than just a protective strategy.

5. It appears to stave off diabetes. Numerous studies have shown that coffee may be protective against Type 2 Diabetes, although the precise mechanism is not well understood. An analysis in the Archives of Internal Medicine, for example, found that people who drink three to four cups of coffee a day are 25% less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than those who drink fewer than two cups. In the United States alone, nearly 24 million children and adults in the U.S. — nearly 8 percent of the population — have diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of the disease and accounts for about 90 to 95 percent of these cases.

Whether these studies will prove robust in coming years – or be cancelled out by some of caffeine’s adverse effects on things like sleep and high blood pressure – remains to be seen.

But I’m going to blithely hedge my bets and carry on enjoying my cuppa (or two).

Latte or Cappucino?


Image: Coffee by Mshades via flickr under a Creative Commons license.






How I Came To Embrace Alternative Medicine

It all began when I got back from a two-and-a-half week vacation in the United States last January. As I resumed my normal routine of running, yoga and the daily schlep to both kids’ schools, something didn’t feel quite right. Specifically, there was a throbbing pain on the left side of my bum.

I’d had recurring trouble with my piriformis muscle before, so I began doing some stretches that I’d learned during my last round of physiotherapy. But after things got so excruciating that I had to give up yoga and started popping painkillers on a regular basis, I booked in to see an osteopath at a nearby facility. (I’d seen an osteopath successfully for a different injury a few years back.)

Osteopathy didn’t work this time around. The pain didn’t go away. Instead, over the next few months, it migrated to other parts of my back – upper and lower. There was one point when I could hardly walk. Meanwhile, my migraines – which have grown in intensity over the past decade or so – were getting progressively more frequent, despite changing – and upping – my meds.

Enter Pilates. At the advice of a friend who’d also had severe back pain, I began doing intensive Pilates and massage with a physio-therapist in my neighborhood three to four times a week throughout July and August. She also did acupuncture on my back and neck and gave me this weird magnetic patch to wear on my back on the airplane and when I sat at my desk for long intervals.

The upshot? I feel fantastic. Sure, I spend 40 minutes every morning doing back exercises (because eventually we all turn into our mothers.) But other than the occasional twitch to remind me that I still have something called a Lattisimus Dorsi muscle and it isn’t necessarily my friend, I feel really great. I’ve resumed running three times a week. And most importantly of all, I haven’t had a headache in 16 days…which must be a record for since moving to England five years ago.

I wouldn’t say that the cumulative effect of this experience has been to make me an evangelist for alternative medicine, but it has certainly moved me much closer in that direction. I’ve never had an issue with popping pills to address aches, pains and all manner of illness, and I still don’t. But I now feel that alternative medicine – whether used alone or in conjunction with traditional medicinal cures – can be hugely helpful.

And apparently, I’m not alone. More than one third of adults and nearly 12% of children in the United States now rely on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), according to a large Federal survey released in 2008.  Non-vitamin, non-mineral natural products are the most commonly used CAM therapy among adults. But use has also increased for things like deep breathing exercises, meditation, massage therapy and yoga. What all of this suggests is that CAM is becoming normalized within our health care system, as reflected in the fact that several CAM provisions were included in President Obama’s health care reform bill.

So the next time that back gives you some trouble and you reach for the Vicodin, give it a second thought and call a physical therapist instead. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised.


How about you? Have you ever tried alternative medicine and found it useful…or not?


Image: Pain by Racchio via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.