The U.S. Physical Activity Report Card

For years, Americans have been dealing with startlingly high obesity rates in not just adults but – perhaps more unsettlingly – in children. But this is a frustratingly complex issue, especially when it comes to the nation’s youth. For children, obesity is the result of many factors. Diet, in the influence of parents and educators, active play and health education all play their parts in this drama.

In an effort to better understand the issue, and to help the population in general get a more comprehensive grasp on things, the National Physical Activity Plan (NPAP) Alliance has officially released a report card. This report grades us as a nation, using the all-too-familiar A to F grading system, on a variety of factors that effect the health of our children. So, here’s the big question: How’d we do?

Not so great, it turns out. Let’s look at each aspect to get a more in-depth understanding on the situation.

Overall Physical Activity: D-

The official recommendations state that children should be getting at least 60 minutes of physical activity 5 days per week. In the 6-11 year old age bracket, only 42% of kids are meeting these standards. Not surprisingly, as kids get older and have more access to electronic entertainment, in the 12-15 age group the numbers drop. What is surprising, is how sharply the numbers plummet. During those years, only about 8% of kids are as active as the should be.


Sedentary Behaviors: D

Right along with getting at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day, kids are only supposed to be in the front of a screen for 2 hours or less. Only 46% of kids are within their limits.


Active Transportation: F

Only about 13% of kids walk or take their bikes to schools. This one takes some balance, though, and obviously would not be an option for kids who live in some areas. If the child lives in a high-crime area or extremely far from the school, this just isn’t practical or safe.


Organized Sport Participation: C-

About 58% of high school students participate in at least one form of organized sports. This could be a team at school or another community program. While these numbers aren’t terrible, they would be more acceptable if the students who were not involved in sports were getting their activity elsewhere.


School: C-

This measure looked at how many high school students were attending at least one physical education class per week. Personally, I was surprised to learn that only 52% of American students are meeting this requirement.


Community & the Built Environment: B-

It is good to know that 85% of children live in areas that give them access to at least one playground or park. But, the other numbers seems to suggest that these facilities are not being use as much as they should be.


The report card also included several sections that came up with an “incomplete” grade. This meant that the researchers just didn’t have enough to information to come up with an accurate judgment. These categories are: Active play, health related fitness, family and peers, and government strategies and investments.

Once again, this report card provides a stunning reminder that we still have plenty of work to do when it comes to encouraging a healthy lifestyle for our children. But, this sort of itemized list really makes the situation more understandable and gives us specific things to work on.





Running With Weighted Vests

Often, runners find themselves feeling a little stuck. One of the beauties of running is it’s simplicity – you don’t really need anything but a good pair of shoes, and even that is debatable. But this also means that it can be difficult for runners to make advancement, particularly in the areas od strength and power. Runners also typically struggle with finding a way to include strength training in to their workouts. Weighted vests, although they may look a little goofy, offer an interesting and useful training tool for runners who face this challenge.

Weighted vests are exactly what their name describes. Generally, the exact weight of the vest is adjustable within a certain range. For example, you might find a vest that can reach any weight between 1 and 40 pounds. On paper, the concept seems straightforward enough: Go throw your regular workout while carting around an extra 40 pounds. Then, when you take the vest off and instantly shed 40 pounds, the workout will be that much easier.

But does it work? And are there things that you should know about using a weighted vest in your training?



The simple answer is: Yes, it works. The reason why, and the logic behind weighted vests, is the same thought-process behind all resistance training. Simply put, challenging your body forces it to adapt. These adaptations, in turn, make related forms of activity easier.

So, if you run with an extra 40 pounds strapped to your torso, what happens? First of all, your cardiovascular system will have to work harder than normal to meet the now increased oxygen needs of your muscles.

Of course, your muscles will also be working more than normal. Your core will struggle to keep you upright and balanced under the added weight. Your legs will have to work extra hard to continually move your bodyweight plus the weight of the vest.

As mentioned, all of this will force your body to adapt.


Putting It To Work

So, what’s the best way to use a weighted vest to improve your runs? Well, you could start by wearing one while your run. Begin with a low weight and gradually work your way up. The exact progression will depend on your goals, though. If, for instance, you’re working to build your endurance, it would be better for you to keep the weight light and focus on increasing the duration of your runs until you reach your goal. Once you reach your goal distance, you can start adding more weight.

Or, you could just use the weighted vest as part of your warm-up. A 2013 study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that performing strides with a weighted vest before the actual run improved speed, range of motion and overall running economy.


Things To Consider

Keep in mind, though, that running with a weighted vest is really an advanced training technique. The added stress of running with a weighted vest could also make it harder for people who struggle with high-impact exercises to begin with. This is especially true if you have a preexisting knee or ankle condition.


Have you been able to use weighted vests in your training? Share your tips in the comments!





What to Buy Organic

 Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap/

Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap/

As a runner, you know nutrition plays a part in at least half of your efforts to train properly. Following a diet full of fruits, vegetables and lean proteins affects your workouts and your races. You need to fuel your engine for it to work to the best of its ability.

Granted, it would be nice to eat all organic and enjoy the flavors of farm-to-table for every meal, but that’s just not feasible. However, you can make some changes to reap the benefits of eating organic without having to hit up your banking account.

Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) produces its Shopper’s Guide to help consumers discover which fruits and vegetables contain the most pesticides, allowing you to choose wisely when purchasing your produce. Recently, the EWG published its 2014 list. Here’s what to look out for–you’d be surprised:

(According to EWG, it analyzed pesticide tests of 48 popular produce items.)

1. Apples
2. Strawberries
3. Grapes
4. Celery5. Peaches
6. Spinach
7. Sweet bell peppers
8. Nectarines imported
9. Cucumbers
10. Cherry tomatoes
11. Snap peas imported
12. Potatoes

All of the above are very common foods, especially number 1.

What about the good news? What produce is least likely to contain pesticides? Luckily, they are foods favored by runners, which include avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, mangoes,  kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower and sweet potatoes.

Runners love avocados for its good fat and sweet potatoes for its dense, nutrient-rich carbohydrates–most ultra runners I know will even eat these while running.

So what are you to do? Frequent farmer’s markets for produce like apples and grapes, commonly found at such markets. You’ll be purchasing organic products and helping out local farmers as a bonus. Many grocery stores also now sell organic produce; you just need to look at the label.


Vibram Lawsuit: An End To Minimalist Running?

The fitness world is, sadly, influenced to an extreme degree by fads. Supplements appear that will dissolve your fat and coat you in bulging muscles. Exercises shove their way to the forefront by provide insanely powerful, and previously unknown, muscle contractions. And, of course, there’s the ever-changing market of workout gear.

Several years ago, barefoot running took the fitness industry by storm. While many adventurous runners were choosing to go totally barefoot, the prospect of running without any protection scared many athletes away from the trend. Enter minimalist running shoes, with Vibram’s line of FiveFingers leading the charge.

Despite their odd, glove-like appearance, these shoes really didn’t take long to catch on. The claims, made both by the manufacturer and by other expert sources, stated that these FiverFinger shoes allowed you to adopt a more natural gait. Specifically, the thinking was that the light, “barefoot” nature of the shoes would teach runners to shift to a forefoot strike and avoid injuries associated with high-impact exercises.

Personally, I bought my first FiveFingers in early 2010. Since then, I have had nothing but positive experiences with them. But some other runners were not as satisfied and, recently, a class-action lawsuit has been filed against Vibram on the basis that the company made unsubstantiated claims and used false advertising to sell the shoes.

Although Vibram maintains that the charges are untrue, the company settled.

So, the big question is: Should you stop using your FiveFingers or another similar shoes? Are the products a waste of money?


Existing Research, Evidence and Just Plain Logic

Among the claims that the lawsuit labeled as false were the following:

(1) Strengthen muscles in the feet and lower legs

(2) Improve range of motion in the ankles, feet, and toes

(3) Stimulate neural function important to balance and agility

(4) Eliminate heel lift to align the spine and improve posture

(5) Allow the foot and body to move naturally

It is true that there isn’t an overwhelming amount of research regarding this type of footwear but, a huge amount of information can be gleaned from one existing study. The research in question – which played an important role in the lawsuit – was sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, an independent organization.

The study looked at several effects of running in Vibrams, including impact forces, strike style and knee flexion. The idea was to determine the likelihood of injury associated with Vibrams when compare to more traditional running shoes.

When running in standard shoes, all of the 16 female subjects had a heel-strike. Once they put on the Vibram’s, though, only half of them switched to the appropriate forefoot strike pattern. This is the first point worth considering because making this change is vital to barefoot running. Without the padding of traditional running shoes, a heel strike in minimalist shoes can dramatically increase your risk of injury. Clearly, not everyone will find it easy to make this change. In fact, the subjects had two weeks to get themselves accustomed to running in the Vibrams  and still only half adopted properly.

The few runners who did successfully change their gait in the Vibrams also developed a great range of plantar flexion on contact with the ground. This allowed them to absorb the impact better, an adaption that is associated with a lower risk of injury. All of the subjects, regardless of their gait, showed less knee flexion while wearing the Vibrams. This is also a beneficial change that can lower injury rates.

Essentially, the researchers concluded that Vibrams (and similar shoes) do have distinct benefits if they are used properly. Unfortunately, the changes required to make proper use of the minimalist shoes can be pretty difficult to achieve without proper coaching and time to acclimate. One of the leaders of the study, John Porcari, Ph.D said “People may need very explicit instruction and time spent practicing how to land on the ball of the foot. Otherwise, they may be doing themselves more harm. Simply switching to Vibrams doesn’t guarantee that a person is not going to experience more injuries.” (Emphasis ours.)


The Takeaway

So, will I stop using my Vibrams? No.

Will I participate in the lawsuit? No.

Granted, some of the claims made by Vibram were not explicitly backed up by the research but they were inferred. Sure, the manufacturer may have taken some things out of context to sell their product, which is an extremely common marketing practice. Ultimately, though, the fact remains that the end-user is responsible for the way that they chose to use the product.

Beyond that, if you haven’t experience problems with your current shoes or strike, there’s probably no reason to change. As we’ve seen, that’s a very difficult – and potentially risky- swap to attempt. On the other hand, if you’ve been using Vibrams and had a good experience, why stop now?

What are your thoughts on the Vibram lawsuit? Please share them in the comments.



Ways to Boost Your Running

girl runningAfter a rather hot long run this weekend, my negative self-talk grew with each step. By the time I finished, I felt frustrated, angry and tired. How can I make a long run a better experience when I am feeling down? Especially with summer coming, the hot temperatures will make it harder to continue and I fear that my bad feelings will surface again. I conducted some research and came up with the following:

When you run a treadmill, run where there is a mirror in front of you. Although this sounds narcissistic, looking at yourself helps improve your running form. It’s the reason you find so many mirrors at the gym–not to check out the size of your biceps, but to make sure you are curling properly. It’s the same for mirrors in front of the cardio equipment. As the weather gets too hot to run outside, try this and see if your form shows improvement.

Bring along a dog. As I’ve taken to trail running lately, I see so many runners/hikers with dogs in tow. It makes me jealous and I want to bring a dog along with me. Dogs brighten your mood and make a good workout buddy–another two reasons to add one to the family.

Sip a little caffeine before you begin your run for extra energy. How much is enough? Two 8-ounce cups of coffee 60 minutes before your next workout, or if you’re not a coffee drinker, try one energy drink. Experiment with how much caffeine and keep a journal of how you’re feeling during the workout.

Do a fast paced warm-up. We’ve all lightly jogged the track for 800 meters when warming up for a speed workout. Try adding in some pick-ups during the warm-up. You’ll actually burn more calories and shock the body.

Use a heart rate monitor. You will know how hard you are pushing your body and can adjust your running levels accordingly. You may not be pushing yourself and this device will prove it. Some of the top endurance athletes in the world use one, so why shouldn’t you?


Rethinking the Healthy Breakfast

Most of us grew up hearing commercials spout the confusing phrase “part of this balanced breakfast,” while showing us what they wanted us to believe was a healthy breakfast. Do you remember what that meal typically looked like? Usually, the well-arranged spread consisted of cereal, toast and a glass of juice. Based on what you now know about nutrition as a health-conscious adult, is that really a balanced breakfast. And yet, what is your concept of a healthy breakfast now? For many, it still consists of sugar-rich foods without much of anything else. You might not think about fruit or oatmeal being sugary but, the sad reality is that they are.

This can create several problems, both in the short- and long-term. What are the health effects of this style of eating? What should a healthy breakfast really look like?


What Sugar Does

Sugar has a number of effects on your body. For the purposes of this discussion we’re going to focus specifically on the insulin reaction.

Every time you eat, regardless of the nutritional profile of your food, your blood sugar rises. This is good. In fact, it’s vital. That glucose that you get from your food is absolutely necessary for healthy brain function, muscles contraction, immune responses and a host of other biological systems. In order to make sure that that glucose goes where it needs to go and gets absorbed properly, your body releases a hormone called insulin.

When you eat a food that is extremely high in simple sugars, though, your blood glucose levels spike sharply. As a result, your insulin levels similarly sky-rocket to try to achieve the balance that your body is always working towards. In the short-term view, this causes those pesky crashes that leave you feeling tired, cranky and craving more sugar.

In the long-term, though, these spikes can have much more serious effects. If you routinely eat lots of simple sugars, meal after meal, your insulin levels are going to stay elevated. The change that this brings about in your system can be compared to a harsh, annoying sound. At first, the sound is jarring and gets a fast reaction out of you. If the noise continues for a long time, though, you start to tune it out. The same thing happens with insulin in your body. When the hormone is first released, your body reactions. However, your body can become resistant to the message that insulin is sending. If this happens, you will find yourself with a greatly increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.


A Better Way

So that’s the bad news; You’ve been mislead. Here’s the good news: Bacon.

Now that I’ve got your attention with the promise of salty, fatty breakfast meats, let’s explore this further. Specifically, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia tested the benefits of a high-protein meals against low- or no-protein breakfasts.

The subjects were given one of three meals on different days, all of which had less than 300 calories, with similar fat and fiber contents. The meals were: pancakes with three grams of protein, a sausage and egg breakfast skillet with 30 grams of protein, or a sausage and egg breakfast skillet with 39 grams protein. For 4 hours after each meal, the subjects’ insulin and glucose levels were monitored.

Not surprisingly, the high-protein meals produced the smalls glucose-insulin reaction.

Ultimately, these findings lead to some interesting conclusions about breakfast choices. Not on are foods like sausage and bacon, traditionally seen as unhealthy, now healthful options, they could be an investment in your health. In other studies, high-protein diets have been shown to leave you feeling full longer with high energy levels.

It’s also worth noting that this study used so-called “convenience meals,” also known as “grab-and-go meals.” Since many people skip this type of high-protein breakfast because they just don’t have the time to cook in the morning, these findings suggest that premade meals might be a good option in a pinch. That being said, though, also select foods that have the least amount of additives and preservatives. Still, the best option would be to cook it yourself.


What tricks have you found to get yourself a healthy, high-protein breakfast? Please share them in the comments!




Recovering From Your Race

Recently, we’ve discussed tips for both pre- and post-race nutrition, but your fuel really only part of the equation. While the temptation might be to sit down or – more likely – collapse once you’ve blown across the finish line, this will eventually backfire. Sure, many other athletes may immediately sit down to a big recovery meal but this really isn’t an effective strategy. In the piece about post-race nutrition we discussed the digestive problems that come along with these big meals but the very act of sitting could be an issue as well. These runners will have an extremely difficult recovery, I promise.

So, how should you handle yourself after your race? Is there something you can do to speed up recovery? How long should you give yourself to recover?


Immediate Care

After a short race, like a 5k or 10k, give yourself a chance to cool down. This is an extremely necessary and woefully neglected step following both workouts and competitions alike. Especially during a run, your blood is being rushed all throughout your body. When that activity stops abruptly, like when you cross the finish and vow to never run again, your blood has the unfortunate tendency to pool in your legs. Blood-flow to your upper-body and brain is then slowed to a glacial pace that is to blame for the dizziness and lightheadedness that you might feel after your workout.

This isn’t such a high priority following a marathon, though. After such a long, demanding race, you need food and water as soon as possible. Your cooldown can wait until you are properly refueled.

Your cooldown doesn’t have to be anything elaborate and should, actually, be pretty easy. Walk around at a slow pace, pause every once in a while to chat with other runners; Just don’t stand still.

Now you should stretch. Your muscles and connective tissue will still be warm and limber, so this is the  perfect chance to do some light static stretches. Of course, your legs should be the focus here – you did just run, after all – but don’t forget other muscles that commonly tense up during runs. Many runners tighten their shoulders and back while running so neglecting these muscles after a race will leave you feeling even more stiff then normal in the days that follow.

While your cooldown and stretching will help alleviate some of your soreness, it won’t eliminate it. You are going to be sore after a race and there’s just no way around it. Taking these steps, though, will help you to be significantly less sore than if you have skipped your immediate recovery.

Later That Day

A few hours after your run, make time for a so-called “shake-out” run or walk. Even if you’ve flushed your system by chugging several gallons of water and lovingly cooled down, your muscles are going to be stiff later in the day. This is especially true if you took a nap or step a long period of time in your car driving home from the even.

Essentially, this “shake-out” is meant to just loosen you up. It is not a workout. Take it easy and slowly walk for no more than 20 minutes.

Recovery Days

So, you’ve followed all these steps and want to know when you get run again? That all depends on you, actually.

Specifically, the answer depends on what kind of race you just finished and what sort of workout you’re itching to do. Following a 5k, for example, you should wait 2 days before performing an easy workout and 5 days before tackling a hard workout.

For a marathon runner, though, these numbers shoot way up. You should give yourself 9 recovery days before even an easy workout and a full 27 before going out for a hard workout.