Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Facts on Safe Sun Exposure and Vitamin D

If you are confused about whether exposure to the sun is good or bad or somewhere in the middle – you are not alone!   There is a ton of conflicting advice and information being given on Sun Exposure.   On the one side we are being told to completely avoid all sun exposure and wear heavy duty sun screens at all time and on the other being told that sun exposure is vital and good for us.
As always the real answer is somewhere in the middle and it is critical to evaluate the validity of information you receive based on the source and if they have a commercial stake in the information they give you.   For example it is not at all surprising that sun screen manufacturers are pro sun screen and push the concept that everyone should wear it all the time to insure they do not get skin cancer, but we know they have a vested commercial interest so should use some judgment evaluating information from these sources.    And yes there is information suggesting that many sunscreens contain chemicals that can be harmful to your health.   It is important to use sunscreens that do not contain toxic ingredients and do block both UVA and UVB rays.    For a great guide check out this article by Dr. Mercola:
The fact is that this issue is not so simple as “authorities” would have you believe.  For example in this research article (Avoidance of sun exposure as a risk factor for major causes of death: a competing risk analysis of the Melanoma in Southern Sweden Cohort) that studied all-cause mortality in 29,518 Swedish Woman the conclusion was that avoiding the sun can actually be as dangerous as smoking when it comes to cancer risk and overall mortality risks. Woman who avoided the sun had a much shorter life expectancy than those who got the most sun.   This really challenges the conventional wisdom on sun exposure.   It is also important to state that it is all about dose and your personal genetics meaning that the amount of sun you are exposed to and your personal genetics are very relevant here!
Improving Vitamin D Status is a Key Benefit of Proper Sun Exposure
Sun exposure increases the body’s production of Vitamin D and does so in a way that is quantitatively and qualitatively different and superior to supplemental Vitamin D.    When the body produces Vitamin D from sun exposure it simply will never produce too much Vitamin D and this is not the case with supplementation.    In addition, there are other benefits to safe sun exposure in addition to Vitamin D production.   Proper sun exposure can and does help treat several skin conditions such as psoriasis, vitiligo, atopic dermatitis, and scleroderma.   In addition, sun exposure protects against and suppresses the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, helps relieve fibromyalgia pain, helps treat seasonal affective disorder, enhances mood and energy by stimulating the release of endorphins, and helps synchronize biorhythms and melatonin production.
The Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have reported an association between vitamin D and overall mortality risk from all causes, including cancer.   However supplementation studies have been all over the map in terms of showing a positive relationship between boosting Vitamin D status and incidence or mitigation of disease.    Since we know for sure that the human body was designed with the specific capability of producing Vitamin D from sun exposure and we know that Vitamin D levels are crucial for optimizing health it seems quite likely that production of Vitamin D through sun exposure is the ideal if it can be done safely.
There is a lot of positive research on Vitamin D and cancer prevention and treatment, heart disease prevention and treatment, etc..which shows that optimizing Vitamin D is a good prevention strategy.
Vitamin D affects almost every cell in your body, which is one of the reason’s it affects so many different disease states.
Vitamin D from Sun Exposure and Health
There have been many studies done on average vitamin D levels and the vast majority of them have found that at least half of the U.S. population has inadequate levels.
Vitamin D is not really a vitamin – rather it is a steroid hormone that your body is designed to create through sun exposure, not from your diet. While some foods do contain vitamin D it is nearly impossible to get all the vitamin D you need from dietary sources alone.
The U.S. Surgeon General American Academy of Dermatology recommend complete and total sun avoidance in order to prevent skin cancer, and there is no question that overexposure to sun can and does cause skin cancer at some level.    However sun avoidance has been shown to increase your risk of death from all causes substantially so this recommendation does not make the most sense.
Optimizing Vitamin D through Safe Sun Exposure
By following sensible sun exposure rules, including making sure you do not get burned, you can maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of skin damage that could lead to skin cancer. Overexposure, not completeky avoiding the sun, is the real issue for increasing your risk for skin cancer.  At the same time, optimizing vitamin D through regular sun exposure can decrease your risk of many forms of cancers that are far more common than Melanoma which is the deadliest form of skin cancer.
So how much sun exposure is enough?
The answer depends on your skin type, time of year, time of day, and where you are located!  The closer you are to the equator the less time you need in the sun because the sun is stronger and more UVB rays hit your skin (UVB is the key to Vitamin D).     Depending on your location time of year can be very important.   For example in the Northeastern US you cannot get enough sunlight exposure during winter to make sufficient amounts of Vitamin D for optimal health (one of the reasons people tend to get sick more in the winter).  Time of day is also important.  Ideally mid-day sun provides the highest level of UVB light BUT you also need much less sun exposure and it is much easier to burn!
As mentioned above your skin type is also important!  There are technically 5 skin types as it relates to sun exposure times: Type I – White; very fair; red or blond hair; blue eyes; freckles Type II – White; fair; red or blond hair; blue, hazel, or green eyes Type III – Cream white; fair; with any eye or hair color; very common Type IV – Brown; typical Mediterranean Caucasian skin Type V – Dark Brown; mid-eastern skin types Type VI – Black
If you are skin type 1 to III, you will produce vitamin D more quickly than if you have skin type IV to VI.      A simple rule is to obtain half the sun exposure it takes your skin to turn pink (NOT BURN).     This will tend to optimize benefits without risks.   The more skin you can expose the better!   Once you have been in the sun this long you should cover up – actually covering up is ideal versus using sunscreen.    So wearing hat shirt and pants made out of a light but UV blocking material is ideal if you are going to be outside longer than half the time it would take for your skin to turn pink.
According to the National Institutes of Health, between five and 30 minutes of sun exposure to your unprotected face, arms, legs or back between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. two to three times every week is enough for your body to produce all of the Vitamin D it needs. So for extremely fair people during peak summer or live close to the equator just 5 minutes of mid-day sun is all it takes, but for a person with dark skin who lives farther from the equator it is probably more like 30 minutes.    Now the key is NOT to burn so start with less time and gradually increase it!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

What type of wearable device is best for the the serious exerciser?

Different wearables track different measurements.    The more serious exerciser often does many different movements including running, cycling, pushing, pulling, swinging, throwing, jumping, squating, lunging, lifting, balancing and stabilizing.    Trying to use a single wearable to provide accurate and relevant feedback on all these movements is almost impossible.   However all of them create a physiological challenge to the body so you can measure the effects of all these acitivities by measuring your physiological response to these challenges through your heart rate response!
There are two key types of heart rate monitors:   wrist-worn and chest stap and they function very differently.   Wrist monitors use a flashing light that tracks blood flow and uses an algorithm to estimate heart rate.     They are really only accurate for activities like cycling, walking, or running.     With activities that involve clenching of the fist or non-rhythmic arm movement wrist monitors are not at all accurate.
The second type of heart rate monitor involves the use of a chest strap with built in electrodes that measure the electrical wave of depolirization that occurs to tell your heart to beat along with a transmitter that can store and/or send the signal to a cell phone, watch or other device which displays your heart rate in real time.     These types of monitors are highly accurate under virtually all exercise conditions and in fact use the same technology as an electrocardiogram used by physicians everywhere to monitor your heart rate and health of the heart in general.
So for the more serious gym goer wrist worn monitors are not a great choice and the way to go is with a high quality chest strap type monitor.   There are many excellent choices including Wahoo Fitness, Polar, Garmin, MyZone and several others.
What about step counters?
If all you want to do is track walking these are not a bad choice but they are completely inneffective at tracking any other type of exercise because they usually track movement of the arm or leg.   So for many movements such as push-ups or pullups they are useless.      They also tend to lump many movements with very different levels of difficulty into the same category.    For example they do not differentiate between doing a squat versus doing a squat jump or squatting with 200lbs vs a bodyweight squat.
What about devices that track your pace or speed?
These are great for cyclists or runners but for most in gym workouts these are not relevant measures that provide any useful information.
How about cadence or power tracking?
Cadence and power are great metrics for cyclists to track and build programming around but for just about any other activity they are not relevant!
So for all the following reasons a chest strap heart rate monitor is the best overall wearable for more serious exercisers.
For gym based systems such as Fitmetrix that use a group heart rate display while in the gym:
They facilitate goal setting and focus
The on screen display helps to keep you motivated and allows you to compare yourself to others.
They provide a social platform
Perhaps most importantly these types of systems provide a point system that allows you to monitor exercise effort and compare to others in a way that allows highly fit and less fit people to be able to compete and compare their individual efforts.
Fitmetrix allows the use of chest strap or armband monitors as appropriate for individual users and their goals.
So if you are a more serious exerciser remember that wrist trackers like Fitbit are not set-up to provide you the feedback you need during all types of movements. By using a chest strap monitor you can get relavant feedback and data through all activies from cycling and rock climbing to kettlebells and ballroom dance!  By providing the ability to measure and track your physiological response to virtually any type of exercise you can track your progress overtime!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Exercise and Blood Pressure Benefits of Beets!

One of the key tenets of exercise physiology recently got turned on its head.     For years exercise physiology students were taught that improving oxygen delivery to muscles was one of the keys to improved athletic performance and work capacity.

It was established that oxygen delivery to muscles could be improved through several different processes such as increased lung capacity allowing lungs to take in larger quantities of air and oxygen; the heart becoming stronger allowing it to pump more blood to the muscles which carries oxygen; or increasing the amount of red blood cells and hemoglobin in the blood which allows the blood to carry more oxygen to the muscles.   But It had been assumed that the fundamental amount of energy a human can create using a given amount of oxygen remained constant so all improvements came from the ability to deliver more oxygen to the muscles.

A 2009 study shattered this assumption!    The study ( ) looked at 8 men who were given  either 2 cups of beet root juice or 2 cups of black currant drink as a placebo for 6 consecutive days and completed a series of moderate-intensity and severe-intensity exercise tests on the last 3 days.   Something amazing happened:   the men taking the beet root juice showed the ability to do the same amount of work with 19% less oxygen consumption and their time-to-exhaustion was extended by 15.7% compared to the placebo group!   Before this study there was no known substance that could increase energy creation based on a given amount of oxygen delivery!   To see a great video describing this study click here:

Since this time many studies have confirmed the positive impact beet juice can have on human physiology, and several companies have developed beet products based on beets grown to maximize their content of Nitrates which are responsible for most of the benefits!    Nitrate aids your body in producing more Nitric Oxide which helps to open your blood vessels prior to and during exercise.   This allows you to get more energy from a given amount of oxygen so your muscles feel stronger for longer and your time to exhaustion increases!  This can allow you to train harder for a longer period of time!

There are other substances such as the amino acid arginine that can increase nitric oxide levels but this requires a complex process.  However Nitric Oxide can be formed from dietary nitrate in a much simpler process that does not require any co-factors like Nitric Oxide creation from arginine.

Beetroot Health Benefits
Beetroot is an excellent source of iron and folate, both of which are key nutrients for everyone but particularly woman!
Helps lower blood pressure
Contain betaine, which has been shown to have significant anti-cancer properties and is effective in inhibiting the formation of cancer cells and in particular colon and stomach cancer.
Helps relieve constipation
Helps detoxify the liver

How do I get the benefits?

If you like beets eating them can provide the same benefits as beet juice and cooking them does not reduce the benefits either!   If you want the maximum benefits there are now several companies making beet root powders that mix easily with water or juice, and several of these companies use specially grown beets that have extremely high and consistent levels of Nitrate.     There are several companies including “Beet Elite” that produce powders available in black cherry flavor for those who do not like the taste of beets.   You can also mix the powder into a smoothie with frozen berries.  It is best to ingest it an hour before exercise.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Increasing Workout Density for Better Results

Workout Density refers to how much total work you do in a given workout, and there are several different strategies to increasing workout density.   Tracking and progressing density is one of the key ways to insure you continue to make progress in your workouts.   In addition most of us are time crunched and the more we can get done in shorter period of time the more likely it is that we will get our workouts in.

One of the ways to increase density in our workouts is to use super-sets where we pair two exercises that work non-competing muscle groups.    For example doing a super-set with a set of chest presses combined with a set of leg curls allows you to pack more work sets while still allowing muscle recovery.    If your focus is strength you still want to allow a short break between the two different exercises in the super-set but as soon as your breathing slows down (30 seconds or less) you are good to go to the next set.

Another technique is to create combinations of complimentary exercises such as a dumbbell or barbell clean immediately followed by a front squat.   Other examples include:

Dumbbell thruster where you squat with dumbbells at shoulders and then overhead press the dumbbells at the top and repeat.

Dumbbell lunge to dumbbell single arm shoulder press

Renegade row where you do a push-up holding dumbbells and do a single arm dumbbell row in the top of the push-up position.

Dumbbell bench press followed immediately by dumbbell pullover

The key is making sure the two exercises you are combining flow together well.

Another technique is using complexes of exercises.    Complexes are different from combinations because in this case you complete a set of a given number of repetitions of a given exercise before moving on to the next one.  A complex can consist of two– five exercises such as this one:

Dumbbell Snatch – 5 reps
Dumbbell Rows – 5 reps
Dumbbell Lunges – 5 reps each leg
Dumbbell Straight Leg Deadlift – 5 reps
Push-ups – 5 – 10 reps

Then you take a brief rest and repeat the complex for a set number of times.

Another excellent strategy is to use Post-Activation Potentiation or PAP for short.     PAP involves pairing a heavy strength exercise (like a squat) with a high velocity power exercise (like a jump) which results in a more forceful muscular contraction during the power movement.   The key is to use a relatively high level of resistance in the first movement WITHOUT going to fatigue such as doing 5 repetitions in the squat using a 10RM weight followed by jumps.   The idea is to prime the pump - not fatigue the targeted muscle groups!

There are two keys to effective PAP training:

First, make sure the heavy initial exercise mimics the power movement.   So doing a heavy bench press followed by a jump is not going to work!

Second, during the initial heavy exercise it is important to try to move the weight quickly during the concentric phase of the exercise.   As long as you attempt to move the weight explosively – even if it does not move fast – you are increasing your rate of force development which is the key.    

PAP is not for beginners and it is important to maintain perfect form during each exercise, but assuming you are ready for PAP it can dramatically improve your strength and power.

Some the best PAP complexes include:

Pairing a squat with a jump – can be a back squat, dumbbell squat or hex bar squat – key is that it is relatively heavy.

Bench Press paired with a plyo push-up or weighted ball thrown.

Sled push followed by a Sprint.