Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

Sweat pours into your eyes and pools under your shirt as you struggle through the last few minutes of a gut-busters exercise class. The blonde instructor with tabletop abs is cheerfully chanting numbers at you, counting down the fifteen squats you have to complete before you can rest. The forehead of the friend that dragged you to this exercise in torture is moisture-free as she zips through the instructor’s commands. The instructor gives a shout of encouragement and tells you that there are only eight squats left. You think you’re going to make it! Five more, she calls. Three more. As you sink down to do that last squat, the perky sadist hits you with, “Okay, ten more! You guys are doing great!” You should have just stayed on the couch with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.


Photo credit
The face of betrayal.

If you’re plotting a complicated act of revenge involving yoga mats and a bottle of mineral water against the friend who brought you here, you should consider thanking her instead. In addition to helping to improve sleep and cardiovascular health, exercise helps to protect your mind against depression and anxiety. Exercise can even produce changes in the brain that make it able to better cope with stressful situations. These benefits can even take effect after just one trip to the gym, temporarily making a positive contribution to the exerciser’s level of anxiety, depression, and mood.

And the best part of this information is the new research that suggests exercise produces these mental benefits regardless of whether it’s voluntary or forced.To test this theory, researchers at the University of Colorado conducted an experiment to see if rats that were forced to exercise achieved the same benefits as the rats that exercised out of choice. They divided the rats into two groups—one that ran whenever they wanted, and another that ran on a fixed schedule that mimicked the pace of the first group. They found that the rats that were forced to exercise were still protected against stress and anxiety.

I guess this means I need to bury my grudge against the instructor at the gym. Apparently, she was there to help all along.

We live in a world of choices. We decide whether to wake up, hit the snooze alarm, or fall back to sleep. We choose where to live, which college to attend, and in what field to begin our career. We decide who to marry, what to bring for lunch, and which gym membership offers the best deal on group classes. The decisions are endless, and the average person makes around 1,000 of them a day.

A quick trip to the grocery store reveals over forty brands of cereal, six types of red apples, and nine varieties of popcorn. By law, food products must provide information about their contents, the pros and cons of each serving, so that we can decide whether it’s more worthwhile to enjoy a packet of Butterscotch Krimpets or to satisfy our hunger with a helping of healthy trail mix.

The right decision.

But having the information at hand doesn’t mean that we’ll make informed decisions about the food we bring home, a reality explained in part by Decision Fatigue. Simply put, our brains have a limited amount of energy to devote to making decisions. After choice after choice after choice, the energy source is depleted. After a hectic day, we don’t have the energy or determination to decide if there is any meaningful difference between MacIntosh and Red Delicious.

Above: Two different products.

Decision Fatigue is particularly noticeable in choices requiring will-power and self-control. In one experiment, participants were given the option of eating chocolate chip cookies. Those people who successfully resisted eating the cookies were then more likely to give in later to the other temptations that researchers laid out for them. Making the decision to stick to your diet during the day means having less energy to devote to choosing healthy snacks at night.

The good news is that it’s possible to lessen the effects of decision fatigue by taking precautions against it. If you’re dieting, you might avoid temptation by planning meals in advance, carrying healthy snacks, and reworking your schedule to bypass your pet indulgences. If you’re just trying to eat healthy, it may help to make your shopping decisions early in the morning, before your energy pool is tapped out.

And if you’re craving something sweet, it may be safer to indulge in something small—otherwise, you may find yourself writing a blog about resisting temptation while eating three cups of lemon water ice. Whoever that may apply to.

72% of people in the U.S. think that people look better with a tan. Why shouldn’t they? A tanned complexion is a sign of summer fun, a sporty lifestyle, and a healthy dose of Vitamin D. Unfortunately, it’s also a catalyst for the development of skin cancer. But why do we continue to mark tanning as a characteristic of beauty when its dangerous potential is so well known? The answer may lie in how the brain responds to ultraviolet radiation.

Tanning feels good. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation releases endorphins, the molecules associated with the natural high that comes from running. Like other pleasurable activities, tanning activates the reward center of the brain, the same system that plays a role in the abuse of substances like cocaine. The high that sunbathing releases triggers the brain’s pleasure center and encourages the tanner to seek it out again. (To learn more about the brain’s reward center, check out this previous post about altruism.)

Researchers believe that the pleasure received from sunbathing is similar to the feeling of using opiates. Tanning addiction is correlated with other addictive behaviors, such as alcohol dependence and marijuana use. Some studies have suggested that frequent tanners can go through feelings of withdrawal, including sweating, nausea, and anxiety, when they don’t receive their ultraviolet fix. This impulse to be exposed to ultraviolet radiation helps to explain why the use of tanning salons is on the rise, even as we become aware of the disturbing consequences, such as that young women today are eight times more likely to develop skin cancer than in previous generations.

I hope this information about the dark side of sunbathing doesn’t put a damper on anyone’s beach plans this holiday weekend. Happy Memorial Day, everyone!