Northwest Health Fall 2011


The Diet and Exercise Dilemma

Find out whether a proper diet or exercise is better for targeting a specific health goal.

Go to: Northwest Health Index

It's common knowledge that eating right and exercising regularly are mainstays of good health. Proper diet and physical activity work together to offer mind and body benefits, but does one emerge as the winner if you're targeting a specific health goal?

We asked a panel of Group Health experts to weigh in on which is the strongest ally for a variety of conditions. Keep in mind that eating healthy means consuming lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, adequate protein, and minimal processed foods. Exercise refers to 150 minutes of moderate physical activity on a weekly basis.

Health goal: Lose weight
Best strategy: Diet

For shedding pounds, diet is definitely the best short-term strategy. It's easier to lose weight by saying no to a cheeseburger than it is to spend two hours on the treadmill trying to run off those excess calories. To lose weight, avoid fad diets that restrict certain food groups. Instead, practice portion control (for instance, eat only half of a normal restaurant meal) and eliminate sugar. Make strategic changes that you know you'll stick with over time.

In the long run, if you want to keep the weight off, studies show you'll need to add exercise to your routine. If you are currently inactive, start to exercise slowly as you work on losing weight.

Health goal: Prevent or delay type 2 diabetes
Best strategy: Diet and exercise

Excess weight is a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes — the most common form of this chronic disease. With type 2 diabetes, the body has trouble using insulin, which is needed to keep our blood sugars in a good range. So maintaining a healthy weight is an important preventive step. But eating the right types of food and getting exercise are equally important.

A combination of healthy diet and exercise helps improve insulin sensitivity, even for people with a high risk of diabetes. Make your food intake one-half fresh vegetables and fruit, one-quarter protein, and one-quarter grains. Exercise is critical because it activates more insulin receptors on the outside of the cells, which allows your body to utilize glucose. Here's the catch: The process only lasts for 24 hours before the receptors recede back into the cell, so getting exercise every day is important.

Health goal: Reduce risk of heart disease
Best strategy: Diet and exercise

Although no one knows exactly why, research shows that the Mediterranean diet decreases the risk of heart attack and stroke. This diet emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, poultry, low-fat dairy, nuts, legumes, and monounsaturated fats like olive oil. After snacking on cucumbers and hummus, don't forget to work out. Physical activity is equally important for heart health. It lowers blood pressure, increases good cholesterol, lowers bad cholesterol, and strengthens your cardiovascular system.

Health goal: Postpone mental decline
Best strategy: Exercise

Exercise is the front-runner in maintaining brain health. Researchers aren't sure exactly why, but it may be because exercise improves the flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the brain. Exercise also maintains long-term function of the hippocampus (a part of the brain associated with memory) and helps increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (a protein involved in brain cell growth and health). Another type of exercise — computer-based brain-training exercises — can get the brain into a more active state and may also help stop or slow decline.

Health goal: Maintain bone health
Best strategy: Exercise

If you want to keep your bones strong, get active. Exercise promotes bone density so bones are less likely to break. It also improves balance, coordination, and muscle strength so you're less apt to take a fall. Calcium supplements are often recommended for bone health, however some recent studies have muddied the waters, showing a possible link between calcium supplements and an increased risk for heart attacks and stroke. Talk to your doctor about whether taking calcium is a good idea for you. Vitamin D shows promise for the prevention of osteoporosis and better bone resilience. We can get vitamin D from sunshine — but exposing your skin to sunshine without a sunscreen raises concerns about skin cancer. A vitamin D supplement may be a better choice, and is recommended for seniors since after age 65, our bodies don't convert vitamin D as well.

Health goal: Boost mood and energy
Best strategy: Exercise

Get moving to lift your spirits and ramp up your energy. Studies show that for many people exercise is as effective as antidepressants since it increases available serotonin, norepinephrine, and endorphins in the brain. These hormones all alleviate stress and elevate mood. The release of endorphins also improves energy levels. Exercise gets oxygen flowing through your body and to the brain, which will help shake off sluggishness and put a spring in your step.

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