Blog Archives

can't outrun a bad diet? maybe reset instead

Feb 23

The funny thing about "news" is that it's not always new. Eating too much sugar is bad for us. Not new and probably not surprising since just about everyone knows excessive sugar is not good. We've heard it hijacks our brain, puts our metabolism on a roller-coaster, and quickly elevates our risk of SEVERAL of the major health risks we face. Generally speaking, new as this isn't, it's still true. Sweetened beverages (whether natural sugar or artificial in most cases) add double-digit cancer risk, significantly increase our risk of cardiometabolic disease (as much as 30%), and have even been related to both pain threshold (we hurt faster) and intensity (we hurts worse).

The latest study, a REALLY big one out this month from a team at Harvard, looked at both the connection between drinking sugary beverages regularly and cardiac events like heart attack, etc. but also whether physical activity could counteract the effect. When they examined 13,000 cardiac events over more than 3 MILLION person-years there was a big bump in risk; on average about 20% - not a surprise and maybe not even news. However, interestingly, they also added proof that exercise alone is not enough to fully "right" the risk. They found that while non-exercisers experienced a risk jump of around 18% per daily sugary beverage consumed, individuals who met the physical activity guidelines STILL experienced a 12% risk jump per serving. The old adage said by sages in running clubs everywhere is true - we can't outrun a bad diet. However, all hope is not lost, we may have a reset option.

As it turns out, in another study this week by a researcher who has spent years learning what fasting can do for our health, 5 days per month on a diet that limits enough intake to get the benefits of fasting without actually fasting showed significant promise. Compared to controls who ate a generally healthy Mediterranean diet, those who ate a "fast-mimicking diet" for 5 days out of the month over a 3-4 month period had:


1. Lower risk for diabetes as measured by blood markers

2. Reduced abdominal fat and fat deposited in the liver

3. Improvements in their risk for metabolic syndrome

4. Improvements in immune system functioning

5. 2.5-year reduction in "biological age" (a marker of cell/tissue functioning)

So what is a fast-mimicking diet?

Officially, the team described it as: "comprised of plant-based soups, energy bars, energy drinks, chip snacks, and tea portioned out for 5 days as well as a supplement providing high levels of minerals, vitamins, and essential fatty acids."

However, you can find out more, including some free recipes on the blog of the lead researcher HERE.

Our brains may light up on it enough to crave it, but without plenty of nutrients and fiber to balance its effects on our health, we definitely don't "run on it" very well. If it's time for a reset, consider setting down the sugar and reaping the rewards of risk reduction.


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

pump up your endure

Feb 16

If you're old enough to remember them, you probably didn't think of them as innovators or trendsetters at the time. Yet, these two legends were not only among the first to get comedic mileage out of Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature accent (more than 30 years before the recent Superbowl ad), and likely among the first "stars" to go full groutfit many years before it was cool to do so they were also on the cutting edge of the science of happiness apparently, ready to pump up not only muscles but mood. If Hans and Franz as renaissance men seem outlandish, it did to us too but the coincidences don't lie. As exaggerated and blatantly sarcastic as their version might have been, the idea that pushing our bodies physically can have an incredible impact far beyond fitness and strength gains has a growing research base.

We've previously mentioned this massive review of research which included more than 120,000 subjects. The take-home message, that physical activity performed as well or better than usual care was impressive. To quote the authors "the effect size reductions in symptoms of depression (−0.43) and anxiety (−0.42) are comparable to or slightly greater than the effects observed for psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy (SMD range=−0.22 to −0.37)". In particular higher intensities seemed to hold great promise and, as shown in August of last year, resistance training may play an important role. This study showed a clinically significant mental health boost almost immediately and again between 4 and 8 weeks for individuals doing resistance exercise a few times per week for 25 minutes per session. The exact mechanism driving the benefit hasn't yet been determined, but the authors concluded that the effect wasn't due to strength gains alone. Then, earlier this month another review of the available research made it clear that muscle-loading activities like resistance training hold great promise for lowering anxiety and depression, and improving wellbeing. 

Life throws curves. There are ups and downs around every corner. It's hard work to ENDURE. While we certainly don't have to have a terminator's physique, an all-grey sweatsuit or even log hours in the gym to pull it off, pushing some heavy things around can have an impressive role in pumping us up - in body, mind, and mood. If you haven't in a while, it's a great time to start. Let us know if we can help.


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

language - the fine line on stress

Feb 9


Words are powerful. Language matters. Not only in "what" we say, but "how" we say it. History has demonstrated this over and over again and more recently research has proven it. Powerful speeches whether in front of great crowds or on our phones in the forms of "shorts" or "reels" can stir feelings inside of us and move us toward action. Said more simply, words can shape our thoughts (and therefore beliefs) while simultaneously stirring the emotions that spark our actions - they deserve more attention (and probably intention) than we often give them. This TED Talk from 2017 is a fantastic example of how and why. 


In the realm of prevention and health promotion, where we spend most of our time at Pro-Activity, the idea carries important significance. We have seen many times that how a person "frames" their health, that is the words they use to describe it to themselves or others, can have major implications on how their experience plays out. Studies on the topic are beginning to provide insight as to why. For example, this study from 2022 showed some interesting (but far from conclusive) connections between how a person labels discomfort and how they move, with particular emphasis on lower back pain. It lends some support to what is sometimes called the "fear-avoidance model of pain" which, in an oversimplified way, suggests that when we limit ourselves by avoiding "threats" that have caused pain in the past we can unknowingly make our bodies even more sensitive, getting closer to our natural threshold and more easily "bubble over" the next time we are "challenged" in a similar way.


As it turns out, some new research out last week lends even further support to the idea. In a study that tracked how +/- 370 people appraised stressful situations - that is, whether they tended to label them as "threats" or "challenges" in their internal dialog - those who interpreted stressful events as something to be feared (i.e. threats) had worse future physical and mental health. 


So what's the difference between the two? After all, that's where the proverbial "rubber meets the road"...


The answer most often is - resources. When a person considers a knowingly hard situation but believes they have the resources (skills, tools, people to lean on, tenacity, toughness, creativity, etc) to handle it, they are more likely to see it as a challenge than a threat. When there is a mismatch between what is needed and what is available, the situation is far more likely to feel threatening. The bad news is, we are living through a time with many potentially stressful situations to confront on any given day. Some of them are new, and most of them are hard. The good news is, we are also living through a time when resources, especially the information on "how" to solve many challenges and "who" has already figured it out are easy to access and often free.  The challenge now is often not to find a solution, but to determine which (of potentially many) is the right one.


So although he almost definitely didn't mean it this way in March of 1933 when he said it, FDR was pretty close to the mark when he said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself".


And should you find yourself facing some health risks that we can help with - reach out, we love a challenge :)


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

changing fast and slow

Feb 2

In an effort to get the most from my professional knowledge/skills and give back when possible, I coach youth sports, primarily competitive high schoolers. It is one of those perfect challenges - frustrating enough of the time to hold teachers who do it 8 hours per day in very high regard (as I question if it's worth the effort) and yet amazingly rewarding when the kind of breakthrough which radically changes the trajectory of someone's life occurs. Sometimes the breakthrough is in the sport but most of the time it's due to lessons where sport mimics life. "Consistency beats Intensity" and "work smarter, not harder" have been two particularly grueling lessons over the years. The idea that the climb from a current level to a desired future level (i.e. "change") is something that is most often achieved with patience and a process similar to painstakingly adding coats of varnish to wood or clear coat to a custom paint job like that which was said to be used by Da Vinci when creating The Mona Lisa is not a particular favorite at a time of life (or a time of the world) when just about everything is available instantly, on-demand. You can imagine how much of a boost it can be therefore when we find situations that don't necessarily behave that way, when change happens quickly.

Last week we talked about one such scenario - the "warm-up" effect - and how powerful it can be for those willing to invest a few minutes in readying their physiology for action. Of course, this isn't just for adult bodies - we know that a similar pattern of priming for young athletes can reduce the incidence of serious injuries like ACL tears (example 1, example 2) in those who complete it, something I've seen first-hand both positively with low injury rates in those who take it seriously and negatively with serious, yet preventable injuries in those who do not. However, changing the MOVE inputs to get better or safer outputs is not the only domain that responds quickly. How our bodies respond to changes in FUEL inputs does too. Some great new preliminary research out this week showed that from an immune system perspective, significant change can happen in as little as 2 weeks with different outputs resulting from changes to inputs.

Specifically, the research team showed that across an age range of 18 years to 50 years in a tightly controlled setting, there was a consistent change in how the immune system responded to differing diets. When participants were given a low-fat vegan diet for 2 weeks, their "first line of defense" (innate immunity) ramped up, while when they ate a high-fat/low-carb ketogenic diet for 2 weeks their "next line of defense" (adaptive immunity) ramped up; this is both impressive and fast. On the other hand, many studies have shown that those who apply the "layered", slow, and steady approach can also have great benefits. One of the most recent showed across a sample of more than 100,000 individuals, a healthy diet tracked closely with better metabolic health which was not super surprising, especially in light of this one which reviewed a bunch of the "how" and "why".

When we boil it all down one of the big takeaways is something we all inherently know and use every day to survive and (hopefully) thrive: change is fast...slow...and always. We constantly react to subtle changes in our environment (homeostatic) and, since certain things have to be very fast to keep us alive we even "predict" and anticipate when it benefits us (allostasis). Those systems can definitely get off track if we don't provide them the right support. Still, perhaps one of the reasons we have examples of humans thriving in nearly every imaginable environment (and some that seem unimaginable) is because, not unlike the way our "dual process brain" was described by a Nobel prize winner in 2011, our entire system is uniquely purposed for the demands of a "both and' world. If we take care of it, it works well.

This is the time of year when an immune system "boost" could be very valuable. Start today and you'll be hitting the winter homestretch STRONG.


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

move skillfully - to prime is to retain

Jan 26

My Grandfather was an amazing performer. In addition to having an infinite love for his family and the skill to infuse it into a pasta fagioli that felt like a hug from someone who cared, even in his upper 90's he could sit down at a piano and leave onlookers gaping in amazement. It was one of my favorite pastimes - to watch "Pop" absolutely wow whoever was watching that day. Not only could he move his hands where and when they needed to be, but he did it by memory, rarely with sheets of music, and pulled in onlookers with a smile, a head nod, or a wink.

Perhaps not surprisingly I've always thought it would be awesome to be able to play like that someday when I grew up. And since "someday" hasn't quite gotten here yet (even though I've sincerely tried to grow up), it's still on my list of items to do. Couple that with a very real professional interest in movement-related skill, whether playing an instrument or a sport or using the tools of a trading day to day and it's probably no surprise that when new research demonstrates a better way to do so, I pay attention. It is another of the many reasons I am such a big fan of priming the nervous system with an active warm-up before any motor tasks because, in addition to readying the tissues of the body, it stimulates the brain to activate those tissues faster and more accurately. Take for example this 2022 study from Northern Iowa University which showed an active warm-up could improve piano skill acquisition in those pursuing a degree in music by getting their heart rate beating faster (but not too fast); something I'll put to good use whenever I get around to those lessons. Last week, however, thanks to a team in Denmark, our understanding got even more refined.

Their idea was relatively simple - if they tested motor learning in a hand-eye coordination task which required each subject to accurately control the force and timing of a pinching movement in response to what they saw on a screen, and then retested the subjects a week later without any further practice, they could determine who was most-able to retain the new skill. One subgroup had a moderate-intensity warm-up on a stationary bike, and another completed a high-intensity exercise session (also on a stationary bike) following the task, which is also known to help with skill retention. A third had neither the warm-up nor the post-activity exercise and a fourth group had both. As it turned out, all of the "active" groups did better than the control group (who did neither), but the group who did both performed the best overall

Of course, this was a relatively small study and so there are still unanswered questions (there always are) but the principle remains - whether it is playing an instrument, operating a machine, dominating a sport, or navigating the uneven and slippery terrain of a winter parking lot, building and maintaining movement skill is a critical factor in our ability to "do"...safely. If we can prime the process with a few minutes of warm-up or solidify the learning with a few minutes of post "practice" exertion or both, we can more skillfully MOVE into the future that we envision for ourselves.


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

breaking the stress cycle

Jan 19

Stress generally gets a bad rap. We've mentioned this before and while it seems the overall perception may be changing, I suspect if asked "Is stress bad for our health?", most people would instinctively answer "yes" and not "it depends", which is far more accurate. 


On the one hand, we know that intense stress (such as traumatic experiences) or early life stress, or the unfortunate circumstance of both together ("ACEs") can create lasting harm. Two recent studies out late last year made the link even more clear. One study showed that excessive stresses experienced by an expectant mother were passed on to the developing child and linked to a greater likelihood of future behavior challenges. Around the same time, a second study showed that the impact of excessive early life stress on the brain might actually be greater than the harm done by a physical injury like a concussion. This of course all seems bad. On the other hand, however, we know that small doses of physiological stress (e.g. exercise), in most situations, are one of our best ways to improve health. We also know that at some level stress is different from person to person. Certain factors can be protective against the risk of harm and particular traits, like grit (the passion and perseverance for long-term goals) can actually turn stressful events from negative to positive, from potential harm into periods of growth. So it's nuanced and it depends... 

To make it even a little more complex, some new evidence suggests that our perception of our stress can actually shape our reality; and possibly set us up for future cardiometabolic risk by influencing an accumulation of cholesterol and triglycerides, pushing blood pressure higher, influencing weight and fat accumulation and the many health risks that come with some or all of those factors. The trouble is, the details are still fuzzy; but thanks to brand new research which seems to have taken us another step closer to the root causes, things are getting more clear.

We've known for a while and have previously mentioned the significant link between chronic inflammation and the progression of disease. When inflammatory markers are high, disease risk is also high. One of the best reasons to make lifestyle modifications like improving fitness and eating better is that they are both known to lower inflammation and in so doing lower the risk of heart disease, brain disease, metabolic disease, and even pain. But physical health is not the only thing that drives inflammation, how we perceive and cope with stress plays an important role too. By using a simple survey, not ironically called the "perceived stress scale", researchers were able to show that high perceived stress was closely linked to both inflammation and future metabolic health risk. With that in mind, focusing on actions known to positively impact perceived stress (like sleep quality) could be a very valuable way to get on the right side of risk. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on interventions like mindfulness. 

So is stress bad for our health?

Well, it depends...but it doesn't HAVE to be. Try the survey and if you score higher than a 27, consider taking action to break a sweat, eat a healthy meal, and get a good night's sleep in order to break the stress cycle and chip away at risk...or of course, reach out; we'd be happy to help you get started.


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

preventative maintenance of the brain

Jan 12

If you stop at the study's headline, it might seem like bad news. In a sample of more than 350,000 people at/near mid-life (approx. 55 years old), more than 1 of every 1,000 were diagnosed with dementia in their next decade of life; a rate that is in line or higher than in previous studies.

After all, even though rare in comparison to leading conditions like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or joint disorders (where nearly 70% of Americans have 1 and 14% have 3 or more) it still means that hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing significant cognitive declines far before the "golden years" - which is not the quality of life in retirement most of us imagine for ourselves. However, the details provide hope and maybe even a few reasons to be optimistic.

Walking backward (or "upstream") from the disease to the associated risks, it becomes clear that, a lot like those other conditions, this one is further within our control than we originally thought. Of the 15 identified risk factors, at least 13 were at some level modifiable. Interestingly more than 1/3rd of the risk factors were either other chronic diseases (heart/artery/metabolic disease near the top) or known risk factors shared with them (poor strength, high resting levels of inflammation, and habitual alcohol consumption outside of accepted guidelines). More evidence that cognitive decline is in large part, another, in the growing list of lifestyle diseases...and therefore more a consequence of the choices we make than a fate associated with our genetic blueprint (which increased the risk 2-3X depending on the number of known genetic factors).

So what should preventative maintenance for the brain include?

1. Exercise Enough: 7 of the risk areas are known to be improved by a MOVE habit. It gets even better if you do it with others or primarily outdoors.

2. Eat Well: 6 of the factors could be related to dietary choices. Be sure to consider sources of Vitamin D (identified as an independent risk).
3. Protect Your Hearing: This is especially important in the industrial environment and increases risk by more than 50%.

4. Avoid Heavy Alcohol: This was one of the strongest risk factors identified (>=4X risk if a person had a use disorder).

5. Control Inflammation: Although at some level the first 4 can help here, this risk factor was substantial (2.5X risk in some models), so adding in a focus on Sleep which is known to have an impact, is probably worth it.

While it's unlikely that we can avoid the risk entirely, the more we learn about brain health, the less it seems we have to fear. Like heart disease, metabolic disease, several forms of cancer, and many (if not most) musculoskeletal disorders, with a little preventative maintenance this "machine" we're walking around in can stay strong and work well for many many years.

I hope your 2024 is off to a healthy start.


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

"change weeK": an open door

Jan 5

The calendar has flipped, 2024 is here, and (if history is any indicator) most Americans, whether "considering" or actually "doing", are a few days into some version of change that so often comes with the New Year. Although not the only target, health improvement is usually near the top of the traditional resolution list, so it's a safe bet that you don't have to look very far to find stories about people trying to use resolution season as a lever to get healthier. 

Netflix for example, has released a new 4 part documentary called "You Are What You Eat", which takes a well-timed and entertaining look at the Stanford University Identical Twin Study which compared a healthy omnivore diet and a plant-based (healthy vegan) diet in genetic identicals; the same study we blogged about on 12/8. Although the documentary has been far more entertaining than the medical journal, the punchline remains - while both groups improved, the plant-based group outperformed the healthy-omnivore group on several measures. Along similar lines and out last week, in a study of more than 120,000 people who attempted to "cut carbs" for longer-term weight loss, "how" appeared to matter. Cutting carbs (in general) may work in the very short term, but in the longer term, it's more nuanced. The researchers concluded that "only low-carb diets that emphasized high-quality protein, fat, and carbohydrates from whole grains and other plant-based foods were associated with less weight gain".


Of course, changes in food intake are not the only way to move the wheels of health change. A focus on just about any modifiable health factor can work. For example, along with challenging oneself to eat well or exercise, abstaining from alcohol during January has become increasingly popular. There isn't a ton of strong clinical evidence relating to the effectiveness of month-long health challenges, but what is available is promising. One small study that looked at a 28-day food and fitness challenge showed signs that things were moving in the right direction for those who took it on and this review of month-long "dry" efforts (e.g. Dry-uary, Feb-Fast, Dry July & other public health campaigns) showed that those who gave up alcohol enjoyed both physical and mental health benefits (including a positive impact on sleep), even if they didn't complete 30 full days. As a bonus, one of the most common indirect health indicators (financial stress) was reduced, with users most often citing "saving more" as a benefit of drinking less. Couple this with some interesting findings from military medicine that showed a relationship between alcohol consumption and chronic pain and the case for giving ourselves a reset in this way gets stronger.

The possibilities are nearly endless. Resolving to keep a consistent bedtime or to stop taking in calories within a few hours of that bedtime could both be impactful. Resolving to be more altruistic or "prosocial" by performing a small and new daily act of kindness could have an almost immeasurable ripple effect. Or, for those who prefer a more well-worn path, simply finding a way to tax our muscles every day (increasing step counts, 30-second 1/2 squat holds for blood pressure improvement, a few flights of stairs for fitness or a few push-ups for strength and mobility) can have a surprisingly powerful impact.

For those who receive our monthly health promotion content, we will be diving in a bit deeper. For those that don't - here are some key takeaways: we humans don't always like to change, and we may even avoid it...but we most definitely can, sometimes know we should, and occasionally have a window of time that makes it easier. Now is one of those times; the door is open. Whether you do it for the future you or because you need it now to be there for those around you - your health is worth taking a step. We are here and ready to help.


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

2023 - bursts, bundles, and the biome

Dec 29

The 52nd week of the year always feels like it should be a lull between the waves. Most of the previous year is in the history books and the next one is forming quickly on the horizon, but if everything goes well, there's a brief pause to reflect on the past and think about the future. Of course, it doesn't always work out that way - the world is as busy as ever and times to reflect can be hard to come by, but this morning I had such a block. An hour or so to flip back through another year of blogs about prevention, health promotion and population health. Another year which tells the story of what the research community has been looking at. Here are the headlines:

Short bursts of physical activity got a fair amount of attention this year. Whether it was a few minutes of stair climbing, incidental bouts of intensity as part of normal daily living or simply standing more frequently, the idea that although "more" is still probably better in most cases, "something" (hard enough to get the heart pumping daily) is infinitely better than "nothing" when it comes to health was clear in 2023. And while MOVE took top billing in the second half of the year, it slipped to second this year overall representing 24% of the featured topics.

The power of bundling also featured prominently in 2023. While this makes total sense given the well-known interplay between the ELEMENTS, it is not unimportant as it suggests the wider conversation is (finally!) embracing the fact that in the complexity of the real world there is really no such thing as a single, isolated health-habit. Everything we do and everyone we interact with has an impact on...well...everything we do and everyone we interact with. It all adds up and with nearly 20% of our blog topics featuring this storyline in 2023, it seems the world is starting to embrace it.

The last big storyline this year was the biome - or microbiome to be specific. While not a new discovery (the term dates back to 2001 and the field that it grew from the 1800's) the deep and powerful connections it has to our health are some of the most important learnings in a generation. It certainly wasn't the only theme in the FUEL category in 2023, but it was one of the more prominent and likely the one that drove ELEMENT 2 to the top spot, accounting for more than 30% of the blogs this year. 


RECOVER (with emphasis on sleep), ENDURE (resilience, robustness, toughness, grit, etc.) and CONNECT (social dynamics and relationships) filled the gaps, each between 7.5% and 10% of the topic list.

There's no telling where 2024 will take us but if there's any truth to Einstein's famous quote "if you want to know the future, look at the past", it'll include stories of people, connected in purpose, standing on the platform of health, achieving great things.

It has been a pleasure to be a part of your story this year. Thank you for being a part of ours.

Have a great weekend, see you in 2024,

Mike E.

peak week - managing thresholds

Dec 22

I had never heard the term "holiday heart" before yesterday. Scanning the health-headlines as I often do, I saw an editorial in the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery written by a team from the Medical College of Wisconsin that caught my eye. In less than 1000 words the authors put some important data behind a few themes I've been writing about this month and at some level all year:

(a) we each have a threshold

(b) the consequences of crossing it can be powerfully negative and long-lasting

(c) if we pay attention, the body provides warning signs
(d) and while it's probably better to operate far away from those thresholds (build capacity, etc), life is hard, so knowing how to navigate choppy waters is critical

The next 7 days are one of those classically choppy times. For those who celebrate any of the many holidays, religious and not, which fall during this time of year, last minute shopping, gift giving, travel, festive meals and more might be peaking. For those who don't, even the sprint-to-the-finish of another calendar year can ratchet up the physiological loads. If we don't pay attention, our heart may pay the price.

As it turns out, "holiday heart syndrome" a term coined in the 1970's, is the common name used for a phenomenon which includes a spike in heart-rhythm disorders, most commonly atrial fibrillation, which seems to be tied to the excess of the holidays. While binge-drinking, which is known to have a strong impact on the heart, is the top suspect (as many of 1/3 of individuals with a-fib link it to alcohol), it is not the only one. Electrolyte imbalance from a common dietary shift toward salty foods and away from fruits & veggies can be enough to push us into risky territory and adding in some stress, fatigue and even possible dehydration (either seasonal or alcohol induced or both) and we've got a recipe for conduction disorders. According to the editorial "Holiday Heart Syndrome often presents with symptoms of palpitations, shortness of breath (dyspnea), anxiety, weakness and chest pain among others."

So what can we do to prevent crossing the threshold? Simply put, we can respect the fact that we have one and manage it like we would during any other period of peak-load.

(1) First monitor (and likely add) hydration, especially if salt intake is up this time of year. All the same rules from the summer apply. Clear urine once per day and/or using the top-off-test (if no urge to urinate within 30 minutes of drinking 16 oz of water, likely some dehydration) are good rules of thumb.

(2) Get fruits and veggies "in" early and often. Not only will this also add water, it will help counterbalance the holiday foods by adding in potassium (to balance sodium) and fiber (to balance sugar). As always, there is no shortcut here. Potassium supplements should NOT be taken without medical guidance.

(3) De-stress with exercise. Even a few bouts of stair-climbing can go a long way.

(4) Protect your bed and wake times to ensure your sleep is maximally restorative.

(5) Send a “thank you” or “well done” to someone who you think deserves it this year - not only will it light up their day, it’ll have surprisingly positive effects on yours!

Enjoy peak week...but not too much.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

standing with the "Late-majority"

Dec 15

Those who subscribe to the Diffusion of Innovation theory believe that a relative few of any group drive change in a predictable way. In essence, the less than 3% known as "innovators" find something that solves a problem and begin tinkering with it. Through their willingness to be first (and often deal with high prices and less-than-perfect designs) when they give something a thumbs up, they inspire a larger group of friends/colleagues who pass it on to others and eventually almost everyone, except the 16% who resist change known as "laggards", is on board with the solution.

When it comes to personal ergonomics, ironic as it might seem for someone who consults in this space often, I don't really consider myself an "innovator". Most of the gadgets out there create nearly as many problems as they solve, so I tend to pass until there is solid evidence backing them up. Unproven solutions, usually at the height of their cost, just seem like a gamble, and "wait and see" usually prevails. Every once in a while, however, a product or solution makes its way through the diffusion gauntlet and in so doing drives the cost way down. The tinkerers and the trendsetters have done their job and even items that maybe aren't "the best thing since sliced bread" get interesting.

The electric standing desk may be one such solution. When they first hit the market (YEARS AGO), the idea was cool but they were clunky and expensive. The evidence said they had some merit as part of a comprehensive plan for specific needs, but for wide use as a preventative tool, the costs still outweighed the benefits. In essence, static standing wasn't that much better than static sitting since the body is built to MOVE. Then, as the lockdown-driven demand for at-home-ergo solutions caught fire, standing desks went from trendy to mainstream. After all, if you're buying a desk anyway...but while it was pretty clear that if used properly a standing desk doesn't "harm" us, the question of "does it help?" still wasn't definitive, so I still waited.


Then something happened. As the pandemic chapter got further and further into the rearview, the price for non-commercial versions continued to drop (still a little too expensive for commercial grade in my opinion), and at the same time some research, such as this study, was beginning to suggest that if used properly it might give a metabolic boost. I'm still not sure I can get into the habit of using it often enough - 4 uses every hour seems like a lot - however, in one "late-majority" person's opinion, it's now worth a test - so I'll let you know.


On the other hand, if you're an innovator at heart and way past this trend you're probably frustrated even reading this far...so it might be better to jump on this new research and just change your phone screen to grayscale so you can use the 35 minutes gained from that visual-boredom to take a walk...it'll be trendy before you know it...it might even already be, clearly, I'm the wrong guy to ask. :)

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

plan ahead for gremlins everywhere

Dec 8

There's really no reason to belabor it. Most of us know the risk exists, can see it coming, and still get caught up in it year after year. Almost a quarter century ago a group of researchers studied the "holidaze" phenomenon and concluded that the evidence of its existence could be measured on the scale to the tune of +/- 1 lb of net body weight gained per year during adulthood. While they found a post-holiday "loss" was common, maybe in the form of New Year's resolutions, it wasn't enough to offset the total amount gained during the pre-holiday and holiday season. The obvious conclusion was "avoiding the risk is better than reacting to it".

The gremlins tend to be everywhere this time of year. Maybe you've got a Christmas cookie coworker who is like willpower kryptonite this time of year. Maybe it's the holiday parties with rich food and alcohol. It might have nothing to do with the holiday season and is more the shift in the stress/rest balance of trying to get those annual goals checked off in the homestretch that does us in. Maybe it's all of the above. If it's any, having a few tactics on hand can be valuable.

This was the conclusion from a team based in The Ohio State University's Medical Center which recently published findings of a survey they conducted related to health habits during the holiday season. Not shockingly exercise habits were sharply down, 45% of people said they stopped, and almost 67% said their nutrition suffers. Add in the 50% who feel more tired and stressed and the 33% who consume more alcohol this time of year and it's no wonder health takes a hit. The good news is, it probably doesn't have to.

If we boil their recommendations down we get a well-known logic - anything that throws off our routine (upstream/inputs) increases the odds of more problems later (downstream/outputs) - so protect our routines. This might most easily be done by going even further upstream anticipating risks and planning ahead to prevent them from becoming problems.

Specifically, they recommended: 


Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, we know that some people turn this time of year into a challenge - a chance to improve rather than simply slow the decline. For those folks we add one simple (not at all new) tactic based on a very cool study from Stanford U - Eat More Plants.


In a cool randomized clinical trial of identical twins (that is, genetic identicals), a team showed that a "healthy vegan" diet (that is, whole plants, not vegan junk food) outperformed a "healthy omnivore" diet (eat anything in moderation, avoid the high process, minimize added sugar) over an 8 week period. Specifically, LDL Cholesterol fell, insulin levels improved and body weight dropped more in the healthy-vegan group than the healthy-omnivore group. 8 weeks from now is the beginning of February. Improving through the holidays may be uncommon, but isn't impossible.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

quieting our holiday zombie

Dec 1

It took until Tuesday but then the realization hit, I was really, really tired. Objectively it made total sense; the unofficial start of the "bustle season" came with full force and like a moth to the flame, I went all in. The quick trip to pick up a college kid that resulted in a few extra hours of brake lights, the last-minute leaf-management strategy that I finally had time to execute, the eat/drink/be-merry of a day built around that exact formula, and the long days that follow after the holiday-season moves out of pre-season had given me plenty of ways to burn energy. No complaints, we do this to ourselves and I knew that my dragging was self-induced and right on cue. The risk of course, for those of us who join the sprint this time of year, is that attempting to fit "more" into a fixed volume container eventually results in spillover when we overdraw our time and energy resources.

While this spillover brings a significant drop in our situational awareness which can have catastrophic results in environments where a low-margin of error is often required (e.g. driving), it is not limited to high-risk situations and is not only the result of short-term fatigue. Anything that drains our energy and attentional resources faster than we can replenish them can put us into this state. Commonly referred to as "presenteeism", this phenomenon was identified at least 50 years ago and in plain English refers to being physically present, that is not absent, but not being FULLY present - there in body, but maybe not in spirit or full focus - being at least partially "checked out".  It is most commonly studied in the workplace because it can (but does not always) have a significant drag on productivity; however, it does not conveniently stay at work. Whether due to a health burden, which had traditionally been thought to be the cause, or the other known precursors like fatigue, the risk goes everywhere we go and has an impact on everyone around us. 

One study this year showed that when we tip the balance toward fatigue via insufficient sleep, we lose self-efficacy, optimism, hope, and resiliency ("psychological capital") faster, which as if those are not problematic enough, leads to burnout, lower satisfaction and likely more. But there's good news: as we continue to learn more about the root causes we realize we can impact them with the right strategies. In a study of more than 12,000 individuals out this week, three clear connections were found between day-to-day actions and presenteeism - not surprisingly, variations on the same themes we know to maximize our capacity - whether by raising our threshold to spillover or ensuring we recover as full as possible when we rest. Each is important by itself, however, given their impact on each other, they also have the potential to compound. 


(1) Daily Exercise - especially good when we are mentally tired but physically "pent up" (e.g. those that sit for more than 11 hours per day which nearly triples risk)

(2) Going to bed Empty (known to improve sleep quality)

(3) Getting a full human night's sleep, which is more than an elf, even if you play one this time of year. 

If we start investing a little in quieting our holiday zombie now, we can cross the 2023 finish line with enough energy to enter 2024 strong. May the gift-giving of the season start with a daily investment in yourself today. Happy Homestretch.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

gratitude works

Nov 24

When I first learned about Positive Psychology, the (far oversimplified) less-traditional practice of diving into mental health with an eye toward the "upside" like resilience, happiness and growth, instead of the more traditional focus on rehabilitating the negative (disease, disorder and trauma) it felt like a game changer. It was clear that within their profession, at least some psychologists were trying to reorient back toward attaining "health" (flourishing, thriving, etc) rather than "avoiding disease"...something that can seem nuanced at first but is clearly spelled out by authorities like the World Health Organization in their constitution. As funding led to research, we began to understand the difference more fully and where our efforts should be.

As it turned out, gratitude, whether it be a momentary appreciation for something good in life or a cultivated practice of recognizing such things, became one of the most widely studied components. The "what went well" exercise described by one of the profession's giants in the early 2000's, which in the most basic form is writing down 3-5 unique experiences that "went well" each day for a few weeks, showed promise across several of life's domains and across a large portion of the lifespan. Gratitude also shows up near the top in a framework Dr. Paul Conti recently discussed with Andrew Huberman on his podcast - part of a 4 part series and a great listen on mental health. In a review of 19 different studies it even showed a clear benefit on cardiovascular risk, adding more evidence that there is no "physical" or "mental" health...just health with all systems playing a role. However, as is the case with many health practices, knowing the "best" way to do it has not been as clear.


Not surprisingly then, when this study from the University of California came across my feed I was intrigued. The researchers tested a variety of gratitude practices to find out which had the most impact. The punchline? Taking the time to sit down, think through the details and write a letter was most powerful.

And so, in the spirit of the season here's a quick one to you:

To our clients, friends and the employer teams who have invited us into your spaces, stories and lives, I know I speak on behalf of the entire Pro-Activity Family when I say, it is both an honor and a privilege to play a small role in your big thing. We have had the unique fortune to witness up close what it takes to make the components and assemble the structures that become homes and buildings. We've seen the magic that goes into bringing power and water and heat to those structures and to keep them well lit and warm when nature intends otherwise, 24/7, 365. In some places we have seen the effort, nothing short of an act of daily love that goes into making those products that mop up messes while in others those that help fuel the bodies doing the mopping. And we have had the great honor to walk with many of you as you journey through life and in health. When we give thanks this week and into the holiday season please know that YOU are among those we are most thankful for.

Now it's your turn - write one for someone you're thankful for and enjoy a health bump.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

exercise and infection risk: prepping for winter's peak

Nov 17

Prevention and Performance are games of "seasons". While it is not at all uncommon for a traditional athlete (sport) to have an annual training plan that starts at a peak race or game and plots blocks of time dedicated to ramping up readiness at the right rate. It is a lot less common for work-athletes (who use their body to earn a paycheck) or lifestyle athletes (the game of life) to think in these terms. Staying out of the reaction rut, where we just deal with whatever life throws our way and in the plan-ahead mindset can be tricky. "Paying Now" to avoid "Paying Later" makes total sense when we stop to think about it but is no-less hard to pull off.

This time of year the stakes get increasingly higher for those who are committed to tamping down injury/illness/disease risk. Changes in temperature and daylight patterns can add risk and as the CDC shows fairly clearly HERE, our immune function gets put to the test. While the research has shown that sleep efficiency (getting to sleep, staying asleep, and doing so deeply while we are there) remains one of the best ways to keep our defenses strong, nutrition and exercise become increasingly powerful as we age. In fact, exercise can have such powerful effects, under some circumstances, it might be too good...and thanks to some research this week we are closer to understanding why.

It starts with a phenomenon that every serious athlete must consider - pushing hard enough in training or in competitive events seems to add risk for infection. For example, marathon runners are well-known to have an increased risk for upper respiratory symptoms after peak training or in the days after the event. However, there debate rages on as to why as this paper explains. In short, the risk is real but it was hard to pin down a mechanism.

Then a research team from a lab within the US Department of Energy stepped in. They designed and kicked off a study of serious work-athletes: wildland firefighters which required a dozen volunteers to gear up in their typical 40 lbs of helmets, packs, gloves, and more and do a "strenuous training exercise" in the heat and hills of California. Loosely translated, this meant 45 minutes of running around the woods, in heavy gear, with heat. The team then collected and analyzed blood, urine, and saliva samples across nearly 4,700 variables. They found more than 100 that were significantly different from the start.

As it turned out, the researchers were able to show that as the demands on the body transitioned from "moderate" to "intense", that is the physical loads became exhausting, the body shut down the inflammation system in the nose/throat/lungs presumably to make it easier to get more oxygen in, ramped up secondary microbe fighting agents in the mouth (as found in saliva) and opened the pathways required to burn fuel more efficiently (sugar/fat) and transport it to the muscles more effectively. Said another way, in less than 45 minutes the body traded a temporary boost in physical function for a temporary reduction in immune function...which is exactly the kind of request a marathoner is asking for on race day.

What's the take-home on this?

Exercise has a sweet spot when it comes to our immune function. Some is good, more is probably better but too much is too much. While there is no "bad" season to exercise, if you're a high-intensity or long-duration exerciser, now is the season to consider secondary defenses like hand-washing, and distancing after extreme bouts while doubling down on nutrition and sleep. 

Here's to a healthy winter peak - it'll be here before we know it.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

sleeping slow and low

Nov 10

If I'm being honest, I am fascinated by the powerful pull of the click-bait quiz. You know, those pop-ups and posts in social media that start with something like "people who _____ do these five things..." where the blank is always something shockingly specific to some conversation you had recently, an image you paused over for a split second or something you dared to search for as if Siri and Alexa were trading your interests in some backroom deal over at the Zuckerberg house. It's one of the reasons we've shared "Fun Fact Friday" on our LinkedIn page this year - to help provide at least one feed of information that has actual science at its base. It's been an interesting experiment.

Sleep health is one of those topics. Not surprisingly, as we've learned more about the powerful impact of sleep on health and performance, people are seeking out information about it more often. It has far outpaced the other 2 basic lifestyle pillars (exercise and nutrition) in the last 20 years according to internet traffic trends, pulling away from "exercise" about 20 years ago and "nutrition" 10 years ago. Add in the technology to track sleep reasonably accurately and funding that follows public interest and we've got a recipe that makes "sleep health", which is critical to overall health, more accessible than ever.

If however, you've missed the trend - here are the basics:

Sleep is broken into stages that until recently have not been uniformly labeled. This makes it more confusing than it has to be. Those in the "simple is better" camp (like us) prefer the 2 category system, Rapid-Eye-Movement (REM) and Non-Rapid-Eye-Movement (NREM) where NREM is further broken into 3 stages, very light (N1), light (N2) and deep (N3) with each stage having important functions and features (a good overview of the basics can be found here). While historically much of the focus in sleep research has been on REM sleep which typically happens in the second half of a normal 7-8 hour bout, more recently it has been Deep Non-REM (N3) which has been gaining attention. One of the reasons is its role in future brain health.

While we've known for a while that sleep overall and deep non-REM in particular tends to decline as we age, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association late last month showed that the decline isn't standard across all people and therefore probably shouldn't be considered inevitable or normal. The authors observed that those who had a more significant decline in this type of sleep also had a more significant decline in brain health, and therefore a significantly higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease in the future. Specifically, for every 1% loss in deep non-REM (or "slow wave sleep" as it is referred to in the research community), individuals experienced +/- 30% increased risk of developing one of these diseases.
 

If we follow the logic that (1) it's a problem but (2) it's not uniform and inevitable then it might be reasonable to think (3) we can probably influence it in some way or another...which does seem to be the case.

As it turns out, when we are in this stage of sleep (as measured by "brain wave" activity on EEG) we are susceptible to certain sounds. Some research has shown that particular frequencies when played during this stage can keep us there longer and wildly, even relaxing words played at the right time seem to have some potential. Of course, if the idea of wearing a brain monitor and being whispered to all night long seems strange, vigorous exercise later in the day (oversimplified) may prompt the body to need more deep restorative sleep and diets low in saturated fat and high in fiber which may allow the nervous system to get into a state of "rest and relax" (parasympathetic state), also seem to have a positive impact.

The key takeaway seems to be more of the same - if we eat and move well we are more likely to sleep well, with plenty of slow waves at low frequencies...which, not surprisingly makes it easier to eat and move well the next day.

The most important first step therefore is the one we seek...even for those rockin' 8 days per week. Whether you're heading to Brooklyn or home countin' sheep - keep working those ELEMENTS and get some sleep. OK, OK, this is better left to Aaron. :)

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

optimal dose: turkey trot as easy as 1-2-3

Nov 3

Exercise science is always evolving. Google Scholar has more than 43,000 academic titles from this year alone. It's enough to bog down even the most efficient and committed information consumer who tries to keep up. Here's the good news - it's pretty rare to see many big changes; most of the new information confirms what we already know and adds a few refinements.

For example, in general, we know when people MOVE often enough, vigorously enough, and for long enough to challenge their current capacity in some way on most days, they can prevent and reverse many injuries/illnesses/diseases. Doing so in a variety of ways (not just one motion repeated always) keeps us versatile enough for the twists and turns of life and provides layers of resilience to the stressors we face. Of course, "regularly" and "enough" leave a lot to the imagination so professional organizations, government agencies, universities, and other non-profits often attempt to quantify, prove and someday simplify the phenomenon enough that it becomes practical to the average citizen. Eventually, we have guidelines such as those from the CDC which broadly read:
 

Exercise most days of the week, enough to accumulate 75 minutes of vigorous or 150 minutes of moderate-intensity work saving at least 2 days per week for strength/resistance training.

Which is further distilled by professionals who commonly prescribe as follows:


Perform at least 30 minutes of movement per day where the majority of those minutes can be at a low (incidental movement) to moderate intensity (slightly winded) with 5-15 minutes performed closer to maximum intensity (out of breath). On at least 1/2 of the days (per week) complete these minutes using muscle loading / resistance-oriented activities including organized sports. Grow this number to 60 minutes per day for better results or for children.

And for a long time, this is where things have stayed. Sure there have been new ideas and concepts, but in the grand scheme, very few resulted in big shifts or could be considered game-changers. Trading intensity for volume however may be one. The idea that we may need to invest a whole lot LESS time to get the same (or even better) results if we are willing to work a bit harder during that time is a really big deal that just keeps gaining steam. The idea that our muscles can be FAR more than those rubber bands that move our bones and, when asked just the right way, can be a mechanism that clears inflammation and can release large-scale disease-clearing defenses, is big news.

We saw it again this week with one of the most change-resistant subspecies on the planet - the runners.

Yes, this research, which tested a small group of runners on a newer protocol, discovered that changing the volume/intensity balance could produce excellent results and the recipe was as simple as 1-2-3: 1 part max, 2 parts moderate, and 3 parts easy. Specifically, after a warm-up, the runners were asked to run 5 or 6 minutes of 1-minute intervals which were further broken down into 30 seconds easy (about 30% max) which ramped to 20 seconds moderate (40-55% max) which further ramped to max (84%) or near max (75%) effort for 10 seconds. They completed 2 to 3 rounds of this protocol (10-18 minutes total), 3 times per week for six weeks and compared their 5 km (3.1 miles) racing times before and after.

Translated for the non-runners this means that instead of a training plan which often includes sessions of 30+ minutes to achieve new performance, these folks were able to do it in roughly 1/2 the total time and with less than 15 minutes of maximal effort per week when their exercise "dose" was more fully optimized to their goal. Even better, not only did they improve their performance they also had a significant increase in their cardiorespiratory fitness, one of the most important markers of injury/illness/disease resistance we know of.

It's not too late to get ready for your local turkey trot. Invest 45 minutes per week and you might not only cross a finish line you might change the trajectory of your health.

Get out there and get winded for a few seconds today.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

give 12%, get on a better path

Oct 27

I've mentioned the Methuselah Foundation in the past.  They fund longevity research, of which calorie restriction is a well-known go-to strategy. For some reason, when otherwise healthy mice and non-human primates are fed 25% (or so) less than they might typically take in, they live stronger, longer. Until the early 2000s this effect was not well studied in humans. Few debated that designing a study like this would be complex and wildly costly. But at the same time, if such a simple tactic, to simply cut down on personal energy consumption, actually worked, the implications would be massive. In 2007 with the help of the National Institute of Health and the National Institute on Aging the "Comprehensive Assessment of Long-term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy", aka the CALERIE study (clever!) was launched. The design turned out to be simple indeed - they would recruit a few hundred folks, randomly assign a group who would attempt to reduce calorie intake by 25% without reducing key nutrients, and track everything they possibly could for years. The findings were impressive.

About a decade after the start, results started to pour in. 4 major themes emerged:
 

(1) Cardiometabolic profile improved
(2) Markers of inflammation improved
(3) Biological Aging slowed
(4) Physical function improved or maintained

But there was a twist - the actual calorie reduction achieved was about 1/2 of that attempted. On average, participants reduced calories by only 12%, which on a standard 2000-calorie-per-day diet equates to 240 calories. To put that in more real-world terms, eliminating a 20 oz soda daily or subbing something healthy for a couple of processed snacks throughout the day could drastically alter even a generally healthy person's trajectory.

Now for some that might be good enough - "no need to know more - it works, let's do it".

However, as science does, the dive into "why" became the next unknown...until now.

Using muscle biopsies taken at baseline, year 1 and year 2 from a subsample of the CALERIE population researchers at NIH were able to determine that the real impact of calorie restriction was at the genetic level. By eating slightly less on a consistent basis, the body "turned up" (upregulation) genes that preserve muscle function, strength, fuel efficiency (both sugar and fat) and also "turned down" (downregulated) those associated with the processes linked to both disease and aging, sometimes referred to as "inflammaging".

While this does not specifically relate to fasting or time-restricted eating, both of which have become far more commonplace since the beginning of the study, it may be hitting similar targets. More remains to be discovered.


Until then, if you're the type of person who sees giving up a few snacks as a worthy tradeoff for better health and stronger aging, the proof is quite literally in the pudding...and anywhere else a few hundred empty calories might be found.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

Getting Unstuck - The Mushy Middle

Oct 20

I'm not sure when I first heard the term "the mushy middle". It's been used to describe a political view that isn't polarized to one extreme or another (many people on many issues and in at least 1 person's opinion, not a bad thing). It's also been used to describe writing or storytelling that tends to somehow lose its way between the "beginning" and "end" (been there!). For me, however, it perfectly represents the trap of being (mathematically) average from a health perspective, that is, of being in the middle of the bell-shaped population curve when health risk is plotted.

In plain terms, it's a trap because BOTH time (duration) and age (often correlated but not the same) are risk factors for many injuries and diseases - so even if we are OK being average today, the longer we linger there and leave things "up to nature", the worse things inevitably get. Just like it's hard to build a solid foundation on an unstable or deteriorating platform...standing on mushy ground increases the likelihood we'll sink. From a physical activity perspective, the middle accounts for around 6 of every 10 Americans, which is almost exactly what the math would predict (+/- 1 standard deviation = 68%).

Am I in the middle?

It's pretty simple to determine if this is us. If we are not one of the +/- 15% of Americans who have significant disability associated with mobility or independent functioning AND we are also not one of the +/- 24% who currently meet the physical activity guidelines of at least 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity (or 150 min moderate) AND resistance exercise (strength, muscle loading, etc) at least 2 times per week, we're there.

Here's the good news - even if we have two of the most commonly cited barriers standing between us and the change we need (time and resources), we can buy ourselves some time by minimizing the impact of being there. Three studies in the last 60 days have pointed the way.

1 - From The University of Connecticut, a team showed that adding an extra 3,000 steps per day (about 2 minutes of walking per waking hour) could lower blood pressure risk as we age.

2 - From the Massachusetts General Hospital, a team showed that a hormone (myokine called irisin) which is secreted from our muscles after as little as fifteen minutes of strenuous effort, can "untangle" and clear the plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease in the aging brain.

Or if you're REALLY pressed for time

3 - From Tulane University, a team showed that taking the stairs 5 times per day was enough, even without exercise, to cut cardiovascular risk by 20%, about 2-3 minutes worth of work (turn 1 of the "UConn walks" above into a stair climb). 

Being in the middle for a little while doesn't have to become another mushy story that goes on and on. The antidote to "stuck" is almost always "MOVE". Let us know if you need ideas.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

Feed the Gut Biome, Prime the Brain

Oct 13

While I have a strong belief there are things in this world that are "unseeable" but no less "real", I am admittedly a bit skeptical about the unlucky nature of the number 13 or the fear of that number falling on a Friday. The History Channel tells us there's an actual name for this fear - paraskevidekatriaphobia - and that it is real enough to cause massive economic losses. Meanwhile, NPR has tried to help us actually pronounce the term (a practice they say helps rid us of it). Yet, I find myself wondering if this year, by falling in October, the most unlucky part of Friday the 13th might be that it's easier for the Halloween priming messages to buy and load up on sugar to break through. We know for example that ultra-processed foods tend to poke at our emotions to a greater extent than low-processed foods, which likely drives us toward purchase, consumption, and ultimately poorer health. Now don't get me wrong, I'm SURE I will find myself sifting through the leftover candy bowl to see if there are any Heath Bars left in the mix in a few weeks (I love those things), but, minimizing the impact of the unofficial overeating season (October 31st to January 1st) or avoiding altogether the potentially addictive gravity of the ultra-processed foods it tends to feature, would certainly not be a bad thing. 

For those of us trying to stay on the right side of risk, the question becomes - in our modern environment, where these foods are easy to get and relatively inexpensive, can this risk actually be avoided? Well, according to some new evidence from a research team in Germany, there's good news, if we get started soon.

Building on discoveries that clearly show the connection between the gut microbiome and our day-to-day decisions, the team decided to test the suggestibility of certain foods before and after influencing the bacterial makeup of the biome. In more simple terms they fed a random 1/2 of the study participants a plant-based fiber which is known to "feed" healthy bacteria (PREbiotic, which is different than PRObiotic) for 2 weeks, and the other 1/2 a placebo. They then studied a variety of markers from brain imaging on Functional MRI to blood and even stool samples to understand what was driving an association (if one existed). Then, after a washout period to get participants back to baseline, they switched the fiber and placebo groups and reran the experiment. What they found was interesting, if not stunning.

When individuals were "primed" with a healthier biome they experienced reduced activity in the reward centers of their brain when they were tempted with ultra-processed food. That is, if their brain was re-wired in just 2 weeks, it didn't "light up" the same way when high-sugar and high-fat foods were presented.

While this study does not claim that if we feed the healthy bacteria in our gut we will definitely be able to resist the powerful pull that the junk food industry has on our emotions, for those of us who see wisdom in the age-old maxim "know thyself" (originally interpreted as "know your limits"), it may provide a tool that helps us extend those limits and avoid the traps of the season.

If you start now, Friday the 13th might just be the luckiest day your future self has had in a while.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

secondary measures- as simple as salad

Oct 6

We've blogged about the powerful impact of nitric oxide (NO) from dietary sources in the past. If you've missed those, here's the recap:

In summary - dietary nitrates sourced from plants appear to enhance our performance and protect our cardiovascular system, lowering our odds of a major injury to the heart and arteries - a primary prevention (keeping something from going wrong in the first place) effect. The story got even better last month however when a new discovery showed that healthy nitrate consumption might also be critical to deploying a secondary prevention measure (minimizing harm when something does go wrong) by our red blood cells that we're only starting to understand.

Following a line of research that has shown that our red blood cells not only transport Oxygen around our system but also have a role in regulating pressures and lowering them in extreme cases, researchers wanted to know how it all works. Using a mouse model the team from Sweden was able to prove that:

(a) low oxygen states (such as heart attack) can act as a triggering event for secondary measures and

(b) when enough nitric oxide is present, the red blood cells can release the protective signal required to minimize damage.

Of course, knowing that mice aren't humans and mouse models aren't perfect, the team did something especially cool to go one step further in proving its utility. In the last step of their experiment, they re-ran the mouse heart attack model, but this time using human red blood cells from 3 different groups. The first group got a placebo, the second got a nitrate supplement and the third consumed healthy high-nitrate veggies. The two groups with preloaded nitrate (and therefore higher concentrations of NO available) showed the same powerful effect, a 50% improvement in recovery after the simulated heart attack.

A bit like seatbelts and airbags we hope you'll never have a need...but having a secondary prevention measure on board if you do, can be the difference between a scare and catastrophe. This time it's as simple as salad.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

25 years later - maps, journeys, and the path ahead

Sept 29

By 2016 nearly 20 years had passed since we incorporated and our model and approach were starting to get noticed by professional colleagues and peers. While it seemed outlandish (and even misguided) in 1998 to make prevention, and health promotion the central goals of a healthcare practice, the results were adding up and at every turn, the research was backing up our claim that it could be done. Around that time we began teaching a continuing education course for professional peers (mostly physical therapists) that covered key concepts. With as many as 1 of every 3 healthcare professionals feeling burned out at any given time, many were looking to redirect their skills and experience the often inspiring "give AND get" that our team enjoys while helping people achieve this way. Acknowledging that it isn't always an easy journey, we called one of the key assignments the "pathway project". It was designed to challenge the professional to use research and evidence to map the course from our influences and daily behaviors to common diseases. As they scoured the evidence, they developed a better understanding of "how we got here" and more importantly, as they compared notes, the root causes that needed to be dealt with to turn things around. 

Although a growing and important problem, the map on mental health concerns like depression had wide gaps. The evidence of a clear connection with our day-to-day behaviors and the influences that drive them was only beginning to emerge and many people were still assuming much of it was not within our personal control. Although clearly incomplete, having a family history or genetic risk was often used as the likely explanation. In the last few years, however, the path has become far more visible.

For example and as we've previously mentioned, in February of this year we learned that regular physical activity can actually outperform "usual care" (medications) for common mental health concerns and that higher intensities are particularly powerful. One cool study in August even validated the dynamic warm-up that we use with so many of our clients. How we time our physical activity can make a difference it seems. It turns out that priming our systems with movement and physical activity BEFORE the workday can increase resilience and well-being as compared to waiting until afterward. Then, a few weeks ago another massive study that tracked more than 1/4 Million people over 9 years made the pathway even more clear. Researchers from The University of Cambridge were able to compare the preventative impact of genetics and lifestyle, drill down the risk-lowering contribution each of 7 specific lifestyle habits made, and even show a few physical health markers that connect the dots. 

Here's the breakdown:

First - our genetics do matter, but not as much as our lifestyle. According to the study, those with a high-risk gene profile had up to a 25% increased risk compared to those with a low-risk profile. However, this was less than 1/2 the impact that lifestyle had. Those with unhealthy lifestyles had a 57% increased risk compared with those with the healthiest lifestyles and 41% increased risk compared with individuals with even moderately healthy lifestyles. This effect suggests that most of the benefit comes with even doing a little bit, an effect that was maintained even after genetic risk was accounted for.
Next - there were as many as 7 different habits that had a risk-lowering impact. Healthy Sleep (7-9 hours) had the strongest effect, lowering risk by 22%. The others lowered personal risk as follows:

Never Smoking: 20%

Regular Social Connections: 18%

Physical Activity: 14%

Low to Moderate Sedentary Time: 13%

Moderate (or less) Alcohol Consumption: 11%

Healthy Diet: 6% 

Last - they were able to fill in key gaps on the map that link behaviors to the eventual disease. In addition to notable changes on MRI of the brain structure in people who led healthy lifestyles, simple blood markers of inflammation (C-reactive protein) and metabolism dysfunction (high triglycerides) were far more likely in those who had a high risk of future depression. Depression may "end up" in the brain but it appears to run through metabolism and immune system health.

Mental Health concerns are impacting as many as 50 Million Americans each year - it's a big problem. The risks we face are real and likely impact every one of us at some level. HOWEVER with a map in hand, the support of those around us, and the willingness to work hard at risk-lowering, "Stronger, Happier People through Better Health" is not just a mission statement...it is a reasonable expectation. 25 years later we are excited to be walking the journey to health with you.

Thank you for allowing us to play a role in your journey. Let us know if you need a map.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

stress test results predict cancer too

Sept 22

The most well-known stat related to heart disease is that it is the leading killer in America, a title it has held for decades. Lesser known, but not insignificant, is the fact that after the 1960s, Heart Disease has claimed a steadily DECREASING percentage of lives lost each year. While primary prevention efforts, including a better understanding of the impact of smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise have definitely played a leading role, there are other levers, like catching people who are at risk before a major event that have helped keep things moving in the right direction. The electrocardiogram and testing the heart under "load" during a cardiac stress test has been especially important in this role. It's such a simple concept - when we stress the system with a specific load, we can measure whether the heart is behaving in a normal/predictable manner under that load.

This week, from a research team at the Mayo Clinic, we learned that exercise capacity can tell us about other disease risks too, including the number 2 killer, Cancer. While this makes total sense, a body that has less physical capacity or is not able to recover quickly from physical stress is at greater risk in general (for injury, illness, and disease), this study of more than 13,000 individuals tracked over 10+ years gives very strong proof.

Individuals who had poor fitness (less than 8 METS) were at 42% greater risk of dying in the 10 years after the test than those who had good fitness (10+ METS) and those whose heart rate recovered less than 13 beats per minute from the peak in the first minute after stopping the test were at 36% greater risk during the time.


Do-It-Yourself. While this can be determined in a clinical setting with a treadmill, it is not the only way and may not be the most accessible way for most. As was shown in 2020 and we've blogged about previously, if you have 4 flights of stairs and a stopwatch you can get a good idea of where you're at in a few minutes. The process is relatively straightforward. Climb 60 steps as fast as possible w/o running (and preferably with a handrail for safety but not "pulling"). If you can complete the test in 45 seconds or less, you are near or above the standard and at lower risk over the next 10 years. If the test takes more than twice as long (90 sec or more), you are in the "at-risk" category and may want to consider working to improve. Maybe even better yet, as we've mentioned before, visiting those same stairs a few times daily, can improve where we're at between 5% and 12% in as little as 6 weeks.

 There aren't that many long levers when it comes to health improvement. Now more than ever, fitness is one. Get up and get moving!

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

stress buffering: remembering recess

Sept 15

It might have been my favorite "subject" during my educational journey. Movement + Freedom to decide how, what could be better? At some point, it was replaced with gym class (Phys. ed) which checked off most of the same boxes but added structure. Then, eventually, it was gone. Although it's fair to assume not everyone remembers recess with such nostalgia, for me it was a chance to burn some pent-up energy, let my mind decompress, and was usually positive; something that might even help to lay down the framework for future habits and well-being. I sometimes wonder how much more productive I'd be as an adult if there was still an unstructured break to go out and run around in the middle of the day. Apparently, I'm not the only one. If you search the term "adult recess" on just about any web browser, you'll discover a fairly long list of articles that relate "play" back to wellness, leadership, productivity, and more. 

But how does it work? And does it work for everyone?

In short, we don't fully know, however this week we got closer to an answer.

First - whether we point to studies of modern-day hunter-gatherers as proof that we humans are built to move A LOT or, maybe as articulated here we (as dynamic systems) actually ARE movement, most of us have experienced the challenge of "being fully still" (no screen, no movement, just be) for longer than a few minutes during waking hours. It's no surprise then that when we "contain" ourselves for extended periods, whether in a desk chair tucked behind a monitor, standing behind a machine, in a vehicle or perhaps off to the side somewhere watching our kids, we are functioning outside of our default and it's tiring. As we tap into our reserves, cognitive and emotional especially, we feel depleted, which often equates to the sensation of stress.

Although it gets a bad rap, stress isn't inherently bad. It's almost like a Goldilocks phenomenon where there is a "just right" sweet spot ("eustress") between too little ("sustress") and too much ("distress") as discussed here. One way it can get confusing is that we can have too much in one domain (such as psychosocial overload) even while having too little in another (physical under-load). This may be why the outlet of movement-based play is so effective, not only does it help us to avoid the trap of slumping into a chair after a long day of doing too much of the same, but it also stimulates the under-loaded areas while resting the often over-loaded. With that in mind, we have been advocating for a 5-10 minute "movement test" as a way to help know the difference between physical and psychosocial fatigue for years. Feel more energized and less stressed after movement? Keep going - you need the movement to free up the energy log jam and ultimately clear your brain!  

By 2018, the research community began adding to the idea. As it turns out, because we are all one system (i.e. no such thing as "body and mind"), a carryover effect is not only available, it seems automatic; when we move we soak up existing social or emotional over-stress while getting the bonus of creating a buffer against future stress. In a review of 14 different studies on the subject, those who got adequate physical stress via physical activity and eventually fitness tended to absorb psychosocial stress more effectively. Those who did so with a group in nature may even get an extra resilience boost.  

By 2021 evidence of a dose-response relationship was emerging. Higher movement intensities created stronger buffers against future stress. The link was clear - finding the sweet spot of daily physical stress helps us to reset the way our system manages other stress, especially psychosocial stress which impacts our mental health and wellbeing. With that in mind, the results of this 2022 review of more than 2 million person-years of data shouldn't surprise us. The authors concluded that if less active adults met physical activity guidelines (+/- 20 minutes per day) more than 1 of every 10 cases of depression would have been prevented, powerful stuff.


For the parents and caregivers out there, especially those who remember recess fondly, the most recent proof might be the one for you to know. As a team in Switzerland reported last week, the same effect holds true for kids. Those who met physical activity guidelines (1 hour per day for kids) were able to deal with future psychosocial stress better than those who didn't.

Simple enough - if you need a stress reliever, go play, preferably outside.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

ancient medicine, modern results

Sept 8

While most people know of his contribution of "non-maleficence" (aka "do no harm") which has been deeply ingrained in the practice of medicine, Hippocrates' second most famous quote, which it seems isn't actually his, may be closer to the mark than we ever thought before. This time, even in the most literal sense. 

"Let Food Be Thy Medicine"

Confirmed here in 2013, the famous quote that food IS medicine was probably not the first (or ever) uttered by the great ancient physician. Although the connection between diet and health (and other lifestyle habits like exercise) is made clear in much of his work, the direct line, food being the equivalent to medicine, isn't there. That doesn't make it any less true apparently. Maybe it's the new frontier of the gut biome or maybe the medical community is just finding its way back to its roots, but everywhere we look we just keep finding evidence that lifestyle can be used to correct a growing number of ills, and get as good or even better results to pills and procedures. This week, two different studies jumped off the page.

The first was an observational study of food used as medicine in the most literal sense - the physicians actually prescribed it in areas where healthy food options, specifically fresh fruits and veggies are hard to come by or too costly for consumers who need them. In a special program where physicians could prescribe fruits and veggies, families in 12 different US regions were able to take the prescriptions to local markets and get steeply discounted or even free fruits and veggies. The lifestyle result? Consumption went up - about 1/2 to 1 full serving per day on average. The medical result? Blood sugar improved, blood pressure improved, and body weight improved.

The second was a far more rigorously controlled study - a "Randomized Controlled Trial" (close to the gold standard of interventional research). In this case, participants were separated into 2 groups and randomly given resistant starch, which, as the name implies is a starch that is resistant to digestion and instead tends to ferment in the large intestine. Of course, as we've previously written about, there seems to be a link between the fermentation of foods and gut health which held true here too. As it turned out, in 100 individuals with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (the most common form of liver disease), a daily dose of resistant starch, in this case, taken from corn but found in a variety of other healthy foods like oats, rice, legumes, and even green bananas, was enough to improve the gut biome. Even more impressive it also appeared to improve their inflammatory profile, rebalance liver enzymes, and cut their triglycerides by as much as 40% in 4 weeks, all very meaningful results.

The summer peak may be getting smaller in the rearview, but that doesn't mean the good stuff has to be gone. Maybe this is your year for a fall garden or if nothing else, to refill your prescription of that new ancient medicine the next time you're cruising a produce section.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

the humble banana: villain or misunderstood?

Sept 1

If you're old enough to remember watching the nightly news to get information you're probably old enough to remember all the hooks used to keep you there..."Your _____ (pillow?) might be killing you! Film at 11". As information has become even more accessible and condensed, the tweet-able headline (X-able?) has become even more critical if whatever a source has to say is to cut through the noise. Andrew Warner gets it - in May of 2021, the blogger wrote an outrageous headline...about outrageous headlines. It's a little like stepping into the matrix of clickbait. Nutritional information is notorious for this. Since everyone is a consumer of food (of one type or another) but very very few care to consume the details of what food is doing with, for, and to us, the headlines often win the day. So when I saw a press-release headline that read "The Right Combo: Getting the Most Health Benefits from Fruit Smoothies" earlier this week, I knew I had to dive in; let's pick it apart a bit.

In general, it's fair to say that at Pro-Activity we are pretty big fans of the smoothie so any article that highlights the smoothie as the nutritional delivery mechanism of choice tends to get my attention.  Not only do we have a handful of our own recipes, we often recommend smoothies in general as an easy-to-prepare, tasty, and nutrient-dense starting point for those looking to FUEL better as they journey toward better health. Whether it's the "Jersey Slime", heavy on spinach giving a strikingly green color and similar to the one described here which demonstrated an inflammation-lowering effect in 1 week in people who consumed it daily, or the "Berry Bomb", as the name implies, is loaded with berries and similar to this one proven to lower muscle soreness after intense effort and this one proven to improve blood vessel function or any other number of recipes we've seen, for most medically-uncomplicated folks, a smoothie can be a great option. When I started to read the release, however, I found myself wondering how fast we would start to see the misinterpretations pop up.

The basic gist of the article is that foods that contain high amounts of a particular enzyme (a protein that makes biochemical reactions happen faster) known to be involved in the process that makes them turn brown when bruised or left on the countertop, such as bananas, apples and avocados called Polyphenol Oxidase (PPO) have a, now confirmed, ability to block another important nutrient, limiting the available concentration of it when the two food-types are consumed together. In headline form - a banana in a smoothie blocked the flavanol (recommended for its cardiometabolic protective effect) provided by berries in the same smoothie by up to 84%.

Here's where it's bound to get muddy "out there". The ability of one food to block the healthy properties of another does not make it unhealthy or even something that should be avoided...however, when "bioavailability of flavanol" is important to us (and it probably should be), either keeping the foods apart in preparation or eating them at different times of day could make a difference. This was found in the study as well; when the two food types were actively mixed before consumption (that is, blended together) the reaction was stronger than when they were not mixed but consumed in the same sitting. From the UC press release: "He also said bananas remain a great fruit to be eaten or consumed in smoothies. For those who want to consume smoothies with bananas, or other high PPO activity fruits and vegetables such as beet greens, the suggestion is to not combine them with flavanol-rich fruits such as berries, grapes, and cocoa." With that in mind, substituting a low PPO food in your berry (or other high flavanols) smoothie, such as mango which will bring a bit of sweetness the banana is known for, may make sense. 


The bottom line is - bananas aren't "bad", so when the hype arrives, resist! They check a LOT of boxes: naturally occurring, minimally processed, nutrient-dense, inexpensive, biodegradable carrying case and have even made for a shockingly fun minor league baseball mascot to name a few...I mean, seriously a bases-loaded backflip catch?... but I digress. They're also not the perfect food for every situation or goal. If you find what is, please DO let me know.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

have the rhythm of a dancer?

Aug 25

It might be one of the simplest and most straightforward health risk screenings. Place a couple of fingers on an area of the body where a pulse can be picked up (wrist and side of neck being the most common) and pay attention to the rhythm of the heart rate after a person has been resting for a few minutes. The expectation is that it is both steady (beating at regular intervals) and if counted, within a normal pace range, such as 15-20 beats in a 15-second period (60-80 beats per minute). 

But what if it's not? What if instead of "beat, beat, beat" we feel "beat, beat, long pause, beat"? Is there cause for concern?

The short answer is, not always, but quite possibly because, as far as simple clinical tests go, a manual pulse check has a surprisingly high "true positive" rate and so when something is "off", it's probably worth running a few more diagnostics to find out why.

According to the CDC, Atrial Fibrillation, the most common type of heart rhythm disorder (arrhythmia) impacts around 12 million Americans and is a major risk factor for stroke and other cardiac events. Interestingly, it also tends to go hand in hand with other health risks, most notably musculoskeletal health concerns, which add the heaviest burden on quality of life in those with the problem one key reason they are often the primary target of our efforts. Interestingly, there also appears to be some evidence that conditions (such as autoimmune disorders) and habits (such as a pro-inflammatory lifestyle) that relate to high levels of inflammation (reference 1, reference 2) may be possible triggers for the disease's onset.

If this is the case, we would expect the same levers that work so well to lower inflammation and musculoskeletal pain risk (like eating a healthy diet and getting proper sleep) to also lower the risk of developing A-fib. Although not conclusive, a study of patients being treated for the condition revealed lifestyle-related health risks in most, and a 2022 study on the often touted Mediterranean Diet appeared to point in a similar direction.

Exercise on the other hand can be a bit more complex. While the evidence strongly supports general fitness to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease (including heart rhythm disorders like a-fib) with almost all studies concluding "more is better", there does seem to be a ceiling where too much can be too much. Elite Endurance athletes and those who train like them may be increasing the risk. On the other extreme, the "minimal dosage" required to maintain health and prevent disease has been a little less clear...until this week.

Deep in the halls of the European Society of Cardiology Conference in Amsterdam, a poster presentation by a team from Taiwan shared a very interesting discovery - individuals who had at least moderate fitness, defined as "achieving 8.57 to 10.72 METS" on a treadmill stress test had a 98.4% likelihood of NOT developing A-fib in the next 5 years. Interestingly, those with high fitness (>10.72 METS) had exactly the same risk...i.e. no substantial risk-lowering benefit above around 11.0 Metabolic Equivalents of Task (MET).

Translated out of exercise-physiology speak and into plain English - having enough fitness to complete activities and tasks that use 11 times the effort required to sit in a chair almost guarantees our heart will stay in rhythm for the next five years. It also adds that having more than that, although great for many things, is not particularly helpful for this thing.

What is an example of such an activity?

Well, according to this extensive list, running a 9-minute mile, cycling between 15 and 17 mph, rowing at somewhere around 175 watts or competitive-level ballroom dancing would all do the trick!

May we all have the rhythm and timing of a dancer, especially at the most important metronome of all - our heartbeat.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

hold that pose and lower blood pressure

Aug 18

“Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.”
- Ovid (Roman Poet, 43 BC - 18 AD)

120 Million. That's a big number and the approximate number of Americans who are living with hypertension which is, heartbeat by heartbeat, overburdening and eventually wearing to the point of harm, the inside lining of the arterial pipes. It is a patient little health gremlin, lulling us into believing it's not really that big of a deal. After all, many people can't feel it and can still "do" everything without any obvious symptoms. Yet there it is, heartbeat by heartbeat hammering away until irreparable harm is done. If we consider that there are around 35 million heartbeats per year for the average adult, we understand why it doesn't take that long to take its toll.

It's not all bad news though. Hypertension is preventable by most, treatable for many and even little things can add up to big results. If blood pressure (combined with heart rate) acts as a "body tachometer" telling us how "revved up" we are, it stands to reason that it has been associated with stress and pain. It also makes sense then that anything which helps us to slow or otherwise calm down can help. 

We've known for a while for example that some of our greatest levers include exercise which pushes our stress-threshold higher over time, nutritional approaches that lower the inflammatory load and balance the intake of foods that naturally constrict the arterial pipes like highly processed foods with those that relax them (nitric oxide and potassium-containing fruits and veggies especially) and sleep which gives us a chance to relax and repair. These are not the only approaches though. Stress management, breathing exercises, and even social connectedness may have a role in protecting us.

More recently, however, research teams have tried to take the conversation deeper - attempting to find the signal through the noise. Comparing various dietary approaches for example has helped us to contrast what might work (there are many) with what actually does for most.  The DASH which promotes low-process, high-fiber, and naturally occurring foods usually scores at or near the top. Under the header of the exercise, the story has been less clear until recently. This year, 2 cool new studies have made the case for holding still...right where we are...for minutes on end. In exercise-jargon: Isometric exercises.

The first study which was published in March showed that office workers who spent 16 minutes per day (4 rounds of 2-minute "holds" with 2 minutes break in between), 3 times per week, either performing a wall-squat or a sustained gripping exercise at 30% of their maximum could lower their blood pressure in a meaningful way in as little as 3 months. They went on to show that after the initial 3 months, they could maintain the changes by dropping it down to only 1 day per week. While the wall squat out-performed the gripping task, both were effective.

The second, out last month, reviewed 270 different studies on the blood pressure lowering impacts of exercise and found that, on average, the isometric exercise outperformed the other modes which included: aerobic, resistance, high-intensity interval, and even combined aerobic & strength. The effect was strongest for systolic blood pressure ("the top number"). Aerobic exercise, specifically running, took the top spot for diastolic ("the bottom number").

It takes effort to control risk factors and ultimately prevent disease but sometimes not as much as we might think. Pretty good terms, not only for those required to meet certain work standards but also for those who look forward to a long healthy life after that phase is over.

Maybe this week try sitting for a few minutes without the chair :)

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

the multiplier effect of a regular bedtime

Aug 11

Although it wasn't always as widely accepted as it is today, the fact that adequate time to RECOVER each day is critical to our future health doesn't seem super provocative or even controversial these days. Although sleep is not the only way to recover, we can't live very well without it; and both quantity and quality matter. Whether in the context of injuries, illnesses, accidents (motor vehicle and/or work-related), or disease - good sleep predicts good health - an idea that is taking root with more and more folks and supported by extensive research that is uncovering what matters most and why. While "7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep" continues to be the gold standard for most adults we also know how fast we fall asleep (latency), how rested we feel when we wake, whether we need an alarm to get going, and if we are sleepy enough to "nod off" during the day, can all provide clues as to whether our sleep is of high enough quality to actually RECOVER. A growing understanding of sleep's "stages" (in part from the wider use of wearable sensors that track heart rate and movement) has helped more people understand their personal patterns and risks.


At the same time, and on a track that turns out to be more parallel than we ever knew, other researchers have been working to decode the "the largest endocrine organ" (gut microbiome) - something that was first mentioned as early as 1988 but now more than ever is being recognized as a critical factor in our health. Like sleep, it appears to impact many disease risks that were previously not thought to be related. One of the key learnings so far has been that microbial diversity (having a gut populated with a wide variety) is generally a good thing.

While our food choices likely have the most direct influence on our gut health (as previously mentioned, consuming a variety of plants each week appears correlated with the greatest gut diversity) they are not the only influencer. We know that our exercise habits impact our gut makeup and other system-wide "stressors" such as alcohol (consumption or abstinence) and possibly even early life stress can play a role. Sleep health makes the list here too. The bottom line seems to be that although it is often easier to separate our day-to-day actions, the various environments we spend time in, and the body systems they impact into neat little compartments, they're actually all connected. 

As messy as "it's all connected" might feel, the beauty of interconnectedness is that when we start doing something positive for our health we get a multiplier effect down the road. People who start to eat right often find it easier to exercise. People who quit an unhealthy habit often unlock the energy to replace it with a good alternative. Last week, as published in the European Journal of Nutrition, a consistent bedtime appears to have this power. 

A research team discovered that small alterations in our sleep/wake routine (which they called "social jet lag"), such as "sleeping in on the weekends" results in changes in both our dietary habits and gut diversity. Individuals who had more than a 90-minute change in their sleep pattern, even if they got the same number of total hours, (e.g. sleeping 12A-8A on the weekends instead of a typical 10P-6A weekday routine) tended to BOTH eat differently AND have alterations in their gut biome. It wasn't clear if one "caused" the other, but it adds a new wrinkle - not only are they "all connected" but the crossroads of health may run through the gut.


Respect the routine - bedtimes are not only for the kids these days.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

the 4th headline: 5 of 12 cuts 2 by 32!

Aug 4

It's the second leading cause of death worldwide (and sadly number one in America for children and middle-aged adults). Like most risks we face the ones that lead to cancer are probably not 100% avoidable. We inherit certain risks (genes) and might face stressful enough life circumstances to experience a significant risk bump. But still, the more we learn, the more we can confidently say that we humans, with even a very little bit of effort focused on "strengthening the host", are pretty hearty and cancer is just the latest in a long list of unwelcome guests that we can close the door on.

It starts with a very cool experiment in 2017 where researchers had healthy folks ride a bike to exhaustion. They then collected a blood sample, centrifuged off a few factors, and dripped the remaining "serum" onto a dish of human lung cancer cells. Compared to a control group the post-exercise serum killed off more than 50% of the lung cancer cells and sharply slowed a human aging factor. Other similar studies showed similar results with other forms of cancer. Various scientific reviews such as this one in late 2017 and this one in 2020 of how it all works followed, but the oversimplified headlines are:  

1 - Exercise appears to "supercharge" our blood and therefore make the internal environment very inhospitable to unruly & rogue cells.

2 - Exercise should be a part of the conversation throughout the cancer journey, from prevention to treatment and beyond.

Of course, the work never stops and researchers have been working hard to refine exact dosages, whether it combines well with other treatments, etc. but the take-home message has generally been a good one - for those that can tolerate it, exercise is a powerful lever when cancer risk is high.

Then, in April of this year, another cool study popped up. As it turned out, even short bouts of low to moderate-intensity exercise, in this case lightly pedaling a bike (enough to get the heart rate up to 100 beats per minute for 10 minutes) in newly diagnosed breast cancer patients was enough to get a significant immune system boost. As if the first two headlines weren't promising enough, this seemed to both reinforce them and add an important third to the conversation:

3 - It takes a lot less "load" (duration x intensity x frequency) than you might imagine.

But then last week, maybe the most persuasive of them all, especially for those in the "prevention stage" of the journey, was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. After analyzing the health data collected via wearable sensor from nearly 23,000 people for a 7-year period (on average), it turned out there was a sharp risk reduction for those individuals who had a few minutes of "exercise-like" activity during their normal day, or "Vigorous Intermittent Lifestyle Physical Activity" (VILPA) as the research team called it. Specifically, those who got huffing and puffing through normal activities (carrying groceries, climbing stairs, lifting a child, etc) in 1-2 minute bursts for at least 3 minutes total per day saw an 18% risk reduction over the next 7 years. Those who spent a total of 4.5 minutes (in 1-2 minute bursts) combatting the country's 12th leading risk factor did even better yet, experiencing a 32% risk reduction. That is:

4 - 5 minutes of MOVE (the US' 12th risk factor) cuts Cancer (killer #2) risk by nearly 1/3rd (32%).

Park further away, get off the subway 1 stop earlier, take the stairs or dust off that bike helmet - if it leads to enough MOVE to break a sweat, it can work.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

connect is the bridge

July 28

I can't remember exactly when "engagement" became something of a buzzword. I remember sitting in a meeting with an employer client many years ago (maybe the early 2000s) as someone from human resources reviewed the results of the recent "employee engagement survey". Soon after, it seemed like the term was everywhere, being used as a way of describing whether people felt connected to whatever it was they were doing - in this case their work. 

The Gallup Organization, well known for its analysis and insights from surveys around the world, started diving into the idea and tracking the information needed to connect the dots. The results were stunning. The current global average for example is 23%, meaning more than 3 out of every 4 people do NOT feel energized and excited at work. It's as if somewhere around the turn of the century a societal switch from viewing a career as a "life's work", something that added to the greater good (and gave meaning and purpose along the way) to a "grind", where people traded irrecoverable personal energy for a paycheck, was flipped. 

Since that time many groups, teams, and organizations have begun working to understand and improve the human connection, whether at work or at home. Articles have been written on how to instill engagement, what the best in the world like the Navy Seals do, and how the best-in-class organizations (where the average is 72%) are both more productive and happier. It has played a role in stoking a larger conversation, awareness, and research agenda of how far it all goes and what can be done. 

A few weeks back we discussed a recent surgeon general's report which raised the flag on the health implications - which are substantial - and since then, we've spent some time diving into some of the latest research in hopes to get closer to the roots of the problem. A few recent studies have helped. Here are the critical take-aways:


One size doesn't fit all - taken from some very interesting research on the multi-sensory social and sales experience customers receive at Canadian wineries, a research team showed that different people have different needs based on their comfort level with the situation, in this case, novice, expert or enthusiast. For the novices, i.e. those attempting to engage, the basic requirement for success was human connection. In the press release, the first author was quoted as saying "The answer is quite simply connection. People desire connection to enhance their experience...". Well said.

Well-being is the end result, but trust gets the ball rolling - two new studies, 1 from earlier this year and another from last month helped to make the pathway clearer, in a sense by walking backward. Starting from the end goal, "well-being" (which includes positive mental health, happiness, etc.), the researchers in the first team showed that engagement, in technical terms "social participation", was a critical first step but that participating alone wasn't enough. Like the winery experience, a sense of belonging and connectedness was required to lead to well-being. The second study went 1 step further and showed that before participation, and therefore at the very root of engagement, sits trust. Specifically,  individuals who generally believe that the people around them are reliable and would act in their best interest are more likely to engage, connect, and ultimately enjoy higher levels of well-being.

Whether part of a work team, a family, or a community group the people around us play a major role in our health and safety (as we do in theirs). Those who are energized, focused, and find enjoyment in whatever they are doing are not only more productive, they tend to be healthier and safer too. Not surprisingly it's a two-way street, those who take healthy actions tend to find enjoyment and happiness.

No matter why we're traveling, if point A is trust and point B is well-being, CONNECT is the bridge. The stronger we build it, the more traffic it can take.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

peak loads - recover well

July 21

You don't have to go very far to find the heat this year. Whether it's scrolling through the headlines pointing to various record-breaking temperatures or just being outside for more than a few minutes in most places, the Summer of 2023 has brought the haze, heat, humidity, and, of course "all of the above". And while officially we're only 1/3rd of the way through Summer (June 21-Sept 22), we are more than halfway through the "unofficial Summer" (Memorial Day to Labor Day, aka 100 days of Summer) and we are near the historical peak for the energy-sapping, body-inflaming temperatures. So while we hope everyone gets through the summer without any issues, our experience (historically and this year) pretty clearly shows that heat brings our bodies right to the edge of their capacity and a few extra tactics to keep the odds in our favor is a good idea in Mid-July to Mid-August.


If you've missed it in previous blogs or our recent training sessions or materials, there are a few key points worth knowing:

1. The effects of heat are "double-edged". While small loads with adequate rest (equivalent to sauna use for example) can improve fitness as our cardiovascular system adapts, large total loads and/or inadequate rest can negatively impact our physical abilities, especially fatigue-resistance (endurance).

2. While maintaining hydration is critical to maintaining our body temperature, it is not our only cooling strategy. Whether in the form of "pre-cooling" (before activity) or "per-cooling" (during activity) employing strategies specifically targeted at lowering the body temperature such as ingesting ice slurry, can improve performance. Using cold air or immersion after strenuous work can also speed recovery.

3. While heat can deplete us faster, it can also make it harder to get adequate sleep since our body temperature has to fall before we nod off. Cooling strategies might help here too. While the research is far from conclusive, there is some evidence that suggests a cold shower after a hard physical effort can help. Either way, our sleep continues to be our best chance to recover, so in addition to getting in an extra hour whenever possible, cutting off calories and bright lights a few hours before bedtime and keeping the room dark and cool when we get there can help.

And now, a counterintuitive twist. While starting an intense outdoor exercise program this time of year is typically NOT on our list of recommendations, movement, and exercise can still pay dividends if done thoughtfully. Foam rolling or other forms of self-massage for example can reduce soreness after a taxing effort, and according to some very new analysis, when individuals face very heavy recovery loads (in this case planned major surgery) even slight fitness improvements enhance recovery. This doesn't have to mean long hours of effort or even effort for a long time. Even three, 20-second bursts on a stationary bike (whether done all in a row or with hours of rest in between) and powering up 60 stairs a few times per day (also with hours in between bouts) have been shown to stimulate meaningful improvements. In other studies, 6 sessions of effort over a two-week period provided enough stimulus to get a bump.

The take-home message here is the heat can get us down...but it probably doesn't have to. We are about to climb the peak of the season and there's always risk as we get to the edges of our capacity. Now is the time to reassess, make a few small adjustments, and RECOVER well so we can enjoy the remaining weeks of Summer and stride into Fall.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

do you know your pure score?

July 14

Simplicity is so refreshing. It's clean and easy to apply. Of course, it's also really hard to find in real life, since the world is complex. The more we dig, the more nuance we find which can be tiring; so tiring in fact, our mind tends to avoid it, instead reducing complex information into more simplistic terms, "one OR the other", "yes OR no" saving "both-and" for when we have the time, energy and open-mindedness to really dig in. Psychologists call this tendency of reducing large streams of information into 2 fundamentally opposing camps "The Binary Bias", and it turns out, despite failing to capture the gradient of real life, to be super common across a wide variety of situations.

When it comes to health information, this tendency often surfaces. It is MUCH easier for us to "pick a camp" than it is to sift through the details where we often realize there are always caveats and contextual factors. For example, a recent study once again showed that exercise was a good thing at midlife from a heart health perspective. No surprise. However, it also showed that too much of a good thing could be not-so-good. High amounts, at very high intensities, were actually associated with worsening of the same heart risks that the proper dosage helped. So exercise is good? Yes, but...

Nutrition tends to follow these same lines. Can healthier eating make a difference to our future selves? Of course, but "healthier" is a very wide spectrum and never as simple as we'd like. With that in mind, we tend to gravitate toward tried and true principles, rules of thumb that work for most people in most situations. If you've heard us say "Eat More Plants" for example, this is why. While neither prescriptive nor applicable in every situation, it simplifies A LOT of the available research, including the 2018 conclusion from a massive dataset that showed that individuals who ate 30 different plant varieties per week had the most diverse gut biome, an important marker of health. It boils down a ton of information into an easy-to-understand concept that is applicable to most Americans while avoiding the tendency to simplify things into "good vs. bad". Every once in a while, however, new information emerges that helps us take the concepts even further. In this case, it comes from the PURE study, a very large study that tracked nearly one-quarter of a million participants across 80 different countries for a decade or more. It showed that, in general, "Eat More Plants" holds true and is good advice for the masses. It also showed (however) that to get the most health benefits the variety and dosage of those plants matter and certain animal-based foods can also provide benefits. 

In an effort to simplify what we know about healthy eating, the researchers categorized and scored foods into 6 types & dosages, assigning 1 point for each. Compared to those who scored only 1 point, those who consumed enough of the good stuff to score 5 or more points on average were substantially healthier, cutting their risk by more than 20%. 4 of the categories are plant-based and 2 are animal-based. 

The scoring is as follows:

Fruit - give yourself a point if you consume 2-3 servings per day (juice does not count)

Vegetables - give yourself a point if you consume 2-3 servings per day

Legumes - give yourself a point if you consume 3-4 servings per week

Nuts - give yourself a point if you consume 1 serving per day

Fish - give yourself a point if you consume 2-3 servings per week*

Dairy - give yourself a point if you consume 2 services per day*

*In a press release the author of the study suggested that the same health outcomes gained with moderate amounts of fish and whole-fat dairy can be achieved by moderate consumption of meat and grains, "as long as they are unrefined whole grains and unprocessed meats", each at 1 serving per day,

Eating to prevent disease is not simple. There are many moving parts. However, the more we learn the simpler it gets. Perhaps the very best news is we don't have to be perfect - 5 out of 6 is 83% - and for each point gained, a significant risk reduction is noted; 6% for major cardiovascular events and 8% for dying.

The gardens are popping everywhere, enjoy the bounty and the better health that comes with it.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

what i did last summer

July 7

To the dismay of my children, we're not really known for our vibrant Summer vacations. An occasional beach week perhaps but not a lot like friends and family who "always go to the shore" or have some other great downtime tradition. Thinking back, many (maybe even most) of our family vacations have been functional; a planned trip to "chase" a member of the family who is doing something. Many trips are associated with two serious soccer-playing daughters who grew up to be serious rugby-playing daughters, one or both of the parents competing in endurance events for a while there or even the not-so-little-anymore brother who is carving his path on the water with an oar in hand, the adventure of the day has often dictated the downtime.

This time it was a trip to Ottawa, Canada, and the surrounding region to watch one of the rugger-daughters do her thing. It was only my second time in the city and the last was during a Winter cold enough to freeze "the World's longest ice rink" (not so in 2023 apparently), so it was an entirely different experience this time. Walking the city (no ice skates required), seeing a team help a boater navigate the canal, watching the changing of the guard at the National War Memorial, and enjoying the very walkable paths that flank the river was time well spent. Besides the occasional reminder that my heart was in-fact pounding while watching my kid on the field (Garmin really should include a parent-spectating mode), it was relaxing and enjoyable.

However, perhaps one of my favorite moments was an exchange with one of the locals who, as legend (and stereotype) sometimes has it, lived up to the billing of friendly and cordial at least in my experience. It only took a moment. I walked into a pizza shop where we had previously placed an order. The person at the register asked if I was there for a pickup. Almost reflexively I said "Yes, two large pies" and then there was a pause. She tilted her head a little and looked at me blankly. Not really knowing what to do, I just looked back. It was only a second of course, but then she smiled and said "Oooh, pies...right...I was thinking like 'coconut creme' or something". It dawned on me that "New Jers-eese" doesn't always translate and I got a good laugh.

I don't know how much current research exists on the impact of vacations on health. Mostly because I decided not to look too far and instead just enjoy some downtime. Whether you've got something great planned or, like me, are mostly just chasing kids this time, I hope you find some moments to be going slow enough to appreciate the little things...in my n=1 study, it feels like a good thing.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

magic in the margins - where to invest our 20%

June 30

"The best part of being a small business owner is the freedom, you get to work 1/2 days...any 12 hours you want...and only on days that end in 'Y'."

 It might have just hit me at the right time of life to make it perfectly relatable, but, delivered with just enough of an eye-roll to make it funny, that phrase became an instant favorite, one I often use to explain a "typical day". Of course, it's not limited to those of us who work in small businesses. From commutes to actual time on-the-job to off-hours communication catch-up and prep, when asked, most people feel they spend most of their waking hours at (or around) work. The statistics seem to support the idea. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2022 during the work-week, American adults spent on average up to 5 hours per day on "leisure time activities", that is "time not working". 

The good news is, that's about 20% of a day, enough time to be powerful if invested wisely. The not-so-good news is that most of those hours were spent "watching TV", which, although not clear exactly why (likely its sedentary nature), appears more likely to be harmful than helpful to health, especially as the daily dosage increases. What if, like money, we could "invest" some of today's "little bit extra", in this case downtime, in hopes it too would grow for when we really need it in the future. Is it even possible? If so, how much would we need to invest and which "vehicles" would promise the greatest return? Are there any ways to make "automatic investments", like deducting a certain amount before it "hits" the paycheck?


We're closer to the answers than you might think.

First, the more we learn about how the body ages the more we realize how much power over our lifespan we really have. We can't outright slow time and add hours to the day just yet, but as measured by its imprint on our "epigenetic clocks" (in technical terms DNA methylation)  we can slow time's day to day impact and therefore extend both our number of days and how much we can get done in each of them. More simply, it appears we can slow the rate at which we age more than we ever thought and so, yes, our time investments can indeed grow and pay off. 

Next, not unlike financial investments the "return" is heavily impacted by both the amount we invest and how consistently we do so. A small but regular investment definitely can add up if put into the right portfolio. For example, we've mentioned the power in even a few minutes of MOVE each day in an otherwise sedentary life, but that doesn't change the fact that for most people, as outlined in this 2020 paper, more is usually better.

Last, automatic financial investments are held in high regard for a reason, they tend to work; quietly growing our assets in the background, even without a lot of active energy on our part; set it and forget it. Although most investments in health are active processes, there are a few time investments that appear to, like the magic of compounding interest, pay health related dividends automatically, even when that isn't what we set out to do. Near the top of the list? Volunteering. 

According to a study from a team of North American researchers published a few months ago, volunteering appeared to decelerate the epigenetic clock (loosely, slow the rate of aging) in a sample of more than 4,000 American adults. It's too early to tell exactly why, but the effect was real enough for the researchers to call it a "potential resilience factor for aging biology".

Whether it's getting ready for someday or in the moments we hope to savor when someday arrives, we could all probably use a little more time. Invest wisely.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

positively "affected"; building buffers

June 23

I remember the feeling well. I've probably talked about it in this blog at one point or another. It was around mile 8 of my first marathon, an unseasonably cold day in Philadelphia. There I was, running with (quite literally) thousands of others, packed tightly enough that I could easily reach out and physically contact the person next to me because it was still early enough in the race that the course hadn't thinned itself out yet. Despite the number of people, it was eerily quiet, with most people focused on executing their race strategy like I was supposed to be. It was past the high-energy stage of the race and not yet to the harder stages, a strange limbo portion, and I was amazed at how alone I could feel in a sea of people doing the exact same thing at the exact same time. Thankfully a fun distraction presented itself and I was able to put my energy into it; a story for another day.

We live in the most connected time in the history of the world. With today's tech, we are a few clicks from connecting with the majority of the world's population, a virtual version of those packed marathon streets, and as ironic as it may seem, we are also living in a time when more people feel more disconnected than ever. According to a health advisory issued by the US Surgeon General's office last month, which described loneliness and isolation as an epidemic in the United States, it is taking a huge toll on our health.

Somewhere around page 30 of the full 81-page report, the authors get into the prevailing theory of how it all works. Although wildly oversimplified, as creatures that run in packs, feelings of isolation go against our nature and can lead to harmful levels of stress in those who don't have adequate buffers. Without those buffers we inch closer and closer to our injury/illness/disease threshold, increasing our odds for a variety of diseases and possibly even accidents.

So how do we build these buffers?

Well, the easy answer is to invest time and energy into the communities where we live/work/learn/play/pray. To engage, get involved, and ultimately CONNECT. However, as outlined in a very interesting article this month, we can also cultivate positive affect - said more simply, do things that bring us excitement and find the joy (hidden as it might sometimes be) in the things we already do. As it turns out, across a population of more than 4,000 people studied for a decade or more, those individuals who regularly felt "enthusiastic", "excited", "strong", "interested", "proud", "alert", "inspired" (or other similar terms taking from the positive affect scale) were not only less likely to experience harm but were almost fully protected against the negative health effects of loneliness.  

May we all find a little time to do what energizes us and invest in our health along the way.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

walking and the brain

June 16

I had a little time to get out and do something I haven't done in too long. The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes fast enough to be running, sometimes not, mostly away from the rest of the world and listening only to the sounds of nature. It was refreshing. My thoughts were clear, my body was "good tired" and I felt more like myself than before I set out; a great reminder that I was missing being "out there" more than I realized.

Whether it's a hike in the woods, an occasional trail run, a jog through town or just a stroll around the block, getting out and moving with no particular agenda is one of the surest ways to reset for me - and according to the research, it's probably the same for you.

We've known for a while that walking (and other forms of aerobic effort) can be a great creativity hack. A 2014 study out of Stanford really just validated what some of history's greatest thinkers, innovators, and artists had known from experience for centuries - movement, especially walking, stokes the brain. We also know that doing it "out there" seems to have additional benefits. Although some research suggests it's the sounds of the natural world which make the biggest contribution, there is still a lot of learning to do. An article published late last month in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine even suggests that it is the "7th Pillar of Lifestyle Medicine", an effect that may be particularly powerful on blood pressure and stress levels (as measured by cortisol) for urban residents.

But do you "have to" immerse yourself in the forest to get benefits? Of course not. The list of beneficial effects of moving in almost any way in almost any place is too long to fit into one blog. However, new research out this month adds a cool one that is worthy of mention - movement helps the functional connectivity (loosely defined as "organization of the circuitry") of our brain, even into later life and even in the case of mild impairment. This is not a small thing. We may not be gaining many new neurons as we age (especially if struggling to sleep), but we can stimulate those we have and it's not just puzzles and brain games that help.

If you're not already, it's a great time of year to nudge those moving tissues into action. If you wind up writing an amazing symphony or literary work or taking our understanding of unified field theory to the next level, just tag us in your social media post! :)

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

It Just Works. Even Now: FUEL 2 RECOVER

June 9

As Tuesday came to a close I found myself sitting in the cell phone lot at the Newark (NJ) airport waiting to pick up a family member. Out of seemingly nowhere, the sky got grey and a warm dry wind blew. It was strange like it wanted to be a summer afternoon thunderstorm, but without the temperature drop and dark clouds...it was just grey. Then, the smell said it all. The smoke from the wildfires hundreds of miles North was here...and there...and almost everywhere apparently. It was a new twist, something we hear about but usually don't experience much in the Eastern US and so, a new risk to consider.

Not surprisingly, others were asking similar questions, and the "experts", some qualified and some not, were emerging to answer the question that was on everyone's mind - should we be worried?

The short answer is, we don't conclusively know. Risk is always relative to our personal circumstances and since we could never know all of the factors that play into the calculus, our best bet is to consult the evidence, make an informed guess, and ultimately adapt accordingly. With that in mind, we unleashed the geekdom on the questions we've been asked this week, and here's what we came up with, without any fluff:
 

1. High levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the atmosphere is a known health risk and shouldn't be ignored. 

2. Duration of the exposure matters (a lot) but even short-term exposure adds some risk. 

3. Wildfire-related smoke does bring risk and possibly even more risk than other sources of particulate, but a person's baseline health is critical to any risk assessment.

4. The more vulnerable a person is, the more they are impacted by the particulate from wildfires. One study showed for example that older asthma sufferers struggled more on "smoke days" but the risk for others, including those who were older but didn't have a respiratory illness, was fairly minimal.

5. Since inflammation is a known component of the body's response, "right-sizing" the immune/inflammatory response should factor in. Things that raise our baseline inflammation (like eating inflammation-promoting foods) directly impact how we personally respond. For example, there are known and significant connections between the dietary inflammatory index of our food and respiratory illness, including how a person with asthma reacts after exertion. Eating low inflammatory now and for the days after things resolve may be particularly important.

6. It doesn't end there. Since minimizing our risk is really about maximizing our recovery, especially during sleep, our sleep quality is critical during periods of increased risk...and since both sleep quality and duration are connected to the air we breathe (although "oxidative stress" is a likely culprit, the mechanisms are not fully known), we should work hard now more than ever to protect our sleep.

7. It gets even more important because sleep quality has a major role in our immune function, a system we lean more heavily on with increased exposure to new stressors.

8. Brand new research makes an even stronger case for "FUEL 2 RECOVER". Higher inflammatory eating (especially high sugar, high fat, high process) literally alters our brain activity while we rest, making full recovery from the day-to-day almost impossible.

So what should we DO?

There are many possible approaches. "In" the moment, it's always smart to minimize exposure to whatever extent possible. This is of course, especially true for those who are among the more vulnerable to respiratory or inflammatory conditions. The CDC has more than 20 resources on a page for health professionals HERE, including one really cool tool that tracks air quality and can produce an interactive map. While limiting exposure (staying indoors and considering filtering the air in extreme cases) is often the "go-to" strategy, giving our body the tools to adequately respond without overshooting is key. 

If we boil it all the way down, dialing in immune & inflammatory responses should be among our top priorities - which means FUEL well, especially with foods known to reverse oxidative stress like fruits/veggies.

It's likely we'll have more than a few "smoke days" this summer. The stressor may be new, but the strategies to minimize risk are tried and true. Start there.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

Beat the Heat WITHOUT the Sweet

June 2

It was hot outside over Memorial Day weekend but the family-project-plan said I pulled landscaping duty. No worries, I enjoy both being outside and the feeling of accomplishment after each evolution of the slowly moving but never-quite-there-yet backyard project. As the days wore on and I guzzled more water than I could count to try to stay hydrated, I was faced with the dilemma many of our clients face - what to drink when you need more than water.

For some, it's an "electrolyte dilemma" - how to replace the key salts we lose in sweat so as not to also lose our physical capacities along the way. For others it's a "flavor dilemma" - how to find something that changes the sensory experience; to keep the refreshing, thirst-quenching, and easy-to-process benefits of water while adding a little something to stimulate the taste circuits. For others, including me at the time, it was a "little bit of everything dilemma" - as I was losing enough fluid to dehydrate, was trying to avoid breaks to eat to ensure everything would get done, and therefore was running a little low on fluids and the sugar and salt required to FUEL a long day in the sun.

With that in mind, I opted for one of my favorite flavored vices, something I've consumed "flat" in the later stages of triathlon, in the ice-slurry form after a beach day, and as the occasional mixer-of-choice in various social settings. It's loaded with sodium and sugar per ounce, "hits the bloodstream" fast, and, unfortunate as it might be since I know it's pretty unhealthy, has a flavor that I like - which of course makes me one of many million Americans (around 60% per week it seems). It's no wonder they protect the secret formula so diligently. The problem, of course, is that cola, whether the brand in the red can or any other, wreaks havoc on our health. But how bad is it really? The short answer is, well, at a regular dose, pretty bad. 

 According to a recent "umbrella study" which reviewed more than 8,000 other scientific papers on the subject, regular consumption of "sugary sweetened beverages" (SSB), a category that includes not only soda but fruit drinks, sugary teas, sports drinks, and others, has been tied to diseases impacting several body systems including some that aren't super obvious. While we might expect a negative connection to dental health or blood sugar control, heart disease, and cancer might be more surprising.

Change. For the Better.

It's not all bad news though even when harm has already been done. Another study, also published this year in the British Medical Journal, showed that even in the face of metabolic disease, cutting consumption lowered the risk sharply. After examining the health records and consumption patterns of more than 15,000 people over nearly 20 years, researchers found that people who switched from SSB to healthier options (like water, unsweetened coffee, unsweetened tea, low-fat milk, etc) experienced a very different health trajectory than those who did not make the change; a 20% difference in the risk of dying (all-cause mortality) during the study period, a level that is within or near the range of other major risk-reducers like regular physical activity (20-30% risk reduction) and smoking-cessation after 3 years (22% risk reduction). 

The unofficial summer is here - a time of year when most of us are a little thirstier and might find ourselves looking for more than water. Do yourself a favor and skip the added sugar - the benefits are substantial.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

The SLOW Shift on Back Pain

May 26

Admittedly, it's a pretty geeky thing to be excited about. Admittedly, I'm pretty geeky about this stuff. And so, like a kid looking at a wrapped birthday present, my eyes widened and I eagerly unwrapped the first study of the season using data from the "Global Burden of Disease" effort, a Gates Foundation-funded mega study that works to get a better vantage of the diseases and disorders keeping the world from thriving...and back pain is near the top of the list.

Although staggering in scale, the most recent study, published in the Lancet Rheumatology puts the count at 619 Million people worldwide, a number expected to grow to 843 Million by 2050, those who follow the topic closely aren't too surprised given that statistically, almost everyone will suffer an episode of back pain in their lifetime. The good news is, in the vast majority of cases it behaves like the common cold, with most cases resolving in a few days or weeks. The trouble is, low back pain can also be a bit mysterious. 

So, when we zoom in past the big numbers, what do we know?

First and most importantly, like almost all soft tissue irritations and injuries, many (if not most) cases of back pain are, in fact, preventable since risk factors are something we can impact, and if the total risk is lower than exposure to "load" we will fly under the "pain radar". It's a sliding scale of course, which means those who interface with very high loads during the day/week, have to do more than those who do not, but the principle doesn't change much.

Second and much like preventing other leading disorders/diseases (heart disease, diabetes, etc), there is no single lever that takes away all the risk. The more comprehensive our approach, the better our results.

Where to start: The ELEMENTS

1. MOVE: Exercise - this shouldn't shock anyone. After all, strong and flexible "working tissues" are far more resilient to load than weak and stiff ones. Exercise alone cuts the risk of back pain by 35% and when added with education (especially back pain myth-busting), climbs to nearly 1/2.

2. FUEL: Yep, here too. Not surprisingly, when we take the internal combustibles down (i.e. baseline inflammation levels) things are less likely to catch on fire. Specifically, The Dietary Inflammatory Index (DII), which we covered several weeks ago related to other conditions, has also been linked to pain sensitivity (especially in women), and in a small study, switching to a more plant-based diet (known to lower inflammation) also helped improve pain and function.

3. RECOVER: Giving our bodies a proper chance to rest from the daily grind is a big deal for all of our working parts. But our "postural" (i.e. anti-gravity) systems get a particular boost. It turns out to not only be important, but bidirectional, meaning people who have back pain often don't sleep well AND people who don't sleep well often develop pain.

The bottom line: It's an active process.

The key takeaway (again) on back pain is that although most of us will experience it, if we know what to do when we feel it (and what to avoid), protect ourselves with a healthy lifestyle, and manage our risks, we can prevent it. We couldn't agree more with Manuela Ferreira, the lead author of the latest study who said in a press release: 

"Currently, how we have been responding to back pain has been reactive....we can be proactive and lead by example on back pain prevention."

The best time to start was 25 years ago. The next best time is now.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

The Least Expensive Brain Protection Around

May 19

It's project season. Work tends to ramp up, lawns grow fast, the sun shines longer, and if we're not paying to eliminate them in hopes of that perfect summer playlist, the ads about where doers go to "get more done" start flooding our airspaces. Some people love it, others not so much, but many of us get out there and do it. But the question becomes, are we "doing it right?"...or at the very least, "safely"? as we work to cram as much as possible into the over-stretched time we have.

For me, always feeling somewhere between "over-committed" and "too busy to get it all done" it's the lawn that tests my resolve. It's just so easy to find myself trying to squeeze it in; to rush out to the mower and get started, hoping to knock it out as fast as possible. I have to remind myself no matter how many times I've completed the task that it is still inherently dangerous, that protecting myself by slipping on some safety glasses is worth the few seconds it takes, and that losing my focus or rushing could easily result in serious harm. The good news is, with some planning, it's usually pretty easy to overcome those obvious risks. But what about the less obvious ones? The ones that don't cause immediate harm. Those tend to be the tricky ones, easy to ignore but not without consequences.

The more we learn about brain health the more we realize that protecting our hearing and minimizing the impact of age-related hearing loss has significant value. With a "direct connection" to the brain, our hearing essentially becomes a pathway for the exposures to the outside world to impact, potentially negatively, our brain. In 2019 for example, an association between hearing loss and brain health was established in a population studied. Although the "why?" (the mechanism) has been harder to pin down, the connection is clearly there.

Some experts suggest that when we lose hearing we strain our system (cognitive overload) while trying to hear. Others suggest that the opposite is the case, that when that connection is less than it should be we are depriving the brain of proper stimulation. Still, others point to hearing loss and cognitive decline as "symptoms" of some bigger, common ailment (common cause), while still, others think it could be just a diagnostic overlap since it's hard to perform well on either test (hearing or cognition) without the capacity of the other available. Although growing, the evidence base is far from conclusive.

New research from Korea out this month appears to have taken us 1 step closer. Researchers assessed a variety of advanced images of the brains of individuals with mild cognitive impairment, some with hearing loss and some without. They found that in those with hearing loss, there was a significant decrease in the connectivity of the "salience network" which, as described in an accompanying editorial, helps us "process and integrate sensory stimuli with cognition to direct behavior"...that is, make sense of what is happening around us and help us to react accordingly. 

Although this extra detail may only serve to solidify the connection between hearing loss and cognitive loss, the take-home message seems pretty clear - we should take our hearing seriously and protect it fully and always.

Whether we decide it's the foam inserts for a few cents that are right for us, or the many other varieties that go up in sophistication and cost from there, protecting our hearing is protecting our future brain and if now is a time of year when exposure goes up, it's a great time to add some extra layers of protection.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

Build Reserves, It's Worth It

May 12

I recently listened to a podcaster with a neurology background who helped make perfect sense out of a very complex, but no less consistent and reliable idea. He said (paraphrasing) "So much of our brain's structure is dedicated to our ability to move that it shouldn't surprise us that our movement in turn tells us a lot about the health of our brain and nervous system." It was a great idea that efficiently explained a lot of the "why" behind a phrase we've been using for years:

Movement is a window into future health.

So simple, so true, and thanks to a team in Australia who published their findings on movement and (dementia-related) cognitive decline with age, showing that the inability to get up out of a chair, walk 10 feet, turn around/walk back and sit down quickly, along with grip strength, more than doubled the risk of future cognitive decline, ever-growing in its evidence base.

We've known for a while that complex, whole-body movements (like getting to and from the floor), as well as measures of aerobic power (e.g. climbing stairs), have predictive value in regard to our health. They join things like "gait speed" (how fast you can walk a specified distance) which was shown to have a very clear association with cardiovascular disease and premature death and strength tests to give us an idea of how much "functional reserve" we have...that is, how close to our body's threshold we are living day to day and whether we have a little extra if needed.

Maybe not surprisingly, having more reserve predicts our ability to recover from an injury or other setback, especially as we age, something we will all go through at one point or another. The trouble is, we often don't start paying attention to these factors UNTIL we age - which, like starting a retirement plan in old age, is likely a big mistake since (1) it gets harder and harder to build reserves as the years go by (2) even in childhood the trajectory is visible and may lead to a less than ideal future if not altered.

So the question becomes - how can we know where we stand and whether we are living too close to our threshold? Is there a way to know if we'll have enough "assets in our health retirement plan" when we need them?

The answer is yes and the list of tests is almost endless. If you haven't had a movement & fitness assessment in a while (or ever) with our team - this is probably the easiest place to start. If you're more of a "DIY" type - make a point to test a few of the critical movements mentioned above annually - think of it as a birthday gift to yourself. Or, if you want something you can track more regularly, something that can possibly act as a motivation to get out there and improve, consider daily fatigue, globally your energy levels at the beginning and end of the day, and your sleep quality which predicts performance even in elite military environments or by taking this survey, which creates a reliable fatigue score.

If you feel tired when you wake up and/or totally wiped out on most days, you are likely living very close to your threshold, something which can (and probably should) be improved.


It's not easy to build reserves. By definition, it requires an "extra" investment of time and energy and therefore a motivation to do more that isn't always easy to muster. To do it without risking injury or illness it has to be ramped up appropriately.

It is however worth it, and we can help. We're ready when you are.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

Better With Age

May 5

It was many years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I was standing in front of a large group, giving a presentation when one of the most common phrases in occupational health and safety was said by one of the leaders in the group: “We want you to go home like you came in today“, a simple concept that everyone can generally agree on and usually captures the primary goal; that no one should go to work and experience a functional loss because of some kind of injury or incident.

Then, a minute or so after it was said, one courageous hand was raised in the audience. Bryan, a guy I had gotten to know and earn respect for, said something that stuck with me: “I don’t think that’s good enough. I think we should look for ways to go home better than we came in.” 

It was a great sentiment, that work was not something that necessarily had to take something from us in exchange for a paycheck, but when done right, could give us far more. It wasn’t a denial that hard work comes with risks, but rather that every situation we find ourselves in presents us an opportunity to grow and that “work” could be more than a given day’s bundle of tasks, but something that adds to our development, provides us personal purpose and even adds to our fulfillment by challenging us to achieve.

The tricky part with the idea however was that zoomed out, it seems to go against the natural progression, the fact that over the course of time and especially during our working years, we lose function and decline if we “let nature take its course”; a dislikable fact, but a fact nonetheless.

 With that in mind, when I saw an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) this week that pointed to actual improvements in function after mid-life, I stopped to read more. Rather than slowing the decline or even maintaining, that is, going home as we came in, this article seemed to suggest some of us could actually get better over time and that certain factors and behaviors increase the odds.

Now before the headline sounds too sensational, it was a small percentage of the group, so a relatively rare but no less meaningful occurrence and in the strictest sense may be reserved for women, as the study sample included no men. However, the improvements in physical functioning (a subset of a well-known quality of life measure known as the SF-36) were undeniable.

 What were the factors that increased the odds? 

There were 4:

Physical activity (17%)

Healthy Joints (42%)

Good Sleep (43%)

Financial Health (73%)

——

It can be done. We can get BETTER as we age. It’s a perfect time to start.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

The Stack and the spectrum

Apr 28

We've spent a fair amount of time discussing the connection between how our bodies make and use energy from our food (metabolism) and its relationship to the risks we face because it is one of the major roots that will determine whether we flounder or flourish. Just last week we talked about the connection between diet quality and movement-related pain, in this case knee arthritis, and many times in many different ways we've touched on the benefits of efficiently utilizing the energy we put in. One of the most common and challenging examples of the accumulated harm associated with inefficient or ineffective metabolic systems is Diabetes type 2, something an estimated 130+ million Americans are currently struggling with in its diagnosable or pre-clinical (prediabetes) form. While avoiding the condition outright is ideal, the complications associated with poorly controlled metabolic disease, which include problems with sensation, vision, balance, heart function, brain function, tissue stiffness, pain, sexual dysfunction, and even occupational injury can be so extreme that controlling or reversing the disease is a major priority.

So, whether we are a person who has some of the early signs of an inefficient system but no discernable disease (e.g. belly fat), one end of the spectrum, or are actively exploring the best strategy to reverse the disease and its complications, the other end of the spectrum, how should we go about it?

New research out this year from teams in Canada and China suggests that the answer is simple (but not easy): Stack a few power habits; 2 in the early stages, and 5 further down the spectrum.

The first study looked at 265 people who were either prediabetic (81) or had been diagnosed (184) who agreed to participate in a 2 pronged, 2-year lifestyle intervention (Nutritional counseling that focused on a moderate carbohydrate Mediterranean diet and physical activity that included both fitness and strength). They found that around 1 in every 4 participants (24%) who started in the prediabetic range fully reversed their risk. Stunningly a few in the diabetic range were also able to entirely reverse the condition, about 5%, however, it was more common (as expected) for those who started with the disease to partially reverse it, about 40%.

Around the same time, a dive into the UK Biobank data showed that when individuals diagnosed with the disease adopted healthy habits, they too were able to prevent future problems, in this case, the small vessel disease that seems to drive the heavy-hitting complications mentioned above. Those who turned even 1 of 5 studied healthy habits into a consistent part of their life had an effect, however, and perhaps not surprisingly, those who figured out how to consistently stack 4 or all 5 (in order of impact: moderated alcohol, minimized belly fat, regular physical activity, avoiding tobacco products and maintaining a healthy diet), did the best.

One of the greatest things about being human is that we are so adaptable. There are times when our health fails us, but most of the time, if we change the actions we can change the outcomes; a worthy investment.


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

FUEL Quality and knee pain

Apr 21

Most people over the age of 18 likely know what the word "octane" means. They may not know the exact definition, or that it refers to the fuel's stability, but if they've ever put a petroleum product into a vehicle, it's likely they know that "higher means more expensive" and "most cars run on regular". Wouldn't it be convenient if we had a similar scoring system for the FUEL we use? The public health community thought so too.

After an initial attempt in 2009 was updated in 2014 by a team from South Carolina, the framework was ready. Called the "dietary inflammatory index" (DII), it was an attempt to show that despite our impressive ability to convert just about anything into usable energy, every combination comes with a cost. Not unlike other fuels we use every day, some, as measured by the inflammation spike after consuming them, burn cleaner than others. In particular, foods with high saturated or trans fat content are "pro-inflammatory" (spike inflammation) while those naturally high in fiber, polyphenols, and vitamins (aka plants) are low or even anti-inflammatory. Since that time, hundreds of studies have explored whether the index predicts disease, and for several (heart disease, cancer, and even other inflammatory conditions like asthma and daily pain), the answer is yes.

Of course, at Pro-Activity the relationship with joint pain is particularly important since it can be a risk factor that stops us from work, sport, training, and countless other life functions. So when we saw a recent systematic review of the connection between dietary inflammation and knee osteoarthritis (OA), it caught our eye.

The key points are simple enough:

1 - after screening thousands of studies and finding 6 that met the quality standard, there was a significant connection between diet and knee OA pain. 

2 - the Prudent Diet (low in saturated/trans fat, low in processed items, high in fiber, lean meats) and the Mediterranean Diet both slowed the progression of knee OA while the "Western Diet" (highly refined/processed, low in fruits/veggies/whole grains, etc; comparison here) accelerated it.

3 - the results are promising and, given the many other diseases that dietary inflammation is connected to likely worth acting on, but more research is needed.

In the most practical terms, healthy FUEL for most of us continues to be "more and/or less":

More: Foods that are naturally high in nutrients, low in calories, and high in fiber (aka plants) and as close to their natural state as possible - too many studies to include.

Less: Hyper-palatable (high saturated fat, sugar, and/or salt) foods and "food-like" creations (ultra-processed) - review here.

 There's no need to complicate it: FUEL Good to Feel Good. 

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

2 for toughness: our models matter

Apr 14

If you were building a championship-caliber team (in almost any endeavor) you'd probably want them to be tough in the face of challenges; that is, to be resilient to the stress they face and somehow still perform at their best. This may sound like something from the movies led by a macho, cigar-chomping, and fearless type who just seems born for the moment, but it turns out that's not the case as the growing body of research on the topic has once again shown.

First, let's start with a new brain development that sets the stage - a group of researchers has found that there may be an actual structure responsible for whether we are resilient to stress or sends us down the path of distress and despair. They found that similar to humans, within the brain of their mouse subjects there is a bundle of nerves called the arcuate nucleus (ARC) which has two smaller "sub bundles" with differing functions. Bundle 1 acts as the depression/despair circuit; when it is turned on, the mice lost interest in many of the things that demonstrate thriving (eating, moving, etc). Bundle 2 had the opposite effect, when it was "on" the mice demonstrated thriving. Here's where it got interesting - as the researchers expected and due in part to the plasticity of the nervous system...sometimes encapsulated by the phrase "practice makes permanent", repeated exposure (10 days of unpredictable stress), made it far easier for the mice to get "stuck" in a circuit 1 (toxic) loop. It was only when the researchers activated circuit 2 that they were able to override and, in a sense, "reset" the nervous system of the mice. This begs the question - if our brains function anything like this and, whether at work or home, it's likely we will all experience potentially harmful levels of stress at some point, how do we activate circuit 2 and guard ourselves against it? How do we build the capacity to ENDURE? Which brings us back to toughness.

Although we don't have definitive proof (yet) that individuals with high mental toughness are skilled at activating circuit 2, we do know that by definition, possessing "the psychological attribute that allows one to remain confident and determined and maximize one's performance even in challenging situations (Jones et al., 2002)", aligns well. As it turns out, this too can be learned, it is particularly important in our early working years (18-25 years old) and is far more likely when we have the right models and social environment to do so. Building on the social contagion theory, which is one way of explaining how behaviors and norms spread through groups, new research showed that mental toughness was both passed down in families, mentally tough parents had mentally tough kids, and bolstered when "cohesion", a strong devotion to the group and members' success, was high and predicted future mental health and well-being.

Of course, since we also know that social contagion is not limited to families and has been seen in peers, friends, teachers & students, coaches & athletes, and more, this finding could be important in any learning environment where we spend significant amounts of time. Said another way: 

1 - Leaders who model and demonstrate resilience in the face of stress are likely to pass this on to those who come behind them and 

2 - The few who do so with a strong "team before self" commitment, will enjoy accelerated achievement. 

Who are we watching? And who's watching us?

Whether leading a family, coaching in the community, or mentoring in the field - our models matter - at times more than we realize.


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

from "does it?" to "dose it!"

Apr 7

The calendar says it officially happens in late March, but in my zip code, Spring seemed to arrive this week. Bursts of pink, yellow, and white broke through the grey and brown backdrop of leafless trees, the air felt warm, the sun felt strong and the bees were back to work; a great time of year.

For me, Spring always brings a little bump in motivation to MOVE. To get outside, get started on a project, or find a path that I haven't walked in a while and stretch things out a bit. Of course it also forces me to face the reality, usually amidst some unwelcomed huffing and puffing, that my natural tendency to move a little less and eat a little more over the winter has had an impact...an awareness I don't love but makes turning the little bump of motivation into action a reason to challenge myself to get closer to where I want to be.

Over the last couple of years, I've invited others to join this challenge. On the first day of Spring, I invite people to jump in, a few do, and away we go. This year around a dozen folks decided to play along, this time working to progressively "stack" 10 relatively simple healthy habits (like drinking 40 ounces of water per day or moving at least 1 minute every hour) into a powerful bundle over a month. Some have already started to see some benefits, an amazing example of how quickly our systems can adapt - new stimulus, new response.

It begs the question - exactly how little do we need to see a change? How easy could a significant risk reduction be if we did a little bit consistently?

In a sense, this is the question that has been coming to the forefront of the research on preventative health actions ("lifestyle change") in recent years; less about "does this work?" and more about "what dose is required?" - and we've learned a ton.

Although only 1 avenue of many, when it comes to physical activity we are getting closer and closer to dialing in the dose not only for specific conditions but also for general health, vitality, and longevity. If we had to sum it all up in a few words, we might say "more is more, but a little is way more than you might think." Getting over the growing inertia of an increasingly sedentary world pays handsome dividends, most of the benefit comes in the very first few minutes. New research over the last few weeks confirms this.

First, out in late February this year, a great study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that as little as 11 minutes per day of movement which might be classified as "hard enough to break a sweat" was enough to prevent nearly 16% of premature deaths, whether from the two most common killers (heart disease and cancer) or for any cause. Technically speaking, 8-10 marginal MET hours per week, which, on average, means moving at an intensity that is harder than yard work (6 METS) but easier than running (9+ METS) for a little more than an hour per week had major impacts. A little bit goes a long way.

 Then, last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, another interesting twist on essentially the same theme, emerged. A preventative benefit started at a relatively low level and didn't even require a daily effort. In this case, the metric studied was the number of days per week a person hit the 8,000 steps per day mark, a known risk-lowering threshold. As it turned out, a significant risk reduction (around 15% which is most of the maximum +/- 20% expected) was gained in as little as 1-2 days per week of hitting 8,000 daily steps. Hope for the weekend warriors!

There's always more to learn, but one thing seems increasingly clear - for most people, more is better, but for almost everyone, something on the MOVE is immeasurably more than nothing. 


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

The Dashboard Glow and the Co-Pilot

Mar 31

I've never flown a plane. Despite hearing that it's really not so complicated, even from my then 12-year-old son who went up with an instructor, I have a hard time seeing past the momentary glimpse into the cockpit when boarding. It takes no longer than that split second for me to register a mental "yikes" when considering all those colors and lights and screens and switches. Seems pretty complicated to me, something that deserves more than the brief "thank-you" to the pilot and crew when I get off safely. In some ways, I imagine this is what some people must feel like when health or safety professionals throw out numbers, stats, and measures of risk...lots of indicators, but maybe hard to make sense of.

For those who want to fly on their own, we try to make it simple - the odds of any daily event, let's call it an output, happening ("a good day") or not happening (an incident, injury, illness or disease onset) is directly impacted by the inputs, such as the actions we take on that day or in the time leading up to it. An obvious example is seatbelt use. The odds of serious harm in a motor vehicle accident are cut roughly in 1/2 by the simple act of buckling up; simple and direct, cause & effect. Like a 12-year-old handling a plane...that is already in flight, with an instructor, under perfect conditions. Yet, we are human, and we live in a world filled with other humans, which means it's never quite so simple.

We've written about complexity here many times before. We've talked about non-linear effects, where some of a particular thing could be good, but too much of that same thing could be not so good ("goldilocks phenomenon"). We've talked about contextual factors, those things, often in the periphery of our lives and possibly out of our direct control, that impact the conditions and therefore likelihood for an event; in a sense, the "environment", which can dramatically change the total risk. If we are zoomed into our own lives we might miss them and make really poor judgments. It's probably reasonable to assume for example that, under different conditions, a "smoke bomb gender reveal", personal opinions aside, wouldn't have resulted in the loss of life - but in Southern California, at the end of the summer, it seems like some important context was missing. 

This week, we have more evidence that can both help us understand our complex internal conditions and assess whether they too if we lose sight of them, are ripe for a catastrophic event, as well as reassurance on what simple strategies work to keep us on the right side of the risks we face.

Here are the important bits:

First - after tracking more than 2,000 for nearly three decades, the main takeaway is once again clear - dying prematurely of heart disease is something men can sharply reduce the odds of. Although we suspect the same result would be true for women, this study was a limited sample and unfortunately only included men.

Next - the risks we face are complex, interdependent, and sometimes compound with each other making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. This means that although elevated blood pressure (a 39% average increased risk) and poor fitness (a 74% average increased risk) each negatively impact our odds, combined they have an even larger impact. In this case, 1 risk + 1 risk doesn't equal 2 risks, but rather 39% increase + 74% increase actually = 235% increase, despite the math.

Last - if the causes are complex, it shouldn't surprise us that the effects are too. Even though poor fitness as a stand-alone had, statistically speaking, almost twice the impact of elevated blood pressure, it did NOT fully eliminate the risk when fitness was good. The group that was both fit AND had normal blood pressure did the best, followed by the group that had high fitness but also high blood pressure, followed by the group that had normal blood pressure but poor fitness, followed last by the group that had both risks, who was more than twice as likely to die of heart disease during the study period.

What's the punchline?

Well, if you're the type that wants to get in there, grab your flight by the controls, fitness works...really, really well, but it won't fix everything. With that in mind, even if you're a dedicated mover, check your blood pressure now and again, more often if it's elevated, and consider the compounding effects of all those other inputs (like sleep, consuming high-fiber foods, time away from screens or in nature, close friendships, etc) can have. On the other hand, if this all feels a bit like me glimpsing into the cockpit, no worries, we're happy to help you safely navigate from point A to point B and keep an eye on the dash if life feels a bit too turbulent to take your eyes off the horizon right now. Reach out anytime.


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

Giving, Moving, and Smiling: Power Habits

 Mar 24

Let's get right to the punchline this week. It's Finland for the win, again. If you missed last week's blog, I mentioned that the world's happiest nation (ranked 1 amongst countries by the World Happiness Report [WHR] for the last 5 years), a health turnaround story from the '70s would once again be put to the test. Well, although Denmark made a run at the title, let's just say there were no bracket-busters in this version of March Madness. This of course leaves me with some questions.

How are they doing it? Why aren't we higher on the list (currently the US is 15th despite Americans being largely satisfied)? How does this information boil down from the societal level to us as individuals? What can we take from the research this year and use?

In fairness, like I did last year around this time, summarizing 166 pages of content in a few hundred words leaves more out than in, but there seem to be some gems worth knowing about.

First, in order to understand what "happiness" (more accurately "subjective well-being") entails, it's important to understand the factors that add up to the happiness score, there are 6.

1. Financial Health (measured by gross domestic product per person)

2. Social Support (measured by the number of people who truly have our back, that is, we can call on in times of trouble, no matter what)

3. Healthy Life Expectancy (not just how long we live, but how long we'll fully function)

4. Freedom to make Choices (aka "autonomy" and "agency")

5. Generosity (aka "prosocial behaviors" like how often we give to charity or invest in our community)

6. Perception of Corruption (our belief in the trustworthiness of our institutions, especially government) 

While I find it fascinating how well these 6 factors seem to align with the 5 ELEMENTS we so often tout, they also track closely with Maslow's first version of the famed "hierarchy of human needs". Similar to his theory that humans fulfill the first 4 needs in that pyramid (basic health, safety, belonging, esteem) in order to "level up" to the 5th (thriving), the logic behind the WHR scoring appears to show that happiness is not something we are born with, but something that can be achieved when BOTH (a) our basic needs are met and (b) we are doing good things in a free and just environment. If this is true it stands to reason then that working on ANY of the gaps can help. Yet, as is the case in so many areas that touch our ability to live healthily and thrive, there appear to be 2 especially long levers, something that is supported in the latest research.

The first comes as no shock to anyone who reads this blog - MOVE. Earlier this year a team of researchers in Australia reviewed more than 1000 studies involving nearly 140,000 people and found that movement, in the form of exercise, was the most consistently potent strategy for improving anxiety, depression, and distress (which by definition factor into happiness and is captured in WHR item 2, Healthy Life Expectancy). While high-intensity bursts seemed to have the greatest potential and there were specific subsets of people who enjoyed an even better than average effect, the main takeaway was: exercise worked better than traditional care (medication + counseling) for more people, more consistently.

The second comes from deep within the 2023 WHR and lives squarely in their 5th area: Generosity where a new wrinkle on the "golden rule" seems to be proving itself. While "doing unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a version I'm most familiar with... the 2020 evidence from a University of Texas and University of Chicago research partnership on happiness seems to suggest there's more benefit than the satisfaction we get for doing the right thing. When "random acts of kindness" were tested, the giver felt happy, the receiver felt happy (more than expected) AND like positive social contagion, it was far more likely to spread. 

When we ask people who are committed to health and safety why they put in the time and effort in one way or another the answer is clear: My paycheck pays the bills, but I really work for ____________. That blank is always very colorful and almost always said with a smile. In one way or another, we all work for happiness. If we pull these levers we can get there sooner.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

Purple Power!

 Mar 17

I'm not shy about the professional crush I have on Finland for their epic disease reversal story which started in the 1970s, an 80+% reduction in cardiovascular disease risk. I figure if you can take a nation from "worst to first", from incredibly high likelihood to having life cut short due to preventable disease in the 70s to, according to the World Happiness Report, the happiest nation on earth in 2022 (and many of the years since the report was first published in 2012), you're doing many things right. Although we won't know until next week if they retain the title again in 2023, as the report is scheduled for release on Monday, it's fair to say that when I see a study on injury/illness/disease prevention coming from the labs and universities there, I pay attention; this time, it was related to Diabetes.

Thankfully, the US doesn't need a worst-to-first type performance in this case and by global standards. According to rankings built on data from the International Diabetes Foundation and the World Bank, we're somewhere around 50 on the list of countries and territories by prevalence (percentage of the population with the condition). Of course, given the size of our population, that still translates to 130+ million Americans who either manage the disease (38 M) or are in the pre-diabetes progression (96 M), the highest risk category of developing the disease, which negatively impacts every tissue in the body, very much including the moving parts like muscles, joints, and connective tissue where nearly 3 of every 5 also have musculoskeletal disorders. 

So what have they learned in Finland? In short, and when it comes to Diabetes, it may be that purple is the new blue...or at the very least "Purple for Prevention."

 One of the really cool details in the Finland health-turnaround story of the 70s was that they had the right conditions to grow berries - lots and lots of berries, with special emphasis on strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries. For those that follow this blog, you know we hold those blueberries in high regard. They are packed with anthocyanin (a plant phenol that gives the berry its blue color) which has been shown to have positive impacts on inflammation and therefore, not surprisingly, conditions with a significant inflammation component including heart disease, arthritis, and, yes, even Diabetes.  

Early this year, and thanks to a research team about 2 hours West of the capital of Finland, our understanding has gotten even more nuanced. In a very detailed review, they showed that acylated anthocyanin (a slightly more stable kind that gets through the stomach and deep into the intestines/colon before its relative magic is unlocked by the gut bacteria there) which is found abundantly in purple grapes (concord) and purple sweet potatoes may have an even more impressive impact. The review cites countless studies that have shown this impact for a variety of reasons from blood sugar lowering to inflammation impact. Pretty impressive stuff and more evidence of how much we can do to lower the risks we face.

It's almost gardening season. If you've got a green thumb, save some space for purple.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

It's Not Just for Heart Attacks Anymore

Mar 10

We call them the ELEMENTS; those fundamental health-related power habits that lie at the roots of human thriving. We've been talking about them for years, decades even, but it still never ceases to amaze me how interrelated they prove to be. They don't come with complex rules per se, and there aren't many of those when it comes to the human experience, but for those who balance them well, the odds of living a long and high-quality life are both consistently and significantly better. 

This time of year makes it particularly obvious. This weekend many of us will once again subject ourselves to a long-running "natural experiment" where we abruptly cut one of these power habits and face the possibility of rather grim results of doing so, a nearly 25% increase in cardiac events the following day. Yes, "Spring Ahead" and the associated sleep loss brings some risk if we don't respect it, but it also presents a great time to talk about the other side of the coin, how much we can gain if we do. 

Good sleep not only boosts our immune system and reduces our risk of emotional burnout, but it also improves our capacity to learn and perform cognitive tasks. But that's not all. New research presented at the American Heart Association Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle & Cardiometabolic Health Scientific Sessions 2023 showed that it also increases the likelihood that we will stick with other healthy habits. A team from the University of Pittsburgh built on previous research which showed that individuals with healthier sleep patterns were more likely to lose weight and body fat than those with irregular or lower quality sleep to show that good sleep was also associated with a higher likelihood of sticking to diet and exercise programs.

Although it may still seem a bit of a chicken and egg - should we eat better and exercise to improve sleep or focus on better sleep to help ourselves eat better and exercise? The answer seems to be "YES". RECOVER matters and our principal way of ensuring it is good to sleep. Protect it.


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

Aging Slower

Mar 3

If history is correct, as far back as the 5th Century BC, ancient Greek historian Herodutus wrote of a mysterious pool of water in Africa that was responsible for the extended lifespan of a nearby tribe. Since then and across many centuries, whether a river, pool, or fountain, similar legends about life-giving springs that restore youth have persisted. On the surface it seems like it'd be a worthy pursuit if nothing else, a means to provide more time to learn and benefit from the inevitable mistakes made in actual youth. Such a thing might even make the famous Shaw quote, "youth is wasted on the young," a lot less relevant than it often seems.

But is it even possible to delay aging? Could 90 become the new 50? Or is this more smoke and mirrors than science?

Not surprisingly, this is the source of both debates and some very serious science. The Methuselah Foundation for example (originally the Performance Prize Society and rebranded to share a name with the most well-known super-ager of all time) whose mission actually is "to make 90 the new 50 by 2030," gives a substantial monetary prize to research teams who break the record for longevity in lab-mice in hopes to learn from the work. Although no actual fountain of youth has been found, researchers have recently started to more convincingly show that biological aging, which considers how our cells function and markings on our DNA (rather than solely our chronological age in years) might actually be malleable - something that can be accelerated or decelerated.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the same habits that are known to prevent, delay, or reverse many diseases associated with age (MOVE, FUEL, RECOVER) also seem to slow biological aging. However, as these habits are hard to regulate and study in a lab, the results are often "promising but not definitive." This month, however, a team led by researchers at Columbia University made a major step. Published in Nature Aging, the results of a two-year randomized controlled trial (often regarded as the "gold standard" of interventional science) showed that markers of biological aging (DNA Methylation) could, in fact, be slowed.

What was the intervention? Simple calorie restriction.

The team recruited 130 participants who were placed on 25% fewer calories per day for two years as well as a control group who ate normally. Not surprisingly the restricted group lost some weight and had some other cardiometabolic health markers improve. However, the really impressive stuff was in their DNA, where the rate of aging slowed considerably...not unlike some of the earliest winners in the mouse-longevity contest years before or many other studies on worms, insects, and non-human primates which have shown similar results.

The idea is simple - burning FUEL (metabolism) is one of many stresses on our system and results in the signs of aging in our cells. Improving the quality or reducing the quantity can both lessen this burden.

There's certainly more to come.


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

Part 2 - Less is More

Feb 24

In case you missed it, last week we poked at the idea of a "threshold dose" - the amount of exposure to any one thing that is beyond our capacity to safely absorb and therefore begins the transition to "harmful". We used alcohol as an example because it is both a common exposure (about half of American adults consume it regularly) and an evolving topic, with authorities like the World Health Organization leading the charge to move away from a "moderation" message, which may have seemed appropriate if the primary goal was avoiding liver-disease (like cirrhosis) or possibly addiction, and toward one that considers a broader range of risks (such as cancer, gut-health, sleep-health, etc) and ultimately concludes "there is no safe amount".  

But is alcohol the only common risk factor that is getting a threshold update? 

Although few are getting quite as significant a messaging makeover as alcohol, there are always new findings emerging that help to dial in our understanding of where the risk threshold exists. For example, by 2004 when the unscientific (and sometimes criticized) documentary Super Size Me was released, it was probably fair to assume most people already knew that eating fast-food 3 times per day wouldn't do good things to our health. It's probably equally reasonable to assume that by the time this 2011 study was published, most people weren't surprised that the more frequently a person consumed fast food the more likely they were to be overweight. On the other hand, the link between fast-food consumption and other, less obvious conditions like asthma (as linked in this 2018 study) or even self-harm (as linked in this 2020 study) beg us to dive deeper and ask what types of reactions these foods are triggering. It's possible that like alcohol, as found in this 2021 study, consuming fast foods can foster a higher-inflammatory environment in the gut which sets off a series of reactions throughout the body. The odds of having back pain, for example, are higher in those with poorer diet quality.

Although we are not nearly as clear in our understanding of the risk threshold, new research from a team at the University of Southern California may help point the way. As it turns out, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, an increasingly common (1 in 4 adults globally) and even life-threatening condition which is marked by having fatty deposits around the liver was far more likely when individuals consumed more than 20% of their daily calories in the form of fast-food. The risk was particularly significant in those individuals managing diabetes or obesity, but still present in otherwise healthy individuals of normal weight. In plain English, this means that if even one meal per day is fast-food, we are likely beyond the risk threshold.

It's not a closed case. We will almost certainly learn more over the next months or years and the message will continue to evolve. Until then it seems safe to conclude that when it comes to the relationship between our health and the drive-thru or kiosk, "less is more".


Have a great weekend,

Mike E.

How Much is Too Much? Part 1

Feb 17

Hormesis. Such a cool idea - something that is toxic, in small enough doses, can be beneficial; a challenge to come back better, a stimulus for growth. In a sense, this is the proper term for the well-known phrase "that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger" - which although not universally applicable, is something we can find evidence of all around us. The most obvious example might be handling heavy objects. If we choose something way too heavy we could be crushed. Yet, if we choose something heavy "enough" to represent a near maximum but still successful effort, we call it resistance training, something almost everyone should be doing multiple times per week. There are of course other, less obvious, examples as well. We don't typically think of the Oxygen we breathe as a "bad" thing, but ask any scuba diver if the concentration of O2 matters, and you might get a lecture on central nervous system toxicity, the result of violating that "sweet spot" for too high a concentration of this otherwise life-sustaining gas.

For a while we thought that alcohol consumption followed a similar pattern - a little (such as 1-2 drinks per day) seemed to provide benefit, something of a challenge to our system, even though a lot was well-known to be harmful. In 1997 for example, a study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine showed a 30-40% benefit related to cardiovascular disease in men and women who consumed 1 drink per day. A similar study replicated in Japan in 2005 showed similar patterns of benefit, between 12-20% in those who consumed 1-2 drinks per day, which for a long time was synonymous with "moderation" and generally considered to be an otherwise "safe" limit.

In the last 10 years, though, the messaging has begun to change as evidence continues to mount. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now takes a more cautious tone noting that a growing body of research points to risk worthy of pause, especially as it relates to cancer, at far lower doses, including "less than one drink". For someone like me, who enjoys a good beer, a glass of red wine, or something mixed now and then, this has all come as mostly unwelcomed news; something I didn't want to believe, a stage of change labeled "pre-contemplation", that is, the very very early stage when we're not-yet-even thinking about making a change...or more commonly referred to as denial.