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Bodyweight exercises – they may be “old school” but they’re still the best!

An article on the BBC News website caught my attention this weekend, “Short bursts of intense exercise ‘better for weight loss‘”. The article went on to quote Dr Michael Moseley (whose articles I often feature in this blog), “In 2012, I tested three lots of 20-second high intensity workouts on an exercise bike, three times a week. My insulin sensitivity improved by 24%. In the programme, we again saw very impressive results with younger, unfit people …”

Committed Metafit fans will know that just three sessions of this HIIT workout a week can effect similar impressive changes to your body over a short space of time, using just simple core and bodyweight exercises. So what is it about these that make them so effective?

What are bodyweight exercises?

They are strength training exercises that use your own body’s weight to provide resistance against gravity. Bodyweight exercises can enhance a range of abilities including strength, power, endurance, speed, flexibility, coordination and balance. Exercises that use pushing, pulling, squatting, bending, twisting and balancing, such as press ups, burpees and squat thrusts are common bodyweight exercises. Those of you who are old enough to remember the “Superstars” programmes of the 70s and 80s will no doubt remember the infamous gym challenges involving squat thrusts and the parallel bar dips – two examples of tough but effective bodyweight exercises.

Did you know? One of the best things about bodyweight exercises is that you can do them in your own home as no other equipment is required.

What are the best bodyweight exercises?

There are many variations on standard bodyweight exercises, many of which we use in our metafit workouts, often introducing a jump or lateral movement to make the move more plyometric and harder, but the core group of exercises remains the same. Here’s “Mr Metafit” himself demonstrating just how some of these should be performed:

Squats and squat jumps. This exercise works all of the muscles in the lower body including the quads, glutes and hamstrings. It also provides an extra kick for the core as you need your deep abdominal muscles and back to keep your torso upright and perform this exercise correctly.

Press-ups. Working all the muscles in the lower body including the quads, glutes and hamstrings whilst also providing an extra kick for your core strength. Metafit press-ups use the full range of movement – your chest should touch the floor as shown below. It’s perfectly acceptable to drop to your knees to perform this move, just ensure you are still using the full range of movement to be effective.

Burpees. Yes, our favourite exercise! Combining cardio and strength into one, the burpee is a complex, total-body exercise that will work your upper and lower body at the same time with a strong focus on the core. (That’s why we love them so much!). Adding a tuck jump at the end makes the move more plyometric and even tougher!

Squat thrusts. Similar in many ways to a shortened burpee without the final jump phase, this tough and oft hated exercise (I wonder why?!) is a good all-body move, concentrating primarily on your hamstrings, quadriceps and glutes. This exercise is often poorly performed so it’s important to work on correcting your technique to ensure you gain the maximum benefit.

Lunges and lunge jumps. Again, often incorrectly performed, a true lunge should take the back leg to a 90° position, just off the floor. It targets the quadriceps and the glutes most intensely, but also hits the hamstrings, calves and core. Technique is important here as poorly performed lunges can lead to injury. Stepping lunges are just as beneficial if you prefer to take out the jump or if you have knee issues.

Mountain climbers. This exercise combines the difficulty of a plank with deep core stabilisation and alternating knee drives towards your chest. It benefits muscular and cardiovascular fitness by increasing strength, flexibility and blood circulation. Mountain climbers require you to engage your upper arm muscles, as well as your core and your legs.

Extended plank hold and plank variation. One of the best exercises for core conditioning, improving posture, supporting your back, enhancing overall movement and co-ordination and toning your abdominals. In addition to standard planks in Metafit, we also use “hot hands” and “pomel jumps” as great and effective variations on this core exercise.

Hot hands. With a strong core, you should be able to perform these as still and as SLOWLY as possible, almost like you are in slow-motion. This exercise is actually much tougher than it looks, and if your core isn’t strong you will find you tend to rotate throughout the body, particularly the hips, when you lift your hands – this is what you must aim to try and avoid.

Important Footnote:
It goes without saying that good technique is imperative to complete all these exercises well - it will not only help to prevent any injury or issues developing but also ensure you gain the maximum benefit from the exercise. There is no substitution for performing these exercises under the guidance of a qualified instructor - it's almost impossible for a beginner to be aware of their technique without proper instruction and correction.

Want to find out more and experience the whole range of bodyweight exercises? Why not come and join us for a Metafit session and discover how just 25 minutes can change the way you think about exercise? It could also change your life!

Fibre – the latest “superfood”

Fibre – yes I know, it’s not the most exciting thing in the world but a major study has been investigating how much fibre we really need to be eating and has found there are huge health benefits when we eat more.

  • It reduces the chances of debilitating heart attacks and strokes as well as life-long diseases such as type-2 diabetes.
  • It helps keep your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels down.
  • It’s cheap and widely available in the supermarket.
  • It makes us feel fuller and can help digestion and prevent constipation.

The researchers for this study, based at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, and the University of Dundee say people should be eating a minimum of 25g of fibre per day. “The evidence is now overwhelming and this is a game-changer that people have to start doing something about it,” one of the researchers, Professor John Cummings, has told BBC News.

The NHS recommends we should increase our fibre intake to 30g a day as part of a healthy balanced diet. So what does 30g of fibre actually mean?

To increase your fibre intake you could:

  • Choose a higher-fibre breakfast cereal such as plain wholewheat biscuits (like Weetabix) or plain shredded whole grain (like Shredded wheat), or porridge as oats are also a good source of fibre.
  • Go for wholemeal or granary breads, or higher fibre white bread, and choose wholegrains like wholewheat pasta, bulgur wheat or brown rice.
  • Go for potatoes with their skins on, such as a baked potato or boiled new potatoes.
  • Add pulses and legumes such as beans, lentils or chickpeas to stews, soups, curries and salads.
  • Include plenty of vegetables with meals, either as a side dish or added to sauces, stews or curries.
  • Have some fresh or dried fruit, or fruit canned in natural juice for dessert. Because dried fruit is sticky, it can increase the risk of tooth decay, so it’s better if it is only eaten as part of a meal, rather than as a between-meal snack.
  • For snacks, try fresh fruit, vegetable sticks, rye crackers, oatcakes and unsalted nuts or seeds.

Did you know? A small handful of nuts can have up to 3g of fibre. Always choose unsalted nuts, such as plain almonds, without any added sugars.

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How a personal trainer can help you get fitter, FASTER!

Welcome to 2019 – it’s that time of year again! Are you looking for extra motivation to reach a particular goal? Perhaps you simply don’t like the gym environment? Or you need support coming back to exercise after a long break?

Whatever your current physical condition, fitness levels or personal goals, one-to-one sessions with a dedicated personal trainer can help you to focus on the things that matter:

  • To set realistic but challenging goals,
  • To track your physical progress,
  • To improve your health and wellbeing,
  • Increase your energy levels,
  • Change your body composition,
  • Discover extra motivation and confidence.

Personal training is about breaking the barriers to help you actively achieve your personal goals, and beyond. Here are some of the different ways a Personal Trainer can help you to win your fitness battles:

1. A constant point of contact

A Personal Trainer will provide a constant point of contact to motivate, inspire and support you. Whatever your questions, goals or concerns, your trainer will provide an educated and qualified answer to help you move forward successfully whenever you need them. Having a PT is a great way to make sure you get out the door in the first place! Most people feel more of a sense of responsibility if they have booked an appointment with a PT.

2. A tailored and evolving programme

Your Personal Trainer will create a unique programme that you can follow either with them or on your own. Your PT should consider your lifestyle, any injuries you may have or any concerns before developing a programme to suit your life.

You can reassess your programme at any time if you feel like you’re getting bored or you’d like to challenge yourself more.

3. Exercising using the correct technique

In metafit we have a mantra – quality of exercise not the quantity – technique wins over every time. How you perform exercises can have a huge effect on how effective that exercise is and also on your safety. The worst thing you can do is copy what other people are doing – they may be performing exercises specific to their own requirements that don’t match with your own. Whilst it may look easy to copy what someone else is doing at the gym or on a video, it’s also easy to develop poor technique and that is something that I work hard to avoid with all my clients.

A Personal Trainer will set a programme that is tailored to you and attend training sessions with you to provide guidance and ensure that you are able to perform the exercises correctly.

4. Clever motivation

People often struggle with motivation after the first few weeks in a gym but a Personal Trainer will help you set achievable goals for each stage of your training.

One of the most common mistakes people make is setting their overall goal without also setting smaller incremental and achievable targets along the way. Achieving these smaller targets will spur you on as you continue your training and will make you more likely to succeed. If one of your goals is to run your first marathon, for example, you might want to focus first on running a 5k, then 10k, then 15k etc.

Your Personal Trainer will be able to break down your goals and monitor your progress along the way, offering helpful and constructive advice if you’re falling behind and giving you praise and encouragement when you’re doing well.

For more information on personal training and your individual needs and expectations, please do contact me for a chat. I offer one-to-one personal training sessions for all clients no matter what your current fitness levels are.

Aerobic vs anaerobic training – what’s the difference?

As the festive season is well and truly upon us, it goes without saying that most of us, even with the best of intentions, will end up over-indulging on food and drink. So in anticipation of the new years’ “rush” I thought I’d finish the year with a fitness training article. Here’s the lowdown on the body’s aerobic and anaerobic energy systems – what they are, how they work and which is best way to workout for you. Merry Christmas everyone!

Aerobic and anaerobic are simply terms used to describe how the cells within the body produce energy and refer to energy systems. Every movement we make requires energy to be created and there are three main ways that this is done: one with oxygen – aerobic, and two without oxygen – anaerobic.

Aerobic

Aerobic refers to the body producing energy with the use of oxygen. Continuous steady state exercise is performed aerobically. When it comes to aerobic exercise, you would usually think of spending anywhere from 20-90 minutes performing an exercise – this could be on an exercise bike, treadmill or cross trainer or even simply walking and jogging.

The aerobic energy system utilises fats, carbohydrates and sometimes proteins to produce adenosine triphosphate (known as ATP – see my earlier blog post on EPOC here) for energy use. It produces far more ATP than either of the anaerobic energy systems but at a much slower rate, therefore it cannot fuel intense exercise (such as HIIT) that demands the fast production of ATP.

Aerobic exercise – walking/jogging

Anaerobic

Anaerobic refers to the body producing energy without oxygen. This is typically exercise that is performed at a higher intensity. There are two ways that the body can produce energy anaerobically:

  • The ATP-PC system, which consists of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and phosphocreatine (PC). This provides immediate energy through the breakdown of these stored high energy phosphates.  If this energy system is ‘fully stocked’ it will provide energy for maximal intensity short duration exercise for around 10-15 seconds. It provides you with the most power because it produces ATP more quickly than any other system. Because of this it fuels all very high intensity activities but it burns out very quickly. (See also my earlier blog post on EPOC here).
  • The Anaerobic Glycolytic system produces a lot of power, but not quite as much or as quickly as the ATP-PC system.  However it has larger fuel supplies (essentially a bigger fuel tank) and doesn’t burn all its fuel as quickly as the ATP-PC system, nor does it fatigue as quickly. It is the anaerobic glycolytic system that is associated with the feeling of burning in your muscles due to the build-up of lactate and other metabolites.
Anaerobic exercise – high intensity box jumps

Which is the best?

During exercise, energy will be derived from all three of these systems, but the emphasis will change depending on the intensity of the exercise relative to your fitness levels.

Aerobic vs anaerobic training refers to which energy system you are trying to improve during your training session - its structure and intensity will be very different depending on which one you are trying to improve.

Aerobic training will typically fall in the range of 60 – 80% of your estimated maximum heart rate and can be performed continuously for prolonged periods of time. Anaerobic training will fall between 80 – 90% of your estimated maximum heart rate.

  • Aerobic training is good for building endurance and improving your cardiovascular and respiratory function. This means that your heart and lungs become stronger and more efficient, enabling you to train harder and longer as your fitness levels improve.
  • Anaerobic training is performed at a harder intensity than aerobic exercise, typically between 80 – 90% of your maximum heart rate. It is used by athletes in non-endurance sports to promote strength, speed and power and by body builders to build muscle mass. Muscle energy systems trained using anaerobic exercise develop differently compared to aerobic exercise, leading to greater performance in short duration high intensity activities. It is a great way of really improving your fitness levels once a baseline aerobic level of fitness is achieved.

Have a wonderful Christmas, try not to eat too much, and look forward to a fit and healthy you in the new year!

Why exercise is GOOD for your joints

As a fitness instructor I have a responsibility to all my class participants to provide a safe workout environment and to avoid injury wherever possible. Quite often I might hear “lunges are bad for my knees!” and similar comments about other exercises. Sound familiar? It’s a common reason people avoid exercises like running or weight training or some fitness classes. But this assumption that exercise damages your joints has been found to be false. In fact, studies conducted over the past decade have shown that exercise helps to both BUILD healthy cartilage and to build SUPPORT around the joints, keeping them stronger for longer.

 

Building strong cartilage in your joints

Arthritis happens when the cartilage that cushions your joints wears away leaving bone rubbing on bone, which causes pain and discomfort. This isn’t the result of exercise, but of injury and constant low-level damage over time. Research has shown that exercise can actually reinforce cartilage.

Your joints are surrounded by a thin piece of tissue connected to your blood supply called the synovial membrane. This membrane produces the fluid that lubricates your joints. Cartilage has no independent blood supply, so instead, it gets its nutrients from this fluid. When exercising your blood pumps faster around your body, providing the membrane with a plentiful supply of nutrients which are infused into the fluid. What’s more, running and other high-impact exercises, have been shown to force this nutrient-rich fluid into the cartilage, keeping it healthy.

NOTE: Of course, if you already suffer from joint pain, high-impact exercises that aggravate this pain should be avoided, at least in the short term, but there’s plenty of exercises that I can show you that will help to build strength in your joints.

Muscles and ligaments – your joints’ support network

Your knees, hips and other joints rely on a supportive network of muscles and ligaments to keep them sturdy. So exercises that build these muscles and strengthen the ligaments will strengthen your joints, making you less prone to injury in the long run.

Strength training uses weight to gradually build muscle tone. If you’re new to exercise, you should begin with bodyweight exercises, working your way onto weight machines, which provide stability while you train, and then move onto free weights such as kettlebells or dumbbells.

It’s worthwhile asking a personal trainer for advice, particularly if you have specific injuries or conditions.

How exercise can relieve pain in the joints

An added benefit of exercise is it can help to prevent and relieve pain in your joints. Building strength in your joints can help improve your posture and prevent a cascade of injuries as a result, and the more you move, the less stiff and fatigued you’ll feel.

Exercise can also affect your mental outlook, flooding your brain’s receptors with ‘feel good’ endorphins which both make you feel happier and change your perception of pain. You might find that you’re more motivated and that pain becomes more manageable after exercise.

Exercises to strengthen and mobilise joints

It’s tempting to give up on exercise when you experience pain in your joints.  After all, you don’t want to make it feel worse. Here’s a great workout from Stephen Macconville, the Joint Pain Programme Director at Nuffield Health that is clinically devised for use by people with joint pain. These six basic exercises each have a progression and a regression (18 exercises in total), to suit your individual level of fitness.

Feel free to contact me for more details of workouts that will suit you. I offer personal training and one-to-one sessions where we can build a tailor made workout that is perfect for you.

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Four health hacks that will change your life

Dr Rangan Chatterjee is a physician, author, television presenter and podcaster. He is probably best known for his TV show Doctor in the House and for being the resident doctor on BBC One’s Breakfast Show. Here I am sharing his article that was recently featured on BBC Radio 5 Live where he shares his philosophy about the ‘four pillars of health’: food, movement, sleep and relaxation.

Every part our body affects pretty much every other part. By making small, achievable changes in the four key areas of your life, you can create and maintain good health – and avoid illness. What matters most is balance across all the things you do.

The twelve hour eating window

If changing your diet and cutting foods out seems intimidating, Dr Rangan suggests an easier option: eat all your food within a 12 hour window. “Can you get more benefits if you go stricter? Yes some people might be able to! But I say if you can do 12 hours a day, tick it off, and move on to another recommendation. Try and get that balance.”

He says, “It’s a very simple change that I’ve seen be transformative for people.”

Five minute strength training

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In our busy lives, it’s often hard to motivate ourselves to find time to go to the gym or go for a run, but Dr Rangan says that just five minutes of strength training twice a week can be really valuable.

“Strength training is very much undervalued in society. We talk about moving more and cardio but we neglect that our muscle mass is one of the strongest predictors of how we’re going to be when we age. Lean muscle mass is so important. Yet when we hit 30, we can lose three to five per cent of our muscle mass every ten years and that rate accelerates after the age of 50.”

Spend time in natural daylight

Good sleep is something we often overlook in our lives, but making sure we have enough high quality sleep can make our lives and health so much better. Dr Rangan has a lot of tips for getting better sleep, but one that you might not have considered is whether you’re getting enough light in the day.

Our bodies need to see different light at day and night to keep our internal clocks working. He says people should be especially aware of this in the winter months. “Many people are leaving the house in the dark, getting to work in the dark, being inside all day, and then going home in the dark.”

He suggests taking twenty minutes in your day to spend some time in natural daylight, and you may find that you wake up the next morning more refreshed.

Make time for some ‘me time’

Stress is often a part of our daily lives, and unfortunately, our technology can be partially to blame for this.

Dr Rangan says, “You get up in bed, the alarm is blaring. So you’ve gone from this nice, peaceful, restful slumber, suddenly there’s a blaring alarm clock. You’re looking at your phone, and there’s a whole ton of blue light, and alarm notifications going on…

For many of us, that continues all day and often that’s still going on just before we’re in bed at night; we’re still looking. And so we’ve just got no down time any more.”

His solution is to have at least 15 minutes a day of ‘me-time’. This should be something you do for yourself, that you don’t feel guilty about doing and that doesn’t involve your smartphone. Doing this can lower your stress levels and let you decompress without worrying about your phone.

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Are you REALLY doing HIIT?

Love love love this article from Metafit Australia and simply had to share! There are many people who seem to think that back to back so-called High Intensity workouts are the best way to up their fitness and strength, but that’s simply not the case. Discover why the short sharp intense Metafit workout is one of the best ways to deliver a true HIIT workout …

Most people who claim they do high-intensity interval training often focus more on the ‘interval’ part than on the ‘high intensity’ part. Let’s get one thing straight – there’s nothing wrong with regular interval training. You do the exercise for a period of time, then rest and repeat the exercise again, thus forming intervals that are great for your heart health, circulation, and overall conditioning. But doing exercises with high intensity is where the magic happens.

Most people are drawn to HIIT because it’s short and it’s a type of cardio that doesn’t require any equipment at all to have a good total body workout. The question is, how do you know you’re doing HIIT right? Well doing HIIT on your own is very difficult and most people will never achieve the right intensity so a much more effective way is it under the guidance of a qualified Metafit coach or personal trainer.

What qualifies as high intensity?

After each interval, you should be out of breath, drenched, and thinking to yourself “Thank God it’s rest time, I couldn’t go on any longer”. Your body will treat that rest time as a quick recovery, giving you the chance to steady your breath and gather just enough energy to perform the next interval. To illustrate how hard you have to work in those short intervals (that usually last anywhere from 15 to 45 seconds), it’s worth noting that some researchers doubt that the general population could successfully adapt to the extreme nature of HIIT. However, in Metafit we challenge that belief. The general population can absolutely achieve the right intensity (90% + MHR) with expert coaching, correct programming (exercises, work to rest, duration) and determination.

Don’t underestimate the rest periods

This is such an important thing to note because people usually think that if they push themselves harder and harder with no breaks whatsoever, they will somehow achieve better results. Wrong! The rest periods are what makes HIIT work! In order to really perform at your maximum intensity, you have to give your body a chance to recover! If you just go on doing something so extreme for long, your body will slowly decrease the energy levels, which can lead to serious injuries and won’t help your fitness goals in the long run. The whole point of the rest period is to allow your body to tap into the energy supplies it has, and ‘produce’ the amount of energy you need for your next interval. Without that break, you’re not giving your body a chance to regroup and prepare itself for the hard part. Remember, it’s called high-intensity interval training, and not just high-intensity training for a reason. By going through those high cardio – low cardio intervals, you’re making the most out of your workout, whether the goal is to lose fat, increase explosiveness, or simply improve your general health.

Longer is not necessarily better

Now that we’ve established that your workout should be rough and leave you breathless and sweaty, there’s another aspect of this exercise regimen you should take into account when planning your workout – it’s length. If you’re really making your body go through intense energy bursts where you’re giving it your all, it’s impossible to perform those intervals for longer periods of time. There isn’t a professional athlete in the world that could or would want to do HIIT for an hour. You’ll come across various 45, 60, or even 80-minute ‘HIIT’ workouts on the internet that deserve a healthy amount of suspicion, to say the least.

The ideal length you should go for is anywhere between 6 and 25 minutes, no more. If you do it right, you’ll give your body an excellent, fat-torching routine that will leave you feeling energised and oh so alive! The easiest way to choose the optimal length is to simply listen to your body and find what feels good for you.

Which exercises to choose

It’s not only the way you do it but what you do that counts. You should aim for bodyweight, explosive, full body moves that simultaneously engage most of the main muscle groups in your body to get an optimal result. Giving the limiting length of the intervals, it’s hard to imagine an average person being completely out of breath by the time they finish 20 seconds of squat pulses, triceps dips or crunches. Try doing burpees, squat jumps and sprints movements and you’ll see that you’ll pretty much max out at about 20 seconds or so.

You might think that your typical HIIT workout focuses too much on the lower body, but don’t be fooled; one, quads and glutes are the largest muscles in the body, therefore they will burn the most calories when being trained, and two, in order to do a high-intensity burpee or jumping lunge the right way, you need to activate your core to keep you balanced and safe. Don’t worry, you’ll be doing a total body routine, without even noticing it or focusing on specific abs or arm exercises. That’s the beauty of HIIT.

Less is MORE

Falling in love with HIIT is easy. It’s quick, effective, and the results start to show fast – really, really fast. You might love it so much, in fact, that you’ll find yourself trying to fit the fourth or even fifth HIIT in your week, in order to achieve even faster results. Don’t do it! Aim for 2 or 3 HIIT workouts per week, max. Even just one quality HIIT workout per week will do wonders for your athletic performance. Your body needs time to recover properly; you should cherish it and work with it, not against it. Feel free to do some weight lifting, yoga, pilates or light, steady-paced cardio on your off-days. This will compliment your HIIT routine perfectly, and keep you safe from injuries and stress. If you overwork your body, it will likely recover slower than usual, causing you to have less energy to begin with, so you won’t be able to make your intervals intense and brutal, which will render your whole HIIT routine useless, not to mention the probable muscle tears and Achilles tendinitis that often go along with lower performance.

In the end, HIIT will make you appreciate what your body can do as well as boost your overall health and wellbeing, as long as you do it right. Ready, set, HIIT! 

Thanks to Metafit Australia.

Metafit is an absolute gem of a workout and is one of my all-time favourites. It's simply one of the quickest ways to visibly improve your fitness and strength. I am fully certified to teach both the standard Metafit workout and also the circuits based MetaPWR workout.

Can Tai Chi offer the same benefits as aerobic exercise?

You may initially think how can Tai Chi even begin to compare to aerobic exercise? Slow, gentle, fluid movements, versus a heart pumping energising workout? A recent study looked at this and came up with some surprising results.

It’s no secret that I love my high intensity workouts, but I also love my yoga too. As a Reiki practitioner I can really feel and appreciate the benefits in these more “gentle” forms of exercising, and I’m a great believer in combining them both. In my line of work I often come across people who have had injuries or conditions that don’t allow them to partake in vigorous exercise, but quite often workouts such as yoga, pilates or Tai Chi can be the ideal solution. A good friend of mine teaches Tai Chi here in York, and so I was particularly interested in this recent study.

Tai Chi (full name Tai Chi Chuan) combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow, flowing movements. Originally developed as a martial art in 13th-century China,  the slow and graceful movements of Tai Chi are reported to be good for both body and mind. But could doing something so gentle really be as effective as a bout of more vigorous exercise? Dr Sarah Aldred, Dr Jet Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Nor Fadila Kasim from the University of Birmingham teamed up with the BBC programme “Trust Me I’m a Doctor” to find out.

The Experiment:

  • They took a group of volunteers aged between 65 and 75, none of whom did regular exercise. Half of them were enrolled in a Zumba class for 12 weeks, while the other half did Tai Chi for 12 weeks.
  • At the beginning, middle and end of the 12 weeks, Jet, Sarah and Nor recorded the volunteers’ blood pressure and measured the flexibility of their blood vessels using ultrasound. The more flexible your blood vessels, the healthier they are.
  • They also measured the levels of antioxidants and other chemical markers of stress and inflammation in the volunteers’ blood. Although stress and inflammation may sound bad, they’re actually a healthy response to exercise and lie behind many of its benefits.

The results:

  • As might be expected, the Zumba group were all fitter after 12 weeks. Their blood vessels were more elastic and their blood pressure had dropped. Their blood results improved in line with people undertaking an exercise regime.
  • More surprisingly however, the results from the Tai Chi group also showed similar benefits to the more rigorous Zumba group, with improvements in blood biomarkers, blood pressure and vessel flexibility.
  • The answer as to why Tai Chi might have similar benefits may rest in the fact that Tai Chi might not be as gentle as it seems. Previous studies undertaken by Sarah and Jet show that people who practise Tai Chi have a similar rise in heart rate to those doing moderate intensity exercise.
Studies have shown that Tai Chi can help older people to reduce stress, improve posture, balance and general mobility, and increase muscle strength in the legs. It's also good for people suffering with fibromyalgia and Parkinson's.

Thanks to the BBC programme “Trust Me I’m a Doctor”. You can find out more here.

The power of the mind – the placebo effect: can my brain cure my body?

This is such an interesting programme that I simply had to share!

100 people took part in a recent trial for the BBC2 Horizon programme: Can my brain cure my body? It was a back pain study but with a twist, the twist being that everyone, unknowingly, was getting placebo. The placebo effect is well studied but at the same time still something of a mystery. (Placebo = Latin “I shall please”). It is an important part of modern clinical trials, where patients are given either a placebo or an active drug (without knowing which is which) and researchers then look to see if the drug outperforms the placebo, or vice versa.

With the help of Dr Jeremy Howick, an expert on the placebo effect from the University of Oxford, the Horizon team, headed up by medical journalist Dr Michael Moseley, set out to see if they could cure real back pain with placebo pills. It would be the largest experiment of its kind ever carried out in the UK, with 100 people from Blackpool taking part.

See the amazing results of this experiment here >>

The University of Oxford's Professor Irene Tracey told the programme that just because a placebo contains no active chemicals, does not mean the effects of taking it are not real.

"The average person thinks that placebo is something that's a lie or some fakery, something where the person has been tricked and it isn't real. But science has told us, particularly over the last two decades, that it is something that is very real, it's something that we can see played out in our physiology and neurochemistry."

Among other things, research has shown that taking a placebo can trigger the release of endorphins - natural painkillers that are similar in structure to morphine.

See Dr Jeremy Howick’s journal publication: Are treatments more effective than placebos? here >>

The impact of sleep deprivation on your body

A growing body of research suggests that there’s a link between how much people sleep and how much they weigh. If you’re not sleeping enough, the effects could be more significant than just dark circles under your eyes. Here we look at the surprising fact of how your size and your sleep are closely linked.

The rise of obesity over the last few decades is paralleled by significant reductions in the length of time we spend asleep.

At the same time, a large number of studies have reported associations between impaired sleep and the likelihood of developing obesity or diseases such as type 2 diabetes. (Note: the act of sleeping less does not in itself make you fat – after a few disturbed nights your body won’t automatically have created fat!).

We’re not talking about a cause/effect link here. We’re talking correlation. As the number of people getting less sleep has risen, so the number of people at risk of life-threatening metabolic and cardiovascular diseases has risen too. The reason for this correlation may lie in the effects that poor or less sleep may have on your behaviour and physiology. It’s these effects that can contribute to weight gain.

Inactivity – if you’re feeling lethargic and tired, you’re less likely to exercise and more likely to take shortcuts like using the lift rather than the stairs. This decreases the amount of calories you’re burning, which has a direct effect on your weight.

Mood fluctuations sleep is vital to regulating your mood. Less sleep could see you happy one moment and feeling low the next. Low mood can trigger emotional or ‘comfort’ eating, when our bodies crave high fat, high sugar foods. When eaten, these foods trigger the pleasure response in your brain, and we’re hardwired to crave them in times of distress.

Reduced leptin levels – less of the hormone that tells you you’re full could see you overeating without realising it.

Increased grehlin levels – more of the hormone that tells you you’re hungry will have you seeking out more food and snacks, even if you’ve consumed the right amount of food for you that day.

Recent analysis conducted by King’s College London reviewed dozens of small studies involving sleep and appetite. It showed that, although not everyone is affected in the same way, on average getting less than seven hours of sleep a night led to people eating significantly more overall.

A bad night’s sleep disrupts the two key hunger hormones, ghrelin and leptin and this combination leaves us feeling physically hungrier, causing us to eat more. Studies also suggest that when we’re exposed to food while sleep deprived, there is increased activation in areas of the brain associated with reward. This can lead to us choosing foods that are higher in sugar and fat, rather than selecting healthy options.

All of this can help to explain why, in the long term, there’s a strong connection between poor sleep, weight gain and health problems like type 2 diabetes. The simple solution is to make sure you’re getting enough sleep. For adults, 7-8 hours of sleep per night is associated with the lowest risk of incidence of cardiovascular diseases.

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