Some observations on health overseas

My family and I just returned from a short vacation over in London. I was struck by a number of health- and wellness-related observations I made while abroad, so I thought I would share them while still fresh on my mind (fortunately, the jet lag hasn’t been too bad). As promised back when I started this blog, I’m stating up front that these are just my anecdotal observations. Not evidence-based but interesting nonetheless – or at least I hope you think so!

So many steps

I think I broke my Fitbit record for steps this past week – yahoo! Here in the US, I typically struggle to get 10,000 steps before I go to bed at night – and that’s with my 30-60-minute workout each day. In London, I was easily at 10,000 steps before midday tea every day except our travel days. Even with hopping the “tube” around town to visit various sites, there was still a ton of walking to be done. Most of the Underground stations had several flights of stairs or escalators to get to street level. In one older station, the elevators (or “lifts” as they like to call them) were out of order so we had to take the stairs – 193 in total, equivalent to 15 stories (or so said the lovely British woman on the PA system as she broke the news to travelers). I felt the burn that day!

The amount of walking we did in London got me thinking about our life – and lifestyle – here in Raleigh. While sight-seeing in London, we didn’t bat an eye at walking a mile to the next tourist attraction. It just seemed natural and most of the time, quicker than trying to catch the nearest tube. Yet, I realized the movie theater we frequent here in town is about a mile from our house…and we rarely walk to it, even in beautiful weather when we have plenty of time. There’s really no excuse – there are sidewalks almost the whole way and crosswalks at the “busiest” intersections, which really aren’t busy at all when I put it into perspective. We’re just so used to the convenience of our cars. I understand the argument that US suburbs are nothing like high density cities such as London, but bottom line: a mile is a mile. If we can walk it over there, we can walk it over here. I’m going to nudge my family in that direction next time we have plans to catch a flick.

Size matters

Another thing I noticed, particularly as we were riding the subway, was the noticeable lack of overweight and obese individuals. Sadly, the ones we did see often had American accents. I’m guessing that all of that walking around helps the natives manage their weight, as I also noticed the scarcity of gyms and fitness centers around the city. There were some scattered here and there, and I definitely saw women dressed in athletic wear, often carrying yoga mats. But nothing like here where you’ll often find two or three gyms within a mile radius.

Something else my husband pointed out when we were getting coffee near our flat was the distinct lack of choice when it came to cup sizes. In many shops and restaurants where we dined, there was one size and I would say it was on the smaller side compared to back home. I think the coffee cup at our favorite shop was about 12 ounces – not too big, not too small. The business decision behind the cup size was probably more cost-related than health-related, but I imagine it helps keep calorie counts down as well. At most of the nicer restaurants where we ate, the beverage glasses were definitely smaller than those at restaurants here in the states. Prices seemed lower too, even with the British pound to American dollar conversion. Smaller sizes, lower prices – a win-win in my book.

Up in smoke

Lest you think I believe London has a leg up on all health- and wellness-related matters, let me say that they seem to be lagging behind the US in their tobacco cessation efforts.  Although most restaurants and shops were smoke-free inside, smoking was allowed when dining outside, much like it is here in the US. I also saw people smoking regular and e-cigarettes quite frequently while we were sight-seeing. It was rather frustrating to be walking along the Thames River on a beautiful day when suddenly you find yourself trapped in a cloud of vapor emanating from the person in front of you. I did see the usual no smoking signs in public places, but I did not see many anti-smoking messages like we have here in the states.

Media fast

One thing that struck me once we were getting ready to come home was how happy I had been for the four days when I was essentially on a “media fast,” with limited access to news. Here at home, I usually read the Raleigh newspaper every morning and I have two news apps (one local and one national) that I check regularly throughout the day. I didn’t pick up a newspaper once while we were gone. We had a TV in the flat we rented but flipped it on only a few times when we were still adjusting to the time change and needed to just chill out before going to bed. We had chosen to do the “pay as you go” travel plan for our cell phones and thus, limited ourselves to one “activated” phone per day. Even on the days when it was my turn to have cellular turned on – and despite having access to free WiFi almost everywhere we went – I did not have the urge to check on the news like I do back home.

Maybe it was a matter of trying to be truly disconnected from the world, so I could enjoy my vacation, but it made me realize that I can survive (and thrive, really) without the constant need to know what’s happening around me. I pride myself to some extent with being an informed citizen who stays abreast of current events, but to be honest, I’m more often overwhelmed by the sense of information overload I experience when trying to take it all in. I think this vacation demonstrated that being tuned out now and then is not the end of the world and leads to more peace of mind than being in the know every minute of the day. I’m hoping I can continue my limited media exposure as I ease back into my normal schedule, now that I realize it’s better for my mental health.

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Movement, Exercise and Rest – Part 1

This dimension of the wheel is quite comprehensive so I am going to split it into two posts. The first will focus on Exercise and Movement; then, I’ll follow up with a post on Sleep/Rest.

By now, you’ve probably heard that “sitting is the new smoking.” That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but research does show that prolonged sitting may be harmful, even if you exercise regularly. The more time we spend sitting — whether at a desk, on the couch or in the car — the greater the risk of premature death, cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. And unfortunately, even an hour at the gym every day, huffing and puffing on the treadmill, might not be enough to counteract the effects if you spend most of the rest of your time sitting.

One of my favorite fitness experts, Leslie Sansone, said it best on one of her walk at home DVDs: Our bodies are meant to move. Humans were not designed to be sedentary! We wouldn’t have all these wonderful bones, muscles and joints that allow the body to move in all directions. Unfortunately, as our world has evolved and society has developed more modern conveniences, the unintended consequence has been less overall movement for most of us. It’s not really anyone’s fault – it’s just what happened. The good news is we can do something about it. It just may take a little extra effort to make it happen.

Exercise

Let’s talk about exercise first – and by exercise, I mean physical activity that you engage in on a regular basis for more than a few minutes at a time. It can be as simple as walking in your neighborhood or completing the CrossFit Workout of the Day.  So, what is the best exercise? The one that you will do! Yes, it may sound cheesy and cliché, but it is true. Finding something that is fun and enjoyable for you is the most important thing. Why? You’ll stick with it. You don’t get stronger or fitter or leaner from exercising one time. You get stronger or fitter or leaner by exercising on a consistent basis. And it’s human nature to engage in activities that we enjoy doing. So maybe start by thinking about what activities or sports you enjoy – perhaps you like the challenge of training for a road race or maybe you prefer playing tennis with your spouse. Have fun experimenting until you find the activity (or activities) that work best for you.

Some of you may be looking for guidance on how long or how often to exercise. In general, most adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week, for general health and to maintain your current weight. This typically translates to about 30 minutes five days/week. To lose weight, the recommendation is 200-300 minutes of moderate intensity activity (with the greater amount typically leading to faster weight loss). This would mean closer to 45 minutes every day or 60 minutes five days/week. Moderate intensity is defined as activity that increases your heart rate and makes you break a sweat, such as brisk walking, cycling at lower speeds, water aerobics, etc. Everybody is different so it is a good idea to talk to your doctor if it’s been a while since you’ve exercised or if you have health issues that could limit your ability to participate in certain activities.

Movement

Perhaps more important than exercise though is the need to build regular movement into your day – particularly if your work or home life finds you sitting most of the time. There are some simple steps you can take to reduce sitting time, including:

  • If you work at a desk or on a computer most of the day, stand up and/or walk around for a few minutes every hour (or even half-hour if possible).
  • Consider a desk that lets you work both standing and sitting down. You could also explore a treadmill desk that allows you to walk slowly while you work.
  • Park your car further away from the building so you’ll be able to walk more. Stand rather than sit if you ride the bus or subway.
  • Try standing or doing chores while watching TV. Build in brief fitness breaks during commercials.
  • Become less efficient – consider not multitasking to get more movement into your day. For example, pick up and put away one item in the house at a time instead of doing it all in one trip.

Adding short bursts of standing and movement like this will keep you from becoming an “active couch potato,” someone who exercises regularly and then remains largely sedentary the rest of the time. Think of fitness as something that entails what you do the entire day, not just during your workout.