Archive for April, 2011

Tai Chi Good for the Heart

If you have heart failure and practice Tai Chi, you’ll feel better about your life, your mood will lift, and you’ll be more likely to keep on exercising.

Those are the results of the largest study of the effects of Tai Chi on heart failure, reported this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“The multi-component nature of Tai Chi – the combination of physical exercise, stress reduction, and social support – along with its integration of multiple body systems makes it an ideal way to prevent and rehabilitate heart disease,” says one of the co-authors of the study, Peter Wayne, PhD. Director of Tai Chi and Mind-Body Research Programs, Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Center.

“Tai Chi can potentially prevent and aid the management of heart disease by providing a form of aerobic exercise, more efficient breathing, improved circulation, greater muscle strength, stress reduction, mood elevation, and encouragement of behavior changes.”

Heart failure is a particularly hard disease to live with due to the shortness of breath and low energy that results from the heart’s inability to pump enough blood. “Historically, patients with chronic systolic heart failure were considered too frail to exercise and, through the late 1980s, avoidance of physical activity was a standard recommendation,” writes the authors, led by Harvard’s Gloria Yeh, MD, MPH.

The Harvard researchers recruited 100 people with chronic heart failure and randomly assigned half of them to receive a 12-week Tai Chi program designed specifically for heart failure. The other half got a heart health education program.

The Tai Chi program involved some traditional warm-up exercises, including arm swinging, gentle stretches, breathing, and visualization techniques.

Then patients learned five simple movements adapted from Master Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s Yang-style Tai Chi, which the Harvard researchers have subsequently used in other clinical trials, all funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The patients also received an instructional videotape, and were encouraged to practice Tai Chi at home at least 3 times a week.

After 12 weeks, the patients in the Tai Chi group showed greater improvements in quality of life, in feelings of well-being, and in the confidence to perform exercise-related activities, compared with the education group.

Importantly, more than three-quarters of the participants came to the Tai Chi classes and many continued to practice Tai Chi at home when the researchers checked up on them 6 months later.

“This tells us that Tai Chi is enjoyable and can be safely incorporated into regular activities, even if you have chronic heart disease,” says Wayne.

Bust an Infertility Myth

This week (April 24-30) is National Infertility Awareness Week® (NIAW), a federally recognized health observance designed to raise awareness about infertility.

RESOLVE, the largest nationwide non-profit improving the lives of people diagnosed with infertility, founded NIAW more than 20 years ago to encourage people to take charge of their reproductive health.

This year the organization has added social media to its public education campaign with a Bust an Infertility Myth Blog Challenge.

The goal of the challenge is to bring together bloggers from the infertility community as well as other bloggers interested in the topic to answer the question: What is the biggest infertility myth and how has it affected your life or the life of your friends and family members?

Blogs can be based on your own experience with infertility, the experience of a friend or family member, or even just to explore the topic.

So far, more than 70 bloggers have taken up the challenge.

The blog topics range from “Relax! You’ll get pregnant when you’re supposed to!” to “It will happen if it was meant to be” to “The second one’s easier”.

RESOLVE busts a myth every day this week. Today’s Busted Myth of the Day is “You waited too long to have kids.”

Busted!: While it is true that fertility decreases with age, youth does not guarantee fertility. Many men and women in their 20’s have infertility. And women in their early 40’s can get pregnant and deliver healthy babies. However, if you know that you want to have children, the earlier you try, the less likely it is that you will have trouble.

If blogging is not your thing, you can still get involved in support of infertility. There are more than 50 infertility awareness events happening this week, along with 18 RESOLVE support groups and 2 RESOLVE TeleSeminars and Educational Programs.

Potential vs. Actual Benefits of Exergames

Interactive, digital exercise games (think Wii Boxing and Dance Dance Revolution) can lead to a high level of energy expenditure by teens.

But do these games have real value as exercise substitutes in the long run?

The increase in teens’ “screen time” — watching television or videos, using a computer, surfing the Internet, and playing video games — has led to an increased interest in activity-promoting video gaming or video games that require physical movement and feature “real-life” player movement.

Active video games have the potential to increase energy expenditure during otherwise sedentary video gaming and may provide a viable adjunct to more traditional exercise, according to a recent study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

The 39 boys and girls (average age 11.5 years) played 6 exergames — Dance Dance Revolution, LightSpace (Bug Invasion), Nintendo Wii (Boxing), Cybex Trazer (Goalie Wars), Sportwall, and Xavix (J-Mat) — and also walked on a treadmill at a moderate 3 miles per hour pace for 10 minutes.

All of the exergames led to higher energy expenditures than walking and spurred high-intensity physical activity.

Everyone said they enjoyed the exergames. Those who were overweight seemed to enjoy them the most.

But the researchers admit that “the potential of these games to promote fitness and extended periods of moderate to vigorous activity in normal and overweight youth has not been evaluated.”

One such study has looked at one of these exergames and found it doesn’t hold teens attention for very long.

The Health Games Study is a 2-year study to explore how exergames could be designed to improve player health behaviors and outcomes.

“We were interested in exploring the duration of game play over time,” principal investigator Gregory Norman, PhD, of Department of Family and Preventive Medicine University of California, San Diego, told me.

Some 63 boys and girls (average age 13) were randomized to play one of 4 versions of Xavix sports games –tennis, bowling, boxing, or J-mat — for 4 weeks.

Norman shared the latest results of the study with me. Weekly game log entries showed that 98% played during week 1, 47.5% played at least once during week 2, 55.7% played during week 3, and 37.7% played during week 4.

Only 1 in 5 played the exergame at least once during all 4 weeks, notes Norman.

His conclusion: the teens did not sustain exergame play over the 4 weeks and decreased play substantially after the first week, which is consistent with other studies that have examined exergame play over time.

“Exergames will continue to become more sophisticated in the kinds of activity experiences that can be offered. For example, more game platforms (Xbox Kinect) will track both upper body and lower limb movements to encourage more physical activity that will increase energy expenditure,” Norman says.

Yes, an exergame is better than watching TV or Facebooking friends for hours on end.

But teens still to find a fun way to get in regular physical activity that they will stick with, hopefully for the rest of their lives.

Notes on Qi for a Nurturing Life

I just received the April 2011 issue of Yang-Sheng (Nurturing Life), an e-magazine put out monthly by a network for all Qigong, Tai Chi, Yoga, Reiki, mindfulness and meditation practitioners, health seekers, and spiritual cultivators.

The mission of the network is to promote philosophy and methods of self-healing, positive mind and health preservation, and to share knowledge and experiences with those who are interested in the subjects and their applications in everyday life.

The e-magazine always has interesting personalized articles, as well as abstracts from the latest medical journals.

I was struck by some of the wry, funny, contemplative poetry in the latest issue:

What Is Qigong? by Solala Tower

“What is this thing you do?” he asks hesitantly over the phone.

This quee gong? Is it martial arts or is some kind of health practice?”

“Well, I answer, it’s a health practice and a meditation practice, as well as a spiritual practice.”

“Wow,” he says, “all in one package, huh? What a deal!”

If a Daoist had composed the error messages that appear on a computer screen…. by Anonymous

Stay the patient course
Of little worth is your ire
The network is down.

A crash reduces
your expensive computer
to a simple stone.

Yesterday it worked
Today it is not working
Windows is like that.

You step in the stream,
but the water has moved on.
This page is not here.

Selected Poetry by Jacob Newell

Letting go of all my concerns
I settle deeply into the serenity of nature
It’s already there
I don’t have to do a darn thing
Greater than anything
Anyone could ever contrive

I hope these poems help you cultivate your Qi for Body, Mind & Spirit, as Yang-Sheng says at the end of every issue.

Your Brain on Exercise, and with Meditation

I’ve got exercise on the brain as I try to get in shape for the upcoming golf season, and two new studies caught me eye, one about the effects of exercise on the brain and the other about how meditation reduces pain-related activation of the brain.

Exercise increases the growth of brain cells and improves brain function, says Terry Eckmann, Ph.D, professor in the teacher education and performance department at Minot State University in Minot, ND.

“Exercise balances brain chemicals, hormones, and system functions,” says Eckmann.

“Research suggests that every system of the body functions more efficiently with regular exercise. Exercise is medicine and can make a difference in disease prevention and management.”

A protein known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is “like Miracle-Gro for the brain,” she told the American College of Sports Medicine’s 15th-annual Health & Fitness Summit & Exposition in Anaheim, CA, on April 14, 2011. The protein helps to grow new neurons in the hippocampus area of the brain, which plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation. The protein also aids transmission of information across the synapses of neurons.

Recent studies show that students with higher fitness levels score higher on academic tests and show an improved ability to focus.

Scientists have also documented the ability of exercise to help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brain to suffer damage in Alzheimer’s disease.

The second study reported in the April 6 issue of the The Journal of Neuroscience shows that a little more than an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation.

In this small study, 18 healthy volunteers who were new to meditation were taught a meditation technique known as focused attention, which involves paying close attention to breathing patterns while acknowledging and letting go of distracting thoughts, says first author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, who is a postdoctoral fellow at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

The volunteers were subjected to heat on the skin of their thigh to induce pain during brain imaging, both before and after they had practiced meditation.

The imaging showed that, after just 4 20-minute sessions of meditation, pain intensity ratings were reduced by an average of 40%, and the pain unpleasantness rating was reduced by 57%.

Meditation engages multiple brain mechanisms to reduce activity in key pain-processing regions of the brain, concluded the researchers.

These studies have emboldened me to ride my bike and speed walk more often and continue my Tai Chi classes (which is like meditation in motion). It should make me feel better, if not smarter, and maybe I’ll feel less pain the next time I knock a golf ball into the woods.

Fertility Options Move Beyond Sperm and Embryo Banks

Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation can cause a woman to experience premature menopause and diminish her chance of getting pregnant. Similarly, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or radical pelvic surgery can reduce a man’s ability to produce sperm.

In fact, 140,000 men and women younger than 45 years old face a cancer diagnosis each year.

But all is not lost for those who suffer from infertility caused by cancer treatments. Many survive treatment and are still young enough to have children.

There are ways to preserve a woman’s fertility, including freezing embryos, freezing her eggs, or freezing tissue from her ovaries before she goes for cancer treatment.

In the first and most effective method, a woman can undergo an IVF stimulation cycle, and the retrieved eggs can be fertilized with her partner’s or donor sperm.

The newly created embryos are then frozen with the anticipation that she will have the embryos replaced back to her uterus when she is cured.

That’s just what Ewelina and Dominic Saputo did.

Ewelina received a leukemia diagnosis when she was 23, and she and her then finance went through the process to create and freeze embryos, according to a recent Detroit Free Press article.

Six years later, the young couple from Sterling Heights, MI, just north of Detroit, went through an IVF procedure, and they now have twin, 10-month-old boys, Julian and Antonio.

For men, sperm collected before cancer treatment can be saved for many years.

World-renowned cyclist Lance Armstrong became a father for the fourth time after his sperm were preserved before his treatment for testicular cancer.

One of the innovative techniques available to men is to obtain tissue samples with a tiny needle and then use them to fertilize an egg stored for later use, which is called testicular sperm extraction.

The newspaper article includes a nice chart of simple or minimally invasive techniques available or coming soon to leading fertility programs for both men and women.

If you receive a cancer diagnosis, ask your oncologist how you can preserve your fertility.

New IVF techniques have taken fertility preservation to a whole new level.

Arthritis: Keeping Your Joints Healthy

Exercise is one of the best ways to help people with arthritis control their disease and improve their health.

Yet, some people still abide by the old myth that exercise hurts your joints.

A generation ago arthritis sufferers were sent to bed to “save their joints.”

That only did more harm than good because inactivity causes arthritic joints to stiffen and unused muscles to atrophy.

Now multiple studies have shown that exercise helps strengthen muscles to support and protect joints, even those affected by arthritis.

If you have arthritis and exercise regularly you’re likely to have less pain and joint swelling, improved function, and increased strength, endurance, and flexibility. And without harming your joints.

Several forms of structured exercise programs can help arthritis sufferers, according to a newly updated report from Harvard Medical School entitled “Arthritis: Keeping your joints healthy”:

Water-based programs. Also known as aquatic or pool therapy, these group classes are done in water that’s nearly 90° F and feature a variety of exercises, including range-of-motion exercises and aerobics.

Water helps support your body so there is less stress on the hips, knees, and spine. These programs can lead to improved knee and hip flexibility, as well as strength and aerobic fitness.

Strength and resistance training. Using equipment such as weight machines, free weights, and resistance bands or tubing strengthens not only muscles but also your bones and your cardiovascular system.

Studies show that resistance training improves muscle strength, physical functioning, and pain in most people with knee osteoarthritis.

Tai Chi. This low-impact, slow-motion exercise, based on ancient martial arts, emphasizes breathing and mental focus.

Tai Chi may have a positive effect on physiological processes important in arthritis, such as physical function, flexibility, pain, and psychological well-being.

A number of small studies suggest Tai Chi helps people with different forms of arthritis, mainly by increasing flexibility and improving muscle strength in the lower body, as well as aiding gait and balance.

A systematic review of 7 randomized controlled studies of Tai Chi for chronic musculoskeletal pain conditions found that Tai Chi had a small positive effect on pain and disability in people with arthritis.

What’s more, systematic reviews and individual studies show that Tai Chi can reduce the pain of knee osteoarthritis.

The message is simple for those with arthritis: get up and go!

Tai Chi and Green Tea Boost Bone Health, and More

Low-impact exercises such as walking can reduce rates of bone loss in women with low bone density (osteopenia) or the bone-wasting disease osteoporosis, and regular exercise can induce changes in bone mineral density (BMD) within a few months.

But many post-menopausal women just don’t do conventional exercises, either due to health factors or a lack of sustained interest, among other reasons.

A novel low-impact weight-bearing exercise like Tai Chi, along with drinking green tea, may be their answer.

A new study of 171 women with osteopenia found that doing Tai Chi three times a week and consuming the equivalent of 4-6 cups of green tea a day significantly enhanced bone health and muscle strength after 6 months.

What’s more, Tai Chi and green tea seem to work in synergy to reduce oxidative stress, which is one of the precursors to inflammation and may be an underlying cause of osteoporosis as well as other inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis, reported Dr. Chwan-Li (Leslie) Shen, associate professor at the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women’s Health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, at the Experimental Biology 2011 meeting in Washington, DC on April 10.

Dr. Shen led a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial – the gold standard of medical studies – that divided the women into 4 groups.

One group took 500 mg a day of green tea polyphenols, which is the active ingredient in green tea, and did no Tai Chi.

A second group took Tai Chi classes 3 times a week and a sugar pill daily.

A third group took Tai Chi classes and the green tea pills.

A fourth, control group did no Tai Chi and took sugar pills.

In addition to benefits to bones, Dr. Shen said those who took Tai Chi classes also reported significant improvements in their emotional and mental health.

Preliminary studies from Asia suggest Tai Chi can reduce rates of BMD decline in post-menopausal women.

Tai Chi has also been shown to improve balance, reduce falls in older women, and increase bone strength – all important ways to prevent fractures from low bone density.

Tai Chi doesn’t require any equipment, it’s relatively inexpensive, and it’s easily incorporated into daily life. Add in some cups of green tea each day and you may just stave off the effects of low bone density.

Eat Fresh To Preserve Fertility

Cut out packaged foods from your diet and you may be able to reduce the levels of bisphenol A (BPA) in your body.

Originally created as a synthetic estrogen, BPA was adopted by the chemical industry when it was discovered that it could make plastic light, clear, and shatterproof.

Now it can be found in the lining of tin cans, plastic lunch boxes, plastic water bottles, baby bottles, mobile phones, DVDs, and thousands of other products.

BPA has been linked to male infertility and has also been associated with polycystic ovarian syndrome, chromosome abnormalities in the egg, and miscarriage among women.

It has also been associated with a host of medical problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and breast cancer.

If you substitute fresh foods with limited packaging for 3 days, you can significantly limit your exposure to BPAs, according to the results of a new study.

Researchers at the Silent Spring Institute and Breast Cancer Fund selected 20 participants in 5 families who said they frequently used canned and packaged foods.

The participants ate their usual diet, followed by 3 days of fresh foods that were not canned or packaged in plastic, and then returned to their usual diet.

The fresh-food diet led to an average drop of 66% in BPA levels and a 76% reduction among those with the highest BPA levels, the researchers report in the March 30 online version of Environmental Health Perspectives.

There are a number of small, preliminary studies on the effects of BPA on fertility, but it will take many years, decades even, to firm up this connection.

In the meantime, to protect your reproductive health, it’s probably prudent to limit your environmental exposure to BPA:

— Install a filter in your home to ensure your water supply is free of BPA.

— Don’t drink out of plastic containers or cans.

–Store food in glass, not plastic, containers and avoid microwaving food in plastic containers.

–Avoid eating packaged foods whenever possible.

The Breast Cancer Fund suggests that you avoid canned foods that are acidic, salty, or fatty because BPA is more likely to leach from can linings into these kinds of foods.

The Fund has created a wallet-size card that notes 10 Canned Foods to Avoid to Reduce BPA Exposure.

The “Missing Link” to Restore Fertility in Lean Women

More and more women are shedding pounds as they mimic celebrities without realizing that dramatic weight loss could damage their prospects of becoming pregnant.

Super-slim women who diet too much or exercise too much may have too little body fat to have a baby.

In addition to reducing body fat, strenuous exercise may disrupt the normal fluctuation of hormones in the menstrual cycle and interfere with menstruation or ovulation.

Besides a moderate exercise program balanced by adequate calorie intake, these women may also be able to restore their fertility by taking a synthetic version of leptin.

Leptin is a hormone that plays a key role in regulating energy intake and energy expenditure, including appetite and metabolism.

Mostly it’s been studied as a possible way to suppress the appetites of overweight people, but Harvard researchers examined leptin’s role from the opposite end of the energy spectrum by studying individuals with extremely low levels of body fat.

A new study reported on-line this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests leptin has a role in improving faulty hormone signaling when levels of body fat are extremely low.

The double-blind, placebo-controlled trial included 20 young, slim women, mostly college-age, mainly runners, who watched their diets and appeared healthy. But they had abnormal hormone levels, had ceased menstruating, and had stopped ovulating, said senior author Christos Mantzoros, MD, Dsc, Director of the Human Nutrition Unit at BIDMC and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, in a press release.

Over 9 months, the women were given either a synthetic form of leptin (known as metreleptin) or a placebo in daily under-the-skin injections.

The replacement leptin resulted in significantly elevated levels of the hormone within just a month of treatment; 7 of 10 women began to menstruate and 4 of the 7 began ovulating, he said.

Dr. Mantzoros calls leptin the “missing link” in women with significantly diminished body fat that, in turn, leads to hormonal abnormalities.

The synthetic version may just be a good solution for the more than 30% of women of reproductive age who do not menstruate due to hormonal problems, particularly those with low body fat levels.