Here’s What Moderate Alcohol Consumption Really Looks Like

Beer Flight of four beers in glasses

Although you may think you’re consuming a moderate amount of alcohol, your eyes – and the vessel in which your drink is served – can play tricks on you. Since April is Alcohol Awareness Month, it’s a good time to reflect on how much alcohol you’re taking in and to learn some simple tips and tricks to help keep your intake to the recommended amount.

According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, women who choose to drink shouldn’t have more than one drink a day, while men can consume up to two drinks a day. Women have a lower drink limit because they tend to be smaller in size, and have less water and more fat than men, and so they metabolize alcohol differently. One drink is defined as 12 fluid ounces of regular beer (5 percent alcohol by volume), 5 fluid ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol by volume) or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits, such as rum or vodka (40 percent alcohol by volume).

And, to answer that question I know you want to ask: No, you can’t save all your drinks for Friday night.

Moderate consumption of alcohol does have some health benefits. One observational study published in the British Medical Journal, for example, found responsibly drinking any type of alcohol was linked to a lower risk of heart disease. In other words, it seems to be the alcohol – not just components in drinks like red wine, as many believe – that helps protect the heart.

Still, that’s no reason to start drinking if you currently abstain, or to drink more than the recommended amount. Going overboard on a regular basis does have health implications, says Kathleen Zelman, a registered dietitian and nutrition communications consultant in Atlanta. “Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and liver disease,” she says. It can also cause you to gain weight and have poor nutrition.

If you’re a beer lover, you may be drinking more than you think. In North America, the release of beers with more than 6.5 percent alcohol increased 319 percent from 2011 to 2014. According to market research company Mintel, in 2014, one in four beers launched globally had an alcohol content of 6.5 percent or higher. So, even if you consume just 12-fluid ounces of this kind of beer, you’re still going over a woman’s one drink limit.

The same trend is being seen with wine. In the U.S., sales of wine with an alcohol content above 14 percent grew 12 percent last year. “If you choose a beverage with a higher alcohol content, you need to know that you are drinking more than one drink equivalent,” Zelman says. For example, a 5-ounce glass of wine with 15 percent alcohol is the equivalent of 1.3 drinks.

Here are six ways you can keep portions under control and minimize overconsumption:

  • Always use a measuring tool, like a jigger, when mixing distilled spirits or pouring them on the rocks.
  • Pay attention to the glass shape. The wider the glass, the higher the chance you will over-pour the alcohol. This is because you tend to judge volume by height.
  • Be more aware with clear-colored alcohol. One study found that it’s easier to pour less of a dark liquid (like red wine) than a clear liquid, such as rum or white wine. The clear liquid creates an optical illusion, which makes it seem like you’re pouring less liquid.
  • Check the alcohol percentage. The higher the alcohol content, the less it takes to meet the drink equivalent.
  • Enjoy alcohol with food. Eating food not only helps slow down the absorption of the alcohol, but it also enhances the flavor of the drink. (Think about drinking a nice glass of red wine with a filet mignon.)
  • Alternate alcohol with low-calorie drinks in order to stay hydrated and to keep in control of your alcohol consumption.

5 Healthy Ways to Spend the Extra Daylight Hours

Two friends cook in a kitchen.

Ever since we turned the clocks back on March 13, I’ve been a happy camper. Something about having more daylight makes me more productive. Unlike the dark winter nights – when it takes all my strength not to crawl up on my couch, throw on a pair of sweatpants, turn on the television and start binge watching – it’s now so much easier to get more accomplished. I find myself taking the time to work more (which, admittedly, isn’t always a good thing), food shop (rather than order in) and take my dog, Henry, for longer walks. Of course, don’t get me wrong – the urge to meet friends for happy hour still exists.

But there are plenty of healthier ways to take advantage of the extra sunlight. Here are some ideas:

1. Go food shopping.

For me, daylight and grocery store runs go hand in hand. Instead of rushing home to order takeout, planning a dinner meal somehow becomes more doable as the weather warms and the sunlight lingers. And, while you’re at the market, who knows? You might also be inspired to pick up healthy ingredients for the next day’s breakfast, lunch and snacks. Totally empowering!

2. Cook dinner.

Not only is shopping empowering, but so is actually cooking a meal. When it’s lighter out, most of us tend to eat later, which allows more time to cook a healthier meal. Now that’s a win-win.

3. Hit the gym (or running trail).

Instead of rushing home to lounge on your couch, it now might be a little easier to hit the gym, catch a yoga or spin class, or indulge in your latest workout de jour. A bonus? The warmer weather means fewer layers of clothing to take off and put back on. And, if you typically exercise outdoors, focus on how much luckier you are at this time of year. You may just be inspired to go the extra mile.

4. Make fitness social.

These days, it sure is tempting to leave work and make your way to an outdoor cafe for happy hour or an early dinner with friends. But what if you made your social time your fitness time? Invite friends to go for a bike ride, long walk or run. In other words: Use those muscles to do something good for your body – instead of simply lifting cocktails.

5. Seize the moment.

Find opportunities during the lighter, warmer nights to squeeze in physical activity. For example, walk home from work or get off the bus or subway one to two stops early. Instead of hopping in a cab after dinner, walk home. If you usually walk your dog around the block once, double it. Or, invite your family to go for a walk after dinner. The possibilities are endless.

Bottom line? What you do with extra time is up to you. I know I’m going to take advantage of the extra sunlight in healthy ways because, before we know it, it will start getting darker again. November 6 – I’m looking at you.

7 Genius Ways to Keep Your Hunger in Check

Hunger isn’t the enemy that fad diets make it out to be. On the contrary, it’s your body’s built-in food-tracking app.

“Listening to your hunger cues is essential for regulating energy throughout the day,” says Bridget Murphy, a registered dietitian and clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. It tells you when you need to fuel your body, when you should put down the fork and, ideally, keeps you at your happy weight.

But, unfortunately, modern life has sent our perfectly healthy hunger response haywire. Everything from our hectic, always-on-the-go schedules to the foods we eat while we’re driving to work hack our bodies’ hormones so that “hungry” feels like a 24/7 state, she says. And, generally, the foods we crave have anything but a healthy reputation.

Get your hunger back on track though, and you’ll make a huge step toward developing a healthier relationship with food, losing weight and reducing your risk of chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. Here are seven science-approved ways to do just that:

1. Prioritize Sleep

It doesn’t matter if a steady drip of coffee can keep you awake at your desk throughout the day – poor sleep sets off a chemical cascade designed to keep you eating. While science has long known that sleep quality influences levels of satiety regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin, a 2016 study from the University of Chicago found that sleep deprivation also raises your body’s levels of endocannabinoids, the same molecules that are to blame for the marijuana munchies. The National Sleep Foundation recommends getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night for optimal health.

2. Sit Down to Eat Your Breakfast

Sure, you’ve heard this “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” stuff since elementary school, but it turns out that the cereal bar you eat on the way out the door won’t cut it. In one 2015 University of Surrey study, dieters who ate a cereal bar while walking ended up eating considerably more food (including five times more chocolate!) later on compared to those who ate their cereal bar while sitting. Researchers explain that when you eat while distracted – whether it’s by getting dressed and styling your hair or by traffic on the road – your brain isn’t fully able to register the amount of food you’ve consumed. The result: You don’t feel full and eat more later. To make sure your brain fully registers any calories consumed, it helps to make your meals mindful ones. Sit down, stop multitasking and pay attention to every fork-to-mouth maneuver.

3. Perform Interval Workouts

Any workout will help you get fit. But when it comes to building a healthy hunger habit, interval workouts may be the way to go. In one 2014 International Journal of Obesity study, about an hour after working out, men who completed 30 minutes of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, ate up to 170 fewer calories than those who performed moderate, steady-state exercise for the same amount of time. Researchers believe HIIT may reduce post-workout munchies by modulating levels of the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin and increasing levels of blood lactate and blood glucose, both of which help keep your hunger levels in check. For the best results, Murphy recommends working out in the morning, since a.m. sweat sessions have been linked to improved insulin sensitivity and healthier hunger responses.

4. Avoid Overeating at Mealtime

This one might feel a little bit like a chicken-and-egg scenario. After all, if your hunger levels aren’t out of control, the less likely you are to overeat. But it turns out, if you don’t overeat, the less likely your hunger levels are to get out of control. “Constant overeating exposes the body to higher and higher levels of circulating leptin, a hormone that lets your body know that it’s full and satiated,” Murphy explains. “This high exposure can actually damage the hypothalamus, the gland responsible for secretion of our hunger and satiety hormones. As a result, our hypothalamus isn’t as sensitive to the leptin anymore, so we end up having trouble registering that we’re full!”

5. Eat Every 3 to 4 Hours

“One of the most important things I advise my patients to do is to eat frequently throughout the day,” Murphy says. “When you eat small, frequent meals every three to four hours, your body is better able to manage the information that it’s taking in to properly signal hunger.” The International Society of Sports Nutrition has even issued an official position stand, stating that increasing meal frequency improves insulin levels as well as hunger and appetite control. Still, it’s important that you make your meals mini-ones. If you eat a restaurant-sized meal every three to four hours, all of the overeating is just going to throw off your leptin levels like we just discussed.

6. Cut Down on Processed Foods

Besides the fact that processed foods are often devoid of fiber, reducing their staying power in your stomach, they are also a prime source of added sugars including high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. What’s more, research published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism shows that HFCS consumption significantly decreases levels of circulating insulin and leptin while increasing ghrelin concentrations, triggering hunger and overeating. Unfortunately, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 75 percent of Americans eat too much added sugar, with HFCS and other refined sugars providing more than 10 percent of their daily calories.

7. Snack on Pistachios

While 2015 research published in The FASEB Journal show that pistachios’ combination of healthy fats, fiber and other vitamins and minerals decrease hunger, a pile of pistachio shells on your desk serves as a visual stimulus to increase your brain’s recognition of any food consumed, Murphy says. Basically, they forbid you from eating mindlessly. So when you snack, whether it’s on nuts or chocolate candies, leave the remnants out where you can see them, and you’ll feel full when you actually should.

Before You Try Steroids to Build Muscle, Read This

It started with a man crush. “He was good-looking, and he was huge and he was popular,” remembers Brian Cuban of the former professional football player who worked out at his gym. In other words, he was everything Cuban felt he wasn’t.

So, when the former player mentioned that a nearby doctor could put patients on “weight-gain programs” – aka steroids – Cuban, then 26, made an appointment, got a prescription for an oral anabolic steroid called Anavar and began bulking up. “I started … working out even harder, getting bigger and more lean and more muscular,” recalls Cuban, now a 55-year-old lawyer, author and eating-disorder and addiction-awareness advocate in Dallas who was 26 at the time.

But along with the muscle gain came “an uptick in anger” that he worried would damage his relationship. He flushed the rest of the steroids down the toilet at work, but began again about three years later after the pair, who had gotten married, divorced. By then, laws had tightened to penalize physicians and trainers who promoted anabolic steroid use, so Cuban turned to the “black market” at his gym to buy them in injectable form. And so “Big Brian” – Cuban’s steroid-pumped alter ego – was born.

“This started a 10-year-cycle of steroid abuse because I liked ‘Big Brian’ – it made me feel good, it made me feel loved,” Cuban remembers. “‘Big Brian’ would never be that guy … that never got to go to the prom; that never held a girl’s hand.” The only problem with “Big Brian?” He was also that guy who was never satisfied. “No matter how big I got, it was never good enough,” Cuban remembers.

“For all the changes in my body, as big as I got, as many compliments as I got, it didn’t change how I felt about myself deep within,” says Brian Cuban, who stopped using steroids in 2007.

Cuban is among the many non-professional athletes – mostly men, experts say – who use or have used steroids and other appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs in the name of vanity, versus for sports or bodybuilding competitions. “It’s becoming more popular and mainstream because of physique,” says Jim White, an exercise physiologist and registered dietitian with studios in Virginia. “It’s to get the six-pack and muscles that they might not be able to get on their own.”

While the appeal is understandable – the products, when paired with the right diet and exercise plan, can increase muscle strength, body size and bone density, and improve the body’s ability to repair tissue, White says – steroid use comes at a steep cost to health, not to mention the legal risks and financial strain it presents (Cuban, for one, estimates spending up to $500 a month on the drugs). In the short term, for instance, steroid use is linked to severe acne, baldness, infertility and impotence, to name a few side effects, White says. Plus, the ego-boost can be addictive. Long term, White adds, the products can lead to high blood pressure, circulatory problems, tumors, cancer and even death.

Some research has also linked long-term anabolic steroid use to memory problems, while other experts worry about the drugs’ impact on muscles like the heart. “Is it causing growth elsewhere that we don’t necessarily want growth?” says Chris Mohr, an exercise physiologist and registered dietitian in Louisville, Kentucky. Plus, he adds, taking synthetic testosterone might hamper the body’s ability to make the hormone itself if and when a user wants to stop. “What if you accidentally shoot yourself in the foot?” he says.

Emotional side effects – namely, anger problems, suicidal thoughts and worse, action – are perhaps the most disturbing consequences for users. “It can not only wreck your health,” White says, “but also others all around.”

A Troubling Trend

People have used appearance and performance-enhancing drugs – such as anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, unregulated dietary supplements or some combination of the substances – to help build muscle for “decades,” says White, who is also a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

While use seems to be most common among competitive bodybuilders – 54 percent of whom take steroids, one study found – it’s hardly limited to that population. Some 36 percent of 18- to 25-year-old men say they or someone they know has taken steroids or human growth hormone, according to the Taylor Hooton Foundation, an organization that formed after its namesake committed suicide following anabolic steroid use. And they’re not the youngest: 2 million kids in middle school and high school admit to using steroids for appearance and performance, while 11 percent of high school students say they’ve used human growth hormone, the foundation reports. “It’s a problem,” Cuban says. “Steroids can destroy our youth.”

Recreational gym-goers of all ages, meanwhile, can access them illicitly at 15 to 30 percent of gyms and health clubs, White says. And older populations seem to be increasingly drawn to such products peddled at “anti-aging” clinics, Mohr says. “[People are] trying to keep that whole ‘fountain of youth’ type thing,” he says. “I see a lot more of that than the younger audience.”

Then there’s the location factor. Whether men are aspiring models in Los Angeles or are just looking forward to a guy’s getaway in Miami, the allure of appearance-enhancing drugs can be, well, strong. “Areas where looking great can help you get a job, blend in [and] maybe find a partner” can be hot spots for use, White says.

Even use of legal bodybuilding supplements such as creatine and whey protein are near ubiquitous, says Richard Achiro, a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California. While such products can be used responsibly, he says, they’re often not. Achiro’s study presented last year, for instance, found that 22 percent of men who use muscle-building supplements regularly reported using them in place of meals (even though they’re not intended as meal replacements); 40 percent reported increasing their use of the products over time; and 29 percent said they were concerned about their use.

“A good percentage of them … did indeed show risky use of legal supplements,” says Achiro, noting that the men who were most likely to abuse the products were also most likely to have low self-esteem and to subscribe to more traditional, rigid deas of what it means to be a man. He speculates that the uptick in men’s concern about their appearance is related in part to shifting gender roles – something manufacturers are taking advantage of. “Now that men are feeling inferior in the workplace or in other contexts … they’re turning to [appeareance-enhancing products] to make their bodies look really good,” he says. “What we typically see in women is beginning to materialize in men.”

A Better Way to Bigger Muscles

It wasn’t until Cuban woke up after a two-day drug- and alcohol-induced blackout and was taken to a psychiatric facility by his now-fiancé in 2007 that he turned the corner to clean living – steroid use included. Even an earlier, severe staph infection that almost cost him his leg couldn’t completely convince him that he had a problem, despite the fact that he’d caused the infection by injecting steroids with a dirty needle.

“I have physical problems today that will never go away,” he says, including heart issues and a left leg that goes “fairly numb” during exercise. For him, long-term therapy that addressed his underlying self-doubts – as well as his depression, addictions, disordered eating and body image problems – was the ticket to recovery. “The more I learned, ‘I’m OK whatever I looked like,’ the less I felt like I needed to change my body,” says Cuban, who continues to see a therapist, practice mindfulness and spin to stay healthy.

Seeing a mental health professional for steroid or other appearance-enhancing drugs can help the men, who, like Cuban, rely on them to cope with underlying mental health conditions or insecurities, Achiro says. Among the men whose use of legal supplements is risky, he says, “this really is an expression of eating disorder behavior.”

Even if such products’ use isn’t tied to body image or other psychological issues, it’s important to remember that there are much healthier – not to mention legal – ways to build muscle, fitness professionals say. Namely, eating a healthy diet with plenty of protein, following a strength-training program and even sometimes taking supplements like whey protein that are used with appropriate guidance, White says.

“It may take longer, but we can live longer and have a better quality of life” without adding illegal, risky substances to the mix, White says. “It can be done the right way.”

6 Surprising Benefits of Getting Enough Sleep

widemodern_sleep_140121.jpg

As a college professor, I am regularly surrounded by sleep-deprived young adults who sometimes wear their chronic lack of sleep as a badge of honor, comparing notes on who got less shut-eye before a big exam.

But the truth is that a lack of sleep – whether cramming for an exam or burning the candle at both ends for another reason – is counterproductive. Research has clearly shown that adequate sleep helps us to do better at mental tasks and also at committing information to memory, so you can stay sharp. Here are six more reasons to make an early bedtime a priority.

Sleep fights off colds. A study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine in April found that people who reported sleeping five hours or less each night were more likely to experience a cold or other infection in the past 30 days. This supports previous studies, including one that purposefully administered the cold virus to participants to see who went on to get sick; the subjects who slept fewer hours were almost three times more likely to develop a cold when compared to those who slept eight or more hours.

Sleep improves exercise. Exercise has been shown to improve the ability to get a good night’s sleep, and better sleep improves workouts. Conversely, research has shown that when you are sleep-deprived, exercise just seems harder, leading to a less intense or shorter workout. Studies of athletes indicate performance in sports may suffer when a person is sleep-deprived, and that recovery takes longer.

Sleep keeps your appetite hormones in check. Your body has hormones that are at work constantly creating feelings of hunger and fullness. Human laboratory studies have shown these hunger hormones – ghrelin, leptin and insulin – are disrupted when sleep is cut short. Additionally, studies have found feelings of hunger increase when subjects are sleep-deprived, and those who haven’t gotten enough rest have a tendency to choose higher-calorie “comfort” foods.

Sleep helps prevent migraines. A study conducted in South Korea had migraine sufferers use a headache-tracking diary on their smartphone to try to identify common migraine triggers. Sleep deprivation and fatigue, along with stress, rounded out the top three identified triggers. Another study published in the journal Headache demonstrated a decrease in migraines when women who were prone to them got more sleep.

Sleep enhances blood sugar control. When healthy young men went without adequate sleep for three nights in a study published in the journal Diabetologia, they ended up with pre-diabetic conditions. Researchers found the free fatty acids were elevated in their blood, which makes it much harder for the body’s insulin to do its job of decreasing blood sugar. Another study on almost 15,000 Korean adults found a link between shorter sleep deprivation and higher blood sugar, especially in men.

Sleep fights obesity. Many observational studies have shown a link between obesity and inadequate sleep in children and adults. This is probably due to a number of factors. To start, sleepy people are less likely to exercise and tend to make poorer eating decisions. However, other factors are likely also at play, such as a sluggish metabolic rate and an increase in food cravings. One study published in the journal Obesity demonstrated a lower morning metabolic rate when subjects were deprived of sleep, while another study from the University of Pennsylvania demonstrated more weight gain in subjects that were put on a sleep deprivation program, when compared to subjects who were allowed to get enough sleep.

So how can you get enough sleep? Start with a regular bedtime schedule and routine, add in exercise during the day, cut down on caffeine after noon, limit nicotine and alcohol, make sure your bedroom is dark, cool and quiet, and seek help from a sleep specialist if needed.

Think You’re Healthy? Think Again

walking men in the city

Despite the billions of dollars Americans spend on gym memberships, diet programs and low-fat food options, less than 3 percent of us meet the definition of a healthy lifestyle – or so says a recent paperout of the Mayo Clinic. But before throwing in the (sweaty) towel on achieving optimal health, let’s explore how the researchers defined a healthy lifestyle – and how you can move into that elite 3 percent.

For the study, researchers evaluated survey data of 4,745 American adults to find out how many people are sufficiently active, eat a healthy diet, don’t smoke and have a recommended percentage of body fat. Here’s what they found:

  • 71.5 percent did not smoke
  • 37.9 percent consumed a healthy diet
  • 9.6 percent had a normal body fat percentage
  • 46.5 percent were sufficiently active
  • 2.7 percent had all four characteristics
  • 11.1 percent had none of the four characteristics

While many people accomplished multiple lifestyle goals (16 percent had three characteristics, for instance, and 37 percent had two), it’s surprising how few met all four – and how many met none! So, the researchers also examined the association between having different combinations of these characteristics and several biomarkers for cardiovascular disease. For example, they asked: What is the disease risk for someone who exercises enough and is a nonsmoker, but who also eats poorly and has excess body fat?

While the complete breakdown of these findings is complex, it’s important to note that the data are not a series of arbitrary numbers and dividing lines between categories, but instead represent the difference between good overall health and elevated disease risk. The researchers concluded that, while attaining multiple healthy lifestyle characteristics is important, you should talk to your doctor about which improvements will have the most meaningful impact on your personal health.

In the meantime, here’s what you can do to meet these goals and mitigate your chances of suffering from cardiovascular disease:

1. Stop smoking.

This is the most clear-cut behavior change you can make: If you smoke, stop. Of course, this is easier said than done. But, there are countless smoking-cessation programs available, so talk to your doctor about the best choice for you.

2. Get moving.

The research team defined “sufficient activity” as performing 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each week. This recommendation is in line with the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. It’s important to note how attainable this goal really is. A 30-minute walk during lunch or after dinner each weekday does the trick. If your schedule doesn’t allow for 30-minute activity bouts, you can break this down into three 10-minute walks each day. Remember, the study was not looking for athletes or even fitness enthusiasts, but rather everyday folks who reached a baseline of activity each week. Set up a personal plan to reach this baseline, and then put it on your calendar so it becomes routine.

3. Eat a balanced diet.

To determine whether people were eating healthfully, the research team looked at what people reported eating over 24 hours periods. The data were then used to compute a “Healthy Eating Index” score, and people who scored in the top 40 percent were determined to be adhering to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

While nutrition is a complex and ever-changing science, it is pretty simple to find out where you stand in terms of your eating habits. Using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s online SuperTracker, you can enter your age, gender, height, weight and physical activity level to get an individualized eating plan to meet your caloric needs. Within seconds, the SuperTracker gives you a good estimate of how many calories a day you need and how many servings you should eat from each of the five food groups. The tool also allows you to track your nutrition intake and compare it to recommendations, track your physical activity, monitor your goals and look up nutrition information for thousands of foods. SuperTracker is also available as an app.

4. Get your body fat in check.

In this study, a “normal” body fat percentage was defined as being between 5 and 20 percent for men and between 8 and 30 percent for women. Given that only 9.6 percent of those surveyed had thisrecommended body composition, this measure is clearly a very challenging lifestyle goal to meet. The key to achieving and maintaining a healthy level of body fat isn’t about short-term dietary changes; it’s about a lifestyle that includes healthy eating, regular physical activity and balancing the number of calories you consume with the number of calories your body uses.

Americans are constantly receiving advice about their health from doctors, friends and magazine articles. The value in this study is that it provides concrete goals to improve your health. No one is saying it’s easy – if it was, more than 2.7 percent of us would meet all four metrics of health. That said, small improvements matter and the results can accumulate and make a meaningful difference rather quickly.

Of course, the more healthy lifestyle goals you achieve, the lower your disease risk. But making improvements below the defined thresholds is also valuable. While you may not eat perfectly, eating better is an important step in the right direction. And, speaking of steps, even if you don’t reach 150 minutes of activity each and every week, adding more steps to your day and finding new and creative ways to become, and then stay, active can be life-changing – and perhaps even life-saving.

What’s the Best Exercise for Building Muscle?

Athletes doing push-ups with dumbbells on floor

Muscle plays many important roles in the body, and building it can improve your coordination, protect you from injury and boost your metabolism – not to mention give you more confidence when you flex in the mirror. But while muscle has a great capacity to change, how it does so depends on how you train. So, how do you decide what type of muscle-building program is right for you?

First, ask yourself: What is your desired outcome? Is it to lift heavier and heavier weights – in other words, to get stronger? Or, is it to complete more and more repetitions before tiring – in other words, to increase your muscular endurance? Both goals are related, but they require specific workout guidelines. I’ve laid them both out for you below. (You’re welcome.)

The Goal: Strength

Let’s define strength as the amount of weight you can lift one time. Each muscle fiber has an ability to produce force, and exercising stresses – and even damages – these fibers. This damage sets off a series of biochemical events that results in the muscle fibers’ growth. It stands to reason that if the fibers get bigger, the entire muscle will also get bigger – the result many people want.

The classic workout used to build strength is three sets of 8 to 10 reps of an exercise, but that is entirely too basic. To personalize your strength-building workout, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends first determining your one-rep max, or the maximum amount of weight you can lift one time. Then, take 65 percent of that number and use that weight for your exercises. In theory, your muscles should fatigue after 8 to 10 reps, which in turn will produce those biochemical changes. The three sets – which should be broken up by one to two minutes of rest – come into play as another method to overload the muscle. Adding sets (and rest) allows you to overtax the muscle at the same resistance – without sacrificing form.

If you think that seems complicated, you’re right. Determining your one-rep max is time-consuming, labor-intensive and requires the guidance of a trained professional, such as an athletic trainer, exercise physiologist or physical therapist. But the ACSM’s take-home message is that you should exercise a muscle group until it’s fatigued in order to promote change, and you should use a weight that makes you feel tired after lifting it 8 to 10 times. If you can easily lift a weight 10 times without difficulty, chances are the weight is too light. The second take-away message is to rest for at least one to two minutes between sets. Lastly, if you are really doing the exercises correctly at the appropriate level of difficulty, you should be unable to complete any more repetitions by the end of the third set, thus exhausting your muscles. These types of programs will produce notable increases in muscle mass.

The Goal: Endurance

Endurance is the ability of muscle to either hold a sustained contraction or complete several contractions in succession. Several muscle groups need to work for long periods of time, such as those in your neck, back and abdominals, which allow you to maintain proper posture. Plenty of us spend many hours a day in one particular posture, and our muscles are not trained to keep us in a good position. One relevant example is “tech neck,” or that tilted head posture associated with using hand-held devices and sitting and staring at computer screens all day. This posture is partially the result of poor muscular endurance.

Unlike strengthening exercises, endurance-focused exercises are typically based on time, not number of sets and reps. Think about it this way: Being able to complete 30 shoulder blade squeezes doesn’t necessarily translate to maintaining good posture all day long. Instead, programs that work on muscular endurance typically use low weights or no weight at all and require you to hold a posture like a bridge or complete a movement like walking lunges for a fixed amount of time. You will likely not bulk up with these type of exercises, but you will be able to fire these muscles for longer and longer periods of time, which will improve your overall function and mechanics. Just as with strengthening programs, it’s important to maintain your form so you don’t use the wrong muscles during an exercise. It may be more challenging, but it will pay off.

Om-ing for the Gold: What to Know About Competitive Yoga

When Joseph Encinia first heard the words “yoga” and “competition” in one sentence, he laughed. “I do yoga to relax, to feel my own mind and body, and to not worry about anything else,” he says. Not to “win.”

But Encinia, a 19-year-old in Dallas at the time, didn’t want to miss out on a road trip with his friends to Austin, Texas, where a regional yoga competition was being held in 2005. Plus, as a formerly overweight kid who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and suffered a heart attack at age 13, he had never been able to play more traditional sports like his twin brother. Perhaps this was his chance to flex his competitive muscle.

“I wanted to give it a shot,” remembers Encinia, who had only just begun practicing yoga that year.

So he signed up for the competition, which, like most, involved taking the stage for about three minutes to perform several poses – some obligatory postures; some left to competitors’ choice. He and others were judged by a panel based on measures such as balance, flexibility and strength.

Encinia’s result? Dead last.

“I fell flat on my face, I had the nervous sweats, I thought, ‘What am I doing up here?'” he remembers. But afterward, he felt so accomplished, he wanted to do it again. “The after-feeling was what made it grow for me,” says Encinia, noting that the atmosphere was more supportive than competitive. He went on to win the National Yoga Asana Championship four years later, in 2009, and is now a full-time instructor and president of the board of the United States Yoga Federation, the organization also known as USA Yoga that hosts yoga competitions, in New York City.

“We’re trying to change the nature of what people consider a sport,” says Encinia, now 30. “It’s something that takes a lot of effort mentally and physically.”

Yoga competitions have been gaining traction in the U.S. since the early 2000s, but they have a much longer history in India, Encinia says. While the events are rooted in the Bikram – a style of hot yoga – tradition (USA Yoga was founded by Bikram’s founder’s wife), they now encompass a variety of methods. “This is just to unify all these yoga disciplines through one activity,” Encinia says.

Yoga competition in New York CityUnlike many other athletic competitions, the crowd is silent, not rowdy; and the competitors aim for stillness, not speed. “It requires complete control of the breath and the mind,” explains Encinia, who compares the competitions’ judging to gymnastics, form to bodybuilding and grace to dance. “Sport doesn’t always have to be violent or competitive,” he says, “It can be beautiful.”

But not all yoga practitioners and instructors agree that the practice should be considered a sport or involve competition. Here’s what some of them say about yoga competitions’ pros and cons for individuals – and the practice of yoga overall:

Pro: They can push you to be your best.

Just one week after first trying yoga in 2005 on a whim, Encinia’s joint pain and stiffness lessened. Within two years, he had lost 50 pounds and went off all medication. “It became my medicine,” Encinia says. Taking the practice competitive, he found, was the next step to becoming his healthiest. “It was a lifestyle change,” he says, noting how he had to improve his diet and self-discipline even further.

Chris Fluck, a Bikram yoga instructor in Philadelphia who doesn’t compete, compares it totraining for a race like a marathon. “A marathon may not be the best thing for you, but you set the goal and it holds you accountable, and I think that’s a powerful thing.” Holding poses on stage in front of people can also push you mentally, Fluck adds. “[Some competitors] overcome this fear, and it’s really gratifying.” For most, he says, it’s a bucket-list item they do once and move on.

Con: They can push you too far.

On the flip side, competitions can stretch people beyond their limits – both mentally and physically. “There’s a saying: ‘Where competition begins, health generally ends,'” says Fluck, who worries both about competitors and everyday yogis injuring themselves due to the influence of competitions. “My big issue is how [competitive postures have] bled into the regular standard yoga class, where we’re trying to teach people of all walks of life,” he says. Non-competitiors can also begin to feel inadequate if they don’t realize it takes a certain body type and intensive training to achieve advanced poses glorified on social media, adds Giulia Pline, a yoga instructor in New York City. “If you’re feeling bad about your own body or practice … then maybe it’s not good,” she says.

For Amanda Baisinger, a New York Regional Asana champion, taking her practice competitive started as a personal challenge. “I wanted to conquer my fear,” she remembers. But once she started placing in events, her focus switched from being well to being the best. She trained year-round and intensely for months leading up to competitions, at the expense of other goals. “It became too much,” Baisinger says. “My life got really out of balance.” She has since stopped competing, but still instructs in New York City, where she also teaches music and is a new mom.

As Meg Carlough Kudrik, a yoga instructor and co-founder of House of Jai Yoga in New York City, puts it, yoga “should feed your body instead of your ego.”

"I've seen people grow from the shaky person to the steady person over the years," says Joseph Encinia, president of USA Yoga.

Pro: They can inspire people to begin yoga or improve their practice.

“Whatever brings you to practice is lovely, so on that level, I’m fully on board with it,” Kudrik says. Just like watching the Olympics can inspire average Joes to get off the couch, yoga competitions can boost the practice’s visibility and encourage people to try it or to practice more often, Basinger says.

“As a spectator, it’s pretty awe-inspiring, and most people who go to a yoga championship are inspired to do yoga and improve their own practice,” she says. That’s “only positive,” she says, since yoga will make you – and, in effect, the people around you – feel better.

Con: They can detract from yoga’s true purpose.

For Kudrik, competitions’ focus on appearance dismisses the fact that form is only a small facet of the practice of yoga, which is as much about how you move through life off the mat as on. “Yoga is supposed to be a process of self-exploration, rather than one that’s done for show,” she says. “It’s supposed to help with self-discovery and self-inquiry, which is really hard when you put it in a competitive landscape.” The idea of performing in front of judges doesn’t sit well with her either. “The fact that someone external is judging you is very far away from the nature of what practice is meant to be,” she says.

But even judging judgment isn’t very zen, argues David Lipsius, CEO of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. “The real question is not whether yoga competitions are legitimate yoga,” he says. “The real question is whether yogis can stop competing with each other over who is legitimate, better, ‘real’ or more evolved.”

If you’re considering competing, keep in mind what your goal is, Pline advises. If it’s about landing a pose so you can post a photo on Instagram, take a step back and focus on how your practice has improved – not how it matches up to a social media star, she says. If it’s about committing to a deeper practice, seek the proper training to avoid injuries. According to Baisinger, “there’s a lot to be gained in your personal development – mentally and physically and even spiritually.” There’s just one caveat: “If you have your mind in the right place.”

Easy Way to Prevent Blisters: Surgical Tape

Is there anything worse than getting a blister on the 25th mile?

OK, maybe not everyone is an ultra marathoner. But doctors who got sick and tired of treating runners’ blisters say they have a cheap and easy solution for them — and for those of us stupid enough to wear new shoes to work without socks: paper tape.Image: Runners make their way past the River Runner statues

It’s the stuff sold in drugstores to hold on gauze, and it’s as thin and flimsy as the name implies.

It turns out this thin, easy-to-tear tape works better to prevent blisters than powders, antiperspirants, lubricants, Band-Aids or adhesive pads, said Dr. Grant Lipman, an emergency medicine physician at Stanford Health Care in California.

Lipman helps endurance athletes who run 25 to 50 miles a day in all sorts of climates, from the high desert of Chile to Antarctica.

They are, unsurprisingly, plagued by blisters.

“What I kept hearing was, ‘Doctor, I’d be doing so well, if only for my feet,'” Lipman said in a statement.

“Their feet were getting decimated.”

But he had heard rumors that paper tape helped. So he and colleagues tested the idea using 128 runners participating in the 155-mile, seven-day RacingThePlanet ultramarathon event that crosses terrain from Jordan’s rock-strewn wastes to the Gobi Desert.

They had trained medical technicians put paper tape on just one of each runner’s feet.

No blisters formed on the feet of 98 of the runners where the tape had been applied, they reported in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. But 81 runners did get blisters in untaped areas.

“It’s kind of a ridiculously cheap, easy method of blister prevention,” Lipman said. “You can get it anywhere. A little roll costs about 69 cents, and that should last a year or two.”

The stuff is thin enough so that it doesn’t interfere with the shoe’s fit and it’s comfortable, he added.