Welcome to the HPRC Blog. We've got lots of information here, from quick tips to in-depth posts about detailed human performance optimization topics.
Different people react differently to stress, especially when it comes to food, and depending on the cause, intensity, and duration of stress. Whereas some people lose their appetite and skip meals in response to stress, others either overeat or eat unhealthy foods. Under stress, people tend to choose snack-type foods that are high in fat and sugar instead of meal-type foods such as meats, fruits, and vegetables.
Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s essential to survival and part of being a Warfighter. The key is learning how to manage your stress. December is the Military Health System’s Stress Management Month, which is especially appropriate for most of us during the holiday season. Here are some tips to help you reduce your stress and the likelihood of overeating:
- Engage in physical activity most days of the week, and try stress-relieving exercises such as yoga and meditation. Or find other hobbies that you enjoy and that help you feel relaxed.
- If you’re finding it difficult to stop reaching for the kitchen cupboard or refrigerator, make sure you stock your shelves with healthy snacks such as fresh fruit, cut-up veggie sticks, and air-popped popcorn (without the butter).
- Try to keep a food diary to understand the connection between your mood and your food. Keep track of what you eat, when you eat, and your emotions at the times you want to eat.
Learning how to manage your stress can be beneficial in more ways than one. For more information on stress and your health, read the National Institute of Mental Health’s factsheet on adult stress and HPRC’s resources for stress management.
That mental state dubbed “the zone” by the media is what scientists call “flow.” It happens when you perform at your best easily because you’re performing automatically, without overthinking, focusing only on what’s happening right now.
To help yourself perform better more consistently and possibly even experience flow, consider these typical blocks and how to overcome them:
- Personal demands: It’s hard to focus on the task at hand when there’s personal stuff on your brain. Do what you can in advance, and shift to the present moment with self-talk such as “focus.”
- Mission complexity and ambiguity: If it feels as if there are too many “moving parts” in a task, try to gain clarity up front. Ask questions and use mental imagery to see in your mind’s eye what needs to be done.
- Interpersonal conflict: Everyone replays arguments mentally. Resolve them at the front end or put them on hold during a mission. Routines can help you bring your attention to the here and now.
- Paralysis by analysis: Thinking too hard is another way that people sometimes get stuck. Trust your training and let your best performances unfold.
- Limited control or resources: Deciding what is in your control and what isn’t can help you focus on what’s most important in the present moment.
- Isolation: We all need other people. Be active in seeking support.
- Intense workload: If anxiety about what’s in front of you is getting in the way, try embracing excitement about whatever you’re facing.
- Boredom or underutilization: When you know you need more challenge, ask for it.
Big demands require big resources. Overcome mental blocks to performance by continuing to develop your mental resources.
Lately, HPRC has been receiving a lot of questions about the use of banned supplements in the military, but the fact is: There isn’t a list of banned dietary supplements currently available. It isn’t always easy to determine whether a dietary supplement product is safe or not, so the Department of Defense (DoD), together with HPRC, provides helpful resources on the Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) website to help you choose supplements wisely. With regard to the military’s stance on supplements in general, please see the OPSS FAQ about a "banned list," which is pertinent to all service branches.
Some dietary supplements, including ones sold on military installations, contain potentially harmful and problematic ingredients. For some tips about how to avoid these, read the OPSS infosheet “Red Flags—What You Need to Know.” In addition, some other potentially dangerous ingredients include prescription drug ingredients and their analogs, drugs banned by FDA for safety reasons, controlled substances (such as anabolic steroids), and untested/unstudied new active drug ingredients, which may not be listed on the product label.
One way to ensure that a dietary supplement product is safe is to see if it is third-party verified. Third-party certification organizations have developed criteria for evaluating and authenticating the quality of a supplement—the ingredients, the dosage levels, the level of contaminants, the label claims, and whether the manufacturing facilities follow Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP).
The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (NMCD) is the gold standard for evidence-based information on dietary supplement products and ingredients and is an HPRC partner. (Subscription is free if you have a “.mil” email address; visit the OPSS FAQ for more information.) NMCD rates products on a scale of 1 to 10 based on safety and effectiveness. We encourage you to consider only using products rated 8 or above.
To avoid potential problems, talk with your healthcare provider or dietitian before using dietary supplements. Also, see FDA’s list of tainted bodybuilding products, which includes important public notifications.
Many of us have the habit of focusing on the negatives in life and expecting the worst outcome. This tendency can be compounded by military training that teaches you how to assess risks and plan for the worst outcome. If you tend to focus on the negatives in life, you’re shortchanging yourself. Try to appreciate the little things in your day that you may take for granted. Focus on appreciation and gratitude. Try breaking your habit of focusing on the negative for just one day; instead spend it acknowledging and appreciating the ordinary good things in your life.
- When you wake up in the morning, stop and take a moment to say good morning to your day.
- If you are in a relationship, take a few minutes to really look at and appreciate your significant other.
- If you are deployed with your unit, pause to think about how your buddies support and help one another to get through a rough day.
- Before you eat lunch, reflect for a moment and think about something that keeps you going everyday—maybe it’s as simple as the first cup of coffee in the morning, an easy commute, or your buddy’s positive attitude. Take a moment to be grateful for that.
- At dinner, spend a moment thinking about your loved ones. Have you told them lately something you appreciate about them?
- Finally, before you go to sleep, acknowledge something about yourself you’re proud of.
Start again tomorrow, reflecting back to today—did acknowledging the magic of the “everyday” help you have a better day?
For more information on mental strategies, visit HPRC’s Mind Tactics domain.
Is it safe to exercise when I’m sick? This is a common question, especially from people who have strict workout schedules and aren’t likely to let the sniffles get in the way of their physical fitness. Benefits of exercise include weight control, improved mood, more energy, and better sleep. What’s more, just 30 minutes of regular exercise three or four times per week can boost your immune system and improve overall health, helping to keep those colds at bay.
Moderate exercise while you’re sick can be safe and in certain cases may actually improve symptoms (such as relieving congestion and increasing energy). But first you need to determine “how sick is sick.” You can figure this out by using the “neck rule.” If you have symptoms above the neck—including sore throat, nasal congestion, sneezing, or watery eyes—then moderate workouts can continue. If symptoms are below the neck—including cough, fever, fatigue, or body aches—then rest is in order until the symptoms are gone. You can also use your temperature to determine whether exercising is okay. If you have a temperature of 101°F or higher, moderate or vigorous exercise is not wise because of the risk of heat-related illnesses and dehydration.
Ultimately, the decision to exercise when you’re sick is up to you. If you’re too weak and fatigued to get out of bed, exercising may not be the best thing to do at that time. However, if you have symptoms of a cold and your temperature is below 101°F, light to moderate exercise may be beneficial. You should consider seeing a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve or get worse.
Intermittent fasting has become a popular strategy for weight loss. “Fasting” can mean different things—from fasting as much as 16 hours per day to skipping or restricting caloric intake (for example, to less than 500–600 calories) one or two days a week. Fasting programs may make promises to their followers to lose weight and improve health, but are they safe and effective?
The health benefits claimed for intermittent fasting have mostly come from studies with animals. A few small studies with humans have shown intermittent fasting—eating as usual five days a week and eating 25% less two days per week—may be useful for weight loss. Because these studies were short term, however, the long-term safety and effectiveness of intermittent fasting are unknown.
In addition, it is unclear if intermittent fasting is more effective for weight loss than just eating less on a daily basis. Intermittent fasting could lead to overeating on non-fasting days, and even advocates of intermittent fasting point out that the key to weight-loss success is not to overeat on “normal” eating days.
Eating too few calories over time can result in low levels of vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients, and even the loss of muscle mass. And intermittent fasting can be dangerous for people with medical conditions such as pregnancy, diabetes, or eating disorders.
Common side effects of fasting include lack of energy, headaches, feeling cold, and constipation. Fasting can cause low blood sugar if you aren’t getting enough fuel to your brain, reducing your ability to concentrate and focus and affecting your sleep cycle and mood. These effects can interfere with your body’s ability to perform optimally.
Athletes who fast during Ramadan—a holy month when Muslims are expected to fast daily (no food or water) from pre-dawn prayer to post-sunset—provide some insights into the effects of fasting on performance. The limited intake of carbohydrates, protein, and fluid during fasting days sometimes affects their bodies’ ability to recover from exercise. Some found that their cognitive performance suffered as well due to the effects of even mild dehydration and inadequate carbohydrate intake. Exercise that is both physically and mentally challenging and long-lasting could have even greater negative effects.
Intermittent fasting may be unrealistic for long-term use. Reducing your overall caloric intake and a regular exercise program are the best combination for weight loss.
For some injured Warfighters, achieving total fitness may include assistive technology (AT). Assistive technology is any physical equipment or system used to improve or help maintain the functional abilities of an individual. There are assistive technologies for almost every disability or injury, such as communication boards, both manual and electronic; technology for vision and hearing impairments (magnifiers, talking watches, hearing aids); tools to assist daily tasks (shower chair, adapted eating utensils); adaptive sports equipment (sit-skis, sport wheelchairs, recumbent tricycles); and technologies that enable mobility (from a cane or walker to sophisticated prosthetic legs and powered wheelchairs). Driving aids and fully equipped vans are other important assistive mobile technologies. Mobile assistive technology can promote independence and increased quality of life. Even phones and apps can be used as memory aids and organization- and time-management tools for helping with traumatic brain injury and psychological health. If you’re an injured Warfighter looking at the possibility of AT (or if you just want to know more), there are many things to consider when choosing the right AT for you, including:
- First and foremost, understand your own goals, priorities, and preferences and discuss them with your healthcare team. A person’s reaction to AT is both personal and complex. You must be closely involved in the choice of your assistive technology to ensure a “good match.”
- Consider where you will be using your assistive technology (indoors or outdoors).
- Consider how you will feel about using your equipment. AT equipment shouldn’t be embarrassing, inconvenient, or cumbersome.
- Have you accepted your challenge, and are you ready to move forward? Finding a "new normal" to accomplish your goals may include using assistive technology, but you must first embrace this concept.
For those who can benefit, AT can be a big piece of Human Performance Optimization (HPO), part of HPRC’s Total Force Fitness mission.
Look around you. How many people do you see looking down at their smartphones? Are you reading this article on your phone or tablet? Most people look down at their phones while reading or texting. The problem with this posture it can be a major pain in the neck—literally. Doctors and researchers are calling it “text neck,” and they’re saying that this poor posture while looking at your phone is causing early wear and tear to the spine. The human head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds. Looking straight ahead doesn’t add any strain to your spine, but as you tilt your head forward, the weight of your head begins to increase the strain on your neck and spine. Even a slight, 15-degree angle increases the weight on your spine to 27 pounds. Looking down at 60 degrees? That’s about 60 pounds. Think about carrying a couple of 30-pound ammo cans around your neck for several hours a day.
To limit your risk for text neck, look down at your device with your eyes, not your head. Better yet, hold your device up to eye level. Be aware of your posture and try adding daily exercises that strengthen your back, neck, and shoulders.
If you’ve ever gotten up to speak in front of a crowd or waited to take a test, you’re already aware of how your thoughts, bodily sensations, and emotions can overcome you if you’re not aware of them or if you try to erase them. These are obvious examples, but this “mind-body interaction” is at work all the time, often in subtle ways. Thoughts can impact your emotions, how you feel physically, and even how you behave.
Here’s an example: You test for the APRT on a day when you’re sick and score worse than your previous time. You could possibly think, “I stink,” and feel defeated and worse than you did before the test, subsequently putting less effort into the next one. Or you could think, “Not bad for being sick; let’s see what I’m made of next time!” and likely feel excited and more energized to put in necessary training. The list of possible thoughts in response to this event is endless, and each thought has a different emotion, body feeling, and behavior attached to it.
When you’re not aware of what your internal experiences are to begin with, thoughts, moods, signals from your body, and your behavior can come together to form the “perfect storm” of stress, which can impact immediate and future performances. By being aware of each thought, mood, sensation, and behavior, you can slow the storm down and have more influence over what you do and how you perform. Avoid running on autopilot.
The “Mind-Body ABCs” is a technique that can help. Pay attention to some situations where performance matters, and log the following:
“A” stands for Activating Event—the event or situation you’re currently in (or looking at afterwards) that triggers subtle responses from your mind and body.
“B” represents Belief—your thoughts about that situation. Imagine yourself as a cartoon in the Sunday comics with a thought bubble over your head. Your “belief” about the situation you’re in is represented by what’s written or drawn in the bubble.
“C” is for Consequences—how your thoughts affect your mood, body sensations, and behaviors. Notice the specific emotion you’re feeling (such as fear, anger, or even happiness), what’s happening in your body (such as butterflies, tensing up, or letting go), and what you feel pulled to do (such as hiding from the situation, arguing, or giving your best effort).
For each ABC, try to tune into one Activating event, one Belief, and a short list of Consequences (emotions, body feelings, and behaviors). Rather than trying to log all this in your head, use HPRC’s new Mind-Body ABCs Worksheet or make a similar chart in a journal and practice tracking your own ABCs (and alternative responses to the same A) every day.
The holiday season is in full swing, which means an abundance of family feasts and holiday parties. But you can keep your nutrition in check and still eat balanced meals and snacks by practicing “mindful eating,” a form of mindfulness.
Mindful eating allows you to embrace food, nourish your body, and feel satisfied without overindulging. It means being more aware of your eating habits, eating cues, and sensations. When you eat mindfully, you learn to savor every aspect of your meal with all of your senses and become more conscious of your feelings of fullness. And while mindful eating isn’t a diet, it has been found to help with portion control and weight loss.
Try these mindful eating exercises before, during, and after your holiday get-togethers:
1) Recognize your feelings of hunger and fullness. Try to understand the reason you want to eat. Is it true physical hunger? Or do you tend to eat when your emotions are running high, such as when you’re stressed? Perhaps you saw or smelled something delicious, and all of a sudden your stomach is rumbling. Eat when you’re hungry. Don’t skip a meal just because you have a holiday party later in the day. If you wait until you’re starving, you might end up eating more than two meals’ worth. After you’ve had your first helping of food, wait about 10–20 minutes to determine if you’re still hungry or if you feel satisfied.
2) Savor your food. You can have your pumpkin pie and eat it too. Even calorie-rich foods can be eaten mindfully. First choose a sensible portion size. Then eat slowly, chew your food thoroughly, and put your fork down between each bite. Enjoy every taste, texture, smell, and sight of your food. Mindful eating also teaches us not to be judgmental about our food choices—there is no right or wrong way to eat!
3) Anticipate distractions and come prepared. People tend to eat more during social gatherings because there are more distractions and a greater number of food options. Be mindful of how your food choices nourish your body and support your health and well-being.
You can achieve healthy holidays by sticking to your eating plan and enjoying it too. All you have to do is retrain your brain!