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Food and health are hot topics these days. Just turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, or glance at the margins of your social networking site and you’ll hear and read about the supposed health benefits of dietary supplements containing this or that food component and the promises that they will “burn belly fat” or some similar claim.
Many of these promising food components belong to a group of compounds referred to as phytochemicals—chemicals produced by plants as a means of protecting the plants from various diseases.
Interestingly, when you eat plants (such as fruits and vegetables), the phytochemicals they contain might protect you from disease too. Researchers have found that people who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases. Scientists haven’t discovered exactly how these compounds work to protect us, but they have discovered that they seem to have a synergistic effect. That is, the compounds seem to work better in combination, especially when they are supplied in their natural form—whole foods. Consuming isolated single compounds, as in dietary supplements, rarely has the same beneficial effect as eating the whole food. See these resources about fruits and vegetables and how they may impact your overall health.
Focusing on single nutrients (in pill form) is not only expensive, it just doesn’t offer the promise that a balanced, varied diet can. Focus on food, instead. For more information about the benefits of food versus dietary supplements, check out this OPSS brochure, “Nutrition: Fueled for Fitness.”
The state in which athletes perform at their best is often referred to as “the zone,” but researchers refer to it as “flow.” This experience of being completely immersed in an activity involves:
- Clear goals and immediate understanding of whether actions are helping or hurting progress towards goals.
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment.
- Merging of action and awareness.
- Absence of self-consciousness and anxiety.
- Time seems distorted (slow in the moment and fast retrospectively).
- Targeting of your attention where it is most needed.
- Challenges or opportunities feel like a stretch but still match your skill level.
- Feeling in control and prepared to face whatever happens next.
You can experience flow in myriad ways, whether you’re engaged in combat, playing competitive sports, or raising children. Flow can’t be forced, but you can set the stage for it by learning good stress management and practicing key skills through repetition.
At the Warrior Resilience Conference V in August 2013, representatives of the Comprehensive Soldier & Family Fitness (CSF2) program discussed one of the resilience-promoting skills that they teach for strengthening relationships: Active Constructive Responding.
Active Constructive Responding shows “authentic interest” where sharing creates a deeper experience for both individuals. For example, when someone shares a positive event with you, the best response is to show interest or excitement about what he or she is telling you, followed by a positive conversation about it. By doing this you can be a “Joy Multiplier.” By comparison, it’s important not to do any of these:
- Kill the joy by focusing on possible negatives about the event (being a “Joy Thief”).
- Bring up something that happened to you, turning the attention away from the other person, or completely ignore what you were told (being a “Conversation Hijacker”).
- Respond to the other person as if distracted and/or with limited interest (being a “Conversation Killer”).
That “slow to wake up” feeling of grogginess in the morning has a name: sleep inertia. HPRC asked a sleep expert whether sleep inertia is a real threat to performance, and the answer may surprise you: While sleep inertia is a real phenomenon, the threat it poses to performance has never been seriously studied but probably isn’t as bad as you might think.
However, sleep inertia can be a serious issue when cognitive performance—such as problem solving and decision making—is called for immediately on waking. For example, physicians who are awakened by calls from nursing staff have been known to make serious errors. For most situations, though, it’s better to sleep (and pay down any “sleep debt”) rather than stay awake with the intent of being alert just in case you’ll be called on, our expert concluded.
If your head does need to be in the game quickly after awakening, call on some caffeine to help; it can give you the boost you need to get out of your sleep inertia. Popping in some caffeine gum when you wake up (but only when essential) can produce near-normal cognitive performance within about five minutes.
Sports products and dietary supplements are often discussed on social media, but think twice before taking other’s word for it. A recent article in the British Medical Journal notes that claims and endorsements made on social media such as Facebook & Twitter are not regulated and may promote statements that have not been supported by science. Some red flags noted include:
- Paid endorsers. Do you know that some comments and images about a product can come from people (celebrities and non-celebrities) paid by companies to post great reviews about their products? Be careful that such claims may be coming from a paid sponsor and may exaggerate their results from a product.
- Endorsed hashtags. The hashtag such as “#ad” is a disclosure recommended by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to indicate that a social media post is coming from someone being paid (or otherwise reimbursed) by the company of the product they are endorsing. If such a hashtag appears in a social media post, then you know that it is sponsored and may be biased. (For more about FTC’s new endorsement guidelines, visit their FAQs web page.)
- Biased research. Assessing the science behind claims is the best way to evaluate a product. However, a common practice is that companies cite their own labs and research. When it comes to dietary supplements, it’s best to get information about products from unbiased, evidence-based organizations such as Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, United States Pharmacopeias (USP), or NSF International.
- Unbalanced comments. When you scroll through a product’s social media page, do you find that all the reviews are positive? On platforms such as Facebook, companies have the ability to delete comments. A transparent company usually addresses negative comments and provides support to establish its position.
Look for these and other red flags when it comes to dietary supplements and their advertising. If you have a question about a particular sports product or dietary supplement and can’t find the answer on HPRC’s website, please use our “Ask The Expert” button located on the Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) home page.
Nutrition experts at the Institute of Medicine—or IOM—of the National Academies of Sciences gather extensive information to make nutrition recommendations for the American public. One major result is known as the Dietary Reference Intakes, or (acronym number one) DRI. You might come across some of the DRI’s acronyms when reading how to fuel your body or considering a dietary supplement, so it’s helpful to know what they mean and where they came from.
The Estimated Average Requirements (acronym number two: EAR) are the average amount of nutrients that half of all healthy people need each day. EARs differ depending on life stage and gender. Remember, though, they’re simply an average. Scientists use statistics based on this average to calculate the Recommended Dietary Allowances (acronym number three: RDA).
The RDAs are the daily nutrient goals for essentially all healthy people, again based on life stage and gender. For example, the RDAs of some nutrients (such as vitamin C) for a 13-year-old boy are very different from those for a 25-year-old pregnant woman.
The Adequate Intakes (acronym number four: AI) are the—you guessed it—adequate daily amounts of nutrients that healthy people of a particular life stage or gender need. AIs are given when there isn’t enough scientific evidence for a stronger recommendation, that is, an RDA. For example, the IOM suggests an AI for one type of omega-3 fatty acids—alpha linoleic acid—of 1.6 grams per day for men and 1.1 grams per day for women because scientists just aren’t sure yet how much is optimal.
Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (fifth and final acronym, for now: UL) are the highest daily amounts of nutrients that you can consume without risk of toxicity. Many vitamins and minerals—even essential ones—can be toxic when consumed in excess. For example, because too much vitamin A can cause liver damage, a UL has been established for this essential nutrient.
So, if you remember nothing else, remember to get your RDAs and AIs every day, but don’t exceed the ULs!
The USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center provides links to the DRI Tables, but generally speaking you can meet all your daily nutrient intake goals (the RDAs and AIs) by following a healthy diet that includes lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. And be aware that recommendations do change. IOM reviews the most current nutrition science and updates the tables when necessary to keep up with the latest knowledge, which means better health for Warfighters and their families.
Physical fitness is important at any age, and it’s especially important that children begin leading healthy, active lifestyles early on. Regular exercise for kids can build strong muscles and bones and promote overall health. Exercise can also boost kids’ self-esteem, improve sleep, and stimulate learning in school. But do you know what kinds of exercise your children or teens should be doing? Check out HPRC’s Answer, “Put some fun in your children’s fitness,” to find out.
If you’ve been experiencing pain, burning, numbness, or tingling in one or both of your hands, you might be experiencing symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. This “tunnel” in the wrist carries the important tendons and nerves that supply your hands with motor and sensory functions, allowing your hands to move and feel. Swelling inside the carpal tunnel can squeeze the median nerve that passes through it, causing discomfort. According to the Defense Medical Epidemiology Database, in the military, women are more likely than men to develop this condition. It’s also more likely to develop with age and rank. There are surgical and non-surgical treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome, but as the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The University of Maryland Medical Center has advice, which includes:
- Do exercises to keep your muscles and tendon flexible. (See the UMMC link above for detailed instructions.)
- When performing repetitive activities your the wrists and hands, take frequent breaks, even if it’s just for a minute or two at a time—called “microbreaks.”
- Use correct posture and technique, especially wrist position when using a keyboard or hand tools.
- Make sure that your work area is ergonomically sound. Military-specific information is available from both the Army Public Health Command and the Naval Safety Center.
HPRC’s Physical Fitness domain also has a section on Injury Prevention.
The recently released report from the Department of Defense, “Supporting Military Families In Crisis,” offers information for families about what to do in a crisis as well as how to prevent crises. The guide focuses on suicide prevention, following the Total Force Fitness perspective, but the information applies to many other areas of military family life, especially the section titled “Building a Resilient Family.” HPRC can help your family with many of their suggestions:
- Keep your mind fit: Check out HPRC’s Mind Tactics domain for how to go about it.
- Build resilience through coping skills and other strategies: Find information on building resilience in the Mental Resilience section of Mind Tactics.
- Foster a sense of belonging: Try the resources in the Relationship Enhancement and Family Resilience sections of HPRC’s Family & Relationships domain.
- Train year-round: Find ideas for getting the most out of your workouts from the Performance Strategies in HPRC’s Physical Fitness domain.
- Be aware of your world: Learn specific strategies for coping with extreme environments—heat, cold, high altitude, and more—in HPRC’s Environment domain.
- Eat your way healthy: Learn how to fuel your body for optimal performance with HPRC’s Nutrition domain.
And to learn how to bring all these aspects together for individual and family resilience in the face of any crisis, spend some time cruising HPRC’s Total Force Fitness domain.
If you start to notice hip or knee pain during your PT runs, you might be experiencing iliotibial band friction syndrome—ITBFS for short—a common overuse injury. The iliotibial band, or IT band, is a thick band of fibrous tissue that extends down the outside of your thigh to where it attaches to your tibia (your larger lower-leg bone). As with all injuries to muscles and tendons, prevention is key. In most cases, ITBFS is brought on by combinations of factors—such as increasing your training mileage too fast, running on banked surfaces or downhill, pre-existing IT band tightness, and weakness of the lateral hip muscles—so paying attention to all of these is important for prevention. Incorporate some of these methods into your daily routine to help prevent ITBFS:
- A hip-conditioning program, as recommended by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, can help you prevent ITBFS.
- Self-myofascial release methods such as foam rolling can be helpful with this hard-to-stretch area of your leg.
- Don’t do too much too soon. Gradually increase your running mileage or workout intensity. Guidelines for healthy adults include: (1) Increase the duration of your exercise program 5-10 minutes every one or two weeks over the first four to six weeks; or (2) increase your weekly training volume by no more than 10% per week.
- Stretches for the IT band and other muscles of the thigh and lower leg should be held for 30 seconds and repeated three to five times daily.
If you already have ITBFS, you probably notice more pain in the lateral (outside) hip or knee when you run downhill or when lengthen your stride. If left untreated, it also can lead to pain when you walk up and down stairs or sit for long periods of time with your knees flexed. Of course, you should consult with your physician for proper diagnosis and treatment. On your own, however, care usually includes the RICE and ISE methods.
Allowing time for the iliotibial band to heal is important for full recovery, so consider an alternative training routine (take a break from running and cycling) or take time off altogether. As the inflammation subsides, it may help to add stretching and strengthening exercises.