The Best Exercise To Build Muscle

What would you say if I told you the best exercise to build muscle DIDN’T have to take hours in the gym and hundreds of dollars of equipment?

(No, this isn’t the beginning of a TV infomercial, LOL!)

In my studying for the Integrative Medicine boards I have been learning about the current research regarding hormone changes in the body during different forms of exercise.

I’ve found that the human body is pretty smart (duh!) and responds by giving you the tools to do whatever it is you ask it to do most.  If you ask it to be strong, it will respond by getting stronger.  If you ask it for endurance, it will modify itself into an endurance machine.

Think of two different types of runners.  Imagine the runners you see crossing the finish line at the Olympic marathon event.  They are skinny and have very little muscle.  They tend to have a low percent body fat (but maybe not as low as you would think).

2008 Boston Marathon Boston, Ma    April 21, 2008 Photo: Victah

Now think of Olympic sprinters.  Look at their leg muscles.  They are VERY muscular because they need that muscle to propel their bodies as fast as possible down the track.  They have an even lower percent body fat than the marathoners do.

sprintersWhy the difference in physique?  Because they are asking their bodies to do different things.  Short, intense bursts of maximum-effort physical activity create a hormone environment that causes the muscles to get bigger and stronger.  They also burn more fat because large fat stores are not necessary for short intervals of high intensity exercise.  Muscle glycogen and blood glucose are enough for that.

For long-distance endurance runs, muscle glycogen and blood sugar run out very quickly.  The marathoners’ bodies adapt to using body fat as the energy source.  In order to have enough energy for the long runs, the marathoners’ bodies must keep relatively larger body fat stores.  They don’t need massive muscles for long-distance running (and in fact large, heavy muscles are counterproductive for speed and endurance).  So the marathoners’ and sprinters’ bodies have both adapted beautifully for the tasks they are asked to do.


Oh, by the way, do you notice the sprinters’ ARMS?  They do not train their arms much, except in their role as counterweight to leg movement, but even their arms are muscular and well-defined.  This is hormonal as well.  The pumping action of the arms as they sprint stimulates the arm muscles to become bigger and stronger too (because they are pumping their arms for all they are worth as they fly down the track).

So now you see that sprint training (or interval training) is more effective for building muscle than endurance training.  What does this mean in practical terms?  It means that spending hours in the gym lifting heavy weights ISN’T necessary to improve muscle mass and definition.  (Yay, because who has time for that?!)  High-intensity interval training is better.

There are lots of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts out there.  The one I use (and just started my 12-year-old son using) is by Nathan and Jenni Oates.  No, I’m not an affiliate and am not promoting this program for my own purposes.  I just have been using their workouts for years off-and-on and know they are intense, challenging and effective.

Is it possible to significantly change your body contour, weight and percent body fat in just 30 minutes 3-4 times weekly?  Yes, if you are willing to throw EVERYTHING you’ve got into it for 30 minutes.  That’s the essence of HIIT:  maximum effort for short periods of time.  Sprints.

Nathan and Jenni offer a free workout at their website.  What do you have to lose?  Give it a try and see how you feel afterwards.  Just a warning:  if you do it right, you probably will feel a quivery, maybe-I-can’t-make-it-up-the-stairs sensation in your muscles.  That’s what triggers those hormone changes that make the muscles burn lots of fat and start to get bigger.  And the next few days you will be VERY sore.  Don’t let that stop you!  If you continue with the program, the soreness goes away.  And if you are a member of the Shaklee family, Nathan and Jenni offer a discount on the program so definitely get in touch with me and I’ll give you the coupon code.

As a bonus for reading this far, I’m including the link to another awesome photo illustrating the muscular benefits of Olympic sprint training.  I didn’t want to embed the photo in this post because I didn’t want to be accused of providing “beefcake” photos.  But it’s a great example of how sprint training gets you an awesome physique.  Enjoy!

QUESTION:  Have you ever done a high-intensity interval training workout?  Which program was it?  Was it effective for you?


Depression and Suicide

The tragic death of Robin Williams this past week has many people talking about depression and suicide.  It is difficult to understand how an actor and comedian as kind, outgoing and beloved as Robin Williams could fail to realize what a difference he had made in so many people’s lives.

The sad truth is, though, that severely depressed people are in terrible pain.  After recurrent bouts of severe depression, exhausted in mind, body and spirit, even death may be preferable to continued suffering.

I know for a fact that you know people who suffer from depression.  With 20% of American adults diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives, the illness is incredibly common.  Whether they are a friend, a neighbor, a family member or coworker, they are out there.

What separates the “garden variety” depressed patient from those who are at increased risk of suicide?  How do you know who is at risk? 

There have been a number of risk factors identified for suicide.  Women ATTEMPT suicide more often but men actually are more likely to succeed at taking their own life.  Substance abuse also substantially increases the risk (Robin Williams had recently been in rehab for substance abuse).

In spite of the fact that news media would seem to indicate an epidemic of suicide among teenagers, older adults are actually much more likely to commit suicide than teens.  The elderly are particularly at risk.

Medical illness also increases the risk of suicide, as does the loss of a spouse or job.  Personality traits such as hopelessness and impulsivity increase the risk, as do a personal history of suicide attempt and family history of suicide.

What protects against suicide risk?  As you would expect, a highly resilient and positive nature is protective.  Also, the presence of multiple layers of social support (family, friends and community). 

Strong belief in a faith that does not find suicide acceptable, as well as a belief in an afterlife are protective as well.

Easy access to effective mental health services is important of course 🙂

So what do you do if a friend or family member is depressed and you are worried about suicide.  First of all, it is important to be frank about it with the person in question.  A nonjudgmental approach with warmth and caring is very important.

Encourage the person to see their doctor (their family doctor is the first place to start, most primary care doctors are quite comfortable treating depression).  Also encourage them to engage with their important social supports.  Spend time with family, go to church, plug back in with their friends.

Most important is to remind them that there are those who care about them and want them to be well.  They CAN get better, there IS hope.  Depression and suicide are NOT permanently linked, no matter what.

QUESTION:  Have you lost a friend or family member to suicide?


Social Connection Makes You Healthier

I have good news everybody!  I am embarking on my Integrative and Holistic Medicine board certification training 🙂  The conference and board exam are at the end of October, so let the cramfest begin, LOL!

The first topic I have been studying is fascinating: the study of the impact of social connection on health and wellness.  It makes intuitive sense that those with healthy relationships will be healthier, but it’s interesting that the science bears it out too.

There are three main types of social connection that have been studied in the literature:  relationships with parents, relationships with spouse or significant other, and relationships with community.  They are ALL critically important for overall wellness.

1.  Relationships with parents

Your relationship with your parents is the earliest social connection that you form.  Unfortunately this relationship isn’t really under your control (at least at the beginning).  Is it important for health to have a close, warm, supportive relationship with your parents?


In a study of Harvard students, they found that students who reported their relationships with their parents were “very close” or “warm and friendly” had a 50% chance of a serious illness over the following 35 years.  Those who reported their relationships were “tolerant” or “strained and cold” had a 100% chance of serious illness over the 35 years of follow up!  That is NOT a subtle difference!

The authors of this study thought several factors accounted for the difference in the two groups.  Healthy and unhealthy lifestyle behaviors begin developing in childhood.  Nutrition and stress in early childhood play a big role in healthy development of the child’s mind, body and spirit.  Choice of life partner in adulthood are strongly influenced by parental role models (i.e. you generally marry a person who is similar to one of your parents).  Coping strategies are learned from parental role models, including those that influence anxiety, anger and self-esteem.

2.  Relationship with spouse

In a large study published in JAMA in 1992, 1400 men and women with coronary artery disease (proven by a cardiac cath) were asked about their relationship with their spouse or a close confidante.  After 5 years, 15% of those who were married or had someone in whom they could confide had died, but 50% of those who were unmarried and had no close confidante had died.

This and other studies show that companionship and close relationships are good for your health.

3.  Relationships with community

A fascinating study was published in the 1990s about the town of Roseto, PA.  This is a small town that was settled by a group of immigrants from Italy.  In the 1930s to 1950s the people of Roseto largely lived in multigenerational homes, attended church regularly, and had close family ties.  Rates of myocardial infarction (heart attack) were unusually low in Roseto in spite of the fact that obesity, smoking, diabetes and other rates of typical heart risk factors were no different in Roseto than in surrounding communities.  In the 1960s Roseto started to become “Americanized” and began to lose this social cohesiveness, at which time the rates of MI started to go up until they were essentially the same as surrounding towns.

Social connection can even protect you from the common cold!  276 healthy people were asked about positive relationships and then given nose drops containing common cold viruses.  People who had less than 3 positive relationships got cold symptoms 4 times as often as those who had higher scores.

Social connection can be used as an intervention to promote health as well.  Patients with illnesses as diverse as metastatic breast cancer, heart disease and malignant melanoma have benefited from social support as a health intervention.

So what does all this mean?  We are social creatures and meant to create social connection with others.  The lack of close relationships with others creates stress and predisposes to illness.

Cultivating close, warm, supportive relationships with other people (both family and friends) is as important to your health as diet and exercise.

If you’re a parent, being conscious of the quality of the relationship with your child is important for their health in the future.  (Remember, it’s not what YOU think of the relationship but what THEY think of the relationship that counts!  Are you available, supportive, loving?)

If your relationship with your parents falls in the “tolerant” or “strained and distant” categories, it is important to see a counselor.  It can be toxic in the worst sense of the word to carry around unresolved anger and resentment against your parents.  There are therapy techniques that help work through early childhood experiences, “reparent” yourself and forgive your parents so you can move forward without all that baggage.

QUESTION:  If you were suddenly sick or injured, who would you call?  How many people would come rushing to the hospital to help you?  Who do you confide in?


Vitamin K Deficiency In Newborns

This year in Tennessee and other places around the country, doctors are seeing seriously ill infants with hemorrhagic disease of the newborn.  This is a life-threatening bleeding disorder that is caused by vitamin K deficiency in newborns.

All these cases occurred in infants whose parents refused to allow their babies to receive a vitamin K injection immediately after birth.

I am shocked that in this day and age babies are being exposed to the risk of a potentially fatal disease that is 100% preventable.  Since 1961 doctors and hospitals have been giving a single injection of vitamin K when babies are born.  This completely eliminated cases of hemorrhagic disease of the newborn.

Granted, this disease is rare even in babies who do not receive the injection.  Estimates are 2.5-17 cases per 1000 births.  However, if it is YOUR baby suffering lifelong disability due to a problem that is completely preventable I think even this small risk is too big.

Why do babies get vitamin K deficiency?  Although vitamin K (which is a fat soluble vitamin) does pass through the placenta, newborns don’t have very significant body stores of vitamin K.  After birth, the supply of vitamin K coming from Mom stops abruptly, and there is not enough in breastmilk or formula to meet their needs.

Human beings get vitamin K from their diet (in leafy green veggies like kale and spinach, as well as Brussels sprouts and tomatoes) and from beneficial bacteria in the intestine.  Newborn babies have NO bacteria in their intestine – and it takes some time for the bacteria to build up.  They rapidly can become severely vitamin K deficient.

Anybody out there know someone who takes Coumadin (warfarin), a blood thinner used to treat heart problems or blood clots?  Coumadin acts by blocking the activity of vitamin K to help make clotting factors in the bloodstream.  When babies get deficient in vitamin K, it’s like they’re taking Coumadin and getting blood that is thinner and thinner.

As a public service measure, neonatal vitamin K injection is a rousing success.  It completely eliminates hemorrhagic disease of the newborn.  I went to the Internet and looked up some of the objections natural-parenting advocates have to the injection.  After all, SOMETHING has to be responsible for the recent trend to refuse something as benign as a vitamin shot.  Here are some of the objections I found:

  • The dose is too high:  Granted, the dose is pretty high.  However, vitamin K is nontoxic and a one-time shot needs to be high in order to tide the baby over until the bacteria seed the intestine and begin making vitamin K.  Hemorrhagic disease in the newborn can be seen as late as 12 weeks of age.
  • Shots are painful:  Yes, needles hurt.  I give shots all the time.  They are not a fate worse than death, though, and those that think an injection soon after birth will cause irreparable lifelong psychic injury to their child are fooling themselves.
  • Oral vitamin K is just as good:  Actually, it’s not.  Hemorrhagic disease of the newborn is still seen in the Netherlands, where oral rather than injected vitamin K is the standard of care.

Vitamin K injections are safe.  They work.  They save babies from death and lifelong disability.  If you know someone who is expecting, please pass this article along and encourage them to discuss this issue with their obstetrician.  You may save your friend unimaginable heartbreak.