Yes You Can

All of us are challenged to change at one time or another - to run faster or longer, lift a heavier weight, eat better, lose weight, learn something new, or perform better at work.

In the past week, this issue of ability to change seemed to come up again and again. In one case, it was someone struggling to lose weight. In another, it was someone trying, but failing, to stick to an exercise program. For these folks, not being able to change had no dire implications, at least not yet, because they are both young.

But in the third case, lack of ability to change resulted in a person's death. I was talking to a doc who seemed a little down and asked her what was the matter. She said one of her patients had died - a 35 year old woman, 3 kids, husband, obese, smoker, drank a six pack a day of pop, on pain medications because of a car accident a few years ago. She had gone to bed after a couple of glasses of wine and never woke up. The doctor, frustrated and sad, said how hard and repeatedly she had tried to get the woman to change her lifestyle, but couldn't.

What is it that enables some people to change and others not? You'll find some of the answers in the most recent issue of Runner's World, in which there's a story about a guy named Ben Davis, a 25 year old who lost 120 pounds by taking up running. He made an inspiring short video about his journey that's well worth watching.

Reading his story, there are revealing clues as to how he was able to drop from 365 pounds.  As always, it started with his own strong desire, but there were other key elements which helped him succeed:
  • He did not let early failures get in his way. The first time he tried to run, he didn't last 8 minutes. But he kept running.
  • He started slowly, running a little, then more. A 5K, then a 10K, then a marathon. Small steps.
  • He had a social network of family members and friends that supported his efforts, and participated with him.
  • He started to hang out with runners from whom he could learn to model a new behavior - how to live like a runner.
Ben is a textbook case of self-efficacy, the magic key to motivation that has been studied and described so well by psychologist Albert Bandura. 

And his story has powerful lessons that we can all learn from, whether fit or fat.


The more I learn about what exercise does for health and well-being, the more I want to go around like a Bible thumping, southern preacher spreading the good word: Go forth and sweat! Then sweat more. Get off your butt and exercise. More, harder, any where, any time. Just exercise!

We've known for a long time that exercise is good for reducing risks for cardiovascular disease and diabetes through sugar control and weight reduction. And exercise how exercise promotes bone health, and reduces the odds for colon, esophageal, and other cancers.

We've also know for a long time that exercise releases endorphins that make us feel good, like serotonin and dopamine. But the role of exercise in brain health goes way beyond feeling good - it actually enables the brain to develop and adapt. We can thank psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School Professor John Ratey for bringing the good word to lay people like TOJs in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.
The contraction of muscles releases  Brain Derived Neurothropic Factor (BDNF), which in combination with Insulin-Like Growth Factor - 1 and several other factors and neuro-peptides, enables the brain to:
  • Develop new brain cells (neurons) through a process called neurogenesis.
  • Release even more neurotransmitters that make the brain function at a higher level
  • Improve vascularity, that is, grow new blood vessels to support brain activity and health
  • Exhibit plasticity, which is the adaptation of the brain to new stimulus or overcoming injuries

Exercise is a powerful brain medicine that's better than any supplement for persons of all ages. During and after exercise, BDNF and its companion chemicals literally saturates the brain, and the effects are seen all the way from the grey and white cortex, where high level thinking occurs, down into the hippocampus, the repository of our memories. Exercise:
  • Enables young and old learn and retain information better
  • Blocks age-related degenerative diseases
  • Reduces stress, ADHD, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addictions
These are audacious claims to make, but more and more research proves it's true. Weights and running shoes build your IQ. As yet, there's no definitive evidence if aerobic or resistance exercise is superior. Both seem to have similar positive effects.

This TOJ is living proof that exercise sharpens the brain. After watching IBM's Watson computer easily defeat some of the top players on the TV game show Jeopardy, I went out for a run and came up with a brilliant idea to prove the superior intelligence of humans - just unplug that damn computer.

See more exercise and wellness information at:
Last week I talked about supplements and toad venom. This week let's talk about dietary supplements and safety.

When people hear a supplement is “natural” and “plant-based,” they assume it must be safe, especially when there is no warning on the label. However, many plants are toxic; comfrey, for example, has a comforting sound to it, but it can be toxic to the liver and kidneys and cause death. Remember that almost half the pharmaceutical drugs prescribed by physicians or purchased over-the-counter are derived from plants (aka botanicals). In fact, many of the drugs in US supplements are regulated as pharmaceuticals in other countries.

The unfortunate truth is that seemingly innocuous supplements can make you sick, and be life-threatening, because they can interact with other supplements or medications. For instance:

     Immune system boosters, such as vitamin E, zinc, or echinacea, can interfere with drugs designed to suppress the immune system, such as corticosteroids, often prescribed for everything from asthma to brain tumors
     High-dose vitamins, fish oil, garlic or garlic can combine with an anticoagulant drugs, such as warfarin which also inhibits blood coagulation, and increase the risk of abnormal bleeding during dental and surgical procedures
    Calcium taken at the same time as some thyroid medications and antibiotics cause less of the thyroid medication to be absorbed into the bloodstream
    High doses of Vitamin A can damage the liver.  

    Vitamin D can damage the kidneys and cause calcium to be deposited in the soft tissues of the body.  

     High doses of vitamin B6 can cause neurological damage.

Also check out the National Institute of Health's supplement information:
Yet despite questions of supplement quality, efficacy, and  safety, we take them anyway. A TOJ just has to wonder - why?

Probably because some supplements do work for some people. Reminding ourselves, again, that each body is unique, certain people may benefit from them in some objective, measurable way. In some cases, there have been certifiable results, e.g., fish oil for heart health. Surely not every person giving a testimonial is a liar.
Also, we cannot forget the placebo effect, a baffling, but real, phenomenon that has proven many times, even in evidence-based medical settings, to influence health outcomes. The power of suggestion has worked miracles. Maybe people who take a pill and say to themselves “Now I’m going to lose weight!” start eating less and exercising more because on some subconscious level the pill gives them strength and determination to break old habits.
That's what I do with glucosamine-chondroitin. I take a couple of them, lace on my running shoes, and think to myself, "I will run forever." Yep, lots of dietary supplements are really a hope and a prayer.