Just ’cause you’re super fit doesn’t mean your body is impervious to certain medical conditions, like metabolic syndrome. Here’s what you can do to win that game.
By Sarah Tuff
This story can be found in the current issue of Reps!, now on sale at newsstands everywhere. For lots more fitness, health, nutrition and exercise advice, get a copy of the May/June 2012 Reps!
As a Reps! reader, you know that staying fit and active and carrying lean muscle tissue takes effort. Just like your car, your hiking gear, your road bike or your mountain bike, a healthy, strong and muscular body requires consistent maintenance. Keeping your body in top shape not only helps you meet your training and sports performance goals, like a game of pickup basketball, but it can also help you steer clear of metabolic syndrome, a growing health condition that’s impacting American men. According to recent statistics, more than 35% of U.S. males, 20 years and older, show signs of metabolic syndrome, and it’s predicted that percentage will continue to rise.
While technically not a “disease” in itself, metabolic syndrome is a condition marked by the presence of a cluster of risk factors that could mean trouble for your health, often sooner than later. These factors include having a large waistline, high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, low levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol and high triglycerides (a form of blood fat). Obviously, having any of these risk factors isn’t good for your health or performance. But when a few of them are combined, it can contribute to serious disease. “Metabolic syndrome is a constellation of abnormalities that increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes,” explains Robert Henry, MD, president of Medicine and Science for the American Diabetes Association.
The good news is that you can steer clear of metabolic syndrome by living an active lifestyle and limiting your individual risk factors. By super-tuning your health, just like you would a car or your skiis, you can reduce your risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, systemic inflammation, atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke, erectile difficulties, possible assorted cancers, and keep your body at its best. As a Reps! reader, you’ve already got the tools to get going and take charge of your health. Here’s how you can do it.
Keep Your Belly Lean
Obesity is linked to a higher likelihood of developing all of the metabolic syndrome risk factors, but increasingly, research is showing that belly fat specifically is one of the biggest risk factors for metabolic syndrome. For men, a waist circumference over 40 inches signifies trouble, so keep your belly tight with these fit strategies:
Try cooking with safflower oil. A study from Ohio State University found that the oil (which can be used for sauteing veggies) is linked to reduced abdominal fat and inflammation along with improved cholesterol, blood sugar and insulin sensitivity. Use it to saute zucchini, mushrooms and bell peppers for your morning eggs or evening vegetable side dish.
Skip the situps. Crunches alone don’t get rid of abdominal fat. Strong, powerful abs are made mostly in the kitchen — a clean diet accounts for 80% of your fat loss. But when you’re on the go, you should focus on reaching the deeper muscle layers of your abdominals simply by drawing in your navel — try it while standing in line or sitting at work. The contraction will engage assorted motor units, keeping them active and healthy.
Add 5–10% more weight to your strength training routine. A recent study found that resistance training, combined with caloric restriction, was more effective than cutting calories alone in reducing unhealthy visceral fat (the deepest layer of fat on your body, especially your midsection). Before you increase the amount of weight you lift, make sure you can complete all sets of a particular exercise at your current weight with proper form.
Go for seven hours of sleep per night. People under the age of 40 who slept less than that amount every night, showed a 32% gain in visceral fat, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Sleep.
Every five minutes, add a two-minute high-intensity interval to your cardio routine. “Moderate activity will have a limited benefit,” says Gary Liguori, PhD, assistant professor of health, nutrition and exercise sciences at North Dakota State University. So, don’t be afraid to push the edge of the envelope regularly. Intervals are a particularly superb way to increase your calorie and fat burn, even for hours after you’ve finished the workout.
Control Your Blood Pressure
Your blood pressure is an important factor in staying healthy and avoiding metabolic syndrome. While the American Heart Association considers optimal levels to be anything below 120 over 80, it’s not uncommon for an active guy’s numbers to be even lower. But what if they get too high? If your number is 130 over 85 or more, it could signal trouble and may lead to a spike in your insulin levels. In turn, the increased insulin levels could cause the loss of magnesium and the retention of sodium in your body, which can increase your blood pressure even further, explains Kansas-based Ron Hunninghake, MD, coauthor of Stop Prediabetes Now (Wiley, 2007). As well, insulin spikes can derail fat loss efforts on the spot and lead to weight gain. Stop the cycle with these tips:
Take the salt shaker off the table, suggests Henry. “This will help you keep your sodium intake to less than one and a half grams per day.” A diet low in sodium helps prevent blood pressure from rising. Try it!
Differing Views on Sodium
The FDA’s Dietary Guidelines suggest that your RDA of sodium shouldn’t exceed 2,300 milligrams, but the American Heart Association disagrees, stating that you should limit your intake to only 1,500 milligrams per day. As long as you’re active and healthy, you can ingest the higher amount.
Super High-Sodium Fast Foods:
McDonald’s Angus Bacon and Cheese: 2070 mg of sodium
Wendy’s Baconator Double: 2020 mg of sodium
Carl’s Jr. Southwest Patty Melt Six Dollar Burger: 1970 mg of sodium
Fit in a nap, whenever you can. A new study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that those who slept 45 minutes in the daytime had lower blood pressure than those who didn’t. Even a shorter nap should do wonders for your overall health — and don’t forget, muscle grows when you’re asleep.
Add another workout to your week. The more active you are, the more likely you are to reduce high blood pressure resulting from a high salt diet, found a study presented at a recent American Heart Association meeting. On your scheduled days off, do what’s called active rest — ride your bike in the neighborhood, go for a light jog, play some Frisbee, or take your dog for a hike.
Keep Your Blood Sugar Balanced
Your body’s main source of energy is glucose, or blood sugar, which your body creates by breaking down the food you eat. But when glucose gets diverted from normal cellular function and builds up in the blood, it can lead to metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes. Keep your blood sugar levels stable with these guidelines:
Don’t skip a complete breakfast. Science has shown repeatedly that eating a full breakfast — complex carbohydrates and lean protein sources — goes a long way toward helping you control blood sugar for much of the day. One study showed that whole grain barley or rye helped particularly regulate blood sugar for long periods.
Store your big plates on a hard-to-reach shelf and save them for special occasions, like the odd time when your mom comes over. Replace them with smaller plates for day-to-day use. Then, use the plates to eat more often, ingesting smaller, more frequent meals of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and proteins, which can help keep your blood sugar balanced by limiting the spikes that come from eating processed foods, says Henry. Keep in mind that eating small meals six or seven times a day can actually help you lose weight and control hunger.
Program your training date and time into your smartphone. Exercising at the same time each day has been shown to help prediabetic and diabetic patients control their blood sugar, says North Dakota State University’s Liguori. Working out consistently, combining cardio and resistance training, makes the body more sensitive to the insulin it produces, even if you don’t have metabolic syndrome or diabetes. Increased insulin sensitivity means better blood sugar management.
Manage Your Triglycerides
Triglycerides are a form of blood fat circulating in your body. A high level of triglycerides thickens your blood, which increases the likelihood of clotting and blockage, and can eventually lead to health complications such as a heart attack or stroke. Excess triglycerides (greater than 150 milligrams/deciliter) may also be a signal of metabolic syndrome. Luckily, your lifestyle choices have an impact, which means you can control your numbers. Here’s how to keep your triglycerides below 150 during your next blood test:
Work out before you go out with the guys. Let’s not kid ourselves, we’re all going to splurge on nachos and beers at some point. But simply exercising before the indulgence can help reduce the negative impact on your bloodstream, found researchers at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Hitting the gym before a cheat meal can help reduce the amount of lipids in your blood because exercise alters the signals your body sends after consuming fatty foods.
Offer to be the designated driver. Even small amounts of alcohol elevate triglyceride levels.
Answer only the emails you must. For the others, stand up and go talk to your colleague instead. In fact, make it a point to get up out of your desk chair every 30–45 minutes and move around. A new study published in the European Heart Journal found that even if you work out on a regular basis, sitting all day at work can result in higher triglyceride levels and other risk factors for heart disease. Bonus: In the same study, those who took the most work breaks also had the smallest waistlines. So get moving in between all those hours spent sitting on your ass.
Boost Your Good Cholesterol
If you want to stay healthy, it’s not enough to keep your “bad” LDL cholesterol levels low (these are the ones that invade your blood vessels and cause plaque buildup that can lead to heart disease and stroke). You also need a high level of “good” HDL cholesterol, which cleanses your artery walls of bad cholesterol, shuttling it out and preventing it from clogging your bloodstream, thus reducing your risk for cardiovascular disease (remember, the arteries feeding your penis are among the smallest and can plaque up in your early 30s, leading to erectile difficulties at a young age). Ideally, your HDL levels should be 50 milligrams/deciliter higher. Here’s how you can boost your levels:
Eat fats — the right kind. You can top off salads or meals with a handful of sunflower seeds and a couple of tablespoons of chopped avocado instead of the processed, unhealthy croutons and cheese. According to a Canadian study, monounsaturated fats (which are found in foods such as nuts, seed, oils and avocados) can up your LDL levels, even when cutting calories to bring out that sixpack. So don’t rule out all fats from your nutrition plan; simply focus on the good fats.
Set a weight loss goal of six pounds. Losing that small amount can raise your HDL levels by 1 milligram/deciliter. With consistent clean eating and training — both anaerobic and aerobic — you can safely lose 2 pounds a week, making that six pound goal a mere matter of three weeks of effort. Then, recommit to lose six more to lower HDL again, and then go for it.
Watch your alcohol intake. Post-heart attack, most male survivors are told to limit their alcohol intake to two drinks per day, which is said to help raise HDL levels a bit. Anymore than that and you risk elevating your triglyceride levels.
Increase fiber intake. Whole grain foods and vegetables have been shown to increase HDLs cruising in your blood stream, while helping you trim that waistline, since fiber reduces the amount of fat your body absorbs from meals. According to the American Dietetic Association, the male RDA for fiber is 38 grams.