Spring’s Around the Corner

March 11, 2011 in Fitness, Health, Nutrition, Weight Management by Mary Ireland

A week from Sunday is the first day of spring. It is the time when we see the new beginnings all around us and when we start thinking of summer fun – the beach, swimming, picnics, and summer parties – Yikes! This is when the rubber hits the road on those “slimmer you” New Year’s resolutions - you remember those, the ones that were lost to (or at least obscured by) the realities of a busy lifestyle, winter weather and yes – that Valentines day box of chocolates - it is time to shape up - really.

There are so many good reasons to lead a healthy lifestyle and more data is coming in all the time. Since March is Brain Awareness Month, I wanted to share research on exercise and memory reported in the February 2011 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The research focused on how physical activity in older adults increased the size of parts of the brain that help regulate emotion and memory. These emotional and memory control parts are called the hippocampus and temporal lobe. These parts of the brain help regulate emotion and memory. The research shows that physical activity can counter the age-related loss in volume in these areas of the brain. Although research on the brain benefits of exercise have been well document in books such as Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, this is the first study on older adults.

The findings from this study dovetail with the results of another study reported in PNAS regarding the role of exercise in the renewal of mitochrondria.. Many scientists consider the loss of healthy mitochondria to be an important underlying cause of aging in mammals. Each cell contains thousands of mitochrondria which generate energy for the cell. As mitochrondria within a cell decline, the cell begins to decline also, leading to the eventual death of the cell. Using mice with mitochrondrial DNA mutated for accelerated aging, the study found that 5 months of endurance exercise -- three sessions a week, 45 minutes a session -- kept the mitochrondria healthy. Thus the aging process was essentially postponed in these mice, despite heir mutated tendency toward accelerated aging.

The results of these studies are significant – exercise is a veritable fountain of youth – what mankind has been searching for forever. So why don’t more people exercise? Even without these latest studies, people have been aware for quite some time of the substantial benefits of exercise including:

• Reducing the risk of premature death
• Reducing the risk of developing and/or dying from heart disease
• Reducing high blood pressure or the risk of developing high blood pressure
• Reducing high cholesterol or the risk of developing high cholesterol
• Reducing the risk of developing colon cancer and breast cancer
• Reducing the risk of developing diabetes
• Reducing or maintain body weight or body fat
• Building and maintain healthy muscles, bones, and joints
• Reducing depression and anxiety
• Improving psychological well-being
• Enhancing work, recreation, and sport performance

Even with all of these benefits, the Get American Fit Foundation reports that 78% of Americans are not meeting basic activity level recommendations and 25% are completely sedentary. So why is it that with all of these benefits Americans don’t exercise? Part of the answer may lie in self-control. A cohort study of 1000 children from birth to age 32 found that childhood self-control is a predictor of physical health. The study looked at the health areas of metabolic syndrome, respiratory disease, periodontal disease, sexually transmitted infections, inflammation and substance dependence.

The findings imply innovative policies to improve self-control might reduce healthcare costs that are threatening to become out of control because of the growing obesity epidemic. There are a number of options available for developing self control in children. However, even adults can improve self-control. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychologyfound that when subjects thought about a task in more abstract terms – for example why they should exercise and eat nutritious food, they were much more likely to delay gratification, endure more physical effort, and view temptations in a less positive way -- than people who thought about the concrete details of exercise and nutrition.

People generally have a predisposition to either seeing the “big picture” or “focusing on the details.” People who see the big picture naturally think in more abstract terms and are able to put psychological distance between themselves and the effort required to achieve the goal. They are more willing to put up with discomfort to achieve the goal. People who focus on the details have a much more difficult time completing the tasks to achieve a goal because they are much more psychologically involved in the tasks and don’t have the strong motivation of the end goal to push themselves beyond the momentary discomfort.

To use this information in increasing your self-control, you might (is it may or might – I really don’t know) find it helpful to first determine which category your thinking falls into: big picture or details. Next, if you are a details oriented person, you might find it helpful to identify situations in the past in which focusing on the details has been an obstacle in achieving your goals. If you find obstacles, brainstorm ways around them and implement those most likely to be successful. People in either group will benefit from clearly identifying the goal and the benefits of achieving it. If you have a tendency to ”lose sight of your objective,” perhaps creating a mental or physical visual of you having achieved your goal will help get you through the tough spots. Having a smaller or short-term goal such as looking good in your summer clothing can be motivational and a helpful step in achieving the overall bigger goal of being healthy and maintaining a healthy weight, but you will be more successful if it is the end goal.

At Dr. Grandma’s we say that “Good Health Can Be Yummy.” We don’t think people will persist in eating unpalatable foods, even if those foods may be healthy. So it is with exercise; we understand that exercise is not always yummy. But, it can be spruced up in our imaginations by seeing the big picture; exercise sessions can also be planned to involve fun and fellowship with others. We wouldn’t call that yummy, but delightful in another way. The common denominator is self-mastery. Self mastery applies both to how we exercise and how we eat; the rewards of self-mastery are even greater than the rewards of yumminess. The confidence, poise, balance, and grace of self-mastery is way above either palatability in foods or temporary physical buffness in body at a young age.

While we are waiting for spring and the scrumptious spinach and salad greens that will be growing soon, here’s another sweet potato recipe chocked full of nutrients.

Ginger Sweet Potatoes


3 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1/3 cup sweetener of your choice
3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).

In a large bowl, toss together the sweet potatoes, sweetener, ginger, olive oil, cardamom, and pepper. Transfer to a large cast iron frying pan.

Bake for 20 minutes in the preheated oven. Stir the potatoes to expose the pieces from the bottom of the pan. Bake for another 20 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are tender and caramelized on the outside.

Peel and cube potatoes.

Grate ginger.

Add cardamom.

Add ginger.

Add olive oil and stir.

Put in skillet and bake.

Ready to eat.