Q: When I feel stressed, will walking make me feel better? If so, how many days a week and how long should I walk? — Evie, via e-mail
A: Yes! A walk definitely will unwind you. Your body is hardwired to spring into action when stress hits. Any threat — an oncoming truck or an upcoming tax audit — sends your nervous system into overdrive. It's the famous “fight or flight” response, and it floods your body with stress hormones, which gear you up to either take action or take off.
But if the stress in your life never seems to let up, those hormones do more harm than good. Your muscles stay tense, your blood pressure soars, your whole body is in constant poised-for-a-barfight mode and the anxiety wears at you. You actually get wiped out by constant stress.
What to do? Gain energy by taking a walk. As little as 20-30 minutes a day of walking, seven days a week, reduces anxiety and turns tense frowns upside down. Anxiety researchers recently said physical activity is basically the intelligent man's antidepressant. It's a cheap, safe, fast alternative to drugs that act on the brain's neurostransmitters to improve your mood. Drugs usually take six weeks to start working. A walk takes 20 minutes.
Q: I'm 52 and have arthritis in my fingers, back, neck, shoulders and knees. I recently had partial thumb-joint replacement. I asked my rheumatologist about an “anti-inflammatory diet,” but he discounted the idea. Is this bogus, or could it help? — Rochelle, via e-mail
A: Will eating foods known to reduce inflammation make your arthritis totally go away? Nope. Can it help reduce pain, stiffness and give you more mobility? Yep. A recent review of multiple studies found that taking omega-3 fatty acids reduces pain, morning stiffness and tender joints in those with rheumatoid arthritis. It helps so much that you'll likely need fewer anti-inflammatory drugs. (The usual omega-3 dose: 2 to 6 grams of fish oil a day, or 600 mg to 1.2 grams of its active joint component, DHA.)
It's not just omega-3s that help. There are substances in extra virgin olive oil that also seem to have anti-inflammatory properties, including oleic acid. That's why the so-called Mediterranean diet (loads of vegetables, fruit, olive oil and fish) is great for you. Vegetarian diets can ease arthritis symptoms too, maybe because so many plant-based foods are anti-inflammatory. Both diets are good for you regardless, so try either one. If you feel better, tell your doctor. Don't gloat too much!
Q: I work nights and need to lose weight. I walk at least 30 minutes a day, sometimes more. What else can I do to see results? — Anonymous
A: Working the graveyard shift can be a quicker route to the cemetery if you let it. Night work is linked with everything from obesity and diabetes to cancer. So you're smart to go after excess weight, but you'll need to outwit your own body chemistry. Your hard day's night may scramble several hormones that regulate appetite, how many calories you burn and how much fat your body stores. Eating when you should be sleeping also increases your odds of gaining weight. (This goes for late-night noshers who work days, too.)
Plus, being tired can make you reach for sugary, quick-energy (think vending machine) snacks and drinks.
Here's what we'd do (and we've both worked many long nights in hospitals): Make your eating schedule as normal as possible. Before you start your shift, eat a dinner-sized meal with loads of fiber from whole grains, fruits and vegetables, rounded out with lean protein. Bring a satisfying but lighter “lunch,” even if lunch is at 1 a.m. Avoid sugar and caffeine. Both will give you a jolt of energy but then knock you flat, sending you back to those vending machines.
To stay alert, do something physical (jumping jacks are fine!). Night workers who exercise not only need fewer pick-me-ups but sleep better and are less fatigued than chair-ridden colleagues. When you get home, eat a light breakfast or just snack on walnuts and an apple, relax with some music or the paper, then go to bed in a darkened room and get a good day's sleep.