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Fitness Your Way: Demystifying Healthy Living

By Charlotte Rodina, Contributing Writer 

If you’re worried this is going to be one of those New Year articles that make you feel guilty about a month of holiday eating and skipping the gym, fear not. With 2014 ahead of us, I want to encourage you to look at health in a new light— one that’s forgiving, patient and stress-free.

There’s a lot of mumbo jumbo floating around about how to stay healthy and fit: “Eat this new super food and you’ll lose weight.” “Do that exercise and you’ll be toned in no time.” A lot of it is conflicting, much of it is confusing and some of it is down-right unhealthy.

Trying to stay up to date can be tiring. However, most doctors will agree on one basic principle: It is important to keep moving. “Lack of activity, such as sitting at your desk most of the day, may be as bad as smoking for your health,” said Dr. Merdod Ghafouri, medical director of Novant Health Prince William Medical Center in Manassas. He added, “Exercise reduces the risk of chronic disease, such as Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, diabetic mellitus, depression, heart disease and stroke.”

Keep Moving

The good news is that staying fit doesn’t have to mean running on a treadmill every day. Do that and you’ll probably burn out, get bored or spend too much time indoors. The key is to find a workout that is challenging enough to keep your body active, yet not so challenging that you trade in your morning run for a morning donut come Feb. 1.

Dancing, hula hooping, kickboxing or doing yoga at local community centers and gyms can spice up your usual routine. Prince William even has indoor facilities for sports such as Parkour, soccer, ice skating and rock climbing.

As the weather warms, you can add more outdoor activities. Our area offers numerous places to hike, kayak, canoe, paddle board, mountain bike, run, golf, ride horses and more. You can also join a sports team or outdoors club to socialize while you sweat.

Check with recreational leagues for organized teams or use sites such as to find more informal groups.

If the idea of fitting another activity into your schedule is overwhelming, bring the fitness class to you. Purchase exercise DVDs or stream videos from websites such as Netflix and Hulu. A YouTube search for terms such as “10-Minute Abs” or “Kick- boxing Cardio” will return almost limitless workout options for any fitness level.

What you do matters less than making sure you do it, and that you’re safe and mindful of personal limits and potential injury. Moving regularly, combined with a healthful diet, is key, said Dr. Ghafouri. “Even if you can’t meet the recommended 30 minutes a day, any exercise you do will help,” he explained.

Wake-up Call

Lake Ridge resident Ralph Bowman, 64, learned this lesson the hard way. After 20 years of eating fast food for breakfast, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and not exercising, Bowman nearly died. On Aug. 13, 2011, he had a heart attack, with 100 percent blockage in the left anterior descending artery, and was rushed to the hospital.

“It was my wake-up call,” said Bowman, who volunteers at the Occoquan, Woodbridge and Lorton (OWL) Fire Department. He vowed to do what he could to naturally heal his body from years of unhealthy living, and has not had fast food or a cigarette since the attack.

Now that he has recovered, Bowman said he gets out and moves every day, and that exercise, along with healthier eating habits and not smoking, are why he is thriving today.

Bowman walks about three miles each morning in his neighborhood. Three or more days a week he also goes to the gym or to his basement to lift weights. He recently incorporated yoga workouts into his routine as well. Bowman said he can’t imagine a day without exercise.

“Before, I had a lot of aches and pains. But a lot of the inflammation went away when I made these healthy changes,” he explained. “I lost a good 30 pounds and a couple pant sizes, too.”

In addition to regular exercise, Bowman changed to a mostly vegetarian diet, with “copious amounts” of green vegetables, including spinach, broccoli, arugula and collard greens. For protein, he eats legumes combined with a complex carbohydrate, such as brown rice, and occasionally has lean turkey or fish.

“I feel really good. You must take that first step to improve your own health,” Bowman advised. “You control your own destiny.”

Power up to Relax

As Bowman’s story shows, staying fit improves not only health and waistlines, but also your state of mind. “Regular exercise can improve mood in people with mild to moderate depression. It also may play a supporting role in treating severe depression,” according to Harvard Health Publications in an article first printed in a 2011 report from Harvard Medical School. The report included a review of studies stretching back to 1981.

You don’t have to be clinically depressed to reap the benefits, though. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, working out can also reduce daily stress, release endorphins and improve sleep.

“The benefits of exercise are many, including improving blood pressure, cholesterol, sleep and your sense of well-being and mood,” said Dr. Ghafouri.

Manassas residents Janet Graham, 60, and her husband Saffan Adolsun, 63, exercise regularly for these reasons. Starting around 5:30 each morning, they weight train, stretch and walk. “If I exercise early in the day, I have high energy all day,” said Graham. “It’s a mood elevator.” Adolsun agreed. “It sets my day on a good path,” he said.

Meditation, mental exercise to improve the mind, is another way to maintain health. It’s a state of contemplation or reflection, usually with a focus on breathing and positive thought. A study published in the scientific journal Biological Psychology noted that meditation helps reduce cortisol, a stress hormone. High cortisol levels are linked to anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease and weight gain, according to the article, “Understanding the Stress Response,” published in the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

Meditating as little as 20 minutes a day has personally helped me balance a hectic life. While you can find meditation classes and books on the subject, online resources also come in handy. Websites offering free guided audio clips for meditation include, which also has yoga class videos. Once you get a feel for it, you can begin to guide your mind into restful and healing meditations that fit with your schedule and needs.

If endorphins from regular exercise aren’t enough to satisfy you, it may be time to tap into the adrenaline and physical and mental exertion of more extreme sports. For instance, rock climbing provides a full body workout. Offering lessons, day passes and equipment rental, Vertical Rock Indoor Climbing Center in Manassas is a good option for beginners who want to try the sport.

Or consider climbing the 50-foot “Alpine Tower” obstacle course at The EDGE, George Mason University’s Center for Team and Organizational Learning, also in Manassas. The team-building course, available to schools, community groups and companies, is designed to encourage people to bond, inspire each other and better understand themselves as they face challenges on the course, according to David Heath, program manager at The EDGE. April through November, the second Sunday of the month is an “open climb” day, when individuals are welcome to tackle the Alpine Tower.

Heath said that he climbs the tower regularly to stay in shape. He also hikes and canoes. Heath explained that climbing the tower forces him to stay in touch with emotions related to overcoming an obstacle, which he must motivate his clients to do as well. “This is going to sound funny, but I am really afraid of heights,” Heath said. “I feel the fear and have to deal with it.”

If height isn’t your forte, though, Heath suggested other exercises to get your adrenaline pumping, such as snowboarding, surfing, white-water kayaking or any sport that makes you confront fears. “Anything that gets you moving is good,” he said.

Food for Thought

Another critical component to lasting health is making good food choices. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease, stroke and diabetes, three of the leading causes of death, are categorized as “lifestyle diseases,” often related to poor diet and lack of exercise.

This past summer the American Medical Association classified obesity itself as a disease, with 35.7 percent of the nation’s adult population considered obese in 2010, according to the CDC.

Following decades of steady increases, this number leveled off in 2012 to 34.9 percent of the country considered obese, as Americans strive to make healthier lifestyle and food choices. But it’s still nearly double the obesity percentage for the U.S. population in 1997 (19.4 percent).

The good news is that lifestyle diseases can often be controlled by, you guessed it, making positive changes in your lifestyle. Small tweaks to your diet and fitness level may also greatly decrease your risks of developing these conditions.

After years of health research in college and afterward, I’ve sifted out a handful of guidelines I follow that support eating wholesome, nutritional foods as healthier than succumbing to today’s flurry of processed junk food.

This New Year I challenge you to take a more holistic and natural approach to the foods you choose to eat. Instead of following a strict or trendy diet, which can cause feelings of deprivation and lead to overeating in the long run, the following tips can help you to develop healthier habits that last a lifetime.

Guidelines to Eating Healthful Foods

  • Replace refined foods with whole foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables will leave you feeling fueled, filled and healthier. Cut back on refined flours and sugars and avoid eating highly processed, packaged foods that contain scary-sounding additives. If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.
  • Cook at home. If you’re craving Oreos, try making a more natural version from scratch. You’ll know exactly what you’re putting into your body, and you may even find cooking and baking to be relaxing and therapeutic. It could also help bring the family together.
  • Invest in your health. Buy high- quality ingredients now to save money on health bills later. Purchase and eat foods free of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and GMO (genetically modified organisms) ingredients to ensure that you’re giving your body the best fuel it needs to stay healthy.

Also remember that knowledge is power. “Educate yourself so you can make choices and, most of all, listen to your body and how it responds to foods,” said Dr. Stacia Kelly, who holds a doctorate in holistic health and is an independent associate with USANA Health Sciences. Figure out what foods help you feel healthy, strong and happy, she said. Every body is different, and every person’s diet should vary as well.

Lastly, this New Year, as you make your resolutions, think long term and sustainable. Maintaining your health doesn’t need to be about drastic changes or depriving yourself. Instead, you may want to consider it an adventure in discovering new ways to keep moving and well- fueled. Food and exercise can be some of the greatest pleasures in life.

Charlotte Rodina recently graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Mary Washington. To stay active, she plays soccer, runs, bikes and practices yoga. Rodina, who lives in Manassas and is the community outreach coordinator for the Spotsylvania Farmers Market, bakes and cooks at home with fresh, local ingredients. She can be reached at [email protected]

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