January 10, 2020

ASU professors on mindfulness, heart health, smoking cessation and more

The hard part of setting goals for the New Year isn’t necessarily deciding what resolutions to make — it’s keeping them. Fortunately, Arizona State University abounds with experts on everything from heart health to screen time to mindfulness.

So if you’re in the market to make some lifestyle changes in 2020, here are some suggestions from experts at ASU’s College of Health Solutions and Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, along with helpful tips for making them stick.

Be more mindful

Before you start getting down on yourself or dismiss New Year’s resolutions as a lost cause, ASU’s Chief Well-Being Officer and Edson College Professor Teri Pipe advises you to take a moment and consider self-acceptance as the first step toward personal growth.

“Resolutions often take us to a place of negativity or remedying a perceived weakness,” she said. “Instead, please remember that you can accept yourself as you are and at the same time be inspired to become a better, more generous or deeper version of yourself. Self-acceptance and becoming a better person are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they go hand in hand.”

And as the founding director of ASU’s Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience, Pipe knows that the practice of mindfulness has benefits for both mind and body.

Improve your heart health

Strapped for time but still want to keep your ticker in tip-top shape? Have no fear. College of Health Solutions Assistant Professor Siddhartha Angadi conducts research on the effects of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT — characterized by short bursts of intense activity — on cardiovascular and metabolic physiology in severe chronic diseases.

He has found that not only can shorter bouts of physical activity produce the same benefits as longer bouts, but that if the shorter bouts are ramped up from a moderate level (something akin to a brisk walk) to a vigorous level (where you’re almost out of breath but not quite), they may even produce more health benefits than longer, moderate-level bouts.

“Less can be more for a fitter you,” Angadi said. “Just 10 minutes of high-intensity interval training three times a week can improve your cardiovascular and metabolic fitness.”

Get more fiber

Though he recently published work outlining a new tool that allows consumers to weigh both the nutritional quality and the environmental impact of protein, Chris Wharton, College of Health Solutions assistant dean of innovation and strategic initiatives, said the average person probably doesn’t need to worry much about their protein intake.

“Chances are, you’re doing just fine getting (more than) enough protein,” he said. Instead, focus on fiber. Adults should shoot for 30 to 50 grams daily, primarily from vegetables, whole grains, beans/legumes and fruits for the best returns on health.

You may not be the most popular guest at dinner parties, but, he said, “The more gas you have, the healthier your diet likely is.”

Reduce your screen time

If a food-based diet isn’t your speed, Wharton suggests going on a screen-time diet. He and colleagues are working to develop more accurate ways to measure people’s screen time usage, associated health effects and potential interventions.

According to Wharton, the benefits of logging off are exponential.

“Reducing the time you spend with screens simultaneously opens time to plan healthier meals and cook, be active and spend time with family, friends and neighbors,” he said. “Because screen time is one of the greatest sources of sedentary time behind sleep and work, it is actually a gateway behavior. It’s really hard to be healthier in other areas in life if you don’t give yourself the gift of time to pursue healthier habits. Your screens are eating all the time you need to be healthier and happier.”

Lower your carbon footprint and reap health benefits

Apologies to Blue Man Group enthusiasts, but “Blue Zones” are not secretly designated practice spaces for the indigo-hued performance artists. A relatively new term, “Blue Zone” was coined by writer Dan Buettner in his 2005 National Geographic magazine cover story to describe areas around the world where people live longer than average lifespans — places like Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; and Loma Linda, California.

“Here is what no one in those societies ever did: go into ketosisKetosis is a metabolic process that occurs when the body begins to burn fat for energy because it does not have enough carbohydrates to burn. The popular “ketogenic diet” is a very low-carb, high-fat diet that puts the body into a state of ketosis. or obsess over hitting the gym,” Wharton said. “The take-home: Low-carb diets and cultish exercise regimens are not the foundation of longer life and more functionality in older age.”

Instead, Wharton suggests opting for a diet rich in fibrous plant foods and days anchored by modest, utilitarian physical activity.

“Enjoy your beans, avocados, salads and grains,” he said. “Take walks for the fun of it or hop on a bike to run errands. You’ll do incredible good for your health (and for the environment).”

Make the switch from processed foods to whole foods

More than just a trendy grocery story, whole foods are plant foods — such as whole grains, tubers, legumes, fruits and vegetables — that are unprocessed and unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible. Carol Johnston, College of Health Solutions professor of nutrition and associate dean for faculty success, suggests that transitioning to a whole-foods, plant-based diet is easier than you might think.

Simply start out by identifying the heavily processed foods in your diet (convenient/fast foods, such as pre-packaged and/or frozen meals) and slowly decrease your reliance on those foods by introducing food prepping and cooking at home to your daily routine.

You can also gradually decrease the amount of animal products in your meals by exploring recipes that use plant proteins such as nuts, edamame, quinoa and hemp seeds. In particular, Johnston has found mung beans to be a great protein supplement.

“The whole-foods, plant-based diet is flexible,” she said. “Focus on plant-based whole foods and eat eggs, poultry, seafood, meat and dairy sparingly; emphasize local/seasonal foods, meatless meals and colorful veggies.”

Stay hydrated

Most Arizonans know the immediate importance of hydration in the desert, but it turns out water intake can have effects on long-term health as well. Stavros Kavouras, College of Health Solutions assistant dean of graduate education and professor of nutrition, directs the Hydration Science Lab at ASU, where he is studying the impact of water intake on health and performance, as well its effects on chronic disease outcomes.

Most recently, Kavouras found that drinking more water could improve the quality of life for patients with Type 2 diabetes and potentially help prevent the disease in others.

He calls water “the forgotten nutrient,” and was quoted in a May 2019 ASU Now story saying, “People forget to drink water, forget to study water, they just forget to include water in anything. The MyPlate, the USDA’s current nutrition guide, does not even include water because every dietary guideline needs to be evidence-based and we have little evidence for water.”

In order to ensure you’re well hydrated, Kavouras recommends monitoring the number of times you use the restroom throughout the day (if it has been several hours and you haven’t been to the bathroom, that’s an indication you haven’t been drinking enough water), as well as the color of your urine: Dark yellow urine indicates dehydration. He also suggests his own personal habit of keeping a full glass of water in front of him at all times.

Sit less, stand more

Sitting is not the new smoking — College of Health Solutions Associate Professor Matt Buman and colleagues successfully debunked the insidious health myth in a paper published in September 2018 — but it can still be detrimental to your health. Too much sitting, Buman said, can lead to health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure — all of which can be life-threatening.

Because many modern-day jobs require employees to be sedentary at a desk, Buman’s research is focused on developing interventions for excessive sitting in the workplace.

“While reducing your sitting time at work doesn't take the place of regular exercise, adequate sleep or a healthful diet, it's an important part of an overall healthy lifestyle,” he said.

Consider wearing comfortable shoes so you’re more likely to want to move throughout the day, breaking up long periods of focused work with a short standing or moving break (as a bonus, the quick break can improve your focus and productivity), using the restroom on a different floor or getting up to talk to your coworker face-to-face instead of sending an email.

Kick that bad habit

Speaking of smoking … It’s 2020, not 1985. So maybe now is the time to finally say good riddance and flush that pack of Pall Malls (actually, you probably shouldn’t flush them; that could be bad for the environment and your plumbing.)

It’s a notoriously difficult habit to kick, though, so don’t fret if you need a little help.

“Tobacco addiction is a hard addiction to break because even though there are far fewer people smoking than there used to be, it’s a legal drug and it’s a very addicting substance,” said College of Health Solutions Professor Scott Leischow, who directs the Arizona Tobacco Control Program at the college and is a former senior advisor for tobacco policy in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In a January 2019 opinion piece for JAMA, Leischow argued that the smoking-cessation drug varenicline should be made available over the counter, as it is the single most effective medication for smoking cessation. He is now in the midst of a three-year, NIH-funded study to prove that point and hopefully get varenicline approved as an over-the-counter medication. Until then, you can always call the Arizona Smokers Helpline at 800-55-66-222.