Tag Archives: fitness

Vitamins and minerals

January 17, 2014

As more people abandon their minty new resolutions and slip back into old habits, the fervor over the merits of movement increases. Walking is touted as a magic solution to making you happier, saving you money (also a very popular resolution), reducing anxiety, promoting better sleep, and pretty much any positive effect, probably even retroactively giving you that pony you wanted for Christmas as a kid. To add another gold star atop the seasonal hype, walking, when done properly, can also assist you in getting some of the vitamins and minerals you need.

Specifically, vitamin D is one necessary substance the body is able to produce in abundance, if given the opportunity. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, reduces inflammation, regulates cell growth, and supports neuromuscular and immune function. While plenty of it can be procured from foods or supplements, why not make it yourself? It’s fun and foolproof — a little bit of skin exposed to sunlight will do all the work. Even on these hibernal days, that’s not too tough.

It could be worse -- snowpeople, apparently, do not make vitamin D with sunshine.

It could be worse — snowpeople, apparently, do not make vitamin D with sunshine.

After all, what are our alternatives? In Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, one of Edible Geography’s top books of 2013, Melanie Warner looks at the food-processing industry and spends a chapter tracing the manufacture of the vitamins that make our meals complete.

The path starts in a strange place. Following the course of a ship leaving Australia, filled with all the raw material goods “you’d expect to be exported out of Australia”, Warner accounts its landing weeks later in the ports of Shanghai. “There isn’t a lot of historical precedent for wool being transported along this route,” she says, but recently China has been importing about 50% more Australian wool than it did at the beginning of the century.

“This is about much more than the manufacture of sweaters. Much of the wool China buys is equally valued for the grease embedded in it as for the wool itself. As ducks secrete oil to make their feathers waterproof, sheep produce a similar fatty substance that helps protect them from harsh weather. Australia’s wool is particularly greasy, and this grease — or various derivatives of it — is useful for making a whole slew of industrial and consumer products. Some portions go to produce lubricants for machinery and waterproofing for boats. Others, like lanolin, become lip gloss, moisturizer, and sunscreens.

And there’s another end point for this grease — something hardly anyone would ever associate with wool. At a factory in Dongyang, a burgeoning industrial center on China’s eastern coast, the grease’s cholesterol component is used to make Vitamin D. Zhejiang Garden Biochemical is the world’s largest maker of this vitamin — one that goes into nearly all the milk Americans consume (including organic varieties), as well as many of our breakfast cereals, breads, bars, margarine, and other dairy products.”

Ironic, then, that the ability to shield ourselves from the sun and to make up what we miss from its light are both derived from the same animal product. Why ship your vitamins across the globe if you can get them just blocks from your home? Isn’t it preferable to ensure enough vitamin D in your body with some simple, outdoor steps? Sunlight, even on a cloudy day, and fresh air (don’t walk by the incinerator) will be more certain help than synthetic compounds of questionable purity and efficacy.

No healthy bones for this snowperson, who has not been eating its vegetables.

No healthy bones for this snowperson, who has not been eating its vegetables.

Miscellaneously, as Warner discusses in an adjacent chapter, the feuding Kellogg brothers, cofounders of the sugary-sweet, vitamin D-fortified cereal empire, both lived to the advanced age of 91. In the late 1890s, John Harvey Kellogg developed a healthy dried-grain breakfast for former patients of his sanitarium in Battle Creek. His younger brother, Will Keith Kellogg, came to work with him. While John was out of town on business, W. K. tweaked the recipe for cornflakes, their breakthrough after various wheat-based concoctions, to include a measure of sugar. Customers were delighted and sales attained unprecedented heights. The only person who wasn’t thrilled was John, who demanded that the sugar be removed. When Will refused to acquiesce, the two split, with John maintaining the sanitarium, becoming increasingly destitute after the Depression, while W. K. Kellogg raked in the fortune.

One can only infer that W. K. most likely indulged in these new and improved cornflakes, though as Seventh-Day Adventists, both brothers kept to a strict vegetarian diet and reportedly avoided other vices. The pinch of sugar doesn’t seem to have impoverished his life any, and sheep-grease supplements were not all the rage then as they apparently are now. The twin spans of their longevity seem as good evidence as any against the verity of health claims put forth by these manufacturers of wholesome products.


January 15, 2014

It’s hard to believe it’s the ides of January already, well past the holiday season judging by the number of evergreens thrown to the curb.


Around the holidays, still in the thick of celebrations, the radio was already abuzz with ardent talk of resolutions for the new year. Shows about lush holiday entertaining were broadcast adjacent to those on which guests were interrogated about how they might resolve to become their better selves in a few days. As usual, a notable majority talked about being healthier. Women polled about their resolutions were more concerned with losing weight, while getting fit was how men envisioned their new year goal.

Since then, the media situation has not improved. Articles with instructions on sticking to these sometimes unrealistic expectations have proliferated, along with supporting materials. New York Times writer Jane Brody calls this the “Empty Diet Claim Season,” and reports being overwhelmed by 25 pounds of new cookbooks arriving at the office. Targeted to aid weight loss and wellbeing, titles such as Cavewomen Don’t Get Fat and Weight Loss for People Who Feel Too Much offer myriad ways to accomplish these aims.

Advice that can be easily assimilated from the comfort of a favorite couch or armchair means well, but the consensus is that neither diet nor exercise alone will cut it. Walking is an easy resolution target, too often seen as a compelling way to court fitness without breaking too great a sweat. While it might help maintain some level of fitness, walking isn’t going to get you in shape on its own, at least at the poky pace most of us move.

Some people vow to walk more; others to walk faster in response to recent research analyzing data from the National Walkers’ Health Study. Using data collected from almost 39,000 walkers, albeit a disproportionately female sample, researchers divided the walkers into four categories based on their typical speed as measured by a six-minute walk test. All four categories boasted suspiciously high speeds — the fastest group walking a mile in under 13.5 minutes and the slowest dawdling at almost 17 or more minutes per mile, which is still an above-average 3.57 mph.

In the slowest group, however, many walkers needed 20 minutes to finish their mile, the number of minutes by which Google times directions, and some took as many as 24 minutes. Comparing walking data with death records more than a decade after the study took place, the researchers discovered something not wholly surprising — the walkers in the fourth group were 18% more likely to have died, especially from heart disease or dementia.

The unexpected news from the study was that the death rate was still high for the slowest walkers even when adjusted for duration of their walk. Taking a longer walk, thereby expending as much total energy as a person walking “vigorously” for a half hour daily, did nothing to help the participants’ risk of dying. The very slowest walkers were actually 44 percent more likely to have died than others in the study, despite duration of walking or other exercise.

Who can tell, though, the researchers concluded, which problem came first — a lethargic walking speed or an underlying health condition, or whether the capacity for high intensity exercise is a characteristic independent of habitual physical activity. And although results were adjusted for other risk factors such as smoking, it’s worth noting that the fastest walkers also ate a lot more fruit, a lot less meat, and imbibed a shockingly higher quantity of alcohol than the slowest walkers.

All in all, whether such a study comes off as sound science or ableist propaganda, we’re still in favor of walks, long walks, and honoring the comfortable human pace at which we evolved to move. As avid New York walker Maggie Nesciur said, “I don’t walk fast; I don’t walk slow; I walk at my own speed,” her steady voice revealing a deep sense of integrity. It would be ideal if this pace happened to be the ultra-healthy 4.45 mph of the fastest walkers in the study, but as long as you can finish crossing the street without getting hit by a surge of traffic, it’s probably fine.

If not, one of the best parts of resolutions is how easily they can be changed, unlike the habits they are often meant to modify. Since many resolution-makers are already entirely off track by now, just two weeks into the new year, it’s about time to make some new resolutions anyway.