Nutrition & Physical Activity

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What can I do with egg yolks?

Dear Reader,

What an egg-cellent question! Not only can egg yolks be used for recipes and DIY-beauty products, but also eggs are a healthy component of a balanced diet, as both the yolks and whites are rich sources of nutrients. Egg whites contain 4 grams of protein, only 17 calories, and almost no fat. While egg yolks actually contain more than 90 percent of the calcium, iron, zinc, folate, and Vitamins B6, B12, A, E, D, and K found in eggs, you’re correct that they can also be an unhealthy source of cholesterol

In fact, the American Heart Association recommends that Americans eat less than 300 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per day, but just one egg yolk has about 185 mg of cholesterol. One recent study even suggests that for people already at risk for heat disease, eating three or more egg yolks per week could be as damaging to arteries as smoking. Other research finds that eating eggs in moderation does not negatively affect cholesterol levels in healthy individuals. Check out the Alice! Health Promotion Nutrition Initiatives for more information about integrating eggs into a healthy diet.

If you do find yourself with extra yolks, you can use them to make custard, crème brûlée, aioli, Hollandaise Sauce, and more. For recipes, just do a quick Internet search for “egg yolk recipes.” Yolks can be saved for later by refrigerating them for three to four days or, for longer-term storage, freezing them in ice cube trays mixed with a pinch of salt or sugar. And for those who should avoid eating egg yolks altogether, there’s a sunny side — you can use egg yolks to create DIY hair treatments. Some people swear by egg yolks as treatments for split ends, dull or dry locks, and for strengthening weak strands. Again, a quick Internet search for “egg yolk hair treatments” will provide more than enough recipes to get you started.

Hope this was egg-ducational,


Lentil is a lentil is a lentil?

Dear Reader,

Lentils are small, round, lens shaped edible plants that are produced in various colors and sizes. They are celebrated for their long shelf life, low cost, and excellent nutritional content. Specifically, they are low in sodium and cholesterol, yet high in beneficial nutrients such as thiamin, phosophorus, copper, vitamin C, folate, iron, manganese, and dietary fiber. Better yet, because lentils generally don’t contain sulfur, they don’t cause gastrointestinal distress like many other legumes (e.g., beans). The variety in lentils exists mostly among their color, size, shape, and flavor — nutritional content remains fairly consistent across different lentil varieties.

Many different lentil varieties are sold in grocery stores in the United States. The following are the most widely available lentils on the market:

  • Brown Lentils: the most common lentil in the United States features a mildly earthly flavor profile and smooth texture.
  • Yellow Lentils: sweet and nutty, yellow lentils break down quickly when cooked and are used as a thickening agent in many recipes, such as Indian dal (yum!).
  • Red Lentils: a light red to orange color, red lentils are actually a split and hulled version of the yellow lentil, with the shortest cooking time of all varieties.
  • Black Lentils: dark on the outside, black lentils contain a light, creamy flesh and resemble beluga caviar when cooked.
  • Green Lentils: firm and flavorful, green lentils don’t break down easily with stirring or mixing, making them ideal for salads and pilafs.
  • French Green Lentils or Puy Lentils: a smaller and darker type of green lentil, French green lentils are firm in texture and distinguished by their lightly speckled surface.

Many vegetarians and vegans love lentils for their high protein content. In fact, lentils are the third most protein dense legume out there, trumped only by soybeans and hemp. Although lentils are a wonderful source of protein, it’s important to note that they’re an incomplete protein, meaning that one should also consume grains in order to provide the body with all essential amino acids to create a complete protein. The lentils and grains don't need to be eaten at the same exact time in order to be used by the body to build protein, as once was thought. The complementary proteins just need to be consumed within 24 hours of each other. Incomplete proteins come from plant-based foods, such as beans, rice, grains, legumes (other than soy), and vegetables.

The slight nutritional differences between various types of lentils are mostly a product of the manner in which the lentils are prepared. For example, whole green and brown lentils contain more fiber than hulled red and black ones; raw lentils are slightly higher in protein than cooked ones; and raw sprouted lentils may be higher in carbohydrates than other varieties.

Lentils are a fantastic addition to any diet. For more information about nutrition, check out the Get Balanced Guide to Healthier Eating as well as the Alice! Health Promotion Nutrition Initiatives. For questions about your specific individual nutritional needs, make an appointment with Medical Services on the Morningside Campus or Student Health at the Medical Center to speak with a healthcare provider or nutritionist.


Medicine balls for exercise?

Dear Reader,

Medicine ball training is a great supplement to regular exercise! Whether you’re trying to incorporate strength training into your exercise routine or you’re looking to target specific muscles, medicine balls can help improve overall fitness. However, medicine balls are not sufficient solely on their own. To be most effective, combine the use of medicine balls with other forms of aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming. Major benefits of using a medicine ball include improving muscular power, endurance, and overall fitness.

Since you’re new to exercising with medicine balls, it’s better to start with a light ball (3-10 pounds) and work your way up to greater resistance so that you can learn to maintain proper form. Simply holding a medicine ball over your head while you do crunches can improve your abdominal workout. Or you can recruit a partner to stand above you at your feet, while you sit and hold the medicine ball at chest level. When you lift up in your crunch position, toss the medicine ball to your partner and hold your crunch until your partner tosses it back. Lower and repeat. Make sure you have a spacious workout area. Or, if weather permits, take your medicine ball outside for a workout!

Here are a few more exercises to get you started:

  • Beginning in a squat position, hold the medicine ball in both hands between your legs. In a rapid movement, bring your arms upward and over your head. Then, bring your arms down and release the ball at chest level. Repeat.
  • Lie on your back with your legs straight and your arms extended over your head, holding the medicine ball. Simultaneously raise your legs and arms into a seated V-position, bringing the medicine ball over your head. Return to start position and repeat.
  • Sit on the floor with your knees bent, feet flat, and hold the ball at chest level. Lift your legs slightly to a 90 degree angle and rotate your torso to the left, tapping the ball on the floor outside your left hip. Bring the ball back to your chest and rotate to the right, tapping the ball on the floor outside your right hip to complete one repetition. Repeat. 

The size and shape of the medicine ball you choose may vary depending on the exercise being performed — probably anywhere from 2 pounds to over 25 pounds. A heavier ball is good for strength training, while a lighter ball is good for speed training. Many are round, but some also have handles, sports-specific shapes, or even ropes attached. The size does not always correlate to the weight. The materials in medicine balls usually include leather, nylon,or another rubberized material.

Strength training should be done a minimum of two days a week, with 8-12 repetitions of 8-10 different exercises that target major muscle groups. Not all of these exercises need to be done with medicine balls. Strength training can also be accomplished using body weight, resistance bands, free weights, or weight machines. If you are planning on a rigorous physical activity regiment, it’s always recommended that you speak with a healthcare provider. In addition to determining your health and fitness, s/he can provide you with more detailed information about developing a safer and more effective exercise program for your specific needs.

For a more personalized consultation on how to use a medicine ball, consider talking with a certified personal trainer at a fitness center. Columbia students on the Morningside campus may want to consider an on-campus personal trainer at Dodge Fitness Center.


It's Greek (yogurt) to me!

Dear It’s Greek to me,

Greek, or strained, yogurt seems to be making all the top healthy food lists and taking up ever more space on the grocery store shelves lately. It’s great that you’re skeptical of what could feel like a healthy food fad. While yogurt is generally considered to be a healthy food and can be part of a healthful diet, Greek yogurt does have an edge over the regular stuff.

Greek yogurt differs from normal yogurt in that liquid whey is strained out of the yogurt to give it a tangier taste and richer, creamier texture. But how different is Greek yogurt from regular yogurt? Not so different, it turns out. In fact, Greek yogurt can actually be made from regular yogurt — all that is involved is placing regular yogurt on a cheese cloth and letting some of the liquid whey drain out into a container below it. Greek yogurt has a similar nutritional profile as regular yogurt in terms of being a good source of protein, calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin (vitamin B2), thiamin (vitamin B1), and vitamin B12, as well as of folate, niacin, magnesium and zinc. Any type of yogurt that contains probiotics (live bacterial cultures) is associated with a number of possible health benefits, such as aiding digestion, having antidiarrheal properties, combatting carcinogens, regulating gut environment, alleviating irritable bowel syndrome, and boosting immune response. 

So from where does Greek yogurt’s slight edge over regular yogurt originate? Greek yogurt has a higher protein and lower complex carbohydrate content than normal yogurt, as the process of making Greek yogurt allows some of the sugars in the yogurt to be strained out in the whey-containing liquid. However, check the label on what you bought — some varieties have added sweeteners, resulting in higher sugar levels. Also, keep the fat content in mind. Though many non-fat varieties of Greek yogurt are now available, fuller fat varieties can pack in the saturated fat.  

If you like the taste and texture, then consider buying it again next week. The consumption of high protein snacks (Greek yogurt is considered to be an excellent choice) has been linked to reduced appetite, increased feelings of fullness and less frequent and heavy meals, compared to not snacking and to consuming regular varieties of yogurt. There are many uses for Greek yogurt besides as a snack. You could try Greek yogurt as a low-fat replacement for sour cream, in cooking, or as a salad dressing. Try swapping it for mayonnaise on a sandwich or in a dish like egg salad. Mixed with seasonings like garlic or dill, it can be made into a unique dip for veggies. Throw some fruit and granola on it for breakfast.

Hope you understand Greek (yogurt) a bit better now!


Gaming for exercise?

Dear Gaming for Exercise,

Using exercise video games, or “exergaming,” has become popular with many seeking to increase their physical activity in a fun and interactive way. While exergaming might not be as good as the “real thing,” it certainly isn’t bad for you. The bonus is that there is no credible evidence indicating that exergames are harmful or unsafe. So, if you find it difficult to motivate yourself to do traditional forms of physical activity, video games that involve exercise are an excellent alternative to being a couch potato.

Some exergames are better than others at encouraging aerobic activity and increasing motivation. There are many types and brands of exergames including those that are console based as well as those which use portable hand held devices. Some smart phones even allow you to download exergames giving them an added level of convenience. Exergame platforms offer a wide range of activities from team sports to yoga, and even dance.

Research has shown that, if you exergame at moderate or high intensity, you can indeed improve your fitness. The most effective exergames were found to be the ones that combine strenuous physical activity with entertaining gameplay as opposed to playing a video game simply for the fun aspect of it without emphasizing the physical activity component.

It’s fairly straightforward: For some, exergaming can be more fun than working out. So, if you don’t like to work out and find an active game that you like, this a better alternative to passively sitting on the couch playing traditional video games or watching TV! However, if you partake in exergaming, make sure to take breaks of at least five to ten minutes every hour or so to walk around and stretch. If able, stretch your lower back by standing up and pulling each knee to your chest, holding that position for a few seconds. 

While exergames aren’t exactly a substitute for other forms of exercise, they’re worth considering if you want to find ways to be more active. If you are a student at Columbia, make sure to check out CU Move, an initiative that offers the University community various opportunities to learn about and engage in physical activities that support healthy living. If you are planning on a rigorous physical activity regiment, it is always recommended that you speak with a healthcare provider. In addition to determining your health and fitness, s/he can provide you with more detailed information about developing a safer and more effective exercise program for your specific needs. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment with Medical Services using Open Communicator. You may also want to consider an on-campus personal trainer at Dodge Fitness Center. Columbia students at the Medical Center can make an appointment with Student Health or the Center for Student Wellness.

Game on!


One fish, too much fish, how much fish?

Dear Reader,

This is a simple question for which there is no simple answer! How often you should eat fish depends on a variety of factors, including your specific health concerns, the type of fish you like to eat, how much you weigh, whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, and how much fish you eat per sitting. In addition to being quite tasty, fish can have many nutritional benefits, including being low in cholesterol, a good source of protein, and chock full of Omega-3 fatty acids. The American Heart Association even recommends eating a variety of fish, preferably oily fish (e.g., salmon, tuna, herring, etc.), at least twice a week.

Most people can eat fish without being concerned, but pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children should be more careful. Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury, a type of mercury that can be harmful for pregnant women and young children. Mercury is present in both freshwater and oceans throughout the world as a result of industrial pollution. Generally speaking, older fish, larger fish, and fish that eat other fish will have accumulated the most mercury, thus there is lots of variation in mercury levels. There are three primary factors to monitor if you are trying to lower your consumption of mercury. These include the type of fish, the frequency you eat it, and the amount you eat per meal.

Some good general guidelines for fish consumption:

  • Eat fish that are lower in mercury. These include anchovies, clams, oysters, herring, tilapia, whiting, shrimp, sardines, salmon (in some cases), and a few others.
  • Eat less fish that are higher in mercury. These include tuna (especially steaks and sushi), Chilean Sea Bass, sharks, swordfish, eel, halibut, and orange roughy.
  • Eat a variety of fish. As an alternative to completely cutting high mercury fish out of your diet, simply eating a variety will make it more likely that some of the fish you consume is of the lower mercury variety.
  • Eat smaller (or fewer) servings of fish. Eating fish less frequently and eating smaller amounts will help keep mercury levels in check.

To get a more precise calculation of how often you should eat fish, check out the National Resources Defense Council's Mercury Contamination in Fish - Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish. Other helpful resources include the New York City Department of Health – Mercury and Fish, the Environmental Protection Agency, and New Yorkers can check out New York State Fish Advisories.

If you are still concerned about the amount of fish you should include in your diet and if there are any restrictions based upon your individual health needs, you should make an appointment with your primary care provider or a registered dietitian to discuss. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment at Medical Services using Open Communicator or by calling 212-854-2284. Columbia students at the Medical Center can make an appointment with Student Health or by calling 212-305-3400. 

Bon appétit!


Fruits and veggies on a budget. How do I avoid waste?

Dear Berry Healthy,

Eating healthily on a budget, when you can only get to the grocery store once a week, can be tricky. But fruits and veggies don’t have to break the bank or spoil on the shelf before you can take advantage of their nutrients! There’s a combination of strategies that can help. Buying fruits and vegetables that are low cost and nutritious combined with smart shopping habits, strategic meal planning, and effective storage can prevent waste. Here are some tips on how to more easily incorporate the good stuff into your diet and budget…

Before you go to the store:

  • Consider your options for shopping since a larger grocery store may have more options and lower costs than a nearby convenience store
  • Use coupons and monitor ads for what’s on sale
  • Know what’s in season to ensure freshness
  • Have a snack since it’s easier to stick to a budget at the grocery store on a full stomach

At the store:

  • Look for things that are on sale and buy in bulk to cut prices
  • Don’t buy single servings or pre-cut product, as this can cost much more than whole fruits and vegetables
  • Try hardy fruits like apples, bananas, pears, nectarines, and watermelon
  • Look for lasting vegetables like carrots, spinach, broccoli, collards, mustard greens, kale, potatoes, cabbage, and onions
  • Try frozen, especially for berries
  • Canned fruits and vegetables will last a long time, but choose those with no added salt or sugar

At home: 

  • Plan your meals to use up your purchases in a given week
  • Cook enough for multiple meals and freeze the leftovers
  • Fruit that is about to turn or purchased in bulk can be cut and frozen for smoothies or baking
  • Veggies on the way out can be frozen or made into soup
  • Store produce appropriately

List adapted from 30 Ways in 30 Days to Stretch Your Fruit & Vegetable Budget from the CDC.

This last point on prolonging the shelf life of produce varies wildly from item to item. Some veggies like to be damp (such as broccoli, dark leafy greens, and carrots), while others don’t like to get wet (onions). Some prefer the fridge (spinach), while others just need a cool, dry place (potatoes, winter squash). Remove or loosen any bands or twist ties from greens to let them breathe, and remove greens from items like turnips, radishes, and beets, as they draw moisture from the roots. Most fruits do well in a cool place on the counter, and shouldn’t be washed until you’re going to eat them, as added moisture encourages mold. You can ask your local grocer or take a look at how produce are presented in the store to get an idea of how produce like their environment. You can also check out get balanced! resources for additional information.

Hope these tips gave you some berry good ideas!


March 13, 2014

I will also cut up and freeze and fruit that is going bad, so I can use it in smoothies or baking later. Same would work for vegetables. I also have a dehydrator which I much prefer to freezing goods...
I will also cut up and freeze and fruit that is going bad, so I can use it in smoothies or baking later. Same would work for vegetables. I also have a dehydrator which I much prefer to freezing goods - could be an investment. :)

April 16, 2013

Try making a smoothie with the ripe fruits!
Try making a smoothie with the ripe fruits!

Sugar-free gum — Is it bad for me?

Dear Reader,

Humans have been chewing on natural materials for many, many years. Whether it was chewing on leaves, grains, waxes, or various types of sweet grasses, one thing is clear — humans sure do love to masticate. So, chew on this: In general, chewing sugar-free gum presents many more health benefits than health risks. The risks associated with the “chemicals” (i.e., artificial sweeteners) that are added to many sugar-free gums are minimal, at best. There just isn’t conclusive evidence to suggest that artificial sweeteners like aspartame are unsafe. Now, frequent gum-chewers who prefer their gum with sugar might run into trouble as sugared gums have been associated with higher rates of tooth decay and damage.

What, you say? You would like more on which to chew? Okay, here you go: Chewing gum is a great way to exercise the jaw and neck, prevent clenching your teeth, and keep your mouth occupied without consuming excessive amounts of food. Additionally, sugar-free gum can help you beat cravings for unhealthy sugary foods and beverages. Chewing sugar-free gum after eating is particularly effective because it boosts saliva production and flow, which helps to wash away digestive acids and food particles from the teeth. Additionally, sugar-free gum chewers benefit from fewer cavities, better breath, increased enamel mineralization, and less gingivitis, tooth staining, and dry mouth. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that the American Dental Association actively promotes sugar-free gum chewing because it is safe for oral tissues and actually improves oral health. Indeed, the University of York Health Economics Consortium found that if every member of the British population chewed sugar-free gum, the National Health Service would spend £100 million less on restorative dental care every year. Please keep in mind that chewing sugar-free gum should not be considered a substitute for consistent and thorough brushing and flossing. Nothing can replace those healthy habits.

Excessive sugar-free gum chewing (or any gum chewing for that matter) does present certain risks. Chewing gum with too much force can lead to temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD), a painful condition that affects the jaw, face, neck, and back. Additionally, chewing gum in various social environments such as the classroom or workplace can be distracting or irritating to others. Also, a significant amount of litter is attributed to chewing gum (both sugar-free and sugared) — something you are more than aware of if you’ve ever peeked underneath a table in a public space (or had a restaurant job where you had to scrape the stuff off).

There’s been some interesting research done on chewing gum, stress and health. In one study, researchers found that chewing gum (compared to not chewing gum) was associated with less consumption of alcohol, lower levels of work-related stress, higher levels of alertness, lower levels of depression, and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It’s also interesting to note that the folks who chewed gum were more likely to be smokers when compared to their non-chewing counterparts. An oral fixation, perhaps?  

So, rest assured, dear reader, chewing sugar-free gum has many more health benefits than it does health risks (unless you are a really loud chewer and, in that case, you may lose a few friends, something that can prove detrimental to your health). Happy chewing!


January 28, 2013

The one major bad thing about anything sugar free is the aspartame. Thousands, if not millions, of people are allergic to it but so many people dismiss that this could be a real allergy. I am one of...
The one major bad thing about anything sugar free is the aspartame. Thousands, if not millions, of people are allergic to it but so many people dismiss that this could be a real allergy. I am one of those that do have this allergy and my life has been so much better from removing it from my diet. Specialty stores online and paces such as Trader Joes have gum that is sugar free but also aspartame free and I would strongly suggest that for people to chew instead. Please consider letting people know this information. Thank you


Dear What’s in a nose,

Nose surgery, or a “nose job”, is one of the most commonly performed procedures worldwide. Some people need nose surgery to improve their breathing or for reconstruction after an injury or skin cancer, while others want to smooth a bump or change the shape of their nose for cosmetic purposes. And some, like you, consider it for reasons related to both form and function.

The septum is the wall in the nose that separates the two nasal cavities. A deviated septum is when the septum is displaced or otherwise inappropriately constructed, leading to symptoms like you mention such as difficulty breathing, as well as snoring, pain, nose bleeds, and difficulty smelling. Septoplasty is surgery that realigns the septum without any cosmetic alterations to the nose. Rhinoplasty is surgery that involves reconstructing or correcting nasal and septum pathways, as well as aesthetically altering the patient’s appearance by reshaping the nose. There is also something known as a nonsurgical nose job, which refers to an approach of using injectable fillers to alter the nose’s appearance. While this can be an option for subtle exterior irregularities, nonsurgical procedures do not address internal structural issues like a deviated septum.  

Rhinoplasty can either be performed “open” or “closed” (endonasally). In open rhinoplasty the surgeon cuts the fleshy bit that separates the patient’s nostrils. In closed rhinoplasty there is no exterior cutting, with all surgical work done inside a patient’s nose. Closed rhinoplasty is considered a more difficult procedure, but has a shorter recovery and faster operating time. Open rhinoplasty requires less experience, but has a longer recovery, slower operating time, and risks external scarring.

Every surgery has its risks. Before nose surgery, patients are screened to alleviate the risk for complications. A surgeon will look for risk factors such as a history of respiratory issues, drug use, smoking, medications that thin blood, and predispositions to nasal infection. The most common complication during nose surgery is bleeding, which, except in rare cases, is easily addressed. Infection is also considered rare, but patients are given antibiotics intravenously to help with this risk prior to surgery. Other potential negative effects include blocked nasal airflow (commonly goes away after two to three weeks) or deformities that subsist for more than a year.

Both septoplasty and rhinoplasty can be performed under local or general anesthesia, depending on the exact procedure and the patient’s preference. General anesthesia can be administered either through an orally inserted tube (this method also helps reduce how much blood the patient swallows) or intravenously. Though anesthesia can be dangerous, cases of mortality from its use are rare and predominantly (>50%) involve young children (0-3 years). Cardiac arrest and respiratory system failure are possible complications from anesthesia. Out of roughly 1,000,000 patients given anesthesia over four years, less than 300 cases of cardiac arrest were reported with less than 75 of those resulting in a fatality. Things that increase the risk of anesthesia complications are youth (particularly 0-3 years), eating before surgery (at least eight hours of fasting is required), or being in a rushed/emergency situation.

In deciding between the different procedures, it might be of interest to know what patient’s say about their quality of life after having one done. A survey found that 85% of septoplasty patients with impaired nasal functions (mainly breathing related) report being satisfied with their procedure and found an average increase in a nose health/functionality performance scale from 23/100 to 67/100 following the procedure. Only 40% of rhinoplasty patients reported improved nasal airflow, though this is because many rhinoplasty operations are performed solely for cosmetic purposes. In terms of post-operation nasal appearance and function, 90% of rhinoplasty patients reported feeling satisfied.

If you decide to opt for rhinoplasty, look for a surgeon with experience in plastic surgery of the nose who has a good reputation of patient satisfaction and has before and after photos of their work available. The American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS) is the most common body that certifies rhinoplasty surgeons. Rhinoplasty can be a costly procedure, so you may want to call individual surgeons in your area to see what they charge. Insurance may cover surgery for a deviated septum though it usually does not cover purely cosmetic rhinoplasty, so be sure to check your policy before making an appointment.

It is unlikely that either procedure will affect your voice or singing abilities, but be sure to talk with any potential surgeon to determine your own risk depending on what will be done during your surgery. Bandages usually come off from surgery in less than a week. Depending on the extent of the procedure, the healing process can take many months to see final results once swelling and numbness subside.

While you consider a septoplasty or a rhinoplasty, it may be helpful to ask yourself when you began to consider your nose to be an issue. It sounds like your ex-boyfriend’s joking about your nose got a little under your skin. Is this the first time that you remember thinking about your nose this way or have you always felt this way? Has anyone else ever said anything about your nose to make you self-conscious? Because there is a chance that you might be unhappy with the results of a rhinoplasty, it may help to think about if you’re ready for a permanent change to your appearance. Check out some of the Related Q&As below on corrective surgery, surgery for cosmetic reasons, and body image that might address more factors to consider when deciding whether or not to get a procedure done.

After some reflection you might decide to embrace your unique look and opt only to address the breathing concerns associated with your septum. At the end of the day, and as you noted, this decision is really for you and you alone. Whatever option you end up choosing, hopefully you’ll be breathing easier soon!


January 3, 2013

I'm 21 and I did it about 3 months ago, I'm happier than ever! You won't regret it.
I'm 21 and I did it about 3 months ago, I'm happier than ever! You won't regret it.

History of bad sit-up form...What should I do?

Dear Reader,

The truth is you might have been at risk of for straining your back muscles even if you had been doing sit-ups properly. Experts consider the sit-up to be an exercise that has only limited effectiveness in strengthening your core muscles (the muscles that make up your side, abdomen, and back). Fortunately, there are alternatives to sit-ups that are considered safe and effective for maintaining core muscle health and for building abdominal muscle.

As you mention, sit-ups have the potential to lead to back pain. Sit-ups are known to place significant strain on the spinal column, which can result in back problems. In addition to working abdominal muscles, sit-ups work the hip flexors, which attach the lower back to the spine. Overworking the hip flexors can cause back pain when the muscle pulls on the spine. Doing sit-ups on the ground can further strain the lower back because it gets pushed into the ground as you exercise. If sit-ups are performed with arms around the head, you may pull up on the neck and risk injury. Because sit-ups focus exclusively on building a single core muscle (the transverse abdominis) they also risk destabilizing the spine, which relies on a balance of all the muscles of the core to function properly. Thus, experts suggest that core exercise regiments include a balance of exercises designed to strengthen the major muscles of the side, abdomen and back.

The following strength training exercises can work the entire core without leading to the back pain associated with sit-ups:

  • Consider plank exercises. In this exercise, the body is held up by the arms. Start by lying flat on your stomach. Then, press your body up using your forearms. Stay in this position for 30-60 seconds. You can also do a side plank which focuses more on the oblique muscles. For this exercise, start by lying on your side and then pressing your body up with the forearem closest to the floor. Hang out there for a while — you’ll start to feel the burn.
  • The “bird dog” is also a great core-strengthening exercise. Start on all fours and raise your left arm and right leg and then alternate to raising your right arm and left leg.
  • Pilates. This is actually a group of exercises which place special emphasis on developing a strong core. You can look into taking a Pilates course with a trained instructor; there are also a variety of books and videos available that teach proper Pilates technique.

Instead of doing sit-ups, you could also try crunches. To do a proper crunch, lie on your back, bend one knee, and then gently lift your head and shoulders pausing for a moment; then, lie back down. When doing crunches make sure to place your hands below your lower back in order to give it support. Additionally, avoid hollowing out your stomach or pressing your back against the floor during this exercise. Still, if you opt to continue doing sit-ups, make sure to utilize the proper sit-up technique. This will help reduce your risk of injury and maximize overall effectiveness. When doing sit-ups you may also want to consider using an exercise or stability ball, like the one you mentioned, because it will limit the strain placed on the lower back when sit-ups are done on the ground.

If you are experiencing chronic back pain you may want to consider getting checked out by your healthcare provider. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment with Medical Services by logging-in to Open Communicator. Morningside students can also look into the option of a personal trainer at Columbia’s Dodge Fitness Center.  Columbia students at the Medical Center can make an appointment with Student Health.


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