What is the healthiest diet?

Finnish nutrition recommendations are based on extensive research and describe which dietary choices are good for health. Examples of healthy diets include the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. A healthy diet can be put together in a variety of ways, but the cornerstones are a high consumption of vegetables and fruit, and the use of whole grains. A healthy diet also contains soft fats containing essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids). For example, these can be obtained from vegetable oils, including rapeseed and olive oil, as well as from fish and nuts. A feature common to healthy diets is the moderate use of salt and red meat.

In addition to the quality of the diet, it is also essential that the energy intake is at the correct level for one’s own energy use. At the level of the individual, a diet is structured according to one’s own habits and preferences, but the guidelines for a healthy diet should be kept in mind. The basics of a healthy diet do not change as often as the nutrition-related news and diet advertisements in the media sometimes imply. If you feel there may be room for an improvement in your own eating habits, it is best to begin changing them in small steps. Instead of jumping into the latest trendy radical diet, you may want to consider what small changes you can make to start to change your diet in a healthier direction permanently. In the end, the healthiest diet is probably one in which eating habits that are beneficial to health and suitably flexible are a natural part of everyday life in the long term.

Answered by University Teacher/Postdoctoral Researcher Enni-Maria Hietavala. In her doctoral thesis, Hietavala examined the effect of nutrition on acid-base balance and physical performance. She teaches sports nutrition to students of the biology of physical activity and studies the eating habits of middle-aged women.

How do you know when recovery and training are in balance?

Physical exercise upsets the balance of the body. During the time between exercises, the body adapts to the training stimulus and when the exercise is done well, the correctly strained property develops. In the short term, recovery from exercise can be assessed by the recovery of performance. Generally speaking, hard exercise momentarily weakens performance, while light preparatory exercise can increase it.

In the long term, a prerequisite for regular high-quality exercise is that the body has time to recover between exercises. Recovery is also essential for the results of the training. Recovery is also affected by strains other than those caused by exercise, and it is impossible to distinguish between stress caused only by exercise and strain from other causes in life. Excessive accumulated total strain in the long term is usually first noticed in mood changes and unwillingness to exercise. In other words, exercise is not enjoyable in the same way as in a normal situation. In addition, muscles may feel stiff and sore. For example, someone who monitors their heart rate may observe an elevated resting heart rate, or the heart rate may be abnormal during exercise. Imbalance between exercise and recovery can also be indicated by difficulties in sleeping.

Answered by Postdoctoral Researcher Johanna Ihalainen, who studied the effect of exercise on inflammation markers in her doctoral thesis. Currently, she runs research related to the Training Room –project which aims to ensure more healthy training days for athletes. Her main research interests at the moment are injury and illness prevention in athletes as well as the effects of menstrual cycle related hormonal fluctuations on performance, recovery, and injury risk.

What is the right amount of exercise for a child?

For children under school age, exercise can be understood as physically active play. Physical activity, as defined here, is a way for a young child to learn about the environment, socialise and acquire new skills. With age, physical activity increasingly becomes a social bond, helping to establish and maintain peer relationships. Requirements for independence grow at the latest at puberty. On the other hand, physical activity is linked to physical health, for example, bone development and the prevalence of risk factors for cardiovascular disease, already from an early age.

The most recent recommendations take into account the various meanings of physical activity in children’s lives as described above. Published in 2016, the “Recommendations for physical activity in early childhood” recommend a minimum of 3 hours of daily physical activity for children under the age of 8. The recommendations emphasise the role of the family and the importance of learning physical skills. Similarly, the 2008 physical activity recommendations for children and adolescents aged 7–18 recommend at least 1–2 hours of physical activity per day at the age-appropriate level. Trying new sports alone and with friends is also recommended. So, the physical activity recommendations tell us how much exercise children and young people should have in terms of growth and development. However, it is at least as important to consider their message about the recommended quality of the physical activities. Long-term engagement in physical activity has been shown to be based on positive physical activity experiences in childhood and adolescence, as well as on implicit support for the community’s physical activity.

Answered by Postdoctoral Researcher Arto Laukkanen, who has researched the promotion of physical activity habits for families with children in his doctoral thesis and worked, among other things, as a member of the Recommendations for physical activity in early childhood (2016) team. Currently, Laukkanen is researching children’s perceptions of parents’ support for physical activity and their relationship with changes in physical activity during the transition from day-care to elementary school as part of the geographically comprehensive Active Family research project.

If my muscles are not sore after weight training, has the workout been effective at all?

Delayed muscle soreness usually occurs between 24–48 hours after demanding exercise, but some type of soreness may already be present after about 8 hours. The exact mechanisms of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) are not well known, and they also depend on the individual and situation. DOMS involves small muscle damage or other microscopic changes in and around muscle cells. It is a fairly common idea that these microscopic tears of the muscles send a signal to the muscles to make them bigger and stronger by repairing them, but it is not that simple.

In many studies, muscle size and strength have increased, whether or not the exercise causes significant delayed muscle soreness. Conversely, many forms of exercise that do not induce muscle growth can cause micro-damage and delayed muscle soreness. Marathon running is an example of this. It is clear that muscle soreness alone is not a very good indicator of an exercise that stimulates muscle growth or especially increases strength. Indeed, we know about much more important factors for stimulating muscle growth than micro-damage to muscles and the resulting pain.

However, DOMS is a reasonably good indicator of the exact muscles at which the exercise has been directed. For example, it reveals that the exercise has been hard, with a potentially wide range of motion emphasising the deceleration phase of the movement, and most of all, that a long time has passed since the previous similar exercise. Although the phenomenon is quite individual, muscle soreness is often most intense after a new type of exercise. That is, training new movements hard for the first time or changing the training programme causes delayed muscle soreness. However, after the first few times, similar muscle soreness will usually not occur in the future if the workout remains similar. This is called the repeated bout effect.

So, occasional muscle soreness is not a bad thing: it may actually be the opposite. It merely shows that new things have been tried and the exercise has been hard. Afterwards, it is a good idea to rest and let the body’s recovery processes do their work before the next tough session.

In summary, Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is not in principle needed to develop. On the other hand, a complete lack of muscle soreness often indicates that the training has been limited, there hasn’t been enough increase in the load of the exercise, or that some forms of training may have been neglected.

Answered by Associate Professor of Exercise Physiology Juha Hulmi, who specialises in muscle growth and metabolism in his research. He has authored two Lihastohtori (Muscle Doctor) books and among others, a new research review, which is available online.

Which is better for health: half an hour of hard training a day, or light but continuous physical activity?

A recent meta-analysis (Murphy et al. 2019) indicates that the health benefits of traditional (continuous) aerobic training-type sessions and aerobic exercise that is accumulated in shorter bouts (< 10 minutes) throughout the day are similar (e.g. in aerobic fitness, blood pressure, lipids, insulin, and glucose). However, the analysis suggests that accumulated shorter bouts of exercise throughout the day may actually be more beneficial for health in terms of cholesterol and weight management.

When we compare high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to moderate to vigorous endurance exercise, however, we observe that HIIT training tends to induce greater improvements in aerobic capacity (VO2max). We know that aerobic capacity is related to a decreased risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, so we might infer that HIIT training may also come with more health benefits. Yet HIIT training has higher motivation and skill requirements than exercise that is accumulated in shorter bouts throughout the day, and it may not be appropriate for everyone.

Both strenuous exercise and daily physical activity have positive effects on health and wellness. Studies indicate that there are additional health benefits from at least occasional higher intensity training in addition to exercise that is accumulated in shorter bouts throughout the day. The bottom line is that doing both is better! It is also important to remember that taking breaks from sitting or other static positions during your work or study day will benefit your productivity and wellness.

The respondent for this question is PhD Ritva Mikkonen (née Taipale), a project manager developing a dual career sports technology educational path for athletes in the Kainuu Region, as well as a researcher at the Sports Technology Unit in Vuokatti. Mikkonen’s exercise physiology research focuses on special topics in women of fertile age, including the menstrual cycle, hormonal contraception, and pregnancy. Mikkonen and her colleague Johanna Ihalainen have written a chapter about pregnancy and exercise in an upcoming book (Fertility, Pregnancy, Wellness, 2020, Elsevier).


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