How to Fuel Your Body for a Better Life

Here are some key takeaways from recent research on training, health and nutrition.

Nighttime Workouts No Longer a No-No

The standard advice for insomniacs is to avoid exercising in the evening, but according to a research review published in the journal Sports Medicine, late-day workouts might actually enhance sleep: Study participants who did an evening workout spent 20 percent more time in the deep-sleep phase that same night than those who hadn’t exercised in the evening. “When people spend less time in deep sleep, it negatively affects your sports performance the following day,” says Christina M. Spengler, M.D., Ph.D., head of the Institute of Human Movement Sciences and Sport at ETH Zurich.

It is worth noting, however, that when participants engaged in vigorous workouts such as high-intensity interval training one hour before bed, it did have a negative impact on their sleep quality. Position your sweat sesh at least two to three hours before hitting the sack to mitigate any negative effects a tough session might have on sleep.

Lift for Longevity

Experts have touted the heart-healthy benefits of aerobic exercise for decades, but now weightlifting shares the spotlight: According to research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, those who trained with weights just once a week for less than an hour reduced their risk of developing metabolic syndrome by 29 percent and their risk for high cholesterol by 32 percent — even without any accompanying aerobic exercise. More is not better, however: Resistance training more than four times a week or for durations longer than 60 minutes didn’t decrease heart-health risk any further.

Only the Lonely

Research published in the journal International Psychogeriatrics found that people in their 20s, mid-50s and late 80s suffer the most from loneliness. These sad, solitary feelings come with several health implications, and experts believe the reduction of life span linked to loneliness is similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: Using a series of surveys, researchers measured participants’ levels of loneliness, mental and physical health, and wisdom. However, there is a silver lining: Those who ranged highest for loneliness ranked lowest in wisdom — a factor you can control and improve. Build your wisdom bank by practicing meditation, trying new things, talking to more people and seeking out some mentors.

The Eternal Carb Question

It’s the never-ending debate among nutritionists and athletes — how low should you go with your carbohydrate intake? When it comes to maintaining your weight, a recent study in the journal BMJ may have the answer. Since metabolism tends to slow down after people lose weight, researchers wanted to test whether diet composition could combat this effect. They supplied 164 adults who had recently lost weight with meals controlled for protein and fat content but contained either 20, 40 or 60 percent carbs. After 20 weeks, the researchers found that the low-carb group torched roughly 250 more calories per day than the high-carb group, and they theorized that the low-carb group had reduced levels of ghrelin, the hormone that increases appetite and promotes the storage of body fat.

However, a diet that is low in carbohydrates is difficult to follow long term, and the number of carbs you need greatly depends on your goals (weight loss, maintenance, muscle building, performance) as well as your age, genetics and activity level: Some athletes do well on a low-carb diet, but others need more to maintain their fitness routine. “It might come down to trial and error to figure out what works for you,” says Holly Wyatt, M.D., associate professor of endocrinology, metabolism and diabetes at the University of Colorado, Denver. “But in general, the more active you are, the more carbs and calories you can have in your diet.”

Eat Organic, Beat Cancer

A French study that examined the diets of nearly 70,000 volunteers (mostly women) found that those who ate organic food had 25 percent fewer incidences of cancer — especially lymphoma and breast cancer — than adults who never consumed organic foods. However, Frank B. Hu, Ph.D., chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard, says eating more fruits and vegetables overall — organic or not — is the best way to prevent cancer. If your access to organic foods is limited or if they are financially out of reach, pick and choose your organic produce. Foods that contain the most pesticides include strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, sweet bell peppers and hot peppers.

Food for Thought

Research examining the correlation between nutrients and brain health isn’t necessarily new, but how they are examining the connection is: Instead of inferring brain health from a cognitive test, researchers at the University of Illinois directly examined participants’ brains using high-resolution brain imaging. Subjects with good brain connectivity had higher blood levels of omega-3s, omega-6s and carotene, indicating a more healthful diet. And since faster brain connections boost energy and immunity and help reduce the risk of diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, eating foods such as nuts, seeds, avocados, beans, leafy greens, sweet potatoes and squash could be the key to good mental health.