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Health Tips

Health Tips

Pathways to WellnessThe Western Pennsylvania Hospital is dedicated to improving the health and welness of the people in the communities it serves.  Our West Penn Healthy for You Program is designed with a focus on simple ideas and practical advice so you can start making healthy changes right away.

Join us in January to discover what you need to know to be in the driver’s seat of your good health. Learn the benefits provided by various forms of exercise, simple strategies for increasing your activity level, and tips to help you stay motivated as you make changes.

Treat yourself and someone you love to a healthy Valentine and attend February’s presentation to learn what you can do to keep your heart young and how to improve your heart health at any age.

Sample a healthy recipe prepared for you on site by Whole Foods’ Healthy Eating Specialist immediately following our January, February and May presentations at West Penn Hospital.

Stay with us through March and get the skinny on strategies for healthy eating. Our registered dietician will teach you how to interpret food labels and to recognize the difference between honest nutrition information and marketing hype designed to trick you into thinking you are making a healthy choice.

Why are some populations healthier than others? In April, we’ll compare and contrast the average Pittsburgher’s lifestyle values with those of the average Californian’s. American culture values vs. European values. Are your lifestyle practices leading you toward or away from better health?

In celebration of Mother’s Day and the re-birth of spring, Dr Halfhill will share the nutrition facts you need to know to prepare for the birth of your own child in “Eating for Two”.

Review our healthy tip-of-the-week, posted each Monday, experimenting with simple diet and lifestyle modifications as you go, and emerge a healthier, happier you - just in time to enjoy summer!

The following weekly tips have been comprised by the West Penn Healthy for You team. They are meant to complement the West Penn Healthy for You program discussions and are not intended to replace the medical advice of your physician or to replace physician office visits.

May 13, 2013

Time for ExercisingExercise Time

Not enough time is a common excuse for not exercising. Shortening the length of your workout, but not your results, is a solution.

Cardio (or aerobic exercise) is a major component of most exercise plans. It is great for burning fat and working on speed or endurance, but it can be time consuming. If burning calories is your main goal, you can effectively exercise in less time. The key to not losing effectiveness when cutting the length of your routine is to boost the intensity. By adding more intense bursts of cardio you can burn more calories in less time. After your warm up, sprint for a few seconds or walk uphill as hard and fast as you can for a bit, then slow down and catch your breath. Keep repeating this cycle of very intense periods (hard enough that you cannot speak in complete sentences) with slower periods and you can burn as many calories in much less time. Let’s say you walk for 45 minutes daily, by adding intensity bursts you might get the same results in about 20 minutes and feel like you had a harder workout.

Strength training is also crucial to losing weight; it builds metabolically active muscle. One pound of muscle takes up less space than one pound of fat. When lifting, rest one muscle group while working another instead of standing around waiting and resting. Immediately follow a set of chest presses with squats. Keep moving from muscle to muscle and you keep your heart rate up while shaving idle time from your time spent exercising. You can also do a heavier (more intense) workout with fewer reps.

Exercising does require a time commitment, but we can use our time wisely and get great results. Try a condensed workout with intensity bursts to save time and see faster results.

Remember if you are over 50 or have any medical conditions, you need to check with your doctor to make sure you are cleared for physical activity. 

May 6, 2013

Brown Rice

Brown RiceInstant and quick-cooking varieties of brown rice have pre-cooked the brown rice for you, cutting your cook time to only five or ten minutes, with no addition of sodium or other unwelcome ingredients. In the case of brown rice, this is a good tradeoff because the nutritional sacrifice is minimal while the time-savings is maximal. However, use caution with new flavored or ready-in-seconds varieties of rice. While they are a quick and easy way to add whole grains to the diet, most of these super-quick sides are high in sodium.

April 29, 2013


Eating breakfast resets your metabolism and results in your body burning more calories. Breakfast provides fuel and nutrition for your body to perform efficiently. An ideal breakfast includes protein and fiber: a peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole wheat bread, a boiled egg with whole wheat toast, some nuts and fruit with yogurt, a bagel or whole wheat English muffin with melted cheese and a tomato.

April 22, 2013


Go for the unprocessed, old fashioned oatmeal. The soluble fiber contained in oats and other foods binds with and helps remove cholesterol that can clog your arteries and lead to heart disease. But for the healthiest oatmeal option, stick with the unprocessed oatmeal. The few minutes time that you save by using instant oatmeal isn’t worth the nutritional losses. Old fashioned oatmeal contains no sodium and only one gram of sugar, and has a little more protein and fiber. Instant oatmeal varieties contain about 300 milligrams of sodium and 13 grams of sugar (equivalent to about three teaspoons) and less protein and fiber. Instant oatmeal may cook in the microwave in 90 seconds, but old fashioned oatmeal only takes three minutes. 

April 15, 2013

A word about salt

Table SaltSalt is a mineral, a naturally occurring substance.  We get it from evaporating salt water; blasting it out of mines, or flushing it out of the ground and boiling off the water.  The salt in our body is referred to as sodium.  Sodium is an electrolyte which conducts electricity.  Too much or too little sodium can have serious effects on our health.


  • Regulates water/fluid balance
  • Regulates blood pressure
  • Assists with cooling our body
  • Allows nutrients to enter cells
  • Allows muscles to contract and relax
  • Allows nerve cells to fire appropriately

The average American probably eats 3400 mg of sodium each day. The 2005 American Dietary Guidelines recommended a limit of 2300 mg salt per day. The 2010 guidelines lowered the recommended amount for most Americans to 1500 mg. (This group includes anyone over 51, all African Americans, anyone with hypertension/high blood pressure, diabetes and chronic kidney disease.)

Salt occurs naturally in many foods but we get most of our salt from processed, packaged and restaurant foods, not from our salt shakers at home.

Look for salt in:

  • Condiments
  • Soups
  • Crackers/chips
  • Processed meats (bacon, deli meats, hotdogs)
  • Salad dressings
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Cottage cheese
  • Restaurant foods

Tips for decreasing sodium:

  • Become aware of hidden sources of sodium.
  • If it comes in a can, a convenience package or is a pre-packaged dinner, check the label for sodium content.
  • Start reading labels. (Note – labels are still based on the 2300 mg recommendation, not the 1500 recommendation.)
  • You can adjust to eating less salt. It will take your taste buds 2-3 weeks before lower sodium foods will taste “normal” to you.
  • Cook for yourself.

April 8, 2013

Whole-Grain Foods

When the word “natural” is used on food packages it is a marketing word with no FDA regulated meaning. It is designed to make you think of healthy green pastures, but really has no such meaning.

The color of a food is not an indication that it is a whole-grain food. Foods labeled as “multi-grain,” “stone-ground,” 100 percent wheat,” “cracked wheat,” “seven-grain” or “bran” are usually not 100 percent whole-grain products and may not contain any whole grain. Check the label. Look for the word “whole.” 

April 1, 2013

Cultivate friendships! Call a friend! Schedule a get together!

Friends and friendship can:

  • Exercising with a FriendDouble your chance of surviving cancer
  • Help you better cope with stress
  • Decrease you risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Increase your chance of living longer by 50 percent
  • Help you fight a cold
  • Ease body aches and pains
  • Improve your coping skills
  • Energize you
  • Make you laugh
  • Boost your happiness
  • Let you feel connected, appreciated, and loved
  • Influence your eating and exercise habits (Which friend would help you improve your eating vs. encourage you to order another round of nachos? Which friend would take a walk/go to a Zumba class with you?

Studies find that being face to face with friends boosts the positive effects even more. Not having close friends can be as detrimental as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

March 25, 2013


Legumes – beans, peas and lentils – are rich in protein, high in fiber, low in calories and cholesterol free. They do not contain any fats that are harmful to the heart.

You do not have to rely solely on dried forms of legumes to get the heart-healthy benefits. Stock no-added-salt canned varieties for convenience and time savings. If you buy regular canned legumes, pour the legumes into a colander and rinse well with plenty of water to reduce the sodium content by about 40 percent. Most dry bean products – like pinto, navy, black, cranberry, kidney, lima, pink, small red, blackeye and great northern beans – are available both canned or dried. If the process of cooking dried beans doesn’t fit into your lifestyle, go for convenience and choose canned varieties instead.

WaterMarch 18, 2013

Water – Your Nutritional Secret Weapon

Staying properly hydrated is one of the best choices you can make to improve your health. Resolve to work your way up to the recommended eight glasses of water a day. Give yourself some flavorful inspiration by adding cuts of citrus fruit to your water pitcher – or try adding cucumber slices for a fresh, tasty, calorie-free flavor boost.

Limes contain more natural antihistamines (bioflavonoids) than other citrus fruits. Add some to your water for allergy relief.

March 11, 2013

Balance and Exercise

Five Elements of a Good Fitness Program

  • Aerobic Fitness
  • Muscular Fitness
  • Stretching
  • Balance Training
  • Core Stability

Gains can be made in these areas at ANY age!

Aerobic Fitness will improve the ability of your heart and lungs to transport oxygen throughout the body. Aerobic fitness makes it easier to complete routine tasks and rise to unexpected challenges – like running to catch your bus. Aerobic fitness will decrease your risk of fall because you will be able to do more before you become fatigued. Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic activity on most days of the week. If necessary, break this up into smaller segments throughout the day. An aerobic activity is any activity that uses the large muscle groups and increases your heart rate to a modest level of intensity. Examples of aerobic activities are walking, jogging, biking, swimming, dancing and water aerobics.

Muscular Fitness through strengthening/resistance activities will help you to increase muscle mass and bone strength. Strong muscles will decrease your risk of fall. Examples of strengthening activities are resistance machines, free weights, medicine balls, homemade weights (such as plastic soft drink bottles filled with water or sand) and resistance bands. You can also use your own body weight to provide resistance. Muscle blasts fat; the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism. Metabolism is the rate at which your body burns calories for energy.

Stretching/Flexibility - Most aerobic and strengthening activities cause your muscles to contract and flex. It is important that you stretch those muscles. Stretching will improve the range of motion of your joints, maintain flexibility and promote better posture. Regular stretching can relieve stress. Yoga is a great stretching activity which relieves stress and increases flexibility. You should stretch after you exercise, when your muscles are warm. If you do not exercise regularly, try to stretch at least three times per week. You can warm up by walking or doing a favorite exercise at low intensity for 5-10 minutes.

Balance Training – You can be aerobically fit, strong, and flexible and still have poor balance. Balance tends to deteriorate with age. Increased balance will decrease your risk of fall. Tai chi is a great activity for balance, as well as stress relief. Yoga exercises can also help improve balance abilities.

Core Stability – The muscles in your abdomen, lower back and pelvis are your core muscles. Your core muscles help to protect your lower back and connect upper and lower body movements. Core exercises train the muscles to brace the spine. Core strengthening can reduce back pain. Core exercises are any exercise that uses the trunk of your body without support. Try sitting at your desk on a stability ball.

You have a greater chance of living longer (and healthier) if you have a strong grip, are able to rise from a chair quickly, walk fast and can balance on one leg.

You should always consult your physician prior to beginning any new exercise program if you are pregnant, are on medication, have had a surgery, or have any health issues. If you are new to exercise, it is helpful to join a structured gym or fitness center, at least initially. Exercise professionals can introduce you to a variety of options and can ensure that you are exercising safely and using good form. Exercises done incorrectly, are at best, ineffective and a waste of your time. At worst, exercises done incorrectly are harmful and can cause injury. Today, many health plans will subsidize gym fees. 

March 4, 2013

Calories In - Calories Out

Calories In – Pay attention to the foods you eat and portion size.
Calories Out – Are you getting enough physical activity?

Results of decreased activity/movement

  • Increased fat mass
  • Decreased muscle mass
  • Decreased aerobic capacity (ability of heart and lungs to function efficiently)
  • Decreased oxygen to vital organs
  • Decreased strength

Effects of exercise on your body

  • Improves performance of heart and lungs
  • Builds endurance
  • Increases metabolic rate, i.e. burns calories
  • Builds muscle
  • Results in the release of chemicals in the brain known as endorphins. Endorphins can improve your mood.
  • Develops strong bones.

Benefits of exercise

  • Reduces stress
  • Prevents weight gain
  • Maintains weight loss
  • Reduces risk of illness and disease
  • Improves mood
  • Improves muscle strength (strong muscles enable you to do more before you tire)
  • Builds endurance (enables you to do more before you tire)
  • Enables heart and lungs to work more efficiently
  • Boosts energy
  • Delivers oxygen and nutrients to your tissues
  • Promotes better sleep - helps you to fall asleep faster and to deepen your sleep
  • Improves your sex life. (Regular physical activity can lead to enhanced arousal for women; men who exercise regularly are less likely to have problems with erectile dysfunction than are men who do not exercise.)
  • Gives you a chance to unwind.
  • Provides an opportunity to do something you enjoy.
  • Can provide an opportunity to connect with family or friends in a fun social setting.
  • Provides the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors.
  • Leaves you feeling energized and looking better – increased self-esteem.

Feb. 25, 2013

Choosing Exercise that you Enjoy

Enjoying ExerciseThe key to developing a life-long exercise regime that works for you is to find something that you will enjoy and look forward to doing. Choosing activities that you enjoy will increase the likelihood that you will stick with your exercise program. Ask yourself – what did you like to do as a child? Think about your personality. Would you prefer to do something alone, with a friend, in a group, in a class with a leader or with a trainer? Do you prefer alone time or social time? Do you like to be indoors or outdoors? Do you like to compete with others or with yourself? Do you enjoy team or solo activities? Do you enjoy the water or are you more of a land lover? What are some activities that you might enjoy now?

Start small, but start today

Was there a time when you engaged in regular physical activity? Think about that place in time. Share the story of that time. What allowed this to happen? What did you enjoy about this? How did you feel? What benefit was this to you? Why was that important to you? In what way is this different than how you look/feel now? In what way would you benefit if you were to be more active now? Why is this important to you? What would have to happen/change in order for this to happen today? What changes do you have control over? What supports would you need (support of others, your environment)? What one, small first step would you be willing to commit to this week to move you toward your goal? What will you do to set yourself up for success this week? Write it down. Tell somebody about it. Post it where you will see it daily.


February 18

Stair WalkingExercise Strategies

  • Add little bits of exercise wherever you can (examples: take the stairs, park further away).
  • Find what works for you. What do you like? What did you enjoy doing as a kid?
  • Exercise with friends.
  • Can you incorporate a little exercise into your errand running?
  • Make a routine. Schedule your exercise time and have a plan B.
  • Think seriously about starting a walking program.
  • Live in a walkable community.
  • Train for something.
  • Get a dog.
  • Make a few small changes you can stick with, and build from there. If you can find some type of exercise that you enjoy doing regularly, you will look forward to it

Get close to your ideal weight and stay there.  A combination of changing your eating habits and exercise works best.  Diets are NOT the answer.  Make it a lifestyle change. 

Feb. 11, 2013

Keep Your Metabolism Running

Eat enough calories:  When you cut way back on calories your body thinks it is starving and conserves energy, slowing down your metabolism, i.e. burning fewer calories for energy than it would otherwise.

Eat often enough:  When you skip meals you are starving your body so it slows down, burning fewer calories to conserve energy. Spread your daily calories more frequently throughout the day. Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with a few healthy snacks throughout the day. Remember, a snack is less than 200 calories and meals do not exceed 500 calories.

Engage in regular aerobic / endurance exercise:  Aerobic or cardio activity increases your metabolism while you are working out. There are some studies showing that you continue to burn calories faster for a while after exercise, especially after higher intensity interval training. Aerobic activity is any physical activity that uses large muscle groups and increases your heart rate. When you are performing an aerobic activity, you should be breathing slightly harder than you would at rest. You should still be able to talk, but should be breathing a little faster than usual.

Build muscle:  Muscle blasts fat. Strength training increases your muscle mass which increases your metabolism overall. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, and therefore burns more calories. One pound of fat burns about two calories per hour, one pound of muscle burns about 35-45 calories per day. As an added bonus, muscle takes up less room than fat. 

Feb. 4, 2013


MetabolismMetabolism is the rate at which you burn calories (or convert food to energy for breathing, pumping blood, digesting food, etc ). If you take in more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. If you burn more calories than you take in, you will lose weight. Thyroid disorders can slow your metabolism, but this is fairly rare. Usually, people who blame a slow metabolism for causing their weight problem eat too much. Overweight people may actually have a faster metabolism because it takes more energy to keep their larger systems running.

You may be curious about your metabolic rate. Here is a site that calculates your metabolic rate, factoring in your activity level. This will give you an idea of how many calories you burn daily; it is not exact. Calories Per Day Calculator

This number will be the number of calories you need to maintain your current weight. If you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. If you eat fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. Generally don’t cut more than 500 calories and do not drop your total daily calories below 1200. Everyone’s metabolism is different; but you do have some control over your own metabolism, to a point. Rev it up by eating well, exercising and gaining muscle mass. 

Jan. 28, 2013

What is a snack?

A snack is a small amount of nutritious food. Aim for 50-200 calories, more than that and you are getting closer to a meal. If there is no nutritional value, it is a treat, not a snack. Snacks should provide some protein, fiber, nutrients, and possibly a small amount of fat. Vending machine products are generally not good snacks. Try to carry small snacks with you, even if it means packing a cooler.

Snack Ideas:

  • Pistachio NutsA boiled egg
  • Banana and peanut butter
  • Pear with cheese
  • Apple with almonds
  • Pretzels with cheese
  • 1 slice lunchmeat rolled with 1 slice cheese
  • Carrots and hummus
  • Snap peas and ranch dressing for dipping
  • Celery with peanut butter
  • Cucumbers slices with ham
  • Dried fruit with nuts
  • Yogurt with granola
  • Low fat or skim chocolate milk
  • Half bagel with cream cheese and tomato slices
  • Air popped popcorn with butter, parmesan cheese and chili powder
  • A small whole wheat tortilla with strawberry cream cheese and sliced strawberries
  • A smoothie of fruit and yogurt
  • A few pistachios or sunflower seeds
  • Broth based vegetable soup

Portion size is KEY with snacks. You are only tiding yourself over until the next meal. If you are left with no choice other than a vending machine, make the smartest choice possible and pay attention to how much you eat. It is generally better to eat a small amount of something rather than let yourself become ravenous and make really poor choices due to overwhelming hunger.

TIP: Take an hour or so on the weekend to make pre-packaged snacks for yourself to keep in the car, your purse, or desk at work. 

Jan. 21, 2013

Belly Fat

Belly FatWhere you carry your weight affects your health. Carrying extra weight around your middle poses risks to your heart. A waist measurement greater than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men carries an increased risk of:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Certain cancers
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • High cholesterol

To calculate your waist to hip ratio: measure your waist at your smallest part or over your belly button if you do not have a narrow part (do not lift up your belly and measure underneath it). Measure your hips at their widest or across your pubic bone if you do not have hip curves. Then divide your waist inches by your hip measurement (waist divided by hips).

Big bellies tend to be either jiggly or hard and firm. The saggy, jiggly, bellies most likely have subcutaneous fat which is fat just under the skin. The firm, basketball bellies, where you cannot “pinch an inch” have the more dangerous visceral fat. The fat is wrapped around and compresses the internal organs.

Belly fat compared to fat on the hips and thighs:

  • Secretes estrogen
  • Is associated with calcium build up in the arteries
  • Puts pressure on abdominal organs
  • Lowers the HDL (good cholesterol)
  • Decreases insulin sensitivity
  • Causes a fatty liver (affects insulin sensitivity)

Pear shapes (people who carry their weight on their hips and thighs) do not get off easy. While they do not have the same health hazards, they are more prone to varicose veins and cellulite. Belly fat is actually easier to lose than fat on the hips.

Jan. 14, 2013


Making healthier food choices does not mean you have to plan entirely new menus. For potato fans, choose sweet potatoes over regular potatoes. You can mash, bake or roast them just like the regular variety and get twice the nutrition out of it. Select brown rice over white rice and breads made with whole grains instead of traditional white. These small choices now will yield big health payouts later.


Jan. 7, 2013

Eating StrategiesEating Strategies

  • Stop eating trans-fats.
  • Stop eating modified sugars (high fructose corn syrup, sugar substitutes). Modified sugars appear to stimulate appetite.
  • Eat smaller portions.
  • Include some protein in every meal and snack.
  • Find healthy foods that you actually like.
  • Learn about industrialized agriculture and what it means to your nutritional health
  • Aim for 5-9 fruits and/or vegetables per day.
  • Eat more plants, especially leaves.
  • The perfect plate: 50 percent vegetables, 25 percent protein, (maybe) 25 percent starch or another vegetable.
  • Eat more foods with omega-3 fatty acids (fish, walnuts, canola oil).
  • SLOW DOWN – take more time to eat. Don’t eat unless you are sitting down.
  • Lose the soda.
  • Eat like your great grandmother ate. Would she recognize your current foods?
  • When eating animal products, consider the diet of the animal. It matters.
  • Be cautious of eating things with unpronounceable or more than five ingredients. More than ten ingredients – don’t eat it.
  • Be cautious about eating the traditional western diet (processed and refined foods).
  • Shop the edges of the grocery store. The processed and refined foods are in the middle. So are the high calorie junk foods.
  • Organic junk food is still junk food. It is just organically grown fat and calories without much nutrition. Do not assume if you are in the “health aisle” or “health foods store” that every product is good for you.
  • Don’t buy your food at the same place you buy your gas.


Dec. 31, 2012


AvocadoFats are an important and essential part of our diets; they are needed for essential body functions, healthy cells and skin, vitamin absorption and the feeling of satiety. That said, some fats are healthier than others; monounsaturated (olive oil, nuts/seeds, avocado) and polyunsaturated (vegetable oils) are healthy and can provide some heart healthy benefits. Saturated fats (found in meat and dairy products) can contribute to higher cholesterol levels, but in small amounts can be part of a healthy diet. Trans fats (hydrogenated vegetable oil, shortening, margarine) are the least healthy and should be limited.

Choose unsalted nuts or seeds as a snack, on salads or in main dishes to replace meat or poultry. Nuts and seeds are a concentrated source of calories, so eat small portions to keep calories in check.

When you see, smell or think about highly palatable foods (those with more sugar, fat and salt) your brain triggers a dopamine release which is a reward-seeking neurotransmitter.

Dec. 24, 2012


Think small when it comes to meat portions. Your body cannot store extra protein. Consuming more protein than your body needs will result in increased fat. Most Americans eat more protein than their body needs. Get the flavor you crave, but in a smaller portion. Make or order a smaller burger or a “petite” size steak. Saturated fats (found in meat and dairy products) can contribute to higher cholesterol levels. Make meat and poultry lean or low fat. Choose cuts of meat like round or sirloin and ground beef that is at least 90 percent lean. Trim or drain fat from meat and remove poultry skin.