Fitness Resources

Month: December 2017

What Really Causes Muscle Spasms and Cramps?

Research helps explain the cause and best treatment of muscle spasms and cramps




If you’ve ever had muscle spasms or muscle cramps, you know they can be extremely painful. In some cases, a muscle may spasm so forcefully that it results in a bruise on the skin. Most muscle spasms and cramps are involuntary contractions of a muscle. A serious muscle spasm doesn’t release on its own and requires manual stretching to help relax and lengthen the shortened muscle. Spasms and cramps can be mild or extremely painful.

While they can happen to any skeletal muscle, they are most common in the legs and feet and muscles that cross two joints (the calf muscle, for example). Cramps can involve part of a muscle or all the muscles in a group. The most commonly affected muscle groups are:

  • Back of lower leg/calf (gastrocnemius).
  • Back of thigh (hamstrings).
  • Front of thigh (quadriceps).
  • Feet, hands, arms, abdomen

Muscle cramps range in intensity from a slight twitch or tic to severe pain. A cramped muscle can feel rock-hard and last a few seconds to several minutes or longer. It is not uncommon for cramps to ease up and then return several times before they go away entirely.

What Causes Muscle Cramps

The exact cause of muscle cramps is still unknown, but the theories most commonly cited include:

Other factors that have been associated with muscle cramps include exercising in extreme heat.

Push-ups fitness woman doing pushups outside on beach. Fit female sport model girl training crossfit outdoors. Mixed race Asian Caucasian athlete in her 20s.

The belief is that muscle cramps are more common during exercise in the heat because sweat contains fluids as well as electrolyte (salt, potassium, magnesium and calcium). When these nutrients fall to certain levels, the incidence of muscle spasms increases. Because athletes are more likely to get cramps in the preseason, near the end of (or the night after) intense or prolonged exercise, some feel that a lack of conditioning results in cramps.

Research Supports Altered Neuromuscular Control as the Cause of Cramps

While all these theories are being studied, researchers are finding more evidence that the “altered neuromuscular control” hypothesis is the principal pathophysiological mechanism the leads to exercise-associated muscle cramping (EAMC). Altered neuromuscular control is often related to muscle fatigue and results in a disruption of muscle coordination and control.

According to a review of the literature conducted by Martin Schwellnus from the University of Cape Town, the evidence supporting both the “electrolyte depletion” and “dehydration” hypotheses as the cause of muscle cramps is not convincing. He reviewed the available literature supporting these theories and found mostly anecdotal clinical observations and one small case-control study with only 10 subjects. He also found another four clinical prospective cohort studies that clearly did not support the “electrolyte depletion” and “dehydration” hypotheses as the cause of muscle cramps. In his review, Schwellnus concludes that the “electrolyte depletion” and “dehydration” hypotheses do not offer plausible pathophysiological mechanisms with supporting scientific evidence that could adequately explain the clinical presentation and management of exercise-associated muscle cramping.

He goes on to write:

“Scientific evidence for the “altered neuromuscular control” hypothesis is based on evidence from research studies in human models of muscle cramping, epidemiological studies in cramping athletes, and animal experimental data. Whilst it is clear that further evidence to support the “altered neuromuscular control” hypothesis is also required, research data are accumulating that support this as the principal pathophysiological mechanism for the aetiology of exercise-associated muscle cramping (EAMC).”

Treating Muscle Cramps

Cramps usually go away on their own without treatment, but these tips appear to help speed the healing process:

Preventing Muscle Cramps

Until we learn the exact cause of muscle cramps, it will be difficult to say with any confidence how to prevent them. However, these tips are most recommended by experts and athletes alike:

Most muscle cramps are not serious. If your muscle cramps are severe, frequent, constant or of concern, see your doctor.


Cause of Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps (EAMC) – altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion? M. P. Schwellnus. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2009; 43:401-408.

Muscle Cramp. The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.

  • Stop the activity that caused the cramp.
  • Gently stretch and massage the cramping muscle.
  • Hold the joint in a stretched position until the cramp stops.
  • Improve fitness and avoid muscle fatigue
  • Stretch regularly after exercise
  • Warm up before exercise
  • Stretch the calf muscle: In a standing lunge with both feet pointed forward, straighten the rear leg.
  • Stretch the hamstring muscle: Sit with one leg folded in and the other straight out, foot upright and toes and ankle relaxed. Lean forward slightly, touch foot of straightened leg. (Repeat with opposite leg.)
  • Stretch the quadriceps muscle: While standing, hold top of foot with opposite hand and gently pull heel toward buttocks. (Repeat with opposite leg.)

Should I Count Calories or Carbs to Lose Weight?


What matters most when weight loss is your goal.

What is the best way to lose weight? Dieters often get confused about whether they should count calories or carbs to slim down. Much of confusion is the result of the calories vs. sugar debate. Does calorie count matter more or should you reduce sugary carbs for weight loss? And what about fat? To get the answer, it’s important to sort through the nutrition facts.

Counting Calories or Carbs to Lose Weight

To lose weight, you must create a calorie deficit.That means you need to burn more calories than you consume. In very simple terms, it means that most of us need to eat less and move more. We can burn more calories through exercise or increased daily activity (for example, by boosting your step count) You can also create a deficit if you consume fewer calories each day.  So calories do count.

But your intake of fat, sugar, and carbohydrates can affect the total number of calories you consume each day. That means you should pay attention to those numbers as well.

How Each Affects Your Diet

Here is a brief explanation of how consuming calories in the form of  fat, sugar, and carbohydrates can affect your total caloric intake:

  • Fat.  A single gram of fat provides nine calories of energy. A single gram of carbohydrate or protein only provides four calories. If you eat foods high in fat, your total caloric intake can increase quickly because the calorie cost is so high. But eating a reasonable amount of healthy fat can be smart for your diet.
    Fat helps you to feel full and satiated. If you eat a small amount of fatty food, you may feel satisfied sooner and eat less overall. For that reason, foods that contain healthy fats like certain types of fish, nuts or avocado can be a smart addition to your weight loss diet.
  • Sugar.  Sugar itself isn’t necessarily bad for you. But many of us consume way too much sugar without even knowing it. Sugar is added to many of the processed foods we eat.  Foods like ketchup, salsa or canned soups may contain added sugar even though they aren’t sweet.  And many of the drinks we consume are loaded with sugar. Increased sugar consumption has been linked to serious health consequences such as an increased risk for type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.
    Aside from the health consequences of consuming too much added sugar, there are diet drawbacks as well. Many experts feel that the more sugar we eat, the more sugar we crave.  So if you can reduce your sugar intake, you may be able to reduce your total caloric intake and lose weight.

The Bottom Line 

To create a calorie deficit and lose weight, most people find it easiest to count calories. The calorie count is easy to find for most foods and easy to tally with a weight loss app or tracker. Also, your calorie count is what matters in the end if you want to lose weight.

However, as you count calories, it is helpful to look at your balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. If you keep your carb intake within recommended guidelines (50-65% of your total calorie intake) that leaves enough room to eat a healthy amount of protein and fat. By consuming a healthy, balanced diet, you are more likely to provide your body with the fuel it needs to stay active.

7 Worst Foods for Your Heart

In the United States, heart disease kills more people than any other cause. But here’s some good news: There’s a lot that you can do to lower your risk of heart disease. In fact, seven of 10 risk factors for heart disease are things you can control. While you can’t control your age, genetics and gender (men are at higher risk), you can significantly lessen your probability of heart disease by not smoking, being physically active, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy body weight, and controlling cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar (the last four risk factors are closely tied to what you put in your mouth). By rarely consuming seven of the most damaging foods for your heart, you’ll significantly lower your risk.

Keep in mind, however, that just because certain foods are bad for your heart, it doesn’t mean that you can never eat them. If you eat an antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory, heart-healthy diet with health-promoting foods (like fruits, vegetables, pulses, lean poultry, fish and whole grains), occasionally eating a food that isn’t good for your heart won’t increase your risk of heart disease. As with all foods, the dose makes the poison. Would you gain weight from eating one small piece of chocolate every day? Not likely. What if you ate a whole bag of candy every day? Probably. The same is true for the worst foods for your heart—the role they play in your overall health depends on the overall quality of your diet.


1. Deep-fried Foods

Deep frying creates trans-fats, a type of fat known to raise the bad (LDL) type of cholesterol in the body, while simultaneously lowering the good kind. This means that all-time American favorites like French fries and fried chicken are a double-whammy for your ticker. Not surprisingly, fried foods have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease in a number of studies. Deep-fried foods often contain saturated fats and are high in salt, as well, which can also increase one’s risk of heart disease.

Instead: If you want to make a heart-healthy version of French fries, spritz them with a healthy oil, like olive or avocado oil, and then bake them. Here are some recipes to check out: Skinny Avocado Fries, Roasted Tarragon Sweet Potato Fries and Carrot Fries. And instead of frying your chicken, beef or tofu, dip them in egg whites, use a shake-and-bake bag and toss them in the oven to bake. For stir-fries, use a small amount of avocado oil, olive oil or canola oil and keep the heat on low.



2. Fast Food

It’s no secret that fast food is rarely healthy food and, in fact, can have a negative impact on the heart. That’s because the majority of fast food items are fried, high in salt (which can contribute to high blood pressure, a risk factor for a heart attack) and high in sugar and calories (which can lead to obesity and diabetes and increase the risk of a heart attack), all of which put a strain on the heart.

Instead: At the beginning of each week, plan your meals in advance, focusing on lean proteins, pulses, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, eggs and low-fat dairy products. If you’ve planned and know what you’re going to eat in advance, it’s much easier to avoid making quick, last-minute fast-food pit stops when hunger strikes. When you do go to fast-food restaurants, choose healthier options whenever possible, such as grilled chicken breast sandwiches, salads, and bean and salsa wraps.



3. Margarine

Once believed to be better for your heart than butter because it’s made from plant oils, margarine has since proven to be the true villain when it comes to heart disease. That’s because trans fat is created when the plant oil is processed and made into a solid. Trans fats are associated with a 34% increase in death, a 28% risk in death from coronary heart disease and a 21% increase in risk of cardiovascular disease.

Instead: To avoid trans fat, choose a soft spread that doesn’t contain the word “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredient list.



4. Processed Meats

Processed meats include foods such as bacon, sausage, pepperoni, salami, cold cuts and cured meats. Harvard researchers found that those who eat processed meats daily (50 grams—that’s less than 2 ounces!) have a 42% higher risk of heart attacks. Researchers speculate that it may have to do with the extremely high levels of sodium and preservatives found in processed meats.

Instead: Limit processed meats to once a week, as researchers speculate this would pose only a small risk. Choose beans, eggs, fresh fish, poultry and lean red meat as an alternative.


5. Salt

Found in most packaged foods, chips, canned products and condiments, and added at the table and during cooking, salt intake has climbed in most people’s diets to a whopping 4,000 mg a day. This is significantly more than the recommended 2,300mg maximum, according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, which combined data from more than 100 studies. The researchers concluded that there would be 1.65 million fewer deaths each year if average sodium intake was closer to 2,000 mg per day, and reducing sodium intake to 2,300mg daily would prevent 10% of deaths related to cardiovascular disease.

Instead: Use flavor-enhancing techniques to replace salt when you can—sprinkle spices, squeeze lemon and use flavorful vinegars. Limit packaged foods to once or twice a week, and read labels to determine the sodium content of foods so you can either limit them or choose no-salt-added or low-salt alternatives.



6. Sugar-sweetened Drinks

Sugar-sweetened beverages contribute more added sugar to the typical American diet than any other source. Sugary drinks are particularly harmful because they have a high glycemic load, contribute to inflammation, and raise blood glucose levels, blood triglycerides and small, dense LDL particles (which are much more dangerous than light, fluffy LDL particles), all of which increase the risk of heart disease. A large, two-decade-long study involving 40,000 men found that those who had one sugary drink per day increased their risk of having a heart attack or dying of a heart attack by 20% compared to men who rarely drank sugary beverages.

Instead: Choose water, seltzer or unsweetened beverages. If you have a hard time drinking unflavored water, get creative and spritz lemon, orange or lime into your water, or try these water infusions: Watermelon Cucumber ACV Detox Water Infusion, Vitamin C Infused Water and Pineapple, Lemon Ginger Detox Drink.



7. Baked Goods

Pies, cakes, cookies, donuts and other baked goods can be especially bad for the heart because they contain both saturated fat (found in butter and other full-fat dairy products) and trans fat (found in partially hydrogenated oils used in vegetable shortening, margarine, packaged snacks, coffee creamers and fried foods). They can also raise LDL cholesterol levels, while also lowering HDL (the good) cholesterol levels. These treats also are high in sugar, which intensifies the damage they can do to the heart.

Instead: Choose healthier dessert options that don’t contain trans fat (make sure ingredient lists don’t contain the words “hydrogenated” and “partially hydrogenated” and are very low in saturated fat. Here are some tasty treats to try at home: Chocolate Drizzled Granola Balls, Cinnamon Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, Guac-Chocolate Mousse and  Skinny Chocolate Chunk Cookies.

The Nutrition Twins

The Nutrition Twins


Tammy Lakatos Shames and Elysse (“Lyssie”) Lakatos, The Nutrition Twins®, share a passion to teach people how to eat healthfully and exercise so they’ll have energy to live happy lives.


Post Author


Dr. Erin Nitschke


Dr. Erin Nitschke, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist & NSCA-CPT, is a Health & Human Performance college educator and fitness blogger. She has over 14 years of experience in personal training, education, and instructional design. To Erin, being fit means finding an equilibrium between all dimensions of wellness. Erin is personally and professionally dedicated to teaching students and clients how to achieve such balance through learning and focused skill development.

Are you Nutty if You Eat Nuts?

Posted in
Eat better

Tuesday, Nov 28, 2017

Are you Nutty if You Eat Nuts?

A common nutrition question we get at The Cooper Institute is “Are nuts good or bad for you?” Many years ago when low fat diets were popular, and before we or anyone else knew any better, people were advised to limit their intake of nuts because of their high fat content. My, how times have changed!  Rather than being the villain of yesteryear, fat is now acknowledged as an important component of a healthful diet. Before I go any further, it’s important to realize that not all dietary fats are alike. While monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are regarded as healthful, individuals both young and old are still advised to limit their intake of saturated and trans fats.

So what about nuts?  First off, nuts are a great source of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. While they do have a high fat and calorie content, nuts are loaded with heart-healthy mono and polyunsaturated fat, and most nuts are relatively low in saturated fat. The key thing to remember is moderation. No one is saying that it’s good to consume an endless amount of nuts or peanut butter every day. On the other hand, there is strong scientific evidence that consuming an ounce (a small handful) of nuts daily is associated with a marked reduction in the risk of chronic disease or early death. Let’s take a look at a couple of recent state-of-the art studies.

In a 2015 paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 20742 male physicians with an average age of 67 years completed a comprehensive food-frequency questionnaire between 1999 and 2002. The group was followed for an average of 9.6 years, during which 2732 all-cause deaths occurred. The relationship between nut consumption and risk of death was evaluated after taking several other factors that might ‘muddy the waters’ into account. Results are shown in Figure 1.

As shown in the Figure, there was a decreased risk of all-cause mortality across increased nut consumption category, with the group consuming 5 or more servings per week enjoying a 26% lower risk of death during the study period as compared to the group who never consumed nuts.

In another manuscript published in 2016, researchers combined 20 published studies to examine the relationship between nut consumption and risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease and cancer, as well as diabetes and other causes of mortality. Using no intake of nuts as the reference group, for every 1 ounce increase in daily nut intake there was a 21% and 15% reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, respectively. All-cause and diabetes mortality was reduced by 22% and 39% per 1 ounce increase in daily nut intake, respectively.

Want more NUTrition information? Here’s a link to a document that provides the nutrients in one ounce of many types of nuts. Want more information on what one ounce of nuts really looks like? Here’s a great graphic. By the way, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter are equivalent to a 1 ounce serving of nuts.

An extremely important thing to mention is that if you are planning to increase your nut intake, be sure to cut back in other areas, especially if you are watching your waistline. A great place to start cutting back is on so-called ‘empty calories.’ These would include foods and beverages with a lot of added sugars (e.g., soda), as well as foods that contain a lot of highly refined carbohydrate (e.g., doughnuts) and saturated fat (e.g., whole milk dairy).  If you choose to drink, go easy on the alcohol as well!


Hshieh, T., Petrone, A., Gaziano, J., Djousse, L. (2015). Nut consumption and risk of mortality in the Physicians’ Health Study.  Am J Clin Nutr, 101(2):407-412. DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.114.099846

Aune, D., Keum, N., Giovannucci, E., Fadnes, L., Boffetta, P., Greenwood, D….Norat, T. (2016). Nut consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer, all-cause and cause-specific mortality:a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMC Med, 14(1):207.  DOI: 10.1186/s12916-016-0730-3