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HEALTH NATURAL YOGA

Health warnings on exercise equipment: Should you worry?

Cold blue light shining on exercise equipment in a fitness studio; tire, sledgehammer, treadmills, weights and more pictured

There are warnings just about everywhere you look: The coffee you're about to drink is hot! Construction ahead! This product may contain peanuts!

In many cases, the reasons for these warnings are clear. But sometimes warnings raise more questions than they answer. When I was at the gym recently, these warnings on the exercise bike and treadmill were hard to miss in a bright red font:

  • Obtain a medical exam before beginning any exercise program.
  • Overexercise may result in serious injury or death.
  • If you feel faint, dizzy, or have pain stop exercising immediately.

What exactly did the warning writers mean by "any exercise program"? What constitutes overexercise? Does having any pain anywhere mean you should stop working out?

Finally, I wonder: might these warnings cause unnecessary worry that actually discourages people from exercising?

Is it safe to start exercising without checking with a doctor?

A doctor's approval isn't necessary for most of us. Most people can safely begin a low-intensity exercise program and slowly increase their efforts over time. Choose activities that would allow you to carry on a conversation, such as:

  • using light weights that are easy for you to lift
  • walking at a leisurely pace
  • biking at a leisurely pace (less than 5 mph)
  • stretching and balancing activities
  • light housework or yard work.

If you're starting at a low fitness level, make small increases in your workout over time. For example, if you start out walking 10 minutes a day, add one minute to your walk every week or two. Once you're walking 20 minutes a day, try picking up the pace a bit.

Who should be careful about exercising?

Of course, exercise is riskier if you have certain health conditions. It makes sense to ask a health care professional to make exercise recommendations if you're concerned about your health or have any of these conditions:

  • Coronary artery disease, including symptoms of angina or a previous heart attack. Exercise that's too much too soon could stress the heart and trigger a heart attack or dangerous heart rhythm. Lower-intensity workouts (such as short walks at a comfortable pace) may be preferable, at least until it's clear that you can tolerate more.
  • Exercise-induced asthma. Your doctor may recommend inhaled treatment to open up airways in your lungs just before or during exercise.
  • Muscle disease, such as a metabolic myopathy. Your doctor may discourage you from engaging in certain exercises, such as sprinting or long-distance running.
  • Back pain. Low impact exercise, such as biking or swimming, may be a better choice for people with back pain than higher-impact options, such as jogging or basketball.

If exercise is so good for you, why the warnings?

Let's review possible reasons for certain warnings:

  • Having a medical examination before starting an exercise program might uncover a condition that makes exercise risky. The best example is probably coronary artery disease, which could trigger a heart attack during intense exercise. Fortunately, sudden heart problems during exercise are relatively rare (though you might think otherwise based on TV and movies, including an episode from the Sex and the City reboot).
  • Overexercise is not a well-defined medical term. But it's true that suddenly exercising at high intensity when you're not used to it might be hazardous.
  • Stopping exercise if you're feeling faint or dizzy presumably refers to concerns about severe dehydration or other causes of low blood pressure.
  • Warnings about pain could refer to chest pain that might be a sign of heart trouble. Or it could be a warning about a type of severe muscle damage called rhabdomyolysis (which may complicate prolonged or intense exercise).

Of course, it's also possible these warnings have little to do with your health and everything to do with lawyers! That is, the equipment manufacturers might hope these warnings will ward off lawsuits from people who suffer a medical problem while using their equipment.

Are these warnings helpful?

Probably not.

All the warnings, alerts, and cautions in our everyday lives can become background noise. Despite red letters and bold fonts, warnings like these are easily overlooked.

Nor do they add much. My guess is that most people experiencing significant dizziness or pain during a workout will stop what they're doing even without reading a warning label. And serious medical conditions arising during exercise are rather rare, so the impact of warning everyone about them is likely small.

The bottom line

Don't be overly alarmed by alerts slapped on exercise equipment. True, it's best not to drop weights on your foot or exercise way too hard or long. If you are worried about workout risks or have been advised to be especially careful about exercising, it's reasonable to talk about it with your doctor.

But that conversation isn't necessary for most people, including those with well-controlled chronic illness such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or coronary artery disease. In fact, regular exercise helps treat many illnesses.

Exercise is among the most important things you can do to improve your health. And inactivity is a generally a much bigger risk than exercising.

So, if you see warnings on the gym equipment at your next workout, keep this in mind: there are much riskier things to worry about. Like hot coffee.

About the Author

photo of Robert H. Shmerling, MD

Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School. … See Full Bio View all posts by Robert H. Shmerling, MD

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HEALTH NATURAL YOGA

What is somatic therapy?

A wooden ladder with rungs heading upward from a dark place into a circle of blue sky; concept is therapy

Trauma can register within our bodies on a cellular level. What that means to an individual — and how best to heal from serious traumas encountered in life — is the focus of a newer form of mental health counseling known as somatic therapy.

The resounding success of The Body Keeps the Score — a fixture on the New York Times bestseller list for more than four years running — testifies to mounting public awareness that trauma affects people deeply. Thus far, though, somatic therapy hasn’t caught up to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and related techniques in understanding, use, or research proving its worth, a Harvard expert says.

What is somatic therapy?

Most people likely haven’t heard of somatic therapy, says Amanda Baker, director of the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders and a clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. Unlike other mind-body approaches such as mindfulness meditation, mind-body stress reduction (MBSR), and mindfulness and self-compassion (MSC) — which are steadily growing in use — somatic therapy hasn’t hit the mainstream.

What’s the fundamental concept? “It’s a treatment focusing on the body and how emotions appear within the body,” Baker explains. “Somatic therapies posit that our body holds and expresses experiences and emotions, and traumatic events or unresolved emotional issues can become ‘trapped’ inside.”

Who might benefit from somatic therapy?

Since disturbing feelings often show up in the body in debilitating ways, somatic therapy aims to drain those emotions of their power, relieving pain and other manifestations of stress, such as disrupted sleep or an inability to concentrate.

These types of emotions can stem from a variety of conditions and circumstances that somatic therapy may potentially help alleviate. They include

  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • complicated grief
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • trust and intimacy issues
  • self-esteem problems.

“Anxiety can lead to muscle tension, particularly in the neck, shoulders, jaw, and back,” Baker says. “It can cause a lot of discomfort, pain, stiffness, and trouble with daily activities. If we’re experiencing chronic anxiety or distress, it’s almost like we have our foot on a gas pedal. It’s not a panic attack, but we’re never feeling a reprieve and there’s a constant wear and tear on the body.”

How does somatic therapy differ from talk therapies?

Typical talk therapies such as CBT engage only the mind, not the body, encouraging people to become aware of disturbing thoughts and behavior patterns and work to change them.

But in somatic therapy, the body is the starting point to achieve healing. This form of therapy cultivates an awareness of bodily sensations, and teaches people to feel safe in their bodies while exploring thoughts, emotions, and memories.

“Cognitive behavioral therapies focus on conscious thought and work on challenging thoughts in relation to anxiety and behaviors, helping desensitize people to uncomfortable sensations,” Baker says. “But somatic therapy is more about relieving the tension, as opposed to desensitizing people to it.”

Even mindfulness meditation, which some experts consider somatic in nature, differs in one key way from somatic therapy, Baker says. “Mindfulness meditation lets any feeling or emotion come into our minds without judgment, as opposed to homing in specifically on bodily sensations that are happening,” she says.

How is somatic therapy carried out?

A somatic therapist helps people release damaging, pent-up emotions in their body by using various mind-body techniques. These can vary widely, ranging from acupressure and hypnosis to breathwork and dance.

Other techniques are just as integral but aren’t household terms. Some on this list include:

  • body awareness, which helps people recognize tension spots in the body as well as conjure calming thoughts
  • pendulation, which guides people from a relaxed state to emotions similar to their traumatic experiences and then back to a relaxed state
  • titration, which guides people through a traumatic memory while noting any accompanying physical sensations and addressing them in real time
  • resourcing, which helps people recall resources in their lives that promote feelings of calm and safety, such as special people and places.

What to know if you’re considering somatic therapy

Scant scientific research has focused on somatic therapy and its benefits, Baker notes. That’s one reason why she always recommends cognitive behavioral therapy, which has proven benefits, as at least a starting point.

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard people do find tremendous benefit from somatic therapy, but it doesn’t have the same research backing yet as CBT and some other forms of therapy,” she says.

Health insurance may be more likely to cover somatic therapy, she says, when a person is dealing with extreme symptoms of mental trauma, such as seizures. Otherwise, insurers are more apt to cover established therapies such as CBT.

Additionally, finding an experienced somatic therapist can be challenging. “I think fewer folks are going to be trained in somatic therapies than CBT, so finding an experienced practitioner is definitely a tricky process,” Baker says. One useful resource is the US Association for Body Psychotherapy, which offers a Find a Therapist search tool online.

About the Author

photo of Maureen Salamon

Maureen Salamon, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Maureen Salamon is executive editor of Harvard Women’s Health Watch. She began her career as a newspaper reporter and later covered health and medicine for a wide variety of websites, magazines, and hospitals. Her work has … See Full Bio View all posts by Maureen Salamon

About the Reviewer

photo of Howard E. LeWine, MD

Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Howard LeWine is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Chief Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, and editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. See Full Bio View all posts by Howard E. LeWine, MD

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HEALTH NATURAL YOGA

Wildfires: How to cope when smoke affects air quality and health

A barge on a New York City river and skyscrapers, all blurred by orange-gray smoke from massive wildfires

As wildfires become more frequent due to climate change and drier conditions, more of us and more of our communities are at risk for harm. Here is information to help you prepare and protect yourself and your family.

How does wildfire smoke affect air quality?

Wildfire smoke contributes greatly to poor air quality. Just like fossil fuel pollution from burning coal, oil, and gas, wildfires create hazardous gases and tiny particles of varying sizes (known as particulate matter, or PM10, PM2.5, PM0.1) that are harmful to breathe. Wildfire smoke also contains other toxins that come from burning buildings and chemical storage.

The smoke can travel to distant regions, carried by weather patterns and jet streams.

How does wildfire smoke affect our health?

The small particles in wildfire smoke are the most worrisome to our health. When we breathe them in, these particles can travel deep into the lungs and sometimes into the bloodstream.

The health effects of wildfire smoke include eye irritation, coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. The smoke may also increase risk for respiratory infections like COVID-19. Other possible serious health effects include heart failure, heart attacks, and strokes.

Who needs to be especially careful?

Those most at risk from wildfire smoke include children, older adults, outdoor workers, and anyone who is pregnant or who has heart or lung conditions.

If you have a chronic health condition, talk to your doctor about how the smoke might affect you. Find out what symptoms should prompt medical attention or adjustment of your medications. This is especially important if you have lung problems or heart problems.

What can you do to prepare for wildfire emergencies?

If you live in an area threatened by wildfires, or where heat and dry conditions make them more likely to occur:

  • Create an evacuation plan for your family before a wildfire occurs.
  • Make sure that you have several days on hand of medications, water, and food that doesn't need to be cooked. This will help if you need to leave suddenly due to a wildfire or another natural disaster.
  • Regularly check this fire and smoke map, which shows current wildfire conditions and has links to state advisories.
  • Follow alerts from local officials if you are in the region of an active fire.

What steps can you take to lower health risks during poor air quality days?

These six tips can help you stay healthy during wildfire smoke advisories and at other times when air quality is poor:

  • Stay aware of air quality. AirNow.gov shares real-time air quality risk category for your area accompanied by activity guidance. When recommended, stay indoors, close doors, windows, and any outdoor air intake vents.
  • Consider buying an air purifier. This is also important even when there are no regional wildfires if you live in a building that is in poor condition. See my prior post for tips about pollution and air purifiers. The EPA recommends avoiding air cleaners that generate ozone, which is also a pollutant.
  • Understand your HVAC system if you have one. The quality and cleanliness of your filters counts, so choose high-efficiency filters if possible, and replace these as needed. It's also important to know if your system has outdoor air intake vents.
  • Avoid creating indoor pollution. That means no smoking, no vacuuming, and no burning of products like candles or incense. Avoid frying foods or using gas stoves, especially if your stove is not well ventilated.
  • Make a "clean room." Choose a room with fewer doors and windows. Run an air purifier that is the appropriate size for this room, especially if you are not using central AC to keep cool.
  • Minimize outdoor time and wear a mask outside. Again, ensuring that you have several days of medications and food that doesn't need to be cooked will help. If you must go outdoors, minimize time and level of activity. A well-fitted N95 or KN95 mask or P100 respirator can help keep you from breathing in small particles floating in smoky air (note: automatic PDF download).

About the Author

photo of Wynne Armand, MD

Wynne Armand, MD, Contributor

Dr. Wynne Armand is a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), where she provides primary care; an assistant professor in medicine at Harvard Medical School; and associate director of the MGH Center for the Environment and … See Full Bio View all posts by Wynne Armand, MD

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HEALTH NATURAL YOGA

Hot weather hikes: Staying safe when temperatures spike

Two backpacking friends sitting on a craggy rock to enjoy the view during a sunrise hike

Summer is an ideal time to take a hike, especially if you have the opportunity to explore one of our country’s many state and national parks. But if you venture far from home, it’s essential to make sure you’re prepared for the local climate and other conditions you may encounter on the trail, especially if you’re not an experienced hiker. Higher temperatures than you’re accustomed to or other extreme weather can be deadly.

“If you’re taking a hike in mid-July in the Arizona desert, there’s a very different list of considerations than if you’re in the mountains of Montana or the forests of North Carolina,” says Dr. N. Stuart Harris, chief of the Division of Wilderness Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Here’s a run-down of what to consider before you hit the trail.

Traveling companions, safety notifications, and orientation

First, it’s safer to travel in pairs or a group of people. But always tell someone not on your hike where you’re going, your anticipated route, and when you expect to return. National parks often require reservations or permits for overnight stays or treks to certain locales, and keep a record of day-hikers, so sign up as requested. If you end up getting injured or lost, the information can make a huge difference in locating you more quickly.

Remember to bring a map and know how to orient yourself. In many wilderness areas, cell service may be spotty or nonexistent, so don’t count on using your phone’s GPS.

In the desert, you may be able to see for 50 miles in the distance. But if you’re in a steep, wooded area, you might not be able to see 100 yards ahead and it’s much easier to become disoriented, says Dr. Harris.

Be ready for heat, humidity, and other weather hazards

Check forecasts first. Always check the forecast so you can be prepared for weather changes. Temperatures may drop and wind may increase as you climb higher. If you’re in an area prone to thunderstorms, lightning injury should definitely be on your radar, says Dr. Harris. Learn these lightning safety tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because these storms usually strike in the afternoon, you can minimize your risk by hiking in the earlier part of the day.

Hydrate well. During any type of exercise — especially hiking, which often demands a fair bit of exertion — be sure to drink extra water to replace the fluid you lose from sweating. On a warm day, you might not notice you’re sweating if it’s breezy. Pay attention to any signs or alerts advising hikers on how much water is best to carry.

Consider humidity. Temperature isn’t the only consideration, however. “If you’re in Arizona and the temperature is over 100° F, your body may be better able to release heat by sweating than if you’re in a very humid area,” says Dr. Harris. In the Great Smoky Mountains, for example, the temperature in July may be only in the high 80s. But humidity levels usually hover around 75% or higher. That means your sweat will evaporate more slowly, so your body’s natural cooling mechanism doesn’t work as efficiently. Be sure to rest and hydrate if you start feeling overheated.

What to wear and bring

Many park websites offer detailed safety tips specific to the terrain and weather you may encounter on a hike, so check before you go. Five basics to consider are as follows:

  • If your hike involves rocky or uneven terrain, hiking boots will offer more support than tennis shoes.
  • You’ll be more comfortable in lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing, but bring extra layers and rain gear, if the weather forecast suggests this is appropriate. Temperature drops can be surprising in some places when the sun wanes, so be prepared to layer up as needed if you’re out longer than expected.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses to shield you from the sun’s glare — and don’t forget to apply sunscreen to all exposed skin before you set off.
  • Along with plenty of fluids, bring high-energy snacks. If you get off course or encounter a problem, you’ll be glad you did.

Additionally, depending on where you’re hiking, you may need to dodge rash-inducing plants, including stinging nettles, poison oak, or poison ivy. Bring insect repellent to fend off biting insects and follow prevention strategies for ticks, which may harbor bacteria responsible for Lyme disease and other illnesses. Finally, carry a first aid kit with bandages for cuts and scrapes and moleskin for blisters.

About the Author

photo of Julie Corliss

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Julie Corliss is the executive editor of the Harvard Heart Letter. Before working at Harvard, she was a medical writer and editor at HealthNews, a consumer newsletter affiliated with The New England Journal of Medicine. She … See Full Bio View all posts by Julie Corliss

About the Reviewer

photo of Howard E. LeWine, MD

Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Howard LeWine is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Chief Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, and editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. See Full Bio View all posts by Howard E. LeWine, MD

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HEALTH NATURAL YOGA

Ringworm: What to know and do

A doctor examing a child's skin near elbow; child on exam table with arm raised, mother nearby

The first thing to know about ringworm is that there are no worms involved.

This generally harmless skin infection is caused by a fungus. The fungus causes a raised rash usually shaped like a ring, almost as if a worm was curled up under the skin (but again: no worms are involved).

The medical name for ringworm is tinea corporis.

Are there other types of tinea infections?

There are many different kinds of tinea skin infections, named in Latin for the part of the body they affect, such as the

  • scalp (tinea capitis)
  • groin (tinea cruris)
  • feet (tinea pedis)
  • body (tinea corporis).

Tinea infections can look a bit different depending on what part of the body they affect, but they are usually pink or red and scaly.

How do you get ringworm?

Tinea infections, particularly ringworm (tinea corporis), are very common. People catch them from other infected people and also from infected animals, particularly dogs and cats. They can also spread from one part of the body to another.

What does ringworm look like?

It usually starts as a pink scaly patch that then spreads out into a ring. The ring (which is not necessarily perfectly round) usually spreads wider with time. It can sometimes be itchy, but most of the time doesn’t cause any discomfort.

There are other rashes that can have a ringlike shape, so it’s always important to check in with your doctor, especially if the ring isn’t scaly. But most ringlike rashes are tinea.

How is ringworm treated?

Luckily, tinea corporis and the other kinds of tinea are very treatable. Most of the time, an antifungal cream does the trick.

When the rash is extensive (which is rare) or doesn’t respond to an antifungal cream (also rare), an antifungal medication can be taken by mouth.

As is the case with many other germs these days, there are some drug-resistant cases of tinea related to overuse of antifungal medications. But the vast majority of fungal infections go away with medication.

What should you do if you think a family member — or a pet — has ringworm?

If you think someone in your family has ringworm, call your doctor. The sooner you get started on treatment, the better.

If someone in the family has been diagnosed with ringworm, make sure that others don’t share clothing, towels, or sheets. Have everyone wash their hands frequently and well.

If your pet has a scaly rash, call the vet. Vacuum the areas your pet frequents, and have everyone wash their hands after touching the pet.

Can you prevent ringworm?

To prevent tinea corporis and other kinds of tinea:

  • Keep skin clean and dry.
  • Change clothes (particularly socks and underwear) regularly.
  • Wash your hands regularly (this helps prevent all sorts of infections).
  • If your child plays contact sports, make sure they shower after practice, keep their uniform and gear clean, and don’t share gear with other players.

To learn more about ringworm, visit the website of the Centers for Disease and Prevention.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

About the Author

photo of Claire McCarthy, MD

Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Claire McCarthy, MD, is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition to being a senior faculty editor for Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. McCarthy … See Full Bio View all posts by Claire McCarthy, MD

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HEALTH NATURAL YOGA

Rating the drugs in drug ads

illustration of the word new written in comic book style lettering, centered in a white burst on a red background

I admit it: I’m not a fan of drug ads. I think the information provided is often confusing and rarely well-balanced. Plus, there are just so many ads. They show up on TV and streaming programs, on social media, on billboards and the sides of busses, on tote bags, and in public bathrooms. Yes, there’s no refuge — even there — from the billions spent on direct-to-consumer ads in the US.

I’ve often wondered how highly-promoted, expensive new drugs stack up against other available treatments. Now a new study in JAMA Network Open considers exactly that.

Many advertised drugs are no better than older drugs

The study assessed 73 of the most heavily advertised drugs in the US between 2015 and 2021. Each drug had been rated by at least one independent health agency. Researchers tallied how many of these drugs received a high therapeutic value rating, indicating that a drug had at least a moderate advantage compared with previously available treatments.

The results? Only about one in four of these heavily advertised drugs had high therapeutic value. During the six years of the study, pharmaceutical companies spent an estimated $15.9 billion promoting drugs on TV that showed no major advantage over less costly drugs!

Why drug ads are not popular

Only the US and New Zealand allow direct-to-consumer medication marketing. The American Medical Association recommended a ban in 2015. While I’ve often written about reasons to be skeptical, let’s focus here on three potential harms to your wallet and your health.

Drug ads may

  • raise already astronomical health care costs by increasing requests for unnecessary treatment and promoting much costlier medicines than older or generic drugs.
  • create diseases to be treated. Everyday experiences, such as fatigue or occasional dryness in the eyes, may be framed in drug ads as medical conditions warranting immediate treatment. Yet often, such symptoms are minor, temporary experiences. Another example is “low T” (referring to low blood testosterone). While it’s not a recognized illness on its own, ads for it have likely contributed to increased prescriptions for testosterone-containing medicines.
  • promote new drugs before enough is known about long-term safety. The pain reliever rofecoxib (Vioxx) is one example. This anti-inflammatory medicine was supposed to be safer than older medicines. It was withdrawn from the market when evidence emerged that it might increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Four questions to ask your doctor if you’re curious about a drug ad

Wondering whether you should be taking an advertised drug? Ask your doctor:

  • Do I have a condition for which this drug is recommended?
  • Is there any reason to expect this drug will be more helpful than what I’m already taking?
  • Is this drug more expensive than my current treatment?
  • Do my health conditions or the medications I already take make the drug in the ad a poor choice for me?

The bottom line

The AMA recommended banning drug ads nearly a decade ago. But a drug ad ban seems unlikely, given strong lobbying by the pharmaceutical companies and concerns about violating their freedom of speech.

Still, cigarette commercials were banned in 1971, so it’s not an impossible dream. Meanwhile, my advice is to be skeptical about information in drug ads, and rely on more reliable sources of medical information, including your doctor. Consider contacting the Federal Communications Commission if you have complaints about these ads — a step few Americans seem to take. And try this: mute the TV, fast-forward your podcast, and close pop-ups as soon as drug ads appear.

About the Author

photo of Robert H. Shmerling, MD

Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School. … See Full Bio View all posts by Robert H. Shmerling, MD

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HEALTH NATURAL YOGA

IBD and LGBTQ+: How it can affect sexual health

The rainbow-plus colors of the LGBTQIA flag shown as if the flag was wavingEveryone who lives with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) knows their illness has a major impact on daily life. Many people are diagnosed in their 20s or 30s, a time when we might hope for few health challenges.

Medications, and sometimes surgery, may be used to treat IBD. If you identify as LGBTQ+, you might wonder how all of this may affect you — your physical health, of course, but also your sexual health and pleasure. Below are a few things to understand and consider.

What is inflammatory bowel disease?

IBD is a condition that causes inflammation along the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The two main types are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis:

  • Crohn's disease: inflammation can occur anywhere along the GI tract (from the mouth to the anus)
  • Ulcerative colitis: typically affects the large intestine (colon) only.

IBD can cause diarrhea, bloody stool, weight loss, and abdominal pain, and is typically diagnosed with blood and stool tests, imaging, and colonoscopy. A diagnosis of IBD may increase the risk of developing anxiety or depression, and can also have an impact on sexual health. People with IBD may require long-term medical treatment or surgery for their condition.

The starting point: Talking to your doctor

Talking to your medical team about IBD and sexual health may not be easy. This may depend on how comfortable you feel disclosing your LGBTQ+ identity with your health care providers. Ideally, you should feel comfortable discussing sexuality with your medical team, including what types of sexual partners and activities you participate in and how IBD may affect this part of your life.

Be aware that health care providers may not be able to address all LGBTQ+-specific concerns. Optimal care for people with IBD who identify as LGBTQ+ is not fully understood. However, this is an active area of research.

How might medicines for IBD affect sexual health?

Many effective IBD medications subdue the immune system to decrease inflammation. These immunosuppressive medicines may raise your risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV, chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea.

What you can do: Discuss these concerns with your doctor so you can take appropriate protective measures. This might include:

  • ensuring that your vaccinations, such as hepatitis B and HPV, are up to date.
  • engaging in sex using barrier protection to prevent STI transmission.
  • taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). This safe and effective medicine helps prevent the spread of HIV. Ask your primary care doctor or gastroenterologist if PrEP is appropriate for you.

How might surgery for IBD affect sexual health?

For some people with IBD, gut inflammation is severe enough to require surgery to remove part of the intestine. For example:

  • Abscesses or fistulas (abnormal connections between two body parts) sometimes form when someone has Crohn's disease around the anus. This may require surgical treatment.
  • Active inflammation in the rectum or anus may make sex painful, particularly for people who engage in anal receptive sex.
  • We don't yet know whether anal receptive sex is safe for people who have had surgery to remove the colon and create a J-pouch, which is formed from small intestine to create an internal pouch that enables normal bowel movements.

What you can do: Discuss your concerns with your gastroenterologist and colorectal surgeon.

If you engage in anal sex, you may be confused about whether it is safe to do so. While you may feel uncomfortable discussing this concern and others with your doctor, try to be as honest and open as you can. That way, you'll receive the best information on how to engage in safe and enjoyable sex after an IBD diagnosis or surgery.

What else to consider if you are transgender

People with IBD who are transgender may have additional concerns to address.

For example, there may be a risk for sexual side effects from gender-affirming surgery. These procedures may include vaginoplasty (surgical creation of a vagina) for transgender females, or phalloplasty (surgical creation of a penis) for transgender males. The safety of these procedures in people with IBD is not currently well understood.

What you can do: If you identify as transgender, ask your doctor if any gender-affirming surgeries you've had or medicines you take, such as hormones, might affect your IBD, recommended treatments, or sexual health.

If you're considering gender-affirming surgery, discuss your options with your medical team. Be aware that gender-affirming surgery may be more challenging, or may not be advisable, for people with complex or active IBD. It's important to discuss your specific risks with your doctor when pursuing gender-affirming care. Having access to a team of physicians, including a surgeon and a gastroenterologist, may improve outcomes.

The bottom line

Try to talk to your gastroenterologist about how your sexual practices and gender identity may affect — and be affected by — your IBD. A conversation like this may feel uncomfortable, but being candid about your symptoms and concerns will help you receive the best possible care.

Often, a multidisciplinary approach to care is helpful. Your health care providers, including your gastroenterologist and surgeon, may suggest seeing additional specialists.

Much remains unknown about sexual health and practices in LGBTQ+ people with IBD. While more research is needed, open communication on the impact of medications, surgery, and other aspects of living with IBD can do a lot to improve your quality of life.

About the Authors

photo of Andrew Eidelberg, MD

Andrew Eidelberg, MD, Contributor

Dr. Andrew Eidelberg is a third-year internal medicine resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. After graduating from the University of Miami and Weill Cornell Medical College, he decided to pursue a career in gastroenterology, specifically … See Full Bio View all posts by Andrew Eidelberg, MD photo of Loren Rabinowitz, MD

Loren Rabinowitz, MD, Contributor

Dr. Loren Rabinowitz is an instructor in medicine Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, and an attending physician in the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center at BIDMC. Her clinical research is focused on the … See Full Bio View all posts by Loren Rabinowitz, MD

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HEALTH NATURAL YOGA

Mud runs: Dirty, challenging, next-level fun

A muddy woman, laughing, goes through mud run obstacle course as a woman leans forward to help; both have colorful stripes on cheeksRemember childhood summers when you climbed monkey bars, swung from ropes, and jumped over streams? Rain just added to the fun, leaving you soaked and muddy.

You can relive those adventures by signing up for a mud run. These outdoor team events focus on navigating through military-inspired obstacle courses and getting good and dirty in the process.

Tough Mudder and Spartan races are the most well-known mud races. But similar mud runs are available in most states. Some offer shorter distances and levels of difficulty. Others are designed just for women, kids, or families.

How do mud runs work?

Usually these events follow the same basic concept: participants traverse a course that covers anywhere from three to 10 miles (or longer), and tackle 10 to 25 obstacles.

While some mud races can be done solo, most are designed as team-oriented events. Teams are often coed and consist of five to 10 people. There is no time limit, but depending on the distance and number of obstacles, most teams complete the course in anywhere from less than an hour to three-plus hours.

The obstacles are challenging enough that most people need help — physically and emotionally — to navigate over, under, and across them. This is where a “we’re-all-in-this-together” comradery comes into play.

What sort of obstacles are featured in mud runs?

Common obstacles include

  • climbing over spider web-like cargo nets
  • scaling walls of various heights
  • swinging from ropes with handles
  • keeping your balance while walking across beams or logs
  • carrying logs or sandbags
  • slithering under barbed wire.

And then there’s all the mud. Be prepared to trudge through sticky mud pits, crawl through muddy tunnels, and shoot down mud-slick slides.

What are the health benefits of a mud run?

According to Dr. Aaron Baggish, founder of the Cardiovascular Performance Center at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, the benefits of these events come from how they are constructed.

“Obstacle racing combines large-muscle, whole-body resistance exercises superimposed on a long-distance endurance race,” he says. “They are a snapshot of all-around conditioning, as you need strength, stamina, and mobility.”

Besides the physical benefits, mud races offer psychological challenges, and the emotional rewards, of conquering tasks that require planning, coordination, and strategy.

How can you prepare for a mud run?

Mud races require strenuous exercise, so discuss your safety and capabilities with your doctor before signing up for an event. While almost anyone of any age can participate in these events, they require a certain level of conditioning to complete and to reduce the risk of experiencing injury.

“Training for obstacle races incorporates many aspects of fitness and performance,” says Dr. Baggish. “So it’s best to prepare with a coach or trainer who understands the fundamental skills needed to complete these races.”

Whether or not you work with a trainer, you’ll want to focus on:

  • Aerobic fitness. While you won’t consistently run as you do in a traditional road race, such as a 5K or a half marathon, you do have to hustle from obstacle to obstacle. “Optimal training for such obstacle races involves a combination of steady-state aerobic base training like jogging or cycling, coupled with interval work that simulates the start-and-stop nature of competition,” says Dr. Baggish.
  • Grip strength. You will have to grab, hold, and pull yourself against gravity. Exercises that can help include pull-ups and farmer carries (where you hold dumbbells or kettlebells in each hand while you walk back and forth). Good form is essential during these exercises to help you avoid injury. Remember to start low when working with weights and go slow.
  • Plyometrics. Many obstacles require explosive jumps and quick movements. Exercises like box jumps, burpees, and jump squats can help replicate these moves.

How to stay safe in the mud

While being physically prepared can help reduce the risk of injury, you should take other precautions to stay safe. For instance:

  • Choose your race depending on level of fitness. Be sure you know what you’re getting into before you go.
  • Wear lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing. Avoid cotton, which gets heavy with mud and sweat.
  • Wear a headband, protective eyewear, or visor to keep mud out of the eyes.
  • Wear long shorts or pants that cover your knees to prevent scraping, or opt for knee pads.
  • Consider gloves to protect your hands and provide extra grip.
  • Cover your feet with petroleum jelly or an anti-chafing cream before putting on socks to protect wet feet from chafing and blisters.
  • Tie shoelaces tightly (but not so tight that they cut off circulation). Mud creates suction and you can quickly lose a shoe.
  • Pace yourself. Walk or take a break when needed.

Where can you find a mud run?

It depends on the level of challenge that you seek. Are you ready for a Tough Mudder or Spartan race? Looking for a family first mud run, or a Muddy Princess or Muddy Kids event?

These additional sites also can help you find mud races in your area:

  • Mud Run Finder (US)
  • Run Guides (Canada and the US)
  • Savage Race (US)

About the Author

photo of Matthew Solan

Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Matthew Solan is the executive editor of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. He previously served as executive editor for UCLA Health’s Healthy Years and as a contributor to Duke Medicine’s Health News and Weill Cornell Medical College’s … See Full Bio View all posts by Matthew Solan

About the Reviewer

photo of Howard E. LeWine, MD

Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Howard LeWine is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Chief Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, and editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. See Full Bio View all posts by Howard E. LeWine, MD