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Chris Pratt Is Doing the Daniel Fast Diet. But Is It Healthy?

The Daniel Fast has been around a long time — since the Old Testament, in fact. But actor Chris Pratt gave it new popularity recently by posting an Instagram story about adopting it as his latest diet.

Pratt described the plan as “21 days of prayer and fasting.” But what does the Daniel Fast actually entail — and is it healthy? Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Daniel Fast?

The Daniel Fast is a religiously rooted, short-term eating plan drawn from the Book of Daniel, which appears in the Old Testament. In the story, Daniel decides to avoid the rich, indulgent foods that surround him and have “nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink” for 10 days. (Some translations interpret vegetables as pulses, meaning foods grown from seeds.) A later reference says, “I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.” At the end of the fast, he was healthy, to everyone’s surprise.

Despite its ancient roots, books and online guides to the Daniel Fast have been published since about 2007, when The Daniel Fast blog launched. Most contemporary guides direct followers to eat only food grown from seeds — such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains — for 21 days, and cut out alcohol, caffeine, meat, dairy, sugar, fats and processed foods.

While most plans do not offer specific advice on lotions, they emphasize the importance of sacrificing physical and material comforts for the sake of spiritual growth; many followers also combine the eating style with regular prayer or spiritual practice. It’s popular among Evangelical Christians, and in 2011 a California pastor used the diet to help his evangelical congregation lose a collective 260,000 pounds.

Is the Daniel Fast healthy?

Richard Bloomer, dean of the University of Memphis’ School of Health Studies, has conducted multiple small studies on the Daniel Fast. His research has found that, after just three weeks, the diet can begin to lower risk factors for metabolic and cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce oxidative stress, a physical imbalance that may contribute to chronic disease formation. In general, plant-based diets are associated with health benefits including lower rates of chronic disease and longer lives.

“It just shows, I think, the power of food,” Bloomer says. “There’s a lot of potential health benefits from adopting this approach.”

Bloomer says the Daniel Fast is essentially a vegan diet, but potentially even healthier, since it eliminates processed foods that can come with sugar, fat, salt and preservatives. “We’re not thinking [the health benefits come from] the restriction in animal protein, per se, but more the restriction in all the other stuff that you would find in packaged foods,” as well as the addition of more nutrient-rich foods, he says.

While the Daniel Fast does not explicitly restrict the number of calories followers consume, Bloomer says most people who follow it end up eating fewer by filling up on nutrient- and fiber-dense whole foods instead of meat, dairy and processed products. He says most followers lose five to six pounds over the three weeks and report other benefits like clearer skin, more energy and better focus.

Dr. Wayne Jonas, a family physician and executive director of Samueli Integrative Health Programs at the University of California, Irvine, says this kind of calorie restriction — which is similar to the type in intermittent fasting — is not dangerous, as long as people are still eating enough to feel satiated. “It’s a religious framework around a process that we’ve known about biologically for a long time,” he says.

Jonas explains that periodic calorie restriction can not only spur weight loss but also kickstart cellular and metabolic processes that enhance good health.

“We are over-indulged in calories most of the time in this country, so by doing less of that, you’re going to get health benefits,” Jonas says. “Your body is going to kick in some of the reparative and metabolic processes that we know are associated with a longer life.”

Should you try the Daniel Fast?

Jonas says most fairly healthy people should be able to complete the Daniel Fast with no problems. People with chronic health conditions — especially those that require dietary monitoring, such as diabetes, congestive heart failure and kidney disease — should consult a doctor first.

Anybody who chooses to take on the Daniel Fast should make sure they’re adequately prepared, Bloomer says. While plenty of meals can be created from plant foods, Bloomer says people who typically rely on restaurants, takeout and packaged foods can find it difficult to adjust.

“If people hear about it and read about it, I wouldn’t suggest that they go out and start it the next day,” Bloomer says. “Go shopping, and spend time looking at labels. It’s forced nutrition education.”

Write to Jamie Ducharme at

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Why you shouldn’t follow the health regimes of these ‘peak zen’ people – The Conversation

January is a popular month for newspapers to publish health and fitness articles. One that caught my eye was in The Times and featured health fanatics who have reached “peak zen” (whatever that is). There’s Alex Beer (38), a model, Tim Gray (39), founder of a web marketing company, and Dasha Maximov (30), a freelance business consultant.

Let’s start with Alex Beer’s regime. He likes to drink “slightly pink” raw coconut water the minute he wakes up. Staying hydrated is important, but there’s no reason to choose coconut water over the regular stuff. A recent study found no difference in hydration when using tap water or coconut water.

Between meetings, Beer likes to drink a charcoal shot. Activated charcoal is often marketed as an aid to rid the body of toxins. If you’ve been poisoned, activated charcoal is brilliant, if not, it’s not much use. It doesn’t detox you – that’s what your kidneys are for. The same goes for the digestive enzymes (which Beer also likes to take) – you’ve already got those in your body and they do a pretty good job on their own.

Read more:
Activated charcoal doesn’t detox the body – four reasons you should avoid it

Moving on to Tim Gray. The tablespoon of coconut oil he adds to his coffee will only succeed in making it taste like sun cream. If that’s what you’re after, fill your boots. But coconut oil is a fat, which means it’s got a lot of calories in it. And to make matters worse, it’s high in saturated fats, which even us non-zens tend to eat too much of. Why would you want to have even more?

Read more:
Coconut oil: not quite poisonous, but best treated with caution

Gray says he doesn’t eat “any processed food at all”, which sounds nice if it were possible. Processed foods are those that have undergone changes to make them edible or safe to eat. Milk is pasteurised to get rid of any bugs that could make you sick. That’s processing. And you have to process it again to turn it into cheese or yogurt. If the pork belly that Gray likes to eat for lunch wasn’t processed, it would arrive on his plate as a whole pig, complete with mud and parasites.

Unprocessed pork.
Gareth Weeks/Shutterstock

The snobbery around processed foods is largely unfounded. There’s a difference between processing foods to make them safe and processing foods that makes them unhealthy, such as adding salt to ready meals to make them tastier. Processed foods can be a more affordable way to get your five a day (canned, frozen and dried fruits all count) and they can be a boon for people with arthritis or people who can’t chop veg to prep it for dinner. Frozen peas are not the same as a beefburger and chips.

Not entirely wrong

Not everything that these zen beings have to say should be discounted, however. Dasha Maximov is right about the fact that fish is good for you. And having lots of veg in your diet is also good. But some of Maximov’s claims, such as grains cause inflammation, are potentially harmful. People on gluten-free diets tend to have less fibre, vitamins and minerals. If there isn’t a medical reason to avoid gluten, you risk causing more harm to your health than good.

Read more:
Why gluten-free food is not the healthy option and could increase your risk of diabetes

Gray says that “life is too short not to enjoy the world and the people in it” and I agree with him. But life is also too short to spend it following dodgy nutrition advice that prevents you actually enjoying it, that at best will waste your money and at worst could have long-lasting detrimental effects on your health.

More on evidence-based articles about diets:

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The diet to save lives, the planet and feed us all?

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A diet has been developed that promises to save lives, feed 10 billion people and all without causing catastrophic damage to the planet.

Scientists have been trying to figure out how we are going to feed billions more people in the decades to come.

Their answer – “the planetary health diet” – does not completely banish meat and dairy.

But it requires an enormous shift in what we pile on to our plates and turning to foods that we barely eat.

What changes am I going to have to make?

If you eat meat every day then this is the first biggie. For red meat you’re looking at a burger a week or a large steak a month and that’s your lot.

You can still have a couple of portions of fish and the same of chicken a week, but plants are where the rest of your protein will need to come from. The researchers are recommending nuts and a good helping of legumes (that’s beans, chickpeas and lentils) every day instead.

There’s also a major push on all fruit and veg, which should make up half of every plate of food we eat.

Although there’s a cull on “starchy vegetables” such as the humble potato or cassava which is widely eaten in Africa.

So what is the diet in detail?

If you served it all up this is what you would be allowed each day:

  1. Nuts - 50g a day
  2. Beans, chickpeas, lentils and other legumes – 75g a day
  3. Fish - 28g a day
  4. Eggs - 13g a day (so one and a bit a week)
  5. Meat - 14g a day of red meat and 29g a day of chicken
  6. Carbs - whole grains like bread and rice 232g a day and 50g a day of starchy vegetables
  7. Dairy - 250g – the equivalent of one glass of milk
  8. Vegetables -(300g) and fruit (200g)

The diet has room for 31g of sugar and about 50g worth of oils like olive oil.

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Will it taste awful?

Prof Walter Willet, one of the researchers who is based at Harvard, said no and that after a childhood on a farm eating three portions of red meat a day he was now pretty much in line with the planetary health diet.

“There’s tremendous variety there,” he said. “You can take those foods and put them together in thousands of different ways. We’re not talking about a deprivation diet here, it is healthy eating that is flexible and enjoyable.”

Image copyright
Molly Katzen

Image caption

These are some plates of food that meet the planetary health diet rules

BBC Food: Health recipes and diet information

Is this for real, or just a fantasy?

This plan requires changes to diets in pretty much every corner of the world.

Europe and North America need to cut back massively on red meat, East Asia needs to cut back on fish, Africa on starchy vegetables.

“Humanity has never attempted to change the food system at this scale and this speed,” said Line Gordon, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, at Stockholm University.

“Whether it’s a fantasy or not, a fantasy doesn’t have to be bad… it’s time to dream of a good world,” she says.

Taxes on red meat are one of the many options the researchers say may be necessary to persuade us to switch diets.

Who came up with this?

A group of 37 scientists from around the world were brought together as part of the EAT-Lancet commission.

They’re a mix of experts from farming to climate change to nutrition. They took two years to come up with their findings which have been published in the Lancet.

Why do we need a diet for 10 billion people?

The world population reached seven billion in 2011 and it’s now around 7.7 billion. That figure is expected to reach 10 billion around 2050 and will keep on climbing.

Will it save lives?

The researchers say the diet will prevent about 11 million people dying each year.

That number is largely down to cutting diseases related to unhealthy diets such as heart attacks, strokes and some cancers. These are now the biggest killers in developed countries.

How bad is farming for the planet?

The use of land for growing food and forestry accounts for around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s about the same as from electricity and heating, and substantially more than from all the trains, planes and automobiles on the planet.

When you look more closely at the food sector’s environmental impact, you can see that meat and dairy are the major factors. Worldwide, livestock accounts for between 14.5 and 18% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

When it comes to other warming gases, agriculture is one of the leading contributors to both methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

Agriculture is also a significant source of air pollution with ammonia from farms a major cause of fine particulate matter, which the World Health Organization (WHO) says is a threat to health worldwide.

Similarly when it comes to water, agriculture and food productions are one of the biggest threats, consuming 70% of global freshwater sources for irrigation.

So will this diet save the planet?

The researchers’ aim was to feed more people while:

  • minimising greenhouse gas emissions
  • preventing any species going extinct
  • having no expansion of farmland, and
  • preserving water

However, just changing diets is nowhere near enough.

To make the numbers add up, also requires a halving of food waste and an increase in the amount of food produced on current farmland.

Why isn’t meat being banned?

“If we were just minimising greenhouse gases we’d say everyone be vegan,” said Prof Willet.

However, it was unclear whether a vegan diet was the healthiest option, he said.

So what happens now?

The EAT-Lancet Commission is going to take its findings to governments around the world and bodies such as the WHO to see if it can begin to change the way we eat.

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School of Public Health introduces new research-based master’s degree


IU’s School of Public Health is taking applicants for a new master’s of science in environmental and occupational health degree this year. It aims to recruit students interested in laboratory research.

“We saw a need for a research-based degree that would be useful for students,” said M. Margaret Weigel, SPH interim department chair.

One thing setting this degree apart from other master’s programs is the required thesis or research project, Weigel said. The master’s of public health has an internship requirement, but this degree does not.

Weigel said the degree will focus on environmental factors that affect  public health. Occupational health focuses on the health of workers.

“The environment can be chemicals in the environment, or heavy metals, or if you look at things like climate change,” Weigel said. “We also look at things like food systems.”

Occupational health fits inside the large field of environmental health, Weigel said.

In medicine, health is focused on individuals, Weigel said. Public health is more focused on a community’s health.

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Longest-Ever Government Shutdown Affects Public Health | NOVA

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Pocowatchit says. “We don’t know if they’re going to become homeless [if affordable housing contracts expire] or lose their health insurance. What’s going to happen to the people we serve?”

Native American LifeLines of Boston doesn’t provide direct medical services (except for dental and behavioral health care). Instead, it connects Native people to services. During a government shutdown, this system of care simply isn’t there.

“Living in an urban area, we have many different tribes represented, and a lot of [these people] are not living near their tribal communities,” says Ella Blackowl, a program assistant with Native American Lifelines of Boston. “They’re not able to get services from their tribes like in other parts of the United States.”

From a research perspective, the shutdown may indirectly affect the health of women and newborns, as well. Dr. Tracey Woodruff, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive services at the University of California San Francisco, says that certain grants aren’t getting approved because of the shutdown, which is causing research interruptions. Woodruff studies environmental contributors to disease. In particular, her work investigates how prenatal exposure to pollutants and other chemicals can adversely affect prenatal development.

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Proper Breathing Brings Better Health

As newborns, we enter the world by inhaling. In leaving, we exhale. (In fact, in many languages the word “exhale” is synonymous with “dying.”) Breathing is so central to life that it is no wonder humankind long ago noted its value not only to survival but to the functioning of the body and mind and began controlling it to improve well-being.

As early as the first millennium B.C., both the Tao religion of China and Hinduism placed importance on a “vital principle” that flows through the body, a kind of energy or internal breath, and viewed respiration as one of its manifestations. The Chinese call this energy qi, and Hindus call it prana (one of the key concepts of yoga).

A little later, in the West, the Greek term pneuma and the Hebrew term rûah referred both to the breath and to the divine presence. In Latin languages, spiritus is at the root of both “spirit” and “respiration.”

Recommendations for how to modulate breathing and influence health and mind appeared centuries ago as well. Pranayama (“breath retention”) yoga was the first doctrine to build a theory around respiratory control, holding that controlled breathing was a way to increase longevity.

In more modern times, German psychiatrist Johannes Heinrich Schultz developed “autogenic training” in the 1920s as a method of relaxation. The approach is based partly on slow and deep breathing and is probably still the best-known breathing technique for relaxation in the West today. The contemporary forms of mindfulness meditation also emphasize breathing-based exercises.

In fact, every relaxation, calming or meditation technique relies on breathing, which may be the lowest common denominator in all the approaches to calming the body and mind. Research into basic physiology and into the effects of applying breath-control methods lends credence to the value of monitoring and regulating our inhalations and exhalations.

Yoga and meditation have inspired many of the breathing exercises used today. The benefits of controlled respiration were first theoretically posited centuries ago by the practitioners of pranayama yoga. Credit: Getty Images

Mind under the Influence

Even a rudimentary understanding of physiology helps to explain why controlled breathing can induce relaxation. Everyone knows that emotions affect the body. When you are happy, for instance, the corners of your mouth turn up automatically, and the edges of your eyes crinkle in a characteristic expression. Similarly, when you are feeling calm and safe, at rest, or engaged in a pleasant social exchange, your breathing slows and deepens. You are under the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system, which produces a relaxing effect. Conversely, when you are feeling frightened, in pain, or tense and uncomfortable, your breathing speeds up and becomes shallower. The sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s various reactions to stress, is now activated. Less well known is that the effects also occur in the opposite direction: the state of the body affects emotions. Studies show that when your face smiles, your brain reacts in kind—you experience more pleasant emotions. Breathing, in particular, has a special power over the mind.

This power is evident in patients who have breathing difficulties. When these difficulties are sporadic and acute, they can trigger panic attacks; when they are chronic, they often induce a more muted anxiety. It is estimated that more than 60 percent of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have anxiety or depressive disorders. These disorders probably stem in part from concerns about the consequences of the disease (what could be more distressing than struggling to breathe?), but purely mechanical factors may contribute as well: the difficulty these patients experience often leads to faster breathing, which does not necessarily improve the quality of their oxygen supply but can aggravate their physical discomfort and anxiety.

Rapid breathing can contribute to and exacerbates panic attacks through a vicious circle: fear triggers faster breathing, which increases fear. In 2005 Georg Alpers, now at the University of Mannheim in Germany, and his colleagues observed significant and unconscious hyperventilation when people who had a driving phobia took their vehicles on the highway (where they might not be able to pull over if they become agitated).

Whether anxiety derives from breathing problems or other causes, it can be eased by a number of breathing techniques derived from traditional Eastern approaches (see “Six Techniques for Relieving Stress”). For example, “follow your breath,” an exercise that focuses attention on breathing, is one of the first steps in mindfulness meditation, whereas alternate nostril breathing comes from yoga. Combining reassuring thoughts with breathing is an approach incorporated into sophrology, a technique that emphasizes harmony of body and mind and that borrows exercises from many approaches, including yoga and mindfulness.

Overall, research shows that these techniques reduce anxiety, although the anxiety does not disappear completely. Breathing better is a tool, not a panacea. Some methods have been validated by clinical studies; others have not. But all of those I describe in this article apply principles that have been proved effective. They aim to slow, deepen or facilitate breathing, and they use breathing as a focal point or a metronome to distract attention from negative thoughts.

Spotlight on Cardiac Coherence

A close look at one popular technique—cardiac coherence—offers more detail about the ways that breathing exercises promote relaxation. With the help of biofeedback, the approach attempts to coordinate breathing with heart rate, slowing and steadying breathing to slow and stabilize the heartbeat.

The method was developed based on the understanding that slow, deep breathing increases the activity of the vagus nerve, a part of parasympathetic nervous system; the vagus nerve controls and also measures the activity of many internal organs. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, calmness pervades the body: the heart rate slows and becomes regular; blood pressure decreases; muscles relax. When the vagus nerve informs the brain of these changes, it, too, relaxes, increasing feelings of peacefulness. Thus, the technique works through both neurobiological and psychological mechanisms.

Cardiac coherence’s stabilization of the heartbeat can dampen anxiety powerfully. Conversely, patients with overactive heartbeats are sometimes misdiagnosed as victims of panic attacks because their racing heartbeat affects their mind.

A typical cardiac coherence exercise involves inhaling for five seconds, then exhaling for the same amount of time (for a 10-second respiratory cycle). Biofeedback devices make it possible to observe on a screen how this deep, regular breathing slows and stabilizes the beats. (The space between two heartbeats on the display is never exactly the same, but it becomes increasingly more consistent with this technique.) Several studies have confirmed the anxiety-diminishing effect of these devices, although the equipment probably has more influence on the motivation to do the exercises (“It makes it seem serious, real”) than on the physiological mechanisms themselves. Simply applying slow breathing with the same conviction and rigor could well give the same result.

Some versions of cardiac coherence recommend spending more time on exhaling than on inhaling (for example, six and four seconds). Indeed, your heart rate increases slightly when you inhale and decreases when you exhale: drawing out the second phase probably exerts a quieting effect on the heart and, by extension, on the brain. This possibility remains to be confirmed by clinical studies, however.

Other work suggests that the emotional impact of the breathing done in cardiac coherence and various other kinds of exercises stems not only from effects on the periphery—on the parasympathetic nervous system—but also from effects on the central nervous system. Breathing may well act directly on the brain itself.

In 2017, for instance, Mark Krasnow of Stanford University and his colleagues showed in mice that a group of neurons that regulates respiratory rhythms (the pre-Bötzinger complex in the brain stem) controls some of the activity of the locus coeruleus, a region involved in attention, wakefulness and anxiety. Breathing techniques may influence this seat of emotions by modulating the activity of the pre-Bötzinger complex.

Beyond any direct effects produced by slowed breathing, the attention given to inhaling and exhaling may play a role in the brain’s response. In 2016 Anselm Doll and his colleagues, all then at the Technical University of Munich, showed that this attentional focus eases stress and negative emotions, in particular by activating the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, a regulatory area of the brain, and by reducing activity in the amygdala, which is involved in these emotions.

In addition, paying attention to breathing causes most people to slow it down and to deepen it, which as I have mentioned, is soothing. Cognitive resources are limited, and so when individuals concentrate on breathing, they are not thinking about their worries. Those who practice mindfulness learn to notice when their attention drifts away from breathing and goes back to their concerns, and they train themselves to return periodically to their breathing. This refocusing has a relaxing effect on anyone and helps to combat ruminative thinking in people who have anxiety or depression, especially those who are particularly prone to negative thoughts that run in a loop.

When to Use Breathing Techniques

What is the best time to apply slow-breathing techniques? One is during occasional episodes of stress—for example, before taking an exam, competing in a sporting event or even attending a routine meeting at work. In 2017 Ashwin Kamath of Manipal University in India and his colleagues studied stage fright before a public speaking engagement. The participants, all medical students, spent 15 minutes doing alternate nostril breathing—that is, slowly inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other by applying finger pressure to the side of the nose not being used. Compared with members of the control group, participants experienced somewhat less stress when speaking publicly.

These exercises may also help when insomnia strikes. In 2012 Suzanne M. Bertisch of Harvard Medical School and her colleagues reported, based on survey data, that more than 20 percent of American insomniacs do these breathing exercises to sleep better. They may be on to something. In 2015 Cheryl Yang and her team at National Yang-Ming University in Taiwan showed that 20 minutes of slow breathing exercises (six respiration cycles per minute) before going to bed significantly improves sleep. Insomniac participants went to sleep faster, woke up less frequently in the night and went back to sleep faster when they did wake up. On average, it took them only 10 minutes to fall asleep, almost three times faster than normal. The investigators attributed the results both to the calming mediated by the parasympathetic system and to the relaxing effect of focused breathing.

But respiratory techniques do not work only for acute stresses or sleep problems; they can also relieve chronic anxiety. They are particularly effective in people with psychiatric disorders such as phobias, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2015 Stefania Doria and her colleagues at Fatebenefratelli e Oftalmico Hospital in Milan, Italy, offered 10 training sessions of two hours each, spread out over two weeks, to 69 patients with anxiety or depressive disorders. The training included a varied set of breathing techniques (such as abdominal breathing, acceleration and deceleration of rhythm, and alternate nostril breathing.), combined with some yoga stretches. The researchers observed a significant decrease in symptoms at the end of the protocol. Even better, improvement was maintained two and six months later, with follow-up sessions just once a week and some home practice during this period.

Breathing exercises also help to counter the accumulation of minor physical tension associated with stress. Therapists recommend doing them regularly during the day, during breaks or at moments of transition between two activities: you simply stop to adjust your posture and allow yourself a few minutes of quiet breathing. Therapists often suggest the “365 method”: at least three times a day, breathe at a rhythm of six cycles per minute (five seconds inhaling, five seconds exhaling) for five minutes. And do it every day, 365 days a year. Some studies even suggest that, in addition to providing immediate relief, regular breathing exercises can make people less vulnerable to stress, by permanently modifying brain circuits. In a practice that may seem counterintuitive, however, counselors may encourage some anxious patients to breathe rapidly instead of slowly, as part of an effort to train them to cope with their anxieties (see box “Inhale for Panic!”).

But why confine breathing techniques to negative emotions? It is also worth applying them during pleasurable moments, to take the time to appreciate and remember them. In short, one can pause and breathe for enjoyment as well as to calm down.

Open Questions

Tradition and experience encourage the use of respiratory-control techniques, and scientific studies increasingly suggest that it is a good idea. Nevertheless, further research is still needed, particularly given that some studies lack control groups. One exception stands out: focusing on breathing often is not a good idea for people having a panic attack that stems from anxiety over their physical state (also known as interoceptive anxiety). In this case, focusing on physiology, such as muscle tension or breathing, may actually amplify panic (“Now that I’m paying attention to it, my breathing doesn’t seem regular. Am I choking? What will happen if I suddenly stop breathing?”) For these people, breathing techniques should be tested and practiced under the supervision of a therapist.

Otherwise, considering how often everyone experiences emotional discomfort in their everyday life and its negative consequences on health, we would all do well to regularly pay attention to the way we breathe. Start with brief periods of conscious, quiet breathing several times a day. Breathing is like solar energy for powering relaxation: it’s a way to regulate emotions that is free, always accessible, inexhaustible and easy to use.

In fact, I am mystified that controlled breathing is not recommended and practiced more widely. Perhaps it is perceived as too simple, commonplace and obvious to be a remedy. Faced with the complexity of negotiating the ups and downs of human life, many people may assume that simple solutions cannot be effective.

Or maybe we are intimidated by the sacred aspect of breathing, by its connection to life and, especially, to death. In the 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs, Victor Hugo wrote: “Generations are puffs of breath, that pass away. Man respires, aspires, and expires.” Ultimately, we don’t like to think that we are nothing more than “puffs of breath.”

Six Techniques for Relieving Stress

Here are some commonly used breathing techniques. Five to10 minutes of exercise can relieve sporadic stress and even fend off panic attacks. More regular practice can lower the daily levels of anxiety.

Stand Up Straight

Posture is important for breathing: hold yourself straight, without stiffness, shoulders back, sitting or standing. This body posture facilitates the free play of the respiratory muscles (of the diaphragm and between the ribs). Good posture enables your body to breathe properly on its own.

Follow Your Breath*

Simply observe your respiratory movements: be aware of each inhalation and exhalation. Focus on the sensations you feel as air passes through your nose and throat or on the movements of your chest and belly. When you feel your thoughts drift (which is natural), redirect your attention to your breath.

Abdominal Breathing

Breathe “through your stomach” as much as possible: start by inflating your belly by inhaling, as if to fill it with air, then swell your chest; as you exhale, first “empty” your stomach, then your chest. This type of breathing is easier to observe and test while lying down, with one hand on your stomach.

Rhythmic Breathing

Near the end of each inhalation, pause briefly while mentally counting “1, 2, 3” and holding the air before exhaling. This counting while not breathing can also be done after exhaling or between each inhalation or exhalation. It is often recommended for anxious patients to calm anxiety attacks because it induces a beneficial slowing of the breathing rate.

Alternate Nostrils*

Breathe in and out slowly through one nostril, holding the other one closed using your finger; then reverse and continue by alternating regularly. There are many variations of this exercise—for example, inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other. Research suggests that what is most important, aside from slowing the breathing rhythm, is breathing through the nose, which is somewhat more soothing than breathing through your mouth.

Think Reassuring Thoughts While Breathing

With each breath, think soothing thoughts (“I am inhaling calm”). With each exhalation, imagine that you are expelling your fears and worries (“I am exhaling stress”).

*Technique validated by clinical studies.

Inhale for Panic!

Whereas slow breathing soothes, overly rapid breathing can induce feelings of stress and anxiety. This phenomenon is used in behavioral therapy sessions to train anxious patients to confront their emotions directly. By deliberately hyperventilating, patients artificially trigger an unpleasant anxiety, which they get accustomed to feeling and learn to put in perspective. This technique also enables them to see that poor breathing habits amplify their fear.

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Get Fit — Faster: This 22-Minute Workout Has You Covered

Hard to fit exercise into your day? Then, maybe this workout is for you. It covers everything you need — from cardio to strength-training to stretching.

“You can get a fantastic work out in 22 minutes,” says Tim Church. He’s a physician and researcher who’s spent his career studying exercise.

Why 22 minutes? Compared with 1960, Americans today burn about 140 fewer calories, on average, per day due to our sedentary jobs. To offset the damages of sitting, we need to move. The latest recommendations call for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week to maintain good health. If you divide 150 minutes by 7 days a week, that’s 22 minutes a day.

With the help of certified fitness trainer Bryant Johnson, whose high-profile clients include Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we break down this workout into 10 minutes of cardio, 8 minutes of weight training and 4 minutes of stretching. The best part? All the exercises can be done at home — no special equipment needed.

Part 1: Cardio

Start off with 5 minutes of cardio. If you’re at home, try jumping jacks — that’ll get your heart rate up. A treadmill, bike or elliptical also fit the bill. Or go outside to run or walk. No matter which you choose, you want to alternate the pacing between intense bursts of cardio and slower periods. Do another 5 minutes of cardio before ending with stretching.

Credit: Jenna Sterner/NPR

Only 10 minutes of cardio? Yep, I was skeptical, too. But here’s the hack: Whether you’re on a treadmill, an elliptical, or exercising outside, say goodbye to your steady pace. Instead, think intervals, or high-intensity interval training. You’ll start out slow, then build in bursts of intense aerobic activity that push up your heart rate. I like to alternate between one minute of cycling as hard as I can, followed by one minute at a more leisurely pace. Then, I repeat. (You can also try 20- or 30-second sprints.)

Johnson compares interval training to driving a car. Cars burn more fuel with the stop-go, stop-go of city driving. On the highway, cruising at a steady pace, you don’t burn as much fuel. So, think of interval training as city miles — you’re burning more fuel, or calories.

One study found that, compared with people who worked out at a steady pace, those who did interval training on stationary bikes as part of a four-month study were able to lose more weight from fewer minutes of exercise.

“You’re getting more benefit,” explains Church. “HIIT [high-intensity interval training] helps you have a very efficient workout. You’re stimulating more physiological pathways and you’re stimulating more muscles.”

Our workout starts with 5 minutes of cardio, then moves on to weight training. Add another 5 minutes of cardio before ending with stretching.

Part 2: Weight Training

If you’re starting out, try squats in a chair, shown here. To challenge yourself more, lift one leg as you sit up and down.

Credit: Jenna Sterner/NPR

After cardio, weight training is the next essential component of our workout. Bryant Johnson has built in repetitions of three simple exercises. We start with push-ups or planks. Then, we move on to squats, which he demonstrates here.

If you listen to our LifeKit podcast on exercise, you’ll hear me struggle through the pistol-squats (squats performed with one leg lifted off the ground) and the push-ups. What I realized is that I’ve been focusing too much on cardio, and I don’t have as much strength as I thought. When I put Morning Edition host Rachel Martin through this same workout, she had a similar realization: The pistol squats were tough for her, too, even though she’s an avid runner.

Wrap a towel around a banister or column. Lean back at a 45-degree angle or more. Keep your feet planted close to the banister. The goal is to support your weight with the towel — that’ll give your upper body a real workout.

Credit: Jenna Sterner/NPR

Then, for the upper body and chest, Bryant suggests a rowing-like exercise you, which he also demonstrates here. You can use a towel, belt or resistance band.

For a bigger challenge, lift your leg off the ground, bending and extending it as you row.

Credit: Jenna Sterner/NPR

We did three weight training exercises in a circuit: 12 repetitions each of squats, rows and push-ups (not pictured). You can do standard push-ups, or if you’re just starting out, try standing push-ups against a wall. Repeat this circuit — squats, rows and push-ups — three times.

Weight training becomes even more important the older we get. “From age 40 or 50 on, you lose 1-2 percent of your muscle mass per year,” Church says. “Maintaining muscle mass and strength is absolutely critical to quality of life, to healthy aging.” He says it’s the ultimate use-it or lose-it.

Part 3: Don’t Forget To Stretch

This workout ends with 4 minutes of stretching, which for me is a supplement to a yoga practice. Why is it important to make time to stretch? “It’s a way of calming the nervous system down,” Johnson says.

To inspire all those who are tempted to skip out on stretching, Johnson says you want to aim to be a bamboo tree, not an oak tree. “Which type [of tree] is the strongest?” he asks. Under pressure, an oak may snap, whereas a bamboo tree will sway and bend. “The more flexible you are, the stronger you are.”

Now that you’ve got the routine, here’s our advice: repeat daily.

Church says the benefits of working out are innumerable. Not only does it help fend off disease, it makes our bodies stronger and our minds clearer.

“I’ve spent my whole career studying exercise, and I’m absolutely convinced that 95 percent of the benefits of exercise are above the shoulders,” Church says. Exercise can help reduce anxiety and depression. “There are so many benefits to the brain, and each year we learn more.”

Like this article? Listen to it as a podcast. It’s part of Life Kit, NPR’s new family of podcasts for navigating your life — everything from finances to diet and exercise to raising kids. Sign up for the newsletter to learn more and follow @NPRLifeKit on Twitter. Email us at Follow NPR’s Allison Aubrey at @AubreyNPRFood.

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Murray-Darling fish kill: authority shelved fish health strategy in 2013

The Murray Darling Basin Authority shelved its native fish strategy six years ago and ended its sustainable rivers audit program after New South Wales pulled 60% of its funding from a basinwide program to monitor the health of fish in the river.

For 10 years the MDBA made much of its fish strategy, releasing a glossy brochure that claimed the strategy required a “sustained commitment” of 50 years in order to rehabilitate native fish in the river. It announced a goal of “restoring native fish stocks to 60% of its pre-European levels.”

But in 2013 it was shelved.

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The federal minister for water, David Littleproud, has just announced a new fish recovery strategy in response to a fish kill that has seen up to 1 million die at Menindee on the Lower Darling River, including 70-year-old Murray cod and hundreds of thousands of perch.

The NSW opposition has announced it will set up a special commission of inquiry – equivalent to a royal commission – to investigate the environmental catastrophe at Menindee.

The NSW and federal governments continue to blame the drought for the crisis but multiple documents suggest the fish kill in the Darling River is also due to policy choices by the NSW government and the MDBA.

In 2013, after a critical article in the Deniliquin Times, the MDBA fired off a release saying that the cuts to the fish strategy program “were made by the NSW state government, not the MDBA.”

Quick guide

Understanding the key Murray-Darling basin plan terms

The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists says the plan has assisted in removing one million tonnes of salt from the river each year but is short of the target of two million tonnes. Environmental water recovered so far is not sufficient to arrest long-term degradation of wetlands, though some have improved. The Coorong is still in poor condition at the Murray mouth.

As part of managing the basin, the government has created water entitlements, which can be bought and sold. Available water is distributed to users via water rights administered by the basin states, and the total amount is capped. The rights can be traded in the water market and the government can also buy back entitlements for environmental flows. There are two main types: water entitlements that give rights to an ongoing share of the total amount of water available in a river system and water allocations that are for an actual amount of water available under water access entitlements in a given season.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has shifted focus towards funding projects that result in more efficient use of water, such as reducing evaporation by covering irrigation channels, encouraging crop varieties that need less water, and removing human-made structures that impede water reaching wetlands.

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder manages water purchased for the environment. Working with the MDBA, it periodically releases water from storages along the river to mimic natural flows, water wetlands and flush the river. 

“Last year, the NSW state government cut 60% of its share of funding for the joint management of the River Murray system,” the MDBA said.

“Historically, all the basin governments have pitched in and shared this funding and the MDBA, as ‘the agent’, has managed the river, maintained the dams, locks and weirs and managed the NRM [natural resource management] programs on behalf of all six governments.

“After the NSW state government cut its funding, the basin governments made the decision to cut the native fish strategy and the sustainable rivers audit, and delayed maintenance programs,” it said.

The end to the fish strategy has deprived federal and state authorities of crucial information to manage the Murray-Darling and its fish stocks.

A Menindee Lakes expert, Dr Richard Kingsford, from the University of NSW said environmental outcomes had taken a back seat to water management.

“These are complex systems and our knowledge of them only scratches the surface,” he said.

The Menindee Lakes are important breeding grounds for golden perch throughout the river. Yet the lake has been increasingly managed as a water storage, with little regard for the impacts on the fish stocks.

Asked about the cancelled fish strategy, the MDBA said parts of the strategy had been taken over by other arms of the authority.

In 2012 Katrina Hodgkinson, then NSW agriculture minister, put in place the Barwon Darling water-sharing plan.

The plan has been heavily criticised by downstream farms, environmental groups, Indigenous groups and scientists. The circumstances around its formation, in which cotton interests pushed for late amendments after the public consultation period, is now believed to be under investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

A submission on the Barwon Darling water-sharing plan by the fisheries division of the NSW Department of Primary Industry warned of “inadequate protection for threatened species of fish within the endangered aquatic ecological community” and advised there should be amendments to protect low flows.

The NSW minister for primary industries, Niall Blair, has claimed his predecessor addressed these concerns in the final plan but the state opposition leader, Michael Daley, said the fish deaths of last week showed that the plan remained inadequate to protect the environment. He has promised a commission of inquiry if he wins the state election in March.

The Australia Institute said its research has shown that the Lower Darling and Menindee Lakes had been mismanaged by many over a long period of time.

“Approximately two Sydney Harbours worth of water has been taken out of the region in the last two years,” said research director, Rod Campbell.

“Repeated policy failure in the management of the Lower Darling and Menindee Lakes has implications for major projects, irrigation and the environment throughout the basin.

“The hundreds of thousands of fish like the Murray cod have been sacrificed for interests elsewhere. The Australian public deserve an open account of how we have gotten to this point and the proposed inquiry is a good start.

“The river of dead fish is symbolic of the death of public trust in the management of the Murray-Darling basin plan.”

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The importance of the Chesapeake Bay’s health cannot be overstated

After we have invested almost $20 billion to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, it’s dismaying that the bay’s health is declining for the first time in a decade [“Rainy year degrades health of Chesapeake Bay,” Metro, Jan. 8].

Runoff from farms and development — washing nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment and other chemicals into the bay — is one of the principal culprits. Yet if, as it has proposed, the Environmental Protection Agency cuts Clean Water Act protections to wetlands and small streams, which naturally filter runoff pollution, the bay’s health will suffer. On the Eastern Shore alone, for example, more than 34,000 acres of wetlands called Delmarva potholes could lose federal protections, opening them up to agricultural conversion or other development, according to a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project.

To continue to make progress cleaning up the bay and other waterways, the EPA must maintain the Clean Water Act’s long-standing protections for wetlands and streams.

Ed Hopkins, Washington

I think it is safe to say that the Chesapeake Bay nonprofit community took a collective sigh of relief after reading the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s State of the Bay report. While a D-plus is not something that we are striving for, nor are happy about, the reality is that we all thought it might be much worse.

Last year, this region saw record rainfall, with Washington and other cities in the watershed recording their wettest years on record. Pennsylvania received so much rain that the Conowingo Dam’s gates were opened multiple times, releasing incredible amounts of water filled with debris and nutrient and sediment pollution into the bay. However, despite all of this, the bay’s health score dropped by only one point. This is what we have been hoping for — that the bay would not only be restored but be resilient, too. This is especially important as our region experiences an increase in intensity and frequency of major storms because of climate change.

This report demonstrates that the work we are doing for the Chesapeake is making a difference and that now is not the time to slow down.

Chanté Coleman, Annapolis

The writer is director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

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