This month we answer your questions related to technology—the ways it can help and hurt your health.
Q: I’m 58 and I recently started keeping my business’s books in an online spreadsheet, but I’m losing patience with learning the software and setting up the formulas. I’m tempted to go back to a hardcopy ledger, but my wife says she read that teaching yourself new technology is good for your brain. Is she right?
A: Yes! Teaching yourself anything new is good for your brain. The brain works like a mass of wires that must be primed in different ways to activate different areas—the more instances and ways in which you can challenge your brain, the better. New connections are made through learning a skill, working your memory or building upon and reactivating old knowledge.
New research even suggests that keeping yourself cognitively challenged helps prevent late-life memory dysfunction, especially Alzheimer’s disease, which is currently incurable. In Alzheimer’s, a plaque buildup wreaks havoc on brain connections, and the least plaque buildup occurs in people who engage in cognitively stimulating activities in early adulthood and middle age.
To learn new technology with less frustration, break the process into concrete goals. As you master each step, give yourself a small reward—new walking or running shoes, for instance. Your brain will be sharper, and you’ll acquire a new skill.
Q: It’s too cold to exercise outside here during the winters of the Upper Midwest, and my stationary bike is so boring I stopped using it. I’m thinking about buying a Wii Fit. Could I get a good, fun workout with it?
A: Wii Fits have a range of activities that can keep you interested as you exercise. Trainers praise the range of activities, such as yoga, hula-hooping and soccer, but stress the importance of safety and always using proper form. For example, if you do strength training incorrectly, the game can’t sense possible risks and injuries.
A new study also examined the fitness levels of kids who used the Wii Fit and those who didn’t. There was no difference, but the test subjects were assigned to their games. It’s better to pick ones that you love. (Same idea with the bike: Set up a TV and DVD player so you can watch as you pedal; I, Dr. Mike, do it three days a week for 48 minutes and four days for 30 minutes. It would be boring for me if I didn’t play a week’s worth of Dr. Oz and Jon Stewart shows.)
If you or your kids aren’t sports and fitness fanatics, playing Wii games you love can be a fun competition. To up the ante: The loser does two laps around the block for every one lap the winner does.
Our other recommendation: Bundle up and walk despite the cold. After a snowfall, take the kids sledding and race up the hill, or grab your shovel and clear the driveway or sidewalk.
Q: Can you recommend smartphone apps that will help me improve my diet and fitness?
A: The best part of using your smartphone this way is staying connected with pals or computer coaches to keep you motivated; send them your daily step count, food choices or blood pressure. Individuals who have someone keeping them accountable, engaged and having fun are more likely to stay at it. Pick a buddy who shares your goal so both of you will be more likely to succeed. Here are a few apps we like:
My-Fitness-Pal (free) tracks your progress with features such as a food diary and exercise tracker from your smartphone (or computer). You can count the calories in more than 1 million foods.
Daily Workouts ($3.99) provides great 10- to 30-minute routines and lets you target abs, arms, legs, etc.
Pocket Yoga ($2.99) is terrific for beginners and intermediate-level yogis.
RunKeeper (free) maps your runs, how far you went, your pace, duration and calories burned. All data is synced to the RunKeeper website so you can monitor your progress.
JEFIT (free) lets you modify and create a profile and download user-created workouts. You can customize exercises as well as share your data and stats online with others.
Q: Two friends who use computers a lot have had carpal tunnel surgery on their hands. What can I do to avoid this painful injury?
A: Carpal tunnel syndrome results from a combination of conditions and activities that put pressure on the median nerve, which runs through your arm and wrist; it provides sensation to your thumb, index finger, middle finger and part of your ring finger. The nerve passes through the carpal tunnel, a wrist area made of tendons. With carpal tunnel syndrome, you experience tingling, numbness, pain or weakness in your hand and sometimes your arm.
Your friends probably typed at the computer too much and too long with repetitive motions. This commonly causes tendons to swell. It’s important, especially for people who use a computer at work all day, to sit straight with good posture and to elevate wrists and fingers so one part of the hand is not strained.
To keep the stress off your hands, wear splints (sold at drugstores) to keep your wrists straight. You should also stretch your hands frequently. Do wrist extensions regularly during the day: Interweave your fingers, palms down, in front of your chest. Relax your shoulders and gently pull your elbows apart, creating space in your joints. While maintaining this space, raise your active left wrist and lower your passive right, keeping both forearms parallel to the ground. Now your right wrist is bending up and your left wrist is bending down. While keeping your fingers interlaced, gently go back and forth several times, opening up your wrists and switching your leading hand. If you’re feeling discomfort, you can ice the area for 20 minutes four times a day and immobilize wrists at night with splints.
Although repeated overuse of hands and wrists sets off carpal tunnel syndrome, anything that causes inflammation, swelling or decreased blood flow can contribute. Those factors include smoking, obesity or being inactive—more reasons to take 10,000 steps in a day, an important fitness goal. Another helpful habit to ward off inflammation: Take two baby aspirins with a half-glass of warm water two times daily (but check with your doctor before starting an aspirin regimen).