From corporations to insurers to health care providers, there is a rush to reward those who take proactive steps in living a healthier lifestyle. But those aren’t the only places wellness is trending. It’s also a thriving area of research.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Fitness and Health Bloggers Conference in Denver, Colo. We had a first-hand look at the newly established Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado, which opened on April 16. The Anschutz Health and Wellness Center is taking an innovative research and education approach to understand the effects of wellness practices on the human body. To assist researchers at the University of Colorado, programs like the human performance lab, metabolic kitchen and grocery lab were implemented.
Understanding the science of exercise
The human performance lab revolutionizes athletic training by monitoring how an individual’s body reacts to exercise at a microscopic level, moving away from the popular practice of monitoring the heart rate to analyze the muscle performance.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán, an exercise physiologist, studies the metabolic responses to exercise in order to help people find the optimum pace when the body is able to manage the levels of lactic acid produced during exercise. Lactic acid is a byproduct of physical activity that causes muscles to feel sore and can break down muscle tissue if excess acid builds over time, causing injury. By recording the amount of lactic acid at various workout paces, Dr. San Millán can recommend individualized training programs based on the athletes’ goals and body performance.
Healthy food can taste better
The University of Colorado focuses most of its research on studying bodily reactions to dietary changes. For example, one research study currently underway is evaluating how zinc is absorbed by the body. To prevent misleading results, the study volunteers must maintain a strict and unvarying diet. To ensure this, researchers are using an in-house metabolic kitchen to prepare carefully planned meals in mass amounts for diet-based studies.
The metabolic kitchen also tests recipes. During my visit, I was able to taste three samples of veggie dip and guess which dip was the healthiest with three times as much protein in it. Expecting a sample that tasted worse than the others, I chose wrong. In fact, I chose the unhealthiest dip of them all (made of whole-fat sour cream). Contrary to what many people believe, there does not have to be obvious distinctions between healthy and unhealthy recipes.
Making brand-blind decisions
The Kroger Company recently purchased a system, NuVal, that would rate all its grocery items on the same point system based on the nutritional value. Products high in sugar, fats and sodium received lower scores. For example, Kashi cereal was ranked 20 points lower than the Kroger brand wheat cereal. Ocean Breeze Cranberry Juice had a point value of 2, though it is made of 100 percent juice. This new point system helps challenge perceptions caused by branding, helping consumers make wiser and healthier decisions. The NuVal system is currently only available at the King Soopers stores, a regional store chain owned by Kroger.
To analyze the effect of the NuVal point system, Kroger sponsored the implementation of a grocery lab at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center that would research consumer buying habits and educate people on making healthy purchases while at the grocery store. The grocery lab is designed and arranged much like the grocery store, except it does not house perishable items. The grocery lab also plans to research purchase habits for new food products before they get put on the shelves.
While some organizations are dealing with the currently reality of healthy behaviors, research is shaping how we achieve a healthy lifestyle in the future.