Post Gazette: Doing well – 7 wellness trends for the new year
The wellness space is a crowded one, more so than ever as approaches old and new gain traction via social media and the ease of online ordering.
We selected seven wellness trends that were popular in 2023 and — since no trend is kind enough to follow calendar years — are poised to carry on into 2024.
Here’s why they’ve caught on, including pros and cons. And remember: Always check with your doctor before introducing something new to your (eating, workout, etc.) routine.
Why it’s caught on: American civilian workers spend about 44% of their days sitting, and American adults spend about 4½ hours per day on their phones, not including time spent actually taking calls.
That equates to many hours of non-ideal desk ergonomics at work and awkwardly downturned heads and necks during phone use that’s so noteworthy it’s earned a faux diagnosis: “text neck.”
An object at rest stays at rest — and/or awkwardly turned — and that’s where boutique stretching services, like ones provided by Stretch Lab, could come into play.
With 400 locations springing up nationwide over the past handful of years, and four studios (with a fifth and sixth coming soon) in the Pittsburgh area, the idea is striking a chord.
“Before, people would treat their body like a car. When it broke, they’d take it to the mechanic to get it fixed. They’d go and get surgery or take pills or whatever they needed,” said Shawn Tate, owner of Stretch Labs in McMurray, Mt. Lebanon, soon-to-open Murrysville and other suburban locations in the works. “Now, people are coming at it with a more holistic approach, and also trying to say, “I don’t want to have to go there. So, I’m going to treat my body like a garden, take care of it as it grows.”
The pros: Stretch Lab services are provided by “flexologists,” individuals who often have degrees in exercise science, physiology or the like. Occasionally, they’re personal trainers with many years of experience. Stretch Lab employees receive 60 to 70-plus hours of additional training to create customized stretching programs for each client, per their needs.
According to Tate, clients notice a “big difference” in about three months, and that’s while participating at the most popular membership level, involving one 50-minute session per week.
It’s easy to remember the merits of cardiovascular exercise and strength training, but an often-overlooked portion of physical fitness is flexibility, which is addressed here.
“One of the biggest things we hear from people in their 40s, 50s, 60s is, ‘I thought I was just getting old. I didn’t realize it was because my body was getting tighter over time, which was causing my aches and pains,’” Tate said.
The cons: For those turning to Stretch Lab for aches and pains, there’s a modicum of self-diagnosis involved that can make physicians uncomfortable and potentially put patients at risk.
“One challenge for anything in the wellness space — in which Stretch Lab squarely fits — is you can try to promote wellness, but there’s always that question of whether there’s an underlying medical problem that may need to be addressed,” said Shaka Walker, a St. Clair Medical Group orthopedic surgeon. “For someone who’s pretty in-tune with their body and maybe they have an ache, something like Stretch Lab might be just fine. But I can think of some specific examples where that can be problematic.”
Issues like “frozen shoulder” is one, where it presents as a relatively innocent ache, but excessive stretching can exacerbate symptoms. Hip arthritis is another example, where sometimes a minor amount of discomfort could stem from something like a labral tear that evolved into arthritis, requiring medical intervention.
Where to find: Stretch Lab has outposts in McMurray, Mt. Lebanon, Strip District, Wexford and Murrysville (soon); stretchlab.com
Why it’s caught on: Everyone wants to feel better — faster — after a workout, and perhaps modern technology can help. Popular gadgets for workout recovery include compression boots, TENS electrical impulses, percussive massage guns and foam rollers.
The pros: All devices aren’t created equal, and some have stronger research behind them than others.
TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) devices, which deliver pulses of electrical stimulation, are proven to help nerve pain but are likely less effective on muscles, said Bonnie Siple, an associate professor of exercise science and athletic training at Slippery Rock University.
Research is mixed on compression boots, which fill with air to squeeze the legs, one section at a time. “Research has been done on a wide variety of individuals and the outcome is inconsistent,” she said. “We’re not getting really reliable results.”
Research supports massage as a way to help with recovery discomfort, and a foam roller is a good way to deliver that, said Siple. “It’s a more effective way of massage and everyone can afford a cheap foam roller,” she said “You can roll out all of the muscles in your entire body.” Theraguns can also mimic massage, she said, but are less efficient to use on the whole body.
To the extent that any device provides a psychological benefit to an athlete, that can also be worthwhile. “Part of evidence-based research is: What does the research tell us but also what do those athletes tell us?” said Siple. “When there’s the perception that it’s effective for them, they feel like they get a benefit from it.”
The cons: TENS devices and air compression boots are expensive — up to hundreds of dollars — and may not be any more effective than lower-tech exercise recovery strategies, such as foam rollers or simply taking an “active recovery” walk or jog after a workout. Additionally, TENS devices come with some medical cautions: They should not be used by individuals with pacemakers or near the brain, said Siple. Additionally, people with cancerous tumors should seek medical advice before using them.
Where to find: Amazon or other online retailers or sporting goods stores.
Why it’s caught on: Ashwagandha, or winter cherry, is an evergreen shrub native to India that’s used in the centuries-old practice of Ayurveda for stress, immune health and rejuvenation.
The natural supplement made the rounds on social media earlier this year, with TikTokkers trying the herb and reporting its effects; search for #ashwagandha and you’ll find 1.2 billion views.
The pros: A 2021 review of numerous Ashwagandha studies found a reduction in anxiety scores after taking the substance at various doses. It’s thought to bind to receptors in our brain called GABA, which inhibit activity. (Ethanol, i.e. alcohol, and benzodiazepines do this too.)
It’s also easy enough to ingest: Ayurveda comes in capsule, tea and powdered form.
The cons: Herbals are classified as dietary supplements by the FDA, so oversight is less stringent than with drugs; therefore, doses and purity are not standardized. It’s not guaranteed that extracts will be pure or contain the amount they purport to.
Always talk with your doctor before taking new supplements.
Because ashwagandha is said to modulate the immune system, it should not be taken by those who are on immunosuppressants, steroids, or thyroid or anti-seizure medications. It also can enhance autoimmune symptoms. A 2023 case study found multiple reports of liver damage from Ashwagandha use.
Where to find: Ashwagandha teas, tinctures and capsules can be bought at most grocers and vitamin shops.
Why it’s caught on: Supplemental nutrition shakes invaded the diets of everyday Americans about 10 years ago. Once reserved for the recovery period of athletes, exhausted stay-at-home moms and burned-out accountants now count themselves among those in need of a boost.
Add the promise of enhanced beauty, as the labels of collagen peptides often do, and it became just another scoop of “better” added into blenders and shaker bottles.
The pros: Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. It lines some organs, keeps joints functioning smoothly and helps create fascia (the lining between muscles), among other functions. But it is also a key component in healthy skin and hair, which is what attracts many to the supplement.
It’s supplied conveniently, often in powder or concentrated liquid, that can be added to your drink of choice.
Some feel it has improved the appearance, and perceived health, of their hair, skin and/or joints.
The cons: Research available on the value of collagen supplementation is limited and has some ethical bias, which causes practitioners such as Paige Langhals-Totino, nutrition and obesity physician and internist at Allegheny Health Network, to take those conclusions “with a grain of salt.”
At about $35 for 10 to 16 ounces of powdered collagen peptides — around 20 servings — cost may be a factor, especially considering that about three months of use is necessary to notice any effects.
While it seems likely that a balanced diet will supply sufficient collagen, Langhals-Totino doesn’t necessarily discourage its use.
“If it’s someone looking to advance their hair, skin or joint health, and they want to take it, I support it for them on an individual basis,” she said, “If they feel that it’s giving them benefit, I support them continuing to take it. If they don’t see any benefit, I have them reconsider taking it, mostly for the cost.”
Where to find: Walmart, Target, Amazon.com and many grocery stores
Why it’s caught on: The #protein tag on TikTok has been viewed 13.3 billion times; the app’s High Protein Recipes channel has 381.3 million views. With terms like “swol” and “bulk up” come a surge in messaging about getting enough protein, and new products such as protein powders and plant-based protein alternatives.
“I can’t keep up with the new protein shakes coming out,” said Julia Maher, lead dietician at Allegheny Health Network. “People are definitely hopping on this train.”
The pros: Protein is an essential component of our brain and bodies, made up of chemicals called amino acids that contribute to organ function and help build muscle. Eating protein keeps us feeling full and, especially when working out, restores muscles. Protein shakes can also be a useful alternative to a meal when on the go, as well as for better outcomes pre-surgery.
The cons: Experts have suggested the great protein debate — how much protein one really needs, and which sources are best — has been blown out of proportion, and often is fueled by marketing motives. People should typically get 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily; for someone weighing 125 pounds, that’s 45 grams of protein.
Results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a longitudinal study of hundreds of thousands of Americans’ health habits, show that Americans often eat more than the necessary daily protein guidelines. This could be from easy access to high-protein sources like red meat, said Samanah Farsijani, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health and a dietitian and nutritional epidemiologist.
Excess protein holds potential dangers for people with chronic kidney disease.
And while protein powder or a shake can occasionally act as a meal replacement when running out the door, it shouldn’t replace getting essential and complete amino acids from natural sources. “Eating a variety of protein-rich foods is the best suggestion,” said Farsijani.
“If you’re not balancing your meals and if you’re only eating protein, you’re definitely missing out on a lot of important nutrients from other foods,” said Maher. “You can become deficient in other things.”
If you’re bench-pressing daily, you’ll need more protein than someone who doesn’t do strength training, but Farsijani urged people to consult with a dietician before buying supplements or bulking up on protein powder.
“Dieticians should be the go-to before following these crazy diets,” she said.
Where to find: Easy protein sources include hard-boiled eggs (6 grams per one large), cottage cheese (25 grams per cup) and yogurt (17 grams per 170-gram container of nonfat Greek); nuts and beans offer solid plant-based sources of protein. Pea protein can be an alternative to meat-based protein, said Maher.
Why it’s caught on: These little workouts take just minutes and can be done anywhere — from the office before a meeting to the living room while watching television to the kitchen while breakfast is in the microwave.
The pros: A micro workout could be a one-minute jumping jack session. Or it could be a more intense 10-minute version full of burpees, tricep dips and squats. The beauty of microworkouts is that they can be done nearly anywhere, at any time, in such short bursts that nearly everyone has time to fit them in.
“The assumption now is that people are busy,” said Michael Holmstrup, professor of exercise science and athletic training at Slippery Rock University. “The idea is that micro workouts allow an individual to plug in exercise when they are free. They allow people an opportunity to fill in some of those open times with something that is healthy.”
In his dissertation, Holmstrup studied micro workouts, or “exercise snacks,” and their ability to lower insulin and glucose levels after meals. The study found that five-minute workouts at the top of every hour were more effective in lowering those levels than one one-hour workout in the morning.
The cons: Micro workouts generally don’t include a warm-up or a cooldown, said Holmstrom, which could increase the chance of injury or discomfort. Short workouts also aren’t sustained enough to deliver significant cardiovascular benefits.
“Do I think micro workouts are going to sculpt the next Olympic champion? Probably not.” he said. “But is it a healthy habit for someone who is looking to be more active, yes.”
Where to find: An online search for micro workouts will yield many options, geared toward people of different fitness levels. The workouts themselves can be done anywhere and anytime there is a few minutes to spare.
Why it’s caught on: Like fungi popping out of soil, reishi mushrooms, especially in drinkable form, popped into the mainstream out of, seemingly, nowhere.
“I’m not even sure how it became so popular,” said Julia Maher, lead AHN dietician.
The reishi mushroom has been used as a medicinal for centuries, with purported anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It’s available as a powder, and is also sold as “mushroom coffee” from brands including Ryze, which employs a “mushroom blend” with six types, including reishi, and coffee.
The pros: There’s some evidence from animal studies showing reishi mushroom extract can protect against tumor growth and has immune-regulating properties when it comes to cancer, but few standardized studies on humans have been conducted.
The cons: Reishi can lower blood pressure and blood sugar, as well as interact with certain medications. It’s also associated with bleeding complications, so people taking blood thinners like warfarin should avoid it.
Side effects include nausea, dry mouth, itching and stomach upset.
“It does seem to have more risks associated with it,” said Maher.
A 2016 review on reishi mushroom outlined multiple instances of acute harm from reishi mushroom supplements, including liver damage and death. The authors note that the supplement should be avoided until more evidence is gathered about any benefits it may have for health, as well as more clarity about potential side effects.
“I don’t think I or anyone else can definitely say mushroom coffee is better than coffee,” said Maher.
She noted she has patients who say they’re reducing their caffeine intake and searching for alternatives. “But they’re only drinking one cup a day,” she said. “They’re fine.” Feeling less jittery or anxious from mushroom coffee could be because it simply has less caffeine, said Maher.
Where to find: Reishi coffee is available online through various outlets; supplemental powders are at nutrition stores including GNC.
First Published December 31, 2023, 5:30am