Looking Good (for a mom)

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Looking Good (for a mom) is moving!

I know I've been rather quiet lately, but I've been busy getting my new Wordpress site all polished up and ready for visitors! Thanks to Milan of Kombustion Media (@Matrix2Pyro on Twitter) for your excellent assistance developing the banner and getting the site working properly!

As for my followers, I hope you'll join me at the new site and continue to read and comment on my posts.

The address is http://www.lookinggoodmom.com

I look forward to seeing you there!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Weekend Roundup: Excess candy, breakfast cereals, kettlebells, more

I don't do round-up posts as often as I'd like, but as we've reached the end of another month, I thought it was about time I put another one together. So here are some of my favorite (and timely) posts of the past few weeks:

If you took my advice in my Halloween Candy post (How to avoid Halloween candy nightmares), you should now have a big bag of candy that you need to get out of your house. If taking it to work isn't your thing, and the financial side of you can't justify throwing it in the trash, here's an alternative idea from Fairly Odd Mother: Got Candy? Here's how to get rid of it.

And since we're on the topic of sugar-laden treats, let me share a great post from "Food Sociologist" Dina Rose. In A Spoonful of Sugar, Dina shares the results of new report by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity (Yale University) that shows not only how frequently cereals are marketed to kids, but just how sugar-laden most of those cereals are. If you aren't familiar with my thoughts on breakfast cereals, read an oldie but goodie from my own blog in Breakfast Cereals: Healthy or not? And then go eat some eggs.

On the Kettlebell front, there are two posts I wanted to feature. The first is from Josh Hillis of Lose Stubborn Fat. His post Beware of Dangerous Kettlebell DVDs talks about how some of the brand DVDs and kettlebells we find in our local store may NOT be the best way to learn about using kettlebells. Good commentary! The other is actually not that recent, but I was reminded of it when Josh Hanagarne posted a complete list of his recent guest posts. It's called "Stay Away! Four Reasons Kettlebells are NOT for you." In his normal sarcastic style, Josh explains why he wants you to leave kettlebells alone and just lie down and eat candy instead.

And since I'm a huge fan of Josh, let me also share his guest post, "Do You Want It? Prove It!" If you are someone who WANTS to be thin, but just can't seem to get the motivation to do it, this post might just be the kick in the rear that you need.

Well, those are my latest favorites. If you have a favorite post that you've read or written recently, please share it with me. I'd love to hear what you're reading!

Friday, October 30, 2009

How to avoid Halloween candy nightmares

Halloween Candy
It's one of the scariest times of year...no, not because of the ghosts and the goblins...because of the Twix and the Reese's peanut butter cups, of course! Yes, it's nearly Halloween, and where there's Halloween, there's candy. And where there's candy, there's (usually) a tendency to overindulge. Last year, I was sucked into the vortex that is created by having my favorite candy in the house. I was tempted again at Easter (see "Escaping from a cycle of bad eating"). This year I'm determined to avoid it, and I'm going to share five strategies I am going to use, in hopes that they will help you do the same.
  1. Limit it. Look, I get it. Your favorite candy is in the house, and you feel like you've worked hard enough to "earn it." And everything is fine, in moderation. So set reasonable limits. For example, allow yourself to have one piece of your favorite candy during each of the next three weeks. After that, we're close to Thanksgiving (and desserts), so it's best to pick just three pieces and move on to #2.

  2. Purge it. If it was a particularly light year for trick-or-treaters, you might have candy leftover from your handouts. This can be a dangerous thing, especially if you, like many people, buy your favorite candy to distribute. So get rid of it. Throw it out, take it to work, do whatever you want. Just don't keep it in the house.

  3. Trade it. If you have kids, throwing out the candy gets more complicated. Once they're old enough to understand what's happening, in fact, you might as well forget it! One strategy that worked for us was to trade candy for something else they like. I've used money ($0.25 per piece of candy), and my kids like to have something to put in their piggy banks, so this works great for us. Some of my friends let their kids pick a small number of candies (1-2 per year of age) and then trade the rest for a toy, an ice cream outing, or a fun activity like going to the movies or bowling. Plus, if your kids know exactly how many pieces of candy they have left, you will not be tempted to eat a piece and incur their wrath!

  4. Limit it (again). This time, the limits are for the OTHER people in your house. It's easy to get into the candy when everyone else it eating it all of the time. In our house we have a two-treat limit per day. My kids usually have a treat at lunch, and then one more treat at home, either after school or after dinner. Halloween candy counts, so if they're only eating one piece a day in my presence, I can handle that.

  5. Hide it. Those three pieces of your favorite candy you held on to (in #1)? Don't leave them in a bowl on the counter. Just seeing them will make you more likely to eat, even if it's not the candy. Instead, hide them in a brown paper bag on the top shelf of a pantry or cabinet. When it's your scheduled treat day, you'll be able to find them, but the rest of the week, you won't have to look at them and salivate.

Since Halloween is just a day away, I'll leave you with just one parting thought. When you're sorting through the candy, if you find yourself tempted to set aside the "healthy" treats for yourself, STOP. Don't kid yourself. Peppermint patties are lowfat. Reese's peanut butter cups are trans-fat free. Dark chocolate has antioxidants. Guess what? That doesn't mean you get a free pass to eat them all day long. I've already said you can eat them IN MODERATION. But don't eat a piece of candy because you think it's better for you than something else. Eat the one you like best on your scheduled day and move on. Don't be fooled by good marketing.

Hope you have a happy (and healthy) Halloween!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Redefine yourself

One of the challenges of transforming your body and life is that it takes some time for your mental image and perception of yourself to catch up with your physical reality. Just like it took looking at myself in a picture, instead of in the mirror, to see how fat and out of shape I'd become, it's taking time for me to see myself positively in the mirror now that I'm fit. Likewise, it's taking time for me to think of myself positively.

I still find myself in front of the mirror, turning and spinning, pushing on my belly and wondering if it should be flatter, and wishing I could see some more muscle definition in my legs. When I see other people who work out, I can appreciate the positive changes in their bodies, but it's hard for me to notice it in my own. Even when I'm achieving a new personal record on an exercise, I wonder whether that's actually a "good number," even if it's a good number for me. I think women, especially, can be so hard on ourselves in this way.

I was reminded of this the other evening. My daughter was sick, and I'd taken her in to be seen by a doctor. As the nurse checked her pulse, I asked what the normal range was for a child her age. The nurse answered, "well it's a bit elevated because of her fever." I agreed that would be the case and then said, "but what's the normal range? I mean, my resting heart rate is around 62." The nurse looked at me and said, "well, you're athletic."

Me? Athletic? Let me assure you that no one has ever referred to me as athletic in my entire life. I'm the girl who played right field in little league and batted 9th, because I could do the least amount of damage that way. I'm the one who was always picked last for teams, and who never played field hockey, basketball, lacrosse, or soccer. I'm the girl who took weightlifting two out of every four marking periods in gym, because I would not be expected to run and no one would hit me on the head with a basketball.

So while I was pleased by her offhand comment, I was also confused. Was she right? WAS I now athletic? It had never occurred to me to think of myself this way. But at the same time, perhaps she was had a point. After all, doesn't it take an athletic woman to do four chin-ups, two sets of thirty push-ups, and complete 170 16kg kettlebell swings in five minutes?

I thought I'd share this experience as a good reminder that as we change our lives, people who have never met us will perceive us differently than the way we see ourselves. And that should be a clue that we HAVE changed, and old labels may no longer apply. So as you change your body, your health, and your life, don't forget to redefine the kind of person you are, and what things are important to you.

Athletic? Let me look in this mirror a little longer and maybe...just maybe...I'll be able to see myself that way too.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Set a good example

So clearly, I'm a mom. And as a parent, I want my kids to grow up enjoying exercise and having a healthy relationship with food. It's a constant struggle to find the balance and decide how I should react when the kids want to binge on snacks instead of eating healthy food. What I've learned is that the best way to help your kids adopt healthy behaviors is by setting a good example.

If you're enthusiastic about eating healthy foods, they'll notice. If your eyes only light up for that triple-chocolate cake, they'll notice that too. If you stand at the pantry eating cookies from the bag, believe me, that will be perceived as normal behavior.

Ever since I started making healthy changes in my life, I've seen a change in my kids as well. Don't get me wrong, we still struggle over the typical "kid diet" issues, and my kids absolutely enjoy their treats. But they've been much more interested in physical activity, and talk much more frequently about eating "growing foods." Lately, my daughter has even taken to doing ten push-ups each morning and evening. And both my kids have tried picking up my kettlebells. Even more shocking...my 35lb 3-year old actually managed to lift my 20lb kettlebell off the ground! Talk about strong!

One of the best ways to get an insight into what your children are learning from your example is to ask them about healthy living. I asked some of my friends to talk to their kids about what people need to do to stay healthy and see what they had to say. Here's a few excerpts:

Julie's Son: Try different foods and blow your nose.

Skyler: Wash my hands, take your medicine, rest and stay at home.

Sally: Eat healthy foods. Chicken is the healthiest. And get lots of rest, exercise and if you are allergic to an animal don't get that animal for a pet.

Alexa: It's important to eat broccoli.
Kane (her brother): It's more important to eat chicken.
Alexa: No, broccoli is more important!

Garrett: You must eat your greens, lift weights (60 - 400 lbs), and watch your muscles get big w/the veins sticking out.

And of course, I had to interview my own kids. Here's a video with some of their comments...forgive my sloppy editing. I clearly need more practice!

So what does all this tell us? Kids pay quite a lot of attention to what we do, even when we think they don't notice. That's just another reason to pay attention to the example that you are setting for your children. What are you teaching them about what you value? When it's a beautiful day outside, do you go for a run, a bike ride, or play baseball with your friends? Or do you sit inside and play Wii Sports?

If that gives you some motivation to take a step back and evaluate your behavior, then great! Think twice before you finish your kids meals, or eat cookies while standing in front of the pantry, or spend the weekend on the couch watching TV. Not only will you be healthier, but you'll raise kids with healthier behaviors and attitudes as well.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Five Reasons Why Strong Women Are Sexy

As I've delved into the world of blogging, I've met a number of fantastic fitness-minded folks. Among them is Josh Hanagarne, a Russian Kettlebell Certified strength enthusiast who is a librarian by trade, and whose blog, World's Strongest Librarian is an eclectic combination of literary insights, personal reflections, and tales of strength. Josh recently offered to write guest posts for his fellow bloggers. I couldn't resist the opportunity to get a man's perspective on strong women. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Five Reasons Why Strong Women Are Sexy
By Josh Hanagarne, World’s Strongest Librarian

1. Strength implies dedication

I grew up with a Tongan friend who could bench a million pounds (more or less) without ever having lifted a weight in his life. But that’s not the case with most people.

Dedication and commitment are attractive qualities in any person. If you are strong, it means you have put in the time and paid your dues and you have earned it. Most people can’t commit to eating well for a week, much less gaining real strength.

When I see a woman who values strength, I see someone who knows the value of perseverance and commitment.

2. Strength implies a healthy sense of priorities

The current portrayal of how women’s bodies should look is pure poison. I’m hearing more about sexy “clavicles” these days, of all things

I grew up with two attractive sisters and a million attractive cousins who all hated the way they looked, even though they were gorgeous and thin. I’m sure they’re wondering how to bring out their clavicles this very minute.

Spending three hours a day on a treadmill does not make you strong and it does not imply that you have a healthy body image.

Spending half an hour getting strong implies that you have better things to think about than how many calories you can get rid of in the next hour. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that serious strength training makes your body look better than a treadmill ever could.

Take a look at some female kettlebellers and you’ll know what I mean.

3. Strength defies society’s portrayal of how women should be

Society does not value physical strength in women. The women in vogue are emaciated and bug-eyed, without any muscle tone. They are bony clothes hangers and I don’t know how that appeals to anyone.

The physically strong woman resists the siren song of the anorexic crackhead look and makes her body do what feels good. And again, if you give your body what it needs, it’s going to look good.

4. Strength leads to confidence

As you gain strength, you can confidence. It’s impossible not to. Very few things in our lives challenge us to test ourselves physically anymore. So most strong people have to proactively test themselves.

When you choose to do something as difficult as real strength training with demonstrable results, it changes your body and your mind at the same time.

Confidence is very attractive.

5. Strength training helps you age gracefully

Most elderly people who shuffle around hunched over are not doing so because they’re old—they’re doing so because they are weak. If you work out consistently for the purpose of gaining strength—particularly with kettlebells—you will retain the mobility of your psoas, shoulders, and hips.

With disuse and years, those muscles and joints tighten up, pull you forward and down, and then it’s too late.

Weak young women become weak old women. Strong young women become elegant, strong, confident women.

In short, there’s no downside to being strong. People that are attracted to weakness are normally attracted to vulnerability and there’s not much potential upside to that.

About the Author: Josh Hanagarne is the twitchy giant behind World’s Strongest Librarian, a blog with advice about living with Tourette’s Syndrome, book recommendations, buying pants when you’re 6’8”, old-time strongman training, kettlebells, and much more. Please subscribe to Josh’s RSS Updates to stay in touch.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Weekend Round-Up: Kettlebells, Loving your body

It's been a while since I shared some of my favorite posts from around the web, so I've accumulated quite a few. I've retweeted a few of them, so if you follow me on tweeter, you may have seen a few already. I love getting inspiration from others, and I hope you do too!

First, a stop at my neighbor to the south, Sandy Sommer of CharmCityKettlebells. Sandy wrote an amazing and fair critique of Jillian Michaels new kettlebell workout program in Why Jillian Michaels is Bad for Kettlebells. If you, like me, are a fan of Jillian's, you owe it to yourself to read this. Unfortunately, as great as Jillian is, she's gotten into kettlebells without proper training. So please learn from experienced and certified kettlebell trainers like Sandy - he'll show you what Jillian does wrong so that you can avoid it at home.

Next, I've been loving this all month long, but I Love My Legs! is an inspired post from Rachel Cosgrove's online journal. (Rachel is an accomplished trainer and fitness competitor who runs a gym with her husband, author Alwyn Cosgrove, and is an author in her own right as well.) Rachel hits the nail on the head for women who are overly-critical of themselves and helps to teach us all a lesson about appreciating our bodies.

On the nutrition front, I have a few great selections for you. At the Precision Nutrition blog, a recent post on Research, Big Food, and Science: Cooking up a Conspiracy caught my eye. Anything that helps you take food claims with a huge amount of skepticism is well worth your time to read, and this certainly fits the bill!

And I've found a new blog that I absolutely adore. The blog is It's Not About Nutrition, and is a great resource for parents struggling with helping their kids eat healthy. As someone who gets stressed about what my kids are eating, I find the common sense and educated posts of Dina Rose, PhD to be a breath of fresh air. My selection to share is The Potato Chip Challenge: How we decide what snacks to give our kids. In this piece, Dina shoots holes in the idea that crackers, granola bars, and (sweetened) yogurt are substantially healthier snacks than potato chips. It's a good lesson for snackers of any age!

Finally, on a personal note, I'm very proud of two "friends" that I've met through the on-line fitness community who recently were certified to train kettlebells. Sarah, of StrongSarah was among the first to become Hardstyle Kettlebell Certified. You can read about her experiences in Happy to be Hardstyle Kettlebell Certified, parts I and II. And Anna, of Path to Fat Loss shared her RKC Experience after accomplishing the extremely difficult task of achieving the the status of a Russian Kettlebell Certified trainer! So please read about what these women did and what it means to them and join me in being inspired!

If you've written a post you think my readers would enjoy, please email me and let me know! I'd love to post more round-ups and feature more great blogs and authors!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Getting Started: Many Small Steps

If you've been reading my blog, but haven't started your exercise program yet, my post on Getting Started: Many Small Steps appears today on Sandier Pastures, a great blog maintained by an ex-pat who took a leap of faith and moved from Japan to Dubai, and shares her experiences and perspective frequently with her many readers.

Grace started using Turbulence Training workouts this year, and is determined to make positive changes in her health, energy, and body. As a working mom, it's certainly a hard thing to do, but Grace has been making it happen, and I'm so proud of her!

Check in on Sandier Pastures frequently for Grace's updates and contests, and look for a fitness-related post every Saturday. It's become one of my favorite blogs, both for its content, and for the friendliness of its author.

Monday, September 28, 2009

It's okay to indulge (a little)

Guilt. It's what drives so many of us to attempt to follow militant diets, or spend hours doing cardio exercise, trying to reach a calorie burn that matches whatever it is we ended up eating to cheat on that same militant diet.

While I certainly won't deny that nutrition is a critical element of both a plan to lose weight and transform your body, staying on a too-strict plan without any of the foods you truly enjoy is a plan that is destined to fail you.

Eventually, you will rebel, and a bag of Oreos or a large meatlovers pizza later, you'll wonder how in the world you ended up here!

So how do you find some balance in your nutritional plan? There are a number of approaches you can take, but all of them allow for some indulgence (please, just do ONE of these!):

  • Declare one meal per week your "cheat meal." For those who crave fatty or high carb foods, this can be the meal where you eat at your favorite restaurant and order your favorite meal, even if it's fettuccine alfredo with bread on the side and a glass of wine! (Cheat meals shouldn't last all day -- or all weekend!)
  • Enjoy one special treat each week. If you have a sweet tooth, this can be a great way to enjoy that ice cream (or in my case, chocolate brownie) treat you enjoy looking forward to.
  • Indulge in a very small treat each day. This should be less than one full serving of a treat. Some examples might be a dark chocolate square, a mini cookie, or a small wedge of brie. Make sure you include these calories in your daily totals.
If you're eating on plan the rest of the week, these small indulgences won't mean a thing in the grand scheme of your nutritional plan. Since you can look forward to honoring your cravings, they won't grow out of control, leading to cheating and the inevitable guilt that follows.

Remember that, regardless of the nutritional plan you follow, torturing yourself towards 100% compliance will undoubtedly lead to either a miserable, deprived existence, or (more likely) cheating. So make a nutritional plan that includes a plan for indulgence while maintaining about 90% overall compliance on a weekly basis. You'll be happier, and it will be easier to stay on plan because you won't feel so deprived.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The importance of sleep

When you have a hectic schedule like I do, with a full-time job, two kids (and their activities), and a husband, trying to keep up with an exercise program and plan meals can be difficult to manage. The one thing that always seems to be sacrificed for me is sleep. I've been recently reading about the importance of sleep and its effects on weight loss, muscle building, and health.

I've always been a night owl. I'm not a morning person and tend to get bursts of energy late at night that allow me to stay up late and even be very productive in the wee hours of the night. I'm trying to get more sleep, but it's a constant struggle for me. It's a learning process for me, and I'm trying to get better. But there are still plenty of nights where I sleep 5 hours. So take this post as a "do as I say, not as I do."

There's a common perception that the "right amount" of sleep is eight hours per night, but of course, the amount of sleep varies from person to person. So let's start first by talking about the right amount of sleep for good health. A research study conducted by Boston University School of Medicine found that study participants that reported sleeping less than 6 hours or more than 9 hours a day had an increased incidence of diabetes, compared to those who slept 7-8 hours per day. So getting adequate sleep helps keep you healthy.

With regards to weight loss, sleep deprivation can be a big problem. People who are sleep deprived tend to eat more, and choose high calorie sweets and starchy or salty foods. I'm sure you've heard of the late night munchies, or maybe even succumbed to them. So if you must stay up late, plan a filling healthy snack, like scrambled eggs.

If you're trying to build muscle, sleep is even more important. Weight training breaks down your muscles. Your body needs regular periods of sleep and rest in order to recover. While you sleep, your muscles are responding to your workout, repairing themselves, growing, and getting stronger. Stay sleep deprived, and you'll find that no matter how hard you work, you won't get the strength gains you should.

Since everyone is different, you'll need to determine how much sleep you need. One way to do it is to spend several days sleeping as much as you want or your body feels like you need. This will allow you to make up any "sleep debt" you've accumulated from repeated lack of sleep. Once you've done this, then you should be able to find your sleep has stabilized and you naturally sleep approximately the same number of hours per night. That should be the amount your body naturally needs. Try to plan your schedule so that you get this amount of sleep on a regular basis.

Other good advice about sleep is to keep your sleep environment free from distractions. Don't use the computer or watch TV in the same place where you sleep. It's also good to limit "screen time" right before bed. That includes computers and TV.

So as challenging as it can be, make a commitment to yourself to get more sleep tonight, and tomorrow night. It's good for your health, and you might just see some gains in your weight loss or muscle-building efforts! Good night, and sleep well!

Monday, September 14, 2009

What is the best form of exercise?

People spend an amazing amount of time trying to find the best exercise. A google search on the words retrieves millions of articles on the subject, and there are nearly 20,000 books on exercise! People search through dozens of these resources looking for answers. They'll look for the best exercise for weight loss, muscle growth, whittling their waist, or whatever their current goal is at the time. Then they'll spend hours each week sweating away at whatever exercise is the recommended one of the era, even if they hate it the entire time. It's a recipe for failure. If you're going to stick with an exercise program for the long-term, it has to be fun and something you enjoy.

So when you're answering the question "what is the best form of exercise," the best answer I can give is "the one you'll do regularly."

Love running? Fantastic! Plan distance runs, high intensity interval sprints, and hill runs to hit different body parts and increase your ability. Hate it? Don't do it! There are so many wonderful alternatives, and even though most people want to do some "cardio," running is not the only way to do it!

What about weight lifting? Enjoy pumping iron? Wonderful! Find yourself an olympic barbell and lift away! Hate lifting weights? No problem! Once again, there are lots of alternatives to a traditional weight workout, and hefting dumbbells or barbells is not the only way to do resistance training.

When you've found something you really enjoy, you'll know it, because the next time you don't feel like exercising, and force yourself to do it anyway, you'll feel energized and excited about 5 minutes in, rather than feeling bored and forcing yourself through the entire workout.

So here's a list of FUN and sometime unconventional exercises that can be used for cardio and/or resistance training. If something sounds interesting, give it a try! It's certainly better than trudging through another hour on the stairmaster!

  • Kettlebells - Gaining in popularity in the past year, kettlebells are a way to get resistance training and cardio in a single workout, with just one weight! You swing, lift, and hold the kettlebell while doing moves like squats and lunges. It's challenging and many women who try it are surprised at how much they enjoy it, especially relative to traditional weight lifting. I will say that I recommend trained instruction - I train with an RKC certified instructor. Want more information on kettlebells? Check out Dragon Door and read up on Kettlebells at Charm City Kettlebells, which is a blog/site run by a fantastic RKC certified instructor, Sandy Sommer.
  • Dance - While there are lots of fun dancing options for exercise, another hot trend is ZUMBA! In these instructor-led group sessions, you dance to fantastic Latin music. The movements are structured to give participants an amazing cardio interval workout, and the classes are amazingly fun and filled with energy. Find a class here: http://www.zumba.com/us/
  • Group Weight Lifting - Great for people who like lifting weights but are intimidated by the "weight room," Group Power classes put weight-lifting into the relative safety of an instructor-led group exercise class. You get all of your resistance training for the day in a one-hour class, set to music, with an exercise routine that's been predetermined by your instructor. As you get stronger, you add more weight. Need a light day? Use less weight. It's up to you. More on group power here: http://www.quantumfitness.ca/programs/power.asp
  • Play Like a Kid - Remember hanging from the monkey bars, jumping rope, and hula hooping? Well back when you were a kid, you did them because they were fun, but did you realize they are all great exercise as well? Plus, they're inexpensive, you can do them at home, and you can even have fun getting the kids involved! Jumping/skipping rope and hula hooping are great cardio workouts. Next time you take the kids to the park try using the monkey bars and you'll add some resistance training.
  • Play Like a Grown-up - Made popular first in Southern California, Pole Dancing Exercise classes are springing up all over the country! Pole dancing can help strengthen your core, giving the benefits of resistance training, while an intense dancing session can also give a great cardio workout. For your comfort, classes should be women only, and there should be a beginners class for those who are new to the concept.

So these are just a few fun ideas that will take you out of your current bored, tedious exercises and give you something new and fun, that will hopefully keep you engaged for years to come. Which of them is the best form of exercise? Only you can answer that question!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Time for another Transformation Contest!

September 18, 2009 is the last day to enter the latest Turbulence Training Transformation contest (TC6). If you're one of my regular readers, you'll know that I credit Turbulence Training with helping to get me over my weight loss plateau and give me a figure I didn't think it was even possible for me to have anymore!

I decided to join in on this contest, but I've already made my major transformation, so I don't expect to be a winner or even a finalist. Even so, I could stand to get a bit leaner, and the contests always help me with my focus and intensity. So there's still more for me to achieve over the next 12 weeks. Plus, Craig Ballantyne has offered a GREAT incentive to help encourage people to finish the contest.

This time around, everyone who completes the 6th Turbulence Training Transformation Contest and submits Before and After photos and a 300-word essay will receive SIX MONTHS FREE Membership at www.TTMembers.com. I couldn't pass up that opportunity, and neither should you!

The contest runs twelve weeks from the day you start, and you must conclude your transformation and submit your entry by midnight EST on Friday, December 11, 2009. Complete rules can be found here. The male and female winners will receive $1,000 in prize money!

For this contest, I started my transformation on September 1, 2009. I would love to have some of my readers in the contest with me! There are two great risk-free ways to get started in the contest. First, if you subscribe to my blog, I will send you a free Turbulence Training bodyweight workout, and you can use that to get started with the contest. If you want a weighted program, or a more robust selection of programs from which to choose, you can purchase a 21-day trial membership that grants you access to MANY Turbulence Training workouts for just $4.95.

There are a few reasons why I love my membership to www.TTMembers.com.

  • First, the support from other members is amazing. When I'm feeling like I don't have the motivation to keep up with my workouts or nutrition, the other members are there to support me.
  • Second, you get access to Craig Ballantyne himself! Any question you have for him, from nutrition to exercise substitutions for his workouts, Craig will answer. It's been great to be able to get his perspective and advice.
  • And finally, I love the workouts of the month. Every time I think I'm focused and ready to use one of the awesome workouts in the Turbulence Training archives, Craig comes out with an amazing new workout that I'm excited to do. Right now, I'm loving Turbulence Training for Lean & Jacked Meatheads, one of the August 2009 programs.
So if you've been intrigued and thinking of starting a transformation of your own, now is the time! I would love to help keep you motivated and help you achieve your goals. Best of luck, if you decide to enter!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why I'm Brand Choosy

You may have been wondering where I've been, given the lack of posts lately. Well, like many other people, I recently took a vacation. We went back to the lake, and I learned from my experience traveling there in July that I needed to bring a cooler of my usual foods with me, as the Oakland (Maryland) SuperWalmart doesn't have the best selection of whole and organic foods.

My husband says I'm "brand choosy," but to be honest, I wish I didn't have to be. Unfortunately, the majority of food products out on the market use too many additives and preservatives for my taste. When I find a brand that's made the same way I'd make it at home - with as few ingredients as possible and no artificial or questionable additives - I tend to stick with it. Since I already know what's in it, I save a lot of time by not having to recheck labels every time I shop. The last time I tried to find the kind of food I wanted while I was on vacation, I took a lot of time reading labels and found very few products that met my standards. So this time, I brought some of my own. I thought I'd share a little picture of what products and brands made my A-list for this vacation.

First, I brought my favorite cottage cheese, which is Friendship low-fat no salt added cottage cheese. The ingredients? Skim milk, milk and vitamin A. The other brands I found in the store had, at minimum, ten ingredients, and don't taste NEARLY as good. Plus, Friendship's no salt added variety has only 50mg of sodium per half-cup. Compare that to other makers, with 350mg or more per serving! Is it any wonder I'm so loyal to this brand? Unfortunately, it's only broadly distributed on the east coast, but I have been able to find it not only here in Pennsylvania, but also as far south as Florida.

Next, I brought my nonfat Greek yogurt. Although there are several good brands, I prefer Fage 0%. Again, ingredients are sparse - just milk and active cultures. And, the package contains a pledge that the milk comes from cows that are never treated with rBGH (bovine growth hormones). I have been able to find Greek yogurt while away from home, but many times, the only varieties available are sweetened. Since one of the things I love about Greek yogurt is that it is so creamy and rich that it DOESN'T need sugar to taste great with fruit, I prefer mine without any added sugar.

Now granola, as yummy as it is, is notorious for being packed with both sugar and fat. It's nearly always healthier to make your own at home. However, I've been fortunate enough to find a brand that's low in both fat (just 2g per serving, and only 0.5g saturated fat) AND low in sugar (6g per serving). The brand is Chappaqua Crunch, and the granola is appropriately named, "Simply Granola." I like the variety with raisins, and it's a fantastic topping for my Greek yogurt.

I also brought a few other items with me, store brands from my local grocery store - Wegmans. Wegmans has a great creamy peanut butter with only one ingredient - peanuts! Perfect. Away from home, I look for Smuckers brand natural peanut butter, which aside from having added salt, is still a fantastic option. And for my kids, who haven't yet learned the joys of stirring your peanut butter, I use Skippy Natural. Although it has added sugar, it's not bad with only 3g total per serving. Skippy adds palm oil to keep the product from separating.

Wegmans also has a great line of breads. One of the things I've found is that many whole wheat breads have high fructose corn syrup in them. Wegmans has a whole wheat bread that is sweetened without HFCS, but still tastes great. And for my white bread eating kids, they also have a whole grain white bread, that unlike the varieties offered by Stroehmann and Sara Lee, has more than 50% whole grains, and doesn't have unhealthy additives. If you don't have access to a Wegmans, I'm sorry to say that I haven't found another brand of whole grain white with these same characteristics. I'll be sure to post if and when I do!

So that's a little peek into what was in my cooler when I drove off to the mountains for the week. I hope you can find some of these brands in your local grocery. And please leave a comment to share the great finds you've made in the grocery aisles!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Is Exercise Just a Waste of Time?

There's been quite a buzz in the fitness community about a story in the latest Time Magazine, entitled, "Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin." Perhaps you've read the story already. Many people who have read the article (and even those who have just heard about it) have had very strong reactions. From the fitness gurus, I've heard the article is misleading and will lead people to abandon exercise. From others, I've heard that the article substantiates their feeling that they are wasting time in the gym. So who's right? Is exercise just a waste of time?

Yes. And no. The real answer is somewhere in the middle. I never hesitate to tell someone that abs are made in the kitchen, or that diet is 80-90% of weight loss success. And frankly, some of the things I've seen in the gym should barely count as exercise, even though people spend hours doing it. So yes, exercise CAN be a waste of time. And, if you can get 80% of the way there on diet alone, should you even bother spending time working out?

This time, I'm giving an unqualified YES. While exercise is no substitute for a healthy diet (nor is it an excuse to eat an unhealthy diet), time spent exercising has significant benefits. On the physical appearance front, strength training helps build and maintain muscle. If you lose body fat and maintain your muscle mass, your body fat percentage declines, your measurements decrease, and you look smaller and lighter -- even if the scale never moves! And intense aerobic training, particularly HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), can boost your metabolism for hours after you exercise, making your total calorie burn greater than you might expect.

Notice that, in the article, the author primarily relies on steady-state cardio for his exercise. While steady-state cardio has its place, for sure, questioning its role in fat loss isn't a new topic of conversation. In fact, it has been questioned long before this Time Magazine article was written. For instance, Craig Ballantyne of Turbulence Training has often criticized steady-state cardio as making people exhausted and hungry, but not providing the weight loss they want. Sound familiar?

So, if you respond to your workout by, say, drinking a 700 calorie protein shake, a box of oreo cookies, a fast food lunch, or even a 32 ounce Coke slushee (like I used to do), then you've undone all of your hard work. No, you do not EARN treats with your workouts. Any "cheat" or "reward" meal should always fit into your plan for your weekly caloric intake.

That's right - the key is to HAVE A PLAN. Don't watch TV with a death grip on the stairmaster for an hour, and then let your exhaustion lead you to McDonalds after your workout. Do short, efficient workouts, and plan for your post-workout meal in advance, making sure it fits into your daily calorie allotment.

As for the article, although it seems to cite a number of credentialed professionals and official studies, there's been much backlash from those cited. For instance, Dr. Timothy Church, an expert quoted in the Time article, cried foul, saying his professional opinions were misrepresented, according a statement from the American College of Sports Medicine. Church noted that virtually all people who lose weight and keep it off are exercising to maintain weight.
Frankly, while I think the basic premise of the article was true (that premise being that exercise does not grant someone a license to eat whatever they want), I felt the article was extremely irresponsible journalism. It's likely to cause people to stop exercising, since they've just been told that there exercise makes them fat. Meanwhile, the article doesn't give people any help in understanding how to improve their nutrition. That's two strikes. Maybe now is the time to cut a little fat from your budget and cancel your subscription to Time in protest of this slanted and misleading article.

Want to read some of the other outraged responses to the article? (Feel free to respond with more if you have found them.)
And from my friends in the blogging community:

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Test in Meal Conversions: Spaghetti with Meat Sauce

There was a time in my life when my family knew me as "the starch queen," due to my frequent consumption of pasta (and rice, and potatoes... you get the idea). Now, however, I get the vast majority of my carbs from fruits and vegetables, and rarely, if ever, eat pasta.

So that's why the idea for this particular meal conversion was so fun for me! My goal was to come up with a tasty meal that would be a healthy replacement for a down-home pasta dinner.

Since it's always fun to come up with a packaged or restaurant meal to replace, I'm going to compare my version to the Pizza Hut Spaghetti with Meat Sauce (did you know they serve pasta now?).

Serving size: 467 grams
Calories: 600
Fat: 13g
Saturated Fat: 5g
Cholesterol: 8mg
Sodium: 910mg
Carbs: 98g
Fiber: 9g
Sugars: 10g
Protein: 23g

So for my replacement, instead of using spaghetti, we're going to cook some spaghetti squash. For the sauce, instead of using a jar of pre-made sauce, we're making a simple sauce of our own. And finally, the meat in our sauce will be ground turkey, not ground beef.

Here's the ingredients and how to make it:

1 small spaghetti squash, halved (lengthwise) with seeds and pulp removed (like a pumpkin) -- yields about 600g cooked
1 pound lean ground turkey
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 8oz cans tomato sauce (no salt added variety)
Seasonings of your choice (oregano, basil, garlic, onion, parsley, etc.)
1 TB olive oil
Shredded Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Drizzle the spaghetti squash with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, and place on a cookie sheet. Bake for 30-40 minutes. While the squash is cooking, make the sauce.

Brown the ground turkey in a pan on the stove. Add the onion and saute for a few minutes more. Remove the meat and onion from the pan. Pour two cans of tomato sauce into the pan.. Stir in seasonings to taste. I used garlic powder, onion powder, basil, oregano, and parsley. Let simmer on the stove for 10-20 minutes. Add back in the meat and onion.

Run a fork lengthwise through the inside of the squash and the strands should come out fairly easily. Place them into a casserole dish. Top with meat sauce and shredded Parmesan cheese.

Bake squash and sauce in the oven for 15-20 minutes. The recipe makes four servings. Serve and enjoy!

So here's how the nutritional statistics came out:

Calories: 302
Fat: 13g
Saturated Fat: 2.5g
Cholesterol: 80mg
Sodium: 630mg
Carbs: 23g
Fiber: 5g
Sugars: 11g
Protein: 26g

How do the two compare? Well, my version is about half the calories for a similar serving size, but has the same fat content. Where do all those extra calories in the original come from? CARBS, of course! My recipe has 1/5 the carbs of the original. Protein is still high, and we've reduced the sodium and saturated fat. All good things!

And how does it taste? I loved it! It's not exactly like eating spaghetti, but if you're someone who generally likes squash and zucchini, I'm guessing you'll
Publish Post
l like the taste, and find it an acceptable replacement for the original. However, I will say that if you, like my husband, are not a fan of squash, this meal may not be for you. (He did report that he enjoyed the sauce, though!)

Please let me know if you try it, and what you think!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Learn a few New Rules of Lifting

I was recently placing an Amazon.com order, and since my order already qualified for free shipping, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to purchase a book from my Amazon wishlist. The book was New Rules of Lifting by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove. Lou and Alwyn also wrote another book together (with Cassandra Forsythe) called The New Rules of Lifting for Women with the tagline 'Lift like a man, Look like a Goddess.'

So with the opportunity to buy either, why did I, a woman, purchase the book that was aimed more for men? Well, although I've heard great things about both books, I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about lifting books for women. Most of them spend a great deal of time being condescending and trying to convince the reader to lift heavy (a.k.a. lift like a man). Then they'll sometimes leave out some information because it may be too advanced or technical for most women readers. Well, I don't need convincing, and I am happy to learn all about the things I'll be able to do when I am experienced enough. So yes, I bought the man's book, and I'd do it again!

New Rules of Lifting: Six Basic Moves for Maximum Muscle (henceforth NROL) is written from the perspective of Lou Schuler, CSCS, who is a journalist by trade, although he collaborated with Alwyn Cosgrove on the content, and Alwyn, a personal trainer by trade, wrote the workout programs. I have to say that for the most part, I enjoyed Lou's writing style. Books about lifting can get overly technical, and that can lead to the reader getting pretty bored, even if they enjoy the subject like I do. Lou brings a lot of humor (some of it self-deprecating) into his writing, which I think would keep even someone with a casual interest engaged. On the negative side, though, Lou seems to spent an inordinate amount of time in the book reminding the reader of his credentials. It's generally done as part of the humor, but when deciding to drive home a point, I personally think Lou could have chosen a better thing for the reader to remember than the fact that he's been lifting for 30 years.

Throughout the book, Lou outlines twenty different rules, with varying levels of novelty. Here's a few of my favorites:
  • New Rule #1 - The best muscle-building exercises are the ones that use your muscles the way they're designed to work.
  • New Rule #7 - Don't 'do the machines.'
  • New Rule #18 - You don't need to do endurance exercise to burn fat.
  • New Rule #20 - If it's not fun, you're doing something wrong.
He uses these rules to debunk much of the conventional wisdom in the gym, such as the idea that isolation exercises like bicep curls will give an experienced lifter bigger biceps. Lou also goes into some more advanced concepts, explaining the difference between training for muscle size (hypertrophy) and training for muscle strength.

The book's primary content discusses what Lou and Alwyn deem the six major moves necessary to build muscle:
  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Twist
  • Walking and Running
The first time the moves are introduced, Lou briefly explains them, points out their practical uses in daily life, and talks about why these six moves are most important. Then, later in the book, he gives each of the moves its own chapter, providing numerous examples of specific exercises that incorporate the moves and detailed instructions (and pictures) for most. I found this to be one of the most helpful sections of the book.

Finally, we get to the part you've been waiting for: the workouts! Alwyn designed three groups of programs to meet different goals. There are programs for fat loss, strength, and hypertrophy (muscle growth). Each goal has three different workouts, which can be done from 2-4 times per week. There's at least a year's worth of workouts, and since you can go back to a program after several months, you could essentially rotate through these programs for the rest of your life! On the downside, the exercises proposed often presuppose access to a gym, or a relatively sophisticated home workout system, including cable exercises like a lat pull-down bar, and alternative exercises for home gyms are not proposed.

How does this book stack up for a woman? Well, if she's like me, and she doesn't need convincing that muscle-building is a GOOD thing, she'll like the book just fine. There's quite a bit of discussion about getting bigger and stronger, and although it's written specifically towards men, I still felt like it was applicable for me. If a women is not already on the bandwagon, in that she doesn't yet believe that heavy weight lifting is a good thing, she might be better off with the women's version, which will try to dispel some myths about weight lifting for women.

While I agree with the vast majority of the points made in the book, particularly as they relate to working out, there were a few points on which I disagreed. And to be fair, Lou challenges the reader right at the beginning of the book to read everything with skepticism. So I won't apologize for my little observations.
  • Too much reliance on crunch/sit-up related exercises for the "twist" move.
  • A measly two chapters on nutrition hardly seem appropriate when framed within the context that a significant percentage of success relies on how much, and what, you eat. There's not a single "new rule" about nutrition. Shame, shame.
  • I've seen others debunk the "thermal effect of food" and the idea that we need huge amounts of protein after a workout, so it was a bit disappointing to see Lou toe the party line here, and touting both a mega-protein diet as well as the thermal effect of food.
So now that you know where I felt the authors could have done more, or said things differently, let me share what I liked:
  • The section on periodization (planned changes in training programs in order to get steady improvements) was the one where I felt like I learned the most. Although the chapter gets pretty technical, there are many ideas about how to alternate the number of reps in your program that I will absolutely try in my own workouts.
  • The book includes a great section on choosing the best program for you. There's so little time spent on this area in other books, that this was a welcome change. And even within each program, Lou and Alwyn have made things flexible, explaining how to incorporate a desire to work out anywhere from 2-4 times per week into ANY of the programs.
  • There is a workout chart included in the book that is one of the best I've seen. I am absolutely copying it and using it for all future workouts. It has a great, efficient use of space, and is flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of program types.
  • The book is WELL CITED. Not only does Lou cite the specific research every single time he mentions a study, but he has a detailed references list in the back that's even annotated with his own comments on why the source was referenced. Does this lend credibility? You bet! And when I share what I've learned from the book, I can back it up with a source other than a journalist with the CSCS designation. My inner geek is smiling.
So clearly, I liked more than I disliked. And any book that says you should do chin-ups instead of bicep curls in case you need to pull yourself into a tree to escape from a lion is a pretty cool book! Interestingly, one of the reasons it's taken me so long to post the review is that my husband confiscated my copy of the book and has been reading it himself!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Weekend Round-up: Food, Inc., Bodyweight circuit, and more

Being a part of the Twitter community has exposed me to dozens of other health and fitness bloggers. Many of them are simply amazing people. I've added many of their blogs to my blogroll, but I thought I'd occasionally give you links to relevant and interesting articles I've enjoyed reading from their blogs.

So first up this weekend is a review of Food Inc., from Get Fit with Kelley. In the review, Kelley Moore explains both the context of the movie as well as her reaction and thoughts upon seeing it. It's certainly on my list of movies to see, and I encourage you to read Kelley's review and strongly consider seeing the movie yourself.

Next is an article that caught my eye on twitter from Whole Health Source, a blog written by Stephan Guyenet, a doctoral candidate studying neurobiology. In a highly technical article entitled, The Diet-Heart Hypothesis: Stuck at the Starting Gate, Stephan discusses his review of studies attempting to link saturated fat and high cholesterol as well as diets of societies who eat whole food diets high in saturated fat. In the end, Stephan concludes that diets high in saturated fat have very little (if any) affect on total cholesterol or LDL (bad cholesterol). This blog is not for the faint of heart. Stephan's writing is full of scientific jargon and may not always be clear to those who aren't analytical geeks.

On the fitness end of things, here's a great little bodyweight workout challenge from Craig Ballantyne of Turbulence Training. This mini-challenge workout is great for times when you can't make it to the gym, but still want to get in a quick and efficient workout at home. There's a beginner and advanced version, for all skill levels.

This week, we all got a kick in the rear from DC's Toughest Trainer, Kimberly Linton. Recalling a work-life balance discussion with one of her clients, Kimberly reminds us Don't Be Lazy! Sure, we can all come up with excuses not to exercise during the week, but when it comes down to it, that's all they are...excuses. So read the article and let Kimberly keep you on track this week!

And finally, this week, Brad Pilon of Eat Stop Eat reflects on some of the eating pitfalls we women deal with when we live with much larger men. Although Brad's story is fictional, I know I've found myself in the exact same situation with my husband, who is nine inches taller (and 60 pounds heavier) than me.

So that's it for this week. I'll be keeping an eye on my favorite blogs and hope to share more great posts with everyone next time.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

How much Trans Fat is too much?

Last week I talked about how much red meat is too much, and I promised I'd track my meat intake over the course of the week. So now it's time to share the results. I had a grass-fed steak (Delmonico cut) one day, and a cup of chili another day. I estimate that I hit just about 1.5 servings, maybe just a bit more. It was good to be mindful of my red meat intake, and substitute in chicken or fish (or beans) when I could.

But the idea of "how much is too much" started me thinking about trans fats. We all know trans fats are bad, because they raise our level of bad cholesterol (LDL). And if you've been reading my blog, then you know that some food items have trans fats, even though it's not enough per serving to be reported on the "Nutrition Facts" panel. I've had people tell me that they dismiss these amounts as "trivial." And to be honest, I can see why. There's no limit established for trans fat, either as a recommended intake level, or as a recommended maximum level. Consumers are left guessing.

Fortunately, there was a piece released early this year in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Published by C. Nishida and R. Uauy, the paper seeks to establish such a recommendation, which could then be used by the World Health Organization (WHO) throughout the world.

I won't beat around the bush here...the recommendation was that, in order to prevent cardiovascular disease, diets should have a VERY LOW intake of Trans Fats. The definition of "VERY LOW" is explained to be less than 1% of total energy intake. However, I would bolster that by reinforcing the guideline here in the U.S. with is that trans fat intake should be as low as possible (just check the FDA's site - it's there!).

Why? Well, let me explain what most trans fats are. To make trans fats, you must first start with unsaturated fat, like those from many vegetables. The unsaturated oils are then converted into solid fats via partial hydrogenation. This process changes the structure of the unsaturated fats, turning some into trans fats and eliminating the healthy fats from the oil. Many sources now think that trans fats are actually more dangerous to our health than saturated fats.

(There are also naturally occurring trans fats, usually in red meats and similar products. They are not believed to be as dangerous to our health as the fats created via partial hydrogenation.)

Why would someone chemically process good fats to make them unhealthy fats? Two reasons, really. The first is shelf life. Using partially hydrogenated oils allow food to remain "fresh" longer. In other words, it doesn't spoil as quickly. (That's generally a clue that something is unhealthy!) The second is stability of texture and flavor. Products are often softer and chewier when made with trans fats, which is why you find them so often in cookies and other treats. Meanwhile, products made with butter taste great initially, but then get too hard or crumbly after a short while.

So now that you know what trans fats are, and why they're used, lets quantify this 1% limit. If you were eating a 2000 calorie diet, you'd be able to have 20 calories from trans fats each day and be consistent with the limit. At 9 calories per fat gram, that's about 2 grams of trans fats.

If you ate 5 different products that contained .49 g of trans fats (which means that, since .49 g rounds down to 0, these products would show 0 trans fats on the label), you'd be just under your limit. Meanwhile, you'd think you didn't eat any trans fats at all!

Here's how that might happen. Items in bold contain trans fats, but have zero grams of trans fat on their nutrition facts labels:

  • You have a bowl of Fruit Loops for breakfast. Instead of the small servings size listed on the label, you pour yourself a more typical 2-cup serving.
  • Mid-morning, you have a Quaker chewy granola bar as a snack.
  • At lunch, you have a small salad, and crush a serving of Nabisco saltine crackers into a cup of healthy soup.
  • In the afternoon, you sneak a few Girl Scout Cookies when you think no one is watching.
  • You have Chicken Marsala for dinner, accompanied by a whole wheat dinner roll spread with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter(R) Spread Original.
  • Later at night, you much on some Pop Secret popcorn while watching the latest episode of your favorite night-time drama.

All in all, if this is what you ate for a day, you'd probably assume you ate reasonably healthy, except for the cookies. But in truth, not only did you eat a lot of highly processed foods, you also had at least seven servings of trans fats (remember, you had two servings of cereal). It's absolutely reasonable to assume that in your seven servings, you exceeded the 2 g upper limit of the WHO's recommendation.

So when you are choosing foods, remember to look past the nutritional label. While it can be difficult to find packaged products without trans fats, it is possible. Remember to read the ingredients and avoid products with any of the following:

  • Margarine
  • Shortening
  • Partially hydrogenated oils
  • Hydrogenated oils

For instance, while the Quaker chewy granola bars have trans fats, there are Kashi granola bars that do not. Looking for chocolate chip cookies? Chips Ahoy have trans fats, but Keebler do not (watch out for HFCS, though). How about that spread for your roll? Replace it with a small amount of real butter, or use Promise brand products, which uses a small amount of saturated fat instead of trans fats. Want popcorn? Try making it the old-fashioned way, with oil in a pan, or with an air-popper. If microwave popcorn is a must, Orville Redenbacher's Naturals line is completely free of trans fats AND the preservative TBHQ.

Remember, ANY amount of trans fat, if a truly trans-fat free alternative is available, is too much. But if you can keep your total intake to 1% or less per day, you'll be doing better than many others. Just remember that those fractions of a gram can, and do, add up, so read those ingredients.

Friday, July 17, 2009

What NOT to do in the gym

There are a few things I've learned NOT to do over the past year. These are common fitness mistakes that either waste your time, or cause your workout to be less efficient. Some of these are mistakes I made, others I was fortunate enough to learn not do before I made them. But they are all thing I see other people doing in the gym, just about every time I'm there. So here's a quick list of things I've learned to avoid -- and now you can too.

1. Holding onto the treadmill

I'll be the first to admit, this was a major vice of mine. I would be running at 8.5 mph at a 5% incline, but hanging onto the handle at the front as if my life depended on it! Why is this a no-no? Holding onto the treadmill lightens your body weight and changes your gait. You're no longer walking or running in the traditional sense. Furthermore, holding on will cause you to compromise your posture, putting your lower back at risk. For some of you, the most important point might be that if you hold on, the calorie burn the treadmill estimates for you will be far greater than your true calorie burn.

How do you fix it? Lower the incline to 2-3% (the amount of incline needed to make treadmill walking/running equivalent to outdoor walking/running) and SLOW DOWN, for goodness sakes! Once I decided I needed to go hands-off, I found I needed to lower my sprinting speed to around 7 mph. Although this was much slower than I had been doing before, it was a genuine run for me, and I got a great workout. Now that I've progressed, I can actually run at 8.5 mph, hands off. I would have never gotten there if I kept cheating my workouts with my death grip on the front bar.

2. Wasting hours on sit-ups and other ab exercises

I'm a little bit guilty here. I didn't spend hours on sit-ups, but at the beginning of my fitness journey, I was overly focused on stability ball crunches. Why is this a problem? Well, most people spend time on sit-ups and ab exercises because they want a trimmer midsection or six-pack abs. But unless their body fat is very low, meaning they're already quite trim, an ab-specific workout is essentially a waste of time. It may strengthen your abdominals, but will not whittle your waist. As I've said before, the secret to great abs is tied more to what and how you eat than when and how you exercise. And all of those sit-ups and crunches put too much strain on your back!

So instead of spending all that time doing an ab workout, eat at a calorie deficit. Then, when you're at the gym, focus at least some of your time on full body exercises like squats, overhead squats, or deadlifts, as well as high intensity interval training (HIIT). The full body exercises will engage your abs when you stabilize your body as part of the exercises. Plus, they'll burn many more calories than would have been burned working the abs alone. The HIIT will help you bust out some fat loss, turning your body into a fat burning machine long after your workout, thanks to the magic of EPOC (excess postexercise oxygen consumption). And, if you have some extra time and want to throw in 5-10 minute of targeted ab work at the end of your workout, feel free. Craig Ballantyne's 6-minute abs workout (find it here, under abdominal workouts) is one great way to do a quick, targeted ab workout that doesn't strain your back, and doesn't waste your time - it's only 6 minutes!

3. Shortening your range of motion because the weights are too heavy

I think even the most seasoned fitness buff can occasionally get trapped by this one. We end up thinking we can handle more weight than we truly can, and the form suffers as a result. I admit I'm a people watcher, and I've seen people do this who should know better! For instance, there's a guy at my gym who is a fitness competitor. He likes to throw lots of 45-pound plates on when he's doing squats, but then he barely even goes down far enough to get his thighs parallel to the ground. Meanwhile, there's another guy who squats about 100 pounds less, but goes completely down to the ground and back up. Now THAT's impressive!

Thanks to some good advice from a friend who is an Olympic powerlifter, I got to a point in my squats where I stopped increasing my weight, and instead increased my range of motion. This small tweak helped engage not just my quadriceps, but also ensured I was engaging my hamstrings and glutes as well.

That's my list, but before I close I have to share one from my dear husband's (DH) list:

4. Spend more time chatting or using your cellphone than you spend working out

You've seen them, and so have I. There's the girl texting while on the stairmaster. The guy talking on his cellphone with one arm while doing lateral raises with the other. And then, there's the group of three guys who spent so much time chatting, that by the time they finished their three sets (each) of split squats, I was done with my entire workout!

I'm not saying you shouldn't ever take a call, text, or talk to other people in the gym. But just be aware that when you spend time doing these things, you are lowering the effectiveness of your workout. Why? Well, there are two possible reasons:
  • If you're talking or texting WHILE you work out, chances are that you're not paying as much attention to good form, or you are not pushing yourself very hard.

  • If you're talking in between sets, you are likely taking longer rests than you had originally planned. If you're trying to have a workout that gives you a fat-burning effect, you should target 30-60 seconds of rest between sets. That's about enough time to say hello to your fellow gymrats and catch your breath. If you're trying to have a workout that builds muscle, you should target 2-5 minutes of rest between sets (women generally need less, men generally need more). If you get into a conversation with someone, it's really easy for 3 minutes to stretch to 8 or even 10.
So yes, DH is right. This is yet another common gym mistake that reduces workout efficiency and/or wastes your time.

What mistakes do you see people making in the gym, or what mistakes have you corrected in your own workouts? I'd love to hear your perspective!

Monday, July 13, 2009

How much meat is too much?

Years ago, when I was a teenager, I stopped eating meat. I didn't become a vegetarian, per se, but I stopped eating red meat and pork, continuing to eat poultry and fish. I actually ate this way for many years, but partway through college I added red meat back to my diet. During the time red meat was off the menu, I focused my diet primarily on starchy carbs - pasta, potatoes, etc., and very few green vegetables, however, so I wasn't eating very healthy!

While there are a lot of people who tout the benefits of eating vegetarian, or even as a more strict vegan, it doesn't take that dramatic a commitment to improve your health. Just making a decision to cut back on how much read meat and pork you eat each week could reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer and extend your life. In other words, while a vegetarian diet can be great, you don't have to be a vegetarian to be healthy.

But if less red meat is better, just HOW much less should you eat? In a 2005, the National Cancer Institute took a 1995 survey by NIH-AARP and followed up on the health of 500,000 survey participants. In the survey, the researchers observed that the least healthy people ate 1.5 servings of red meat or pork PER DAY, while the most healthy people ate 1.5 servings PER WEEK. The people who at the most meat had a 30% greater risk of dying of heart disease or cancer over the people who ate the least meat. That's a huge change. The study also showed an uptick in health risks in people who ate large amounts of processed meats, like deli meat and hot dogs.

So what should you eat instead of red meat? Well, chicken and fish are a great start. The same study showed no difference between the heart disease and cancer risk of people who ate the most poultry and fish and people who ate the least poultry and fish. However, don't stop there! You can even go meat-free, occasionally. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when it comes to cutting back on meat is focusing on "meat replacements." They eat soy bacon, veggie burgers, and other products that use vegetarian items to create highly processed fake versions of meat products. And then there was my mistake from college - filling up on starchy foods.

The best thing you can do is to eat what Dr. John Berardi (of Precision Nutrition) calls a "plant-based diet." That means you focus your diet first on plants - vegetables, fruits, nuts, and beans, and then add meat occasionally in small amounts as an accompaniment. This may sound difficult at first, so just start small! Think of a meal you often have with meat, and then remove the meat and add in roasted vegetables and beans. For instance, if you like having a southwestern chicken wrap, try having the same wrap with hummus, black beans, and roasted red peppers instead (one of my favorite meals). Let's say you like beef kabobs. Well, fill up your kabobs with red peppers, zucchini, onions, and two pieces of chicken instead. The possibilities are virtually endless!

Recently, I've been more aware of how frequently I eat meat, and tried to cut back. I typically have one day per week where I am completely vegetarian, not even eating chicken or fish. I find it helpful because it forces me to be more creative and sometimes develop neat meals that end up being new favorites. And on other days, I'll fill half my plate with veggies, and then drop on my 3-4oz chicken breast or fillet of fish. And yes, it's true, I do enjoy the occasional steak or hot roast beef sandwich.

There's an environmental benefit to cutting back on meat consumption as well. Pork and beef production uses more water, more energy, and provides more antibiotics than the production of other foods in our diet. The animals are huge consumers of farm output, as most cattle ranches feed their cows grain in order to fatten them fast before their sale (it takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat). And, meat farming produces enormous amounts of green house gasses, with 18% of such gasses coming from livestock. Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, an environmental scientist who was joint winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, suggested that if people ate vegetarian just one day per week, the environmental benefits would be greater than if they had reduced automobile use. (Producing one pound of beef creates the same amount of greenhouse gasses as driving 77 miles!)

Have I convinced you? If so, great! I'm going to keep track of my consumption of red meat (I still don't eat pork, so nothing to track there) in the coming week, and I encourage you to do the same. If you are close to the unhealthy average of 1.5 servings per day, I encourage you to swap out the meat, and swap in the chicken or fish, in one of your favorite dishes. If you are closer to the healthy average of 1.5 servings per week, why not try a vegetarian day, and see what you learn? Already a vegetarian? You can push yourself and try veganism for a day.

No matter how small your change is, if it's a step in the right direction then you are doing your part to make your body healthier, and to make our planet a better place. I know myself, and I know I won't be successful going 100% vegetarian or vegan. But I have been successful at having meat-free days, and I eat a TON more vegetables than I did when I was 100% meat-free back in college.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Vacation workout plan

I mentioned in my last post that we were away last weekend. In fact, we traveled out to a piece of family property in western Maryland. It's a lakefront property, but it's been in the family for years, and conditions are...let's just say...a bit rustic!

So with no gym nearby, and no large space to use exercise equipment, I had to come up with Plan B if I wanted to keep up with my workouts.

Rather than leave things to chance, I made plans for two workouts before I left. The first was a bodyweight circuit spiced up with some kettlebell work. I adapted this workout from Craig Ballantyne's Turbulence Training Bootcamp Program, making adjustments for the space and the fact that I had just one, relatively light kettlebell. (I only have one 20 pound kettlebell at home, and that's not quite as heavy as what I'm used to using at the gym (12-16kg, which is 25-35 pounds)).

Here's a brief synopsis of my circuit workout:

Various bodyweight exercises - lunges, jumping jacks, push-ups, cross-crawl

Superset 1:
60 seconds one-hand alternating swings
5 clean & press per side
10 one-arm rows per side
2 min rest; repeat above 2x

Superset 2:
30 seconds Bodyweight squats
30 seconds Kettlebell front squats
10 one-arm rows per side
30 seconds kettlebell alternating front lunges
30 seconds mountain climbers (done quickly)
1 min rest; repeat above 2x

Superset 3:
30 seconds Kettlebell overhead swings
30 seconds Bodyweight squats
30 seconds push-ups
1 min rest; repeat above 2x

Superset 4:
30 second plank
30 seconds push-up burpees
1 min rest; repeat above 2x

Cool down
Walking & standing stretches

I like to work out at night, but it was a little too dark to do this workout in the grass, and there was simply no room inside, so I did this out on the deck. Although I used a kettlebell, it would be easy to replace the kettlebell weighted exercises with bodyweight exercises. The workout got my heart rate pumping, and gave my muscles a decent workout to boot!

I also planned a tough HIIT session for myself, scheduling some hill sprints for later in the weekend. My 22 year-old cousin decided to come with me, and she's a former athlete, so I was a little intimidated that she'd show me up!

We jogged down the road for a warmup, going until we'd been jogging for about five minutes, and then picked a good hill for our sprints. As I expected, her sprint speed was MUCH faster than mine, but the important thing was that we both were pushing ourselves to our maximum ability. We sprinted up the hill, and then jogged or walked back down, waiting until our heart rates came down to about 60% of maximum before doing another sprint. If this took longer than walking down the hill, we'd do some lunges or squats while we waited, just to keep moving.

I sprinted up the hill eight times, and my cousin sprinted six times. We were pretty wiped out! We walked back towards the property for about 3-4 minutes and then jogged the rest of the way there. It took us 25 minutes, start to finish, including the warmup and cool down. It was a great workout, and absolutely one of the easiest ways to get in an HIIT session without any equipment at all!

What's the story here? Well, the important point, in my opinion, is that going on vacation isn't an excuse to stop being active. You may not be able to follow your normal workout routine (if you can - GREAT!), but you can still find something to do to stay busy and on-plan.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

So just what does 'Organic' mean, anyway?

I've just returned from a trip away from home with my family from the Washington D.C. area (more on that later). It was a lovely weekend up in the mountains at our family cabin, devoid of T.V. (there is one, but we don't use it), Internet access, and all of the modern conveniences that keep us occupied here at home.

While we were there, I confiscated a copy of The Washington Post from my Uncle, after seeing the headline, "Purity of Federal 'Organic' Label Is Questioned." You can read the full article here. As we consumers push for healthier selections at our local groceries, including organic whole foods and healthier organic packaged foods, it's important to be aware of what the moniker 'Organic' actually means.

While you can (and should) read the article I linked, here are a few of the key terms I learned. Check your labels to see where your favorite organic products fall on this list:

  • 100% Organic - No mystery here. A product with this label should contain no chemicals, additives, synthetics, pesticides, or genetically engineered substances.
  • USDA Organic - These products must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. The remaining 5% can include additives or synthetics if they are on a list approved by the FDA.
  • Made with Organic - These products must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, and must identify the organic and non-organic ingredients.
Anything with less than 70% organic ingredients cannot use the word "organic" on the packaging except in the ingredient list (to properly identify which ingredients are organic).

Since we're often paying more for organic products, I think it's important to understand which are truly 100% organic, and which are just mostly organic. Hope you find this helpful - I did!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Back hurting? Fix your ab workout!

I have to admit, I've been on a bit of a tirade lately about "conventional wisdom." There are so many times I've heard people give health and fitness advice to others, and the advice is either either completely false, possibly true but there's no research to support it, or the research that supports it is under debate. Yet, thanks to news articles that share the interesting conclusions of scientists, but hold back the boring details (whether the conclusions are based on research or conjecture, how the study - if any - was conducted, what peer reviewers of the study thought about the conclusions), everyone from my 10 year-old neighbor to a Personal Trainer at one of the local gyms will repeat the "sound bytes" from the article ad naseum.

That's why it's so refreshing sometimes to read an article that defies conventional wisdom. While browsing the New York Times, I came across an article on Tara Parker-Pope's blog on health, Well. The article, entitled "Is Your Ab Workout Hurting Your Back?" was written by Gretchen Reynolds, a regular contributor to the blog.

You can (and should) read it for yourself, but in the article, Ms. Reynolds explains how, following the theories of prominent researchers (Paul Hodges and Carolyn Richardson) in the 1990's, we came to be told to pull our belly button towards our spine during exercises, or to push our back flat on the mat while doing lying crunches. Now, sports scientists are starting to challenge this "conventional wisdom" as well. Ms. Reynolds references an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that asserted some of the findings from that original Australian study might be wrong. Never one to take a reporter's opinion about what an article says, I went in search and found it for myself. It's called "Transversus abdominis and core stability: has the pendulum swung?" and was published in November 2008 by G.T. Allison and S.L. Morris. If you want a sound byte, here's a good one: "Such an inference – that altered timing of the transversus abdominis leads to poor core stability – is popular in the literature but on further inspection fundamental evidence is lacking. "

And that's just it! An idea might be popular, but that certainly doesn't make it true. A few weeks ago, I attended an introductory Kettlebell Clinic held by Randy Hauer, RKC Team Leader and Olympic Lifting Coach. (You can find Randy at KATAStrength Blog.) Randy is no joke - he's a smart man who could out-lift most guys half his age. His approach to training is very methodical - rather than having you jump out of the gate and go straight to lifting, he focuses very much on first making sure you understand the basics of proper technique.

During the clinic (well before either he or I read this article), Randy demonstrated the difference in your core strength when you draw your navel in towards your spine, and when you create a straight "shield" with your abdominals. For the demonstration, Randy tried to knock me over by pushing on my upper back. The first time, my navel was drawn in towards my spine, and I went over easily. The second time, I strengthened my abdominal wall, much like I would if I were bracing for a punch. When Randy tried to push me over, I didn't even budge. (In fact, much to my chagrin, Randy called me "Ab-Zilla!")

You can try this for yourself and see the results. Even if you don't have a partner, just watch yourself in the mirror. When you draw your navel in towards your spine, you round over, weakening your stance. When you create an abdominal shield, you naturally stand straight and tall.

So how can you apply this in your abdominal workouts? Well, as I've said before, the secret to great abs is NOT sit-ups. According to Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, sit-ups place devastating loads on the spinal disks. Here are a few tips on things NOT to do, as well as a few things TO do for a great, core-strengthening workout:
  • DON'T do sit-ups (I can't say it enough).
  • DON'T hollow your stomach or press your back against the floor in any exercise.
  • DO brace your abdominals to support your core during exercises.
  • DO focus your workout on all of the muscles around your spine, not just the abs.
  • DO include exercises that don't require spine flexion, like planks and side planks.
  • DO consider including full-body exercises like squats and deadlifts, while stabilizing your torso (thereby strengthening your core).

So the next time your workout partner suggests you lie down and do 50 sit-ups, show them what you've learned, and spent a minute doing the plank exercise instead! Your back will thank you.