Friday, January 12, 2018

Taking it slow and steady

Most of us get impatient when it comes to losing weight, toning up, building strength or other fitness goals. We typically want to make faster progress than is realistic. Consistently following a healthy diet and exercise program works magic, but it is slow-working magic.

When dieting, it can be pretty tempting to try short cuts such as using the latest diet-aid fad, skipping meals, or driving ourselves with extreme exercise. Unfortunately, most often such attempts at cheating nature end up setting us back on our health and fitness journey. I’ve definitely experienced that a time or two myself. Try to avoid falling for the short-cut trap, or if you fall in, climb out, dust yourself off and begin again with a wiser, more patient attitude.

One colleague I know who has tried to lose weight for more than six months has gained weight instead. She continues to set herself up for failure because she won’t recognize what she’s doing wrong or try a different strategy. She severely restricts her calories during the day because she’s “dieting” but then she has strong food cravings at night and compulsively binges. If she ate enough during the day, properly fueling her body with healthy foods, including a balance of lean protein, veggies, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats, she likely wouldn’t be famished and binge at night. She would end up eating fewer calories.

The best way to promote weight loss is to keep your body fueled. Otherwise not only do you develop cravings, your body goes into “famine mode” and burns less calories. It’s important to address your hunger throughout the day. I keep a pack of peanuts or another healthy snack with me whenever I’m out so I can satisfy my hunger if need be rather than becoming ravenous and later shoveling in food indiscriminately.

Another woman I know who is trying to lose weight heard on television about the wonders of using green coffee bean extract to boost metabolism and assist in appetite suppression. I discouraged her from using a diet aid unless it was part of a reputable medical weight-loss program supervised by a physician. Unfortunately, soon after beginning to use the supplement she developed atrial fibrillation. While there is no way of knowing whether the caffeine (or some other substance) in the supplement precipitated her health condition, her doctor told her not to take it anymore because the effects of the supplement have not been thoroughly studied. Also, dietary supplements are not FDA approved and vary by manufacturer.

A third common mistake when it comes to short cuts is to overdo it with exercise to the point that you hurt yourself or give up on exercise. In part I blame cultural influences such as “The Biggest Loser” for making folks want to push themselves so hard. It’s best to start off slow and build your cardio, strength and flexibility over time. Listen to your body. When you first begin training especially you should be able to talk comfortably while you’re doing your cardio.

When I hear about gyms that provide a bucket to vomit in for those who are really pushing themselves, I truly believe we have become far too enamored with the boot camp approach. The reality is that it’s completely unnecessary to drive yourself that hard in order to get fit and/or lose weight. The bottom line: Research has proven that high intensity exercise leads to more injuries and higher exercise dropout rates. Why short cut your way to a set back? Like Aesop said, “Slow and steady wins the race."

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Getting fit little by little

One of the things I enjoy most about being relatively fit is that life is so much easier than when I was out of shape. It’s easier to carry in the groceries. It’s easier to pick things up off the floor. There’s virtually no spot on my back I can’t scratch. And I can twist to get something out of the backseat of my car without risking a back spasm. My energy level is higher, and I sleep more soundly.

I had no idea I was taking sips from the fountain of youth eight years ago when I started what has become a regular fitness program. How did I get going? Fed up with being sluggish, achy and tired, first I began walking most days of the week. Then I started working with light dumb bells two days a week. Later I took yoga classes to build my core strength and flexibility.

I benefited from regular exercise so much that I wanted to share it with others and began studying to be a fitness professional.  Over time my strength, endurance and flexibility improved so much I now feel 20 years younger.

Are you game? To create a good balance of physical activity, opt for aerobic workouts (walking, dancing, tennis or such) at least three to five times a week and strength training two to three times a week. Warm up before you exercise and cool down afterwards, finishing with stretching.

If that sounds like too much time, remember many benefits of exercise accrue with a minimum of 150 minutes of exercise a week, according to scientific research. That’s 30 minutes 5 days a week or however you want to split up the time. Check with your doctor if you have health concerns to learn if you need to limit or modify exercise in any way.

If you have a hard time scheduling large blocks of time, accumulate activity in increments of 10 minutes or more several times a day. What about stretching or lifting dumb bells (or cans of food) while you watch TV? What about a short walk? Ten minutes here and there can kick start your fitness program.  Life is not only easier with exercise, its better.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

What works for you

Starting off the New Year with new resolutions – especially those concerning fitness and wellness - is an energizing feeling, but the key to fulfilling them is a combination of desire, will and strategy.

Sometimes following a resolution is a snap. You decide to go after something, and you just seem to do it. Love it when that happens!

But many times a resolution may be challenging to fulfill. If you slip up it’s important not to be too hard on yourself and give up. Instead you can “fail forward” by becoming a student of your own behavior; learning from what went wrong and making adjustments.

Social scientist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., recommends analyzing what does and does not work for us in her book “The Willpower Instinct.” She says it greatly helps to consider what obstacles we may face and how we will overcome them. For example, if you can’t resist ice cream, but want to cut down on it to reduce calories, best not to keep it in the refrigerator at home. If you tend to forget your gym bag, put it by the door the night before.

Another aid to boosting our willpower is reducing stress in our life. We need down time to refresh ourselves whether it is listening to music, walking through the woods or meditating. The more stressed we are, the more difficult it is to make healthy choices, research has shown. When we are agitated we tend to seek relief, including through comfort foods and watching too much TV.

Not addressing internal conflicts may keep us from being fully committed to our goals and derail us.  For example, is a loved one pressuring you to do something you want to do but you are resisting doing it because of their insistence? Or is a friend trying to talk you out of doing something you want to do? Find an individual or a group who will be in your corner and maybe even exercise, diet or quit smoking with you.

It can help to shore up your resolve to fulfill those New Year’s resolutions by listening to inspirational speakers or reading encouraging literature. Journaling about the ups and downs of your wellness journey can be helpful. And many find calling upon their higher power makes all the difference. Find out what works for you and make it work for you!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Working out alone vs. with others

When choosing the right exercise strategy for you, one question is whether to exercise alone or with others. I like opting for a mix!

Working out alone is easier to schedule and comes in handy when all your friends are busy. Some people enjoy the quietude of exercising just with the sound of music, nature or their breath. It can be a time for reflection or meditation.

Exercising can also be done a little at a time when you are on you own. Ideas: A few glut bridges before you get out of bed, a simple balance challenge while brushing your teeth, neck and upper back stretches in the shower, a few chin tucks at red lights, and/or some ankle circles and seated breathing and posture exercises while watching TV.  Restorative, conditioning movement throughout the day is great for the body!

Exercising with others, on the other hand, is also beneficial. It can serve as a reminder and motivator to exercise more regularly. Scientific studies show that people who exercise with others tend to exercise more often. Extroverts tend to be drawn to groups while introverts may prefer to exercise with one or a few people they know very well.

You may already know one or several people who would like to become exercise buddies. Walking with a spouse or a friend or strength training with a buddy at the rec center or gym are all options. If you enjoy larger groups, going dancing, taking group exercise classes, or playing sports can be rewarding.

If you feel hesitant to try a new exercise class, it can be less intimidating if you take a friend the first time, especially if the class is large. Senior center and church exercise classes tend to be a little more user friendly from the get go for the solo participant.

Another option, especially if you have specific physical challenges or want to improve your fitness level before you take a group class, is to work with a personal trainer. You may find you only need a few sessions to get you going. Or you may like the coaching and exercise customization so much that you opt to train on an ongoing basis.

Try experimenting a little to find the right combination of exercising alone and with others that is right for you!

Friday, June 12, 2015

The magic of tai chi

I began taking tai chi in September of 2014 through a Tai Chi for Arthritis program at my local senior center. Just having turned 55, I was eligible for membership. Woo hoo! My main reason for joining the center was to learn tai chi, which I had been fascinated with after seeing it on TV and in movies. The slow, graceful choreography of the moves appealed to me and I have read and heard much about tai chi’s many health benefits.

Although I had done much core and balance work previously, I soon began to feel even greater strength and stability. The mind-body aspect only enhanced what I had developed in yoga and Pilates in recent years. And something more, I began to sleep more deeply as I had heard I would.

Wanting to share this with my group exercise students I took Tai Chi for Arthritis instructor training in Memphis and began teaching tai chi classes at Dawson Memorial Family Recreation Center in Homewood, Ala., and several area senior facilities. It’s rewarding to see others benefit from the gentle and health-producing martial art. Plus it has deepened my own tai chi practice.

Dr. Paul Lam, an Australian physician, developed the Tai Chi for Health programs - including Tai Chi for Arthritis - incorporating up-to-date medical knowledge a number of years ago. These programs are proven by medical studies to improve health. Both the CDC and Arthritis Foundation recommend the Tai Chi for Arthritis program. I was fortunate to be able to follow up my initial Tai Chi for Arthritis training with an intensive in-depth tai chi workshop led by Dr. Lam in Cartersville, Ga. in Sept. 2015.

If you have any interest in learning tai chi, please try it. And if you don’t have access to classes
please visit Dr. Lam’s Tai Chi for Health Institute website at where you can order instructional tai chi DVDs.

Here are a few basics for beginning your tai chi practice:

CULTIVATE THE HABIT OF TAKING SLOW, DEEP BREATHS - The more slowly and deeply you breathe the more relaxed you will feel. Deep breathing is abdominal, meaning that your diaphragm contracts fully and creates a vacuum to more fully fill the lungs with air. When you breathe in deeply your belly will naturally bulge out like a baby or opera singer. On the exhale the belly will flatten.

CHECK IN WITH YOUR POSTURE PERIODICALLY. Hold yourself up so you can breathe freely; Lifting the rib cage, elongating the spine, shoulders up and back, chin parallel to the floor, balancing the head above the body. Gently stretch out your joints.

MOVE SLOWLY, SMOOTHLY AND CONSISTANTLY AS IF THROUGH GENTLE RESISTANCE, SUCH AS IN WATER. Slow down your pace and gently control your movement by becoming mindful of it and your breath. By relaxing and patiently going through the exercises at whatever your level or ability you will gain strength and improve your balance. You will also develop greater inner calm and improve your sleeping patterns. Don’t worry about doing it “exactly right.” Just move in your range of comfort. Tai chi is a process and works its magic as we practice it, however imperfectly.

MINDFULLY SHIFT YOUR WEIGHT AS YOU WALK IN TAI CHI. Slowly shifting our weight to one leg and then sinking into that foot before lifting our other foot and stepping out (then slowly transferring our weight to that foot) develops core strength as well as leg strength. It also challenges our inner balance control system and improves our stability over time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Strong or flexible?

When it comes to being strong or flexible, which is best for keeping your muscles and tendons healthy?

Okay, it's a trick question as it is best to be both. Muscle-bound weight lifters can lose range of motion and become so stiff they walk funny. Ultra-flexible yoginis can injure themselves because of too much muscle and tendon laxity and little strength.

Weak and/or tight muscles – often associated with poor posture and body mechanics - can lead to muscle spasms and painful trigger points that can only temporarily be relieved by massage. The underlying problem needs to be addressed.

Another problem weak and tight muscles - as well as muscle strength and flexibility imbalances - can lead to or worsen is osteoarthritis. Healthy (strong and flexible) muscles and tendons help keep joints working properly. A balanced exercise routine to avoid repetitive use and injury of the joints is also important.

Any time you participate in strength training, please stretch afterwards. Resistance training tightens the muscles and over time can lead to loss of range of motion. Also, when you can, stretch after walking or other cardio.

Yoga and/or pilates can improve your flexibility overall. After doing my fitness turnaround several years ago, the increase in my range of motion, just through a bit of yoga and additional stretching, has me feeling 20 years or younger than my actual age.
For do-it-yourselfers: As I have mentioned before, an excellent book on stretching is "Stretching" by Bob Anderson. It's thoroughly illustrated and includes stretches targeting various sports and activities. There are numerous books on strength training. The American Council of Exercise website offers a wealth of information on balancing strength and stretch.

No matter how you approach it, just remember the archer’s bow. Seek to be both strong and flexible.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A few tips for healthier holiday eating

It's just way too easy to mindlessly overindulge during the holidays and then have extra work to do at the beginning of the new year to lose those extra pounds. Fortunately with a little focus and a plan we can reduce the amount of extra calories we're taking in during the festivities and still enjoy ourselves. Here are a few of my favorite strategies for healthier holiday eating.

Always carry a healthy snack. A small bag of nuts (100 to 150 calorie portion) can be a good choice. Use them when needed to take the edge off hunger. Otherwise if you let yourself get to the point of ravenous hunger before a party, when you are presented with a table full of holiday treats, the natural course of action is to go wild devouring goodies. I've done that more than once and it's not pretty.

Seek out raw fruits and veggies first. Fiber and well-hydrated food (versus food that is sugary, fatty, dry and/or crisp) is our friend. Our favorite fruits and veggies can keep us full and satisfied. So if we eat plenty of salad or the carrot sticks and apple slices first, we'll likely eat less of the calorie-laden casserole, chips and cookies.

Opt for whole grains versus stripped down wheat, rice, etc. when available. Again, the more fiber we eat, the more satisfied we will feel. Plus whole grains are soooo much more nutritious.

Avoid going back for seconds or grazing. When you can see how much you truly are eating, you eat less. We tend to underestimate how much we have eaten when we go back to the table over and over again. It's especially insidious when we're having a wonderful time talking with our family and friends over the holidays. Studies have shown that people actually tend to eat more when they are happy!

Stay hydrated and avoid excess alcohol consumption. Drinking plenty of water will help keep your appetite down. Sometimes hunger is actually pangs caused by dehydration. And please watch out for how alcohol affects your food consumption. Because alcohol loosens our inhibitions in general, it tends to promote heavier eating at meals and more frequent snacking between them.