Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What dancing does for you


So many ways to dance: Zumba, line dancing, folk dancing, ballroom, belly dancing, flamenco, jazz, tap, just shaking your booty ... Which are your favorite ways to get your kicks?

Dancing may seem like too much fun to be an important form of exercise. The good news is that dancing is great exercise, serving as a moderate-to-high-intensity calorie-burning cardio workout and building our strength and flexibility at the same time. The fun factor is a major plus, because it means we’re more likely to do it. So consider spicing up your exercise routine by dancing one or more days a week.

Moving to music can be especially beneficial for those of us who don't play a sport that challenges our balance, agility and coordination. (Think about it. Walking, cycling or stepping on the elliptical – and I love to do all those - are great for the heart, but only use our muscles in limited ways.) Don’t think dance can be compared to sports? A University of Hertfordshire study compared members of Britain’s Royal Ballet to a squad of national and international swimmers. The dancers scored higher than the swimmers in seven out of ten areas of fitness.

As we struggle to learn or create the steps of a new dance step, style or choreography, we’re working out our mind as well. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that ballroom dancing at least twice a week made people less likely to develop dementia. No partner, no worries. Zumba, line dancing and belly dancing all challenge the mind of the solo dancer.
One of the easiest ways to incorporate dance into your exercise routine is just to turn on some peppy music and shake your booty. I started doing that as a toddler and periodically throughout my life have just given myself over to moving with the music. When I was working on taking off weight several years ago, I used the shake-your-booty method more systematically. I found it was a great alternative to walking outdoors when the weather was bad or if I had to delay exercising until after dark.

Eventually I progressed to wanting more dance in my life, but didn’t have a partner to take ballroom dancing with. Luckily, I heard about Zumba, which can incorporate most any dance step you’ve ever seen or heard about, depending on the instructor’s interests and ability. Although I knew I wanted to teach Zumba the first time I took Zumba, I had a long way to go. At first I did well just to get some of the steps right. Later I added some arms. Much work and many months later I’m now licensed to teach Zumba and lead several classes a week.

Among the most rewarding developments I’ve seen in myself since I’ve begun dancing regularly is the the increased strength and power I feel in my core. My cardio health, while good before thanks to walking, is even better now. And I look forward to exercising.

Dancing regularly has unleashed and empowered my inner dancer. I am listening and dancing to music from places I’ve traveled to or wish to see, which makes my exercise experience more meaningful. My Zumba class makes my spirit as well as my body dance. I feel the music in me!

Maybe dancing will also speak to you now or in the future as a favored way to get moving. If so, and if you want to go beyond shake-your-booty basics, don’t stop till you find a class you enjoy.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Slow and steady wins the race


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.

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 lady 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. I lost 45 pounds and am maintaining that weight loss through combining a healthy, balanced diet with walking and resistance training. Why short cut your way to a set back? Like Aesop said, “Slow and steady wins the race."

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The joy of stretching


Like most girls, I first started stretching in gym class. I remember my gym teacher saying "It's important to stay flexible," and although I didn't know why, I dutifully stretched. As I was a fan of gymnastics and ballet during junior high and high school, I did a lot of stretching in association with those pursuits as well. Fast forward to college and beyond, and my stretching almost completely fell to the wayside.

I didn't notice too much of a difference because I wasn't particularly athletic and my primary form of exercise was walking. But I was losing range of motion little by little and sometimes experiencing muscle pain. By the time I was in my late 40s, I was stiff and found it difficult to bend down and to twist my head back. When I stretched my arm back to get something behind me I would sometimes pull a muscle. As I was also 40-plus pounds overweight, I basically felt like a sluggish lump. I attributed my fatigue, aching muscles, and limited range of motion to the natural process of getting older.

What I didn't realize was that more than getting older, my lack of flexibility and aching muscles were caused by disuse. I wasn't moving very much all day long. Primarily I sat at my desk for hours and did a bit of walking here and there. Back then, I didn't understand how weak and stiff muscles, ligaments and tendons can become unless they are challenged on a regular basis. (I get that now after studying anatomy and exercise physiology to become a personal trainer.)

I began stretching a bit more as well doing resistance and cardio exercises several years ago after I started on a healthy lifestyle and weight loss program. That helped some. But it wasn't until I started taking yoga that I really began to methodically stretch my entire body from my fingers to my toes. At first I was seriously stiff and had the least range of motion of anyone taking the class, but I kept with it.

Over time, my tendons and ligaments loosened up as my muscles became stronger. I regained the strength and flexibility I had in my 30s. Let me tell you right now, as I have said before, life is better when you're fit and flexible. Recently during a flamenco show I attended, one of the dancers came to our table and asked me if I wanted to get up and learn how. Without thinking I jumped up and jumped right into it, shaking it with the best of them. Pretty good for 52.

To continue drinking from this fountain of youth, I continue to work out, including stretching, consistently. Although I no longer attend a formal yoga class, I have incorporated yoga stretches into my workout routine and do some gentle stretching every morning before I get out of bed. Stretching makes me feel so good, I do it now not because I have to but because I want to. Just as I can't imagine not brushing my teeth every day, I can't imagine not stretching.

Attending yoga classes isn't the only way to add more stretching to your exercise regimen, but it's a simple and effective one. An excellent book on stretching for do-it-yourselfers is "Stretching" by Bob Anderson. It's thoroughly illustrated and includes stretches targeting various sports and activities.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Creative substitution: Lose it without tears

I’m pretty wimpy about self-denial when it comes to food, as many folks are. Anytime I even think I may be denying myself, the strategy tends to boomerang. If I let my stomach rumble for too long, I end up eating twice as much when I do eat. Heaven knows what might happen if I watched as others ate birthday cake while I swallowed hard and shook my head “no.” I can’t remember ever letting that happen. You may be wondering how I ever lost weight and have been able to keep it off.

I owe much of my success to creative substitution (in addition to regular exercise of course). The concept likely can help you stay full and satisfied while managing your weight as well. You may already be employing it at times without thinking. But it’s an even more powerful tool when you consciously use it. It’s easy: Just look for ways to cut calories and boost nutritional value by substituting one less-healthy food or drink for a healthy version that has a similar taste, texture and/or satisfaction level. The pack of peanuts I always keep on hand has saved me from gobbling down a fast food burger innumerable times when I get hungry away from home.

Another example of creative substitution: I have a bit of a beer tooth, and tend to favor a Corona with lemon or a Bud Light Lime. Those liquid calories add up quickly, so when I committed myself to losing weight I decided to find a delicious low-calorie alternative. Diet ginger ale with lemon served the bill beautifully with almost zero calories. Sometimes I even serve it in a chilled mug. One more example: Because I like to have a crunchy snack while I watch TV movie, but also prefer being fit and trim, I have shifted from dip and chips or nachos to microwave popcorn. I make my own microwave popcorn using a brown lunch bag and several tablespoons of generic or on-sale popping corn kernels. I season with sea salt and/or Mrs. Dash (when I’ve had my sodium quota for the day).

Creative substitution even helps with portion control. Those healthy, low-calorie frozen meals seemed seriously small to me, and were not filling, until I started serving them on a bed of fresh spinach. A can of healthy soup can easily turn into a meal when I microwave it with fresh or frozen veggies such as broccoli, mushrooms, onions and tomatoes. I thought I was a little strange about my need to pump up my food until I saw “The Hungry Girl” on the Dr. Oz Show. She has taken the idea of bulking up meals with high fiber, nutrient rich foods and gone wild with it. I love her idea for using cauliflower (cooked from fresh or frozen) in combination with a small portion of pasta and healthy sauce of choice to make your dish seem like you’re eating a restaurant-size portion. Check out her website for other ways to bulk up your meals.

By employing creative substitution every day I find I’m not on or off a diet. I’ve simply made a lifestyle change in my dietary habits. If I occasionally indulge in the high-calorie food or beverage I typically substitute for, I can do it without guilt because I know that overall I’m eating well. A fellow fitness professional looked at me suspiciously the other day when I ordered a small serving of ice cream while she opted for black coffee at the coffee shop where we met. Our orders cost about the same. I preferred to spend my money on a real treat, plus I needed a boost of protein and carbs after two back-to-back exercise classes. I know better than to let myself get too hungry!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fitness and "The Traveler's Gift"


A friend of mine recently mentioned a great book he'd read, "The Traveler's Gift: Seven Decisions That Determine Personal Success," by Andy Andrews. It sounded so interesting I decided to check it out. As I read the book in one sitting I was struck how its principles apply to pursuing fitness as well as various other aspects of our life. Success depends on the decisions we make. All seven decisions that Andy explores are superpowered by a spiritual component.

First Decision: The buck stops here. I am responsible for my past and my future. The book takes our discouraged out-of-work hero on a time-travel adventure where he meets historic characters who inspire him to look at and conduct his life in a different way. The first is Harry S. Truman, who schools him on personal responsibility. Where ever we are on our fitness journey, whether it be losing weight or reaching a new level of strength, it's empowering to realize its up to us where we go from here. It's in our capable hands to find out what we need to know and do what we need to do to get where we want to go. Taking baby steps, changing one small unhealthy habit for a healthier habit, time after time, adds up to a transformed body and life. Not too long ago I was extremely deconditioned and 45 pounds heavier. Now I'm slimmer, stronger, more flexible, fitter. I continue to challenge myself with new fitness goals. After all, it's up to me to keep pursuing fitness step by step.

Second Decision: I will seek wisdom. It's amazing how little most of us really know about getting and staying fit. If you were/are a high school and/or college athlete, physical education major, fitness professional, health nut, or such, you're likely an exception. The average person knows less about what makes the body function at its best. Until late 2009 I had only a basic understanding. Now I have good foundational knowledge and continue adding to it by keeping abreast of current exercise science, nutrition and other health-related research as well as consulting with allied health care professionals. The more I know the better I'm able to train/treat my body and help my clients. Please check out some of the health resource links on this site to learn more about exercise, nutrition and other ways to improve your health.

Third Decision: I am a person of action. I seize the moment. I choose now.
Some day may never come. Today is here. Every time we exercise (in a prudent and safe manner based on our health profile) we improve our health. It's a scientific fact that the benefits of exercise begin to accrue almost as soon as we start our first exercise session. Also, when we add the right fuel to our body, in the form of healthy foods, we get an almost immediate benefit as the macronutrients and micronutrients are digested. Talk about instant payoff! The more such healthy actions we take, the more we'll see significant improvements in how empowered we feel as well as how mentally and physically healthy we are. We get healthier step by step by pursuing fitness.

Fourth Decision: I have a decided heart. My destiny is assured. It's not "if I become more fit," or "if I lose weight," it's "as I become more fit," or "as I lose weight." Decide you're going to adopt specific healthy lifestyle behaviors and do it by tackling those behaviors step by step. When you get 100 percent behind your commitments to yourself success is pretty much guaranteed because you just don't let anything stop you. If you look hard at what stopped you or others from achieving certaing goals in the past, you'll easily realize that it's because you or the other person gave up the fight. When I look back at failed attempts at weight loss or increased fitness, I have to admit I gave up too easily. As my Dad always told me: "You can do anything you really want to do."

Fifth Decision: Today I will choose to be happy. I am the possessor of a grateful spirit. Abraham Lincoln said we're just about as happy as we choose to be. Happiness isn't about what's outside of ourselves or whether we have a perfect physique in the world's eyes. It's about how you look at yourself and your life. Do you focus on how you have been blessed and what you do have, or do you focus on what you don't have? Are you unhappy because you feel entitled to something you don't have? I have to admit that periodically in my life when the going gets tough I think "If only X, Y, or Z, I could really be happy." Fortunately so far I've been able to get past that over time and look at the world again with gratitude through an optimist's eyes. I'm happy to be alive.

Sixth Decision: I will greet this day with a forgiving spirit. I will forgive myself. This is a particularly good one for fitness. It's way too easy to get down on ourselves for not meeting our expectations for fitness and/or weight loss goals. Unfortunately that can lead to our sabotaging ourselves with self-defeating behavior creating more problems for ourself. The classic is eating the whole sack of potato chips because you ate a half a bag of chips and hate yourself for it. It's best for our long-term success with health and fitness as well as the other aspects of our life to be gentle with ourselves. If you stumble, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, resolve not to repeat the error and go on. Love yourself the way you love or would love your own child, unconditionally. And forgive others. Holding a grudge not only poisons our spirits but also our bodies.

Seventh Decision: I will persist without exception. I am a person of great faith. Faith has been the key element of any success I've ever had, especially with weight loss and fitness. Praying gives me the strength to keep seeking what I need to do to continue to improve my health. After I kept failing to lose weight at middle age several years ago I had a "V8" moment and realized I needed to pray for help. That moment of transformation led me to find the right resources to educate myself on what I needed to do to lose weight. A "healthy lifestyle and weight loss" program at my church set me off in the right direction. Then I started yoga, strength training, Zumba, etc., and I continue to build my fitness levels. I persist because I have faith that God/My Higher Power/The Force will guide me to continued success. And He/She/It does.



Monday, January 30, 2012

Give Me Strength


Once I saw strength training as something only body builders would want to do. Now I know it’s as important to my health as brushing my teeth.  Just as I don’t want to develop rotten teeth and inflamed gums, I don’t want my bones to develop osteoporosis, my muscles to give way to flab and my ligaments to deteriorate. That hunched over senior with the brittle bones shuffling down the street with a walker once stood tall and likely would still if he/she had followed a strength regimen.

While most of us can get away with a hit or miss approach to exercise while we’re young and still stay relatively healthy, by middle age we’re faced with the ugly and painful reality of what lack of regular exercise will do to our bodies. Bloated bellies, strained backs and other signs of our mortality begin to accumulate. Meanwhile the more active among us seem to have drunk from the fountain of youth and maintain a youthful physique and general wellbeing.
Fortunately if we heed our wakeup call, whenever it comes, we can regain much of our youthful strength, flexibility and attractiveness. Getting our heart pumping with cardio workouts is important, but we’ve also got to build our strength.

Today I worked with a middle-age lady who did not know that we begin to lose muscle mass each year beginning as early as when we turn 25 to 30 years old. Our metabolism slows because of it. We also gradually lose our ability to lift as much. She also didn’t know that our bones become more brittle over time, especially for women after menopause, if we don’t strength train. While she takes calcium and other supplements she wasn’t aware that you need to work the bones for the calcium to be absorbed.

It did not surprise me that she did not know these things about strength training, because up until recent years I didn’t know them either. While fitness fans learn such fun facts early on Joe Six Pack and the rest of us typically are clueless. Fortunately I began learning the score after taking a “Healthy Lifestyle and Weight Loss” program several years ago.

After I showed my client how to use the weight machines and discussed the various benefits of strength training, she seemed determined to make weight training part of her regular fitness routine. Yeah!

When it comes to strength training, for best results work all your body’s major muscles and bones. Use the full range of weight machines vs. just a few and/or learn other ways of working your muscles including using your body weight, dumbbells and bands. The American Council of Exercise has a great
exercise library that includes video and written break downs of exercises for the entire body. Of course if you have health issues or are highly deconditioned, please check with your physician before starting an exercise program.


Monday, January 2, 2012

S.M.A.R.T Goals for the New Year


As the New Year begins it's great to look over fitness gains made in 2011, and create a plan for pursuing fitness in 2012. I like the ideas of setting S.M.A.R.T goals, as Paul J. Meyer popularized through his book Attitude is Everything. "S" is for "specific." "M" is for "measurable." "A" is for "attainable." "R" is for "Relevant." "T" is for "Timely." If you want to be S.M.A.R.T.E.R. also throw in "E" for "Evaluate" and "R" for "Re-evaluate" as goals need to be reviewed and revised over time.

Instead of setting the vague goal of getting in better shape during 2012, consider setting several S.M.A.R.T.E.R. goals for incrementally improving your cardio health, muscle strength/endurance and flexibility. Also consider setting a goal for improving your balance, especially if you're over 50. And don't forget to consider how you'll fuel your training with nutritious foods such as lean proteins, whole grains, a variety of veggies/fruits, and healthy fats such as in olive oil, nuts and avocado.

Say you've been walking briskly for 30 minutes three to five times a week for awhile now and want to improve your cardio fitness level. You could decide to incrementally increase your walking to five to seven times a week for an hour within the next three months. (Remember you can split your cardio into multiple increments of at least 10 minutes each during the day if you need to and still get the benefit.) Another option (if your health allows) would be to graduately substitute 30 minutes of more vigorous cardio options such as a stair-stepper machine, running, spinning, and/or Zumba for walking three to five times a week over the next three months. You may opt to split your weekly schedule into two or three vigorous cardio workouts and two or three brisk walking sessions.

While I focused on walking one hour pretty much every day (after gradually building up to that activity level) while I was losing weight and getting back into shape, I now enjoy sometimes alternating brisk walking outdoors with Zumba and various cardio machines at the gym. This year I'll kick my cardio into higher gear with the goal of getting into the routine of four vigorous cardio workouts plus walking one to two times a week over the next three months.

To continue improving my muscle strength/endurance, flexibilty and balance I'll continue on the course I've set to strength train two to three times a week and take yoga classes at least twice a week. But since I've set a new goal of being able to do 15 push-ups in proper form within the next three months I'll be focusing kicking off my resistance training sessions with push-ups. I also want to be able to be able to balance on my right leg as long as I can balance on my left leg. That means extra work on my right leg. Three months from now I'll re-evaluate myself on push ups, balance, etc. and set some new goals.

Setting new goals, and thus changing/increasing my training techniques, intensity, frequency, time, etc., helps keeps me motivated to continue pursuing fitness. But what motivates me even more is the payoff in the way I look and feel. At 52 I'm stronger, faster, healthier and feel younger than I have in years. My sister, who has been working out of town and hasn't seen me in months, said when the family got together on Christmas Day: "I can't believe how great you look. Even your butt is higher."