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New Month, New Simple Healthy Eating Tips

Prepare Now for a Big Win with Those Healthy Eating Goals

On this Motivation Monday, many of us are dealing with Old Man Winter showing off his strength and the aftermath of some crazy weather from the weekend. The good news is he will eventually give up the good fight and spring will arrive. This in-between time offers a chance to take stock of your health and fitness goals for a new season. I thought I’d use this opportunity to offer three simple tips for getting those healthy eating habits in shape for the season – and all the seasons to come.

  1. Don’t Avoid Your Favorite Foods: All or nothing is never a good option for creating realistic longterm behaviors. Whether your weakness is wine, chocolate, cheese or chips, cutting out our your favorites altogether can lead to a binge where you make up for all or more of the servings of the treats you denied yourself for too long. While I’m not a huge fan of total “cheat days,” going a bit overboard for a special occasion or having that glass of wine after a super stressful day, isn’t going to destroy all your hard work. Remember, one “naughty” meal doesn’t mean throwing in the towel on an entire week of trying to make good choices.
  2. Maintain A Schedule: Habits are formed based on repeated behavior – good or bad. And studies show you can train the body to want to eat at certain times by making those times more routine. I have to eat something every few hours to stay sharp and avoid the not-so-pleasant side effects of being “hangry.” So whether I’m working from home or on location, I make sure I have a few small meal options ready to grab – whether it’s an Isagenix snack bar; fat-fee Greek yogurt and a handful of almonds or a green apple. If you are someone who’d rather eat three meals a day, try and have them at the same time.
  3. Add Strength Training to Your Spring Fitness Routine: I know I’m excited about getting outside for power walks and maybe hitting the tennis courts again once the weather warms up. But remember, the body needs some strength training to maintain or build muscle – which can be lost if you’re focusing on losing weight. This doesn’t mean you have to walk into the nearest gym and pick up the heaviest weights. Starting with the basics including squats, lunges, planks and push-ups – can add some solid bodyweight exercises to the mix. For an “express” option of some simple but effective exercises, click here to revisit why I love Tabata training all year long.

Do you have any new healthy hobbies you’re looking forward to trying this spring? Let me know! Sharing ideas is one of the best ways we can all keep each other on track on the never-ending journey to have fun, be fit and feel fabulous!

Just Breathe…Seriously!

iStock_000018172590MediumAs this Motivation Monday has us inching closer to the most wonderful albeit hectic time of the year, I make a promise now to keep one thing on your to-do list simple: reading my blog!

We all have phases in our lives when for whatever reason, it’s harder to get a handle on the schedule or finish the items on that to-do list in a day or even a whole week. Well, that’s where I find myself two weeks into November. So to those of you sticking with your routine of reading my posts, I thank you. For those of you who miss me on Twitter, I ask for your patience as I try to catch up. For everyone else, your support is always appreciated!

For this short and sweet post, I thought I’d discuss the importance of something we do all the time without even thinking about it: breathing. This normal occurrence can make all the difference in a workout – especially when you’re pushing it. While most of us tend to breathe harder and faster when we’re in the midst of a cardio session, we sometimes do just the opposite when we’re strength training. Stop and think about the last time you pushed through some push-ups or pumped out that full-body conditioning class. Did you hold our breath while banging out one or more reps?

There’s a name for when people hold their breath during strenuous activity like weight lifting: the valsalva maneuver. The bad news is it can limit oxygen delivery to the brain and cause dizziness, a spike in blood pressure or even cause you to pass out during a workout. So, be sure to keep breathing. The general rule of thumb is to exhale on the exertion phase of the exercise and inhale on the easier phase. For example, while doing a crunch, you should exhale as you crunch your upper body forward and inhale on the way back down to the floor. With weights, you’d generally be exhaling as you lifted or curled a weight with your arms or pushed away on the leg press and inhale on the release.

In addition to making sure you’re getting enough oxygen in your system, focusing on your breath has another benefit. When things get tough, focusing on your breathing is a great way to take your mind off the burn and power through more reps! One final note: do not stress over when you should be inhaling or exhaling. I’d rather you breathe “backwards” rather than not breathe at all and end up fainting in the middle of your workout.

At the end of the day, sometimes the things we take for granted as part of our daily routines can make all the difference in our efforts to have fun, be fit and feel fabulous!

Take Care of Those Tootsies!

photo-25On this Motivation Monday, I want to offer a reminder about two things you should never ignore in your fitness routine: your feet.

A few weeks ago, I started experiencing some knee pain halfway through my elliptical sessions. It wasn’t anything serious, but there was enough discomfort to warrant some ice-pack recovery time  after my high-intensity cardio sessions. Then I realized I hadn’t followed one of my own cardinal rules on footwear. I missed the six-month mark for replacing my sneakers and was about to cross the threshold into the ninth month.

That might not seem like a long extension, but if you workout almost every day like I do, those sneakers wear down a lot faster than you think. Knee pain can be a sure sign you’re losing the support you need in your footwear. Sure enough, after I got a new pair of Ryka cross trainers, the knee pain disappeared in just a few days.

Here’s a little foot trivia that can help illustrate why your feet deserve a little extra TLC: there are 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments and 19 muscles and tendons in each foot. That means there are 370 places vulnerable to injury in your feet alone. Now consider that insufficient foot support can lead to compensations made by your knees and hips, and you’re putting your body at risk for a whole world of hurt.

So, what’s the best footwear? It depends on your foot type. If you have a high arch, you need sneakers with good shock absorption. If your feet are flat and/or “roll” inward or outward, you need a sneaker with stability. An “average” foot needs a shoe with both cushioning and stability.

Since my fitness routine includes everything from elliptical training and rowing for cardio to squat Tabatas and strength training classes, I have always been the most comfortable working out in cross trainers. My friends who run will only pound the pavement wearing running sneakers. Many basketball players like high tops for the extra ankle stability. If there’s one sport you play often, it’s a good idea to get a pair of sneakers specifically for that activity, and also have a more “universal” pair, like cross trainers, for days when you mix things up.

I look at it this way: I have far too many lip glosses in my makeup drawer  and most guys have more gadgets than they’ll probably ever need. So why wouldn’t you spend the money to have at least one good pair of sneakers to protect you from getting hurt while you’re working so hard to stay healthy?

In the end, wearing the proper footwear is one of the easiest ways to have fun, be fit and feel fabulous!

Workout Wednesday: “Romper Room” Style


Smile & Remember:
Fitness CAN Be Fun!
Photo by Leslie Hassler

So here we are, four weeks after the start of 2013 and you’re sticking with those plans to make this year a healthy one. Way to go! If you’ve had a few off days, don’t sweat it. (Remember, this is the gal who abandoned her chopped veggies for a steady infusion of chocolate treats during a five-day vacation in Amsterdam!)

On this Workout Wednesday, I wanted to tell you about the new group exercise class I’ve become addicted to. If you’re looking for me on a Wednesday night, chances are you’ll find me front and center at the “UXF Burn” class offered at the New York Sports Club not far from where I live. NYSC describes the class as a 45-minute combination of cardio and strength training that can burn up to 600 calories in one class. However, I think the words of my high-energy instructor Lou offer a better definition of what makes the cross-training experience such a rush: “It’s Romper Room for adults.”

Lou starts us off with the necessary warm-up and then gets our hearts pumping with some killer cardio circuits for the first 25 minutes of class with a wide variety of moves including jumping jacks, ice skaters and high-knees. We then keep our heart rates up as we move through high-rep / moderate-weight circuits to work every muscle group with exercises ranging from squats with bicep curls to lat rows and kickbacks. Last week, instead of the whole class doing the same strength-training routine at once, she divided us into two sides for a “face-off.” Each side of the class had a series of six exercises to complete in 90-second intervals before switching sides. These included:

  • Bridge with chest press using a 15-20 pound weight
  • Jump rope
  • Double crunches
  • Dips using a step
  • Pikes

“Romper Room” indeed! The variety of exercises and the non-stop movement between each one makes this class fly by in record time for me. I can honestly say I have so much fun during this class I almost forget I’m actually working out, at least until the sound of my pounding heart fills my ears and sweat blinds my eyeballs!

I realize you may not have access to a class exactly like this one, and you may not even have any interesting in seeking one out. However, I hope telling you about my excitement over the addition to my routine serves as a reminder that exercise can be fun and even fitness veterans like me are always looking for new ways to enjoy working out. Whether it’s jumping rope or trying a new group exercise class  filled with moves that make you feel like a kid again, remember, variety is a key component to staying on track with your plans to have fun, be fit and feel fabulous!

Monday Motivation

Photo by Leslie Hassler

People are always asking what motivates me to exercise. I’ve offered a variety of reasons in past posts, but today I want to focus on just one. Exercise gives me strength.

In the fitness world, strength typically refers to how much weight you can lift when performing different strength training exercises. No doubt you’ve heard people comparing strength levels based on how much they can bench or press.

However, a broader definition of strength shows it’s also related to a capacity for exertion or endurance. Obviously, increasing that capacity can help in a countless number of activities that take place outside the gym. How easy or difficult is it to carry a few bags of groceries from the store to your car or even all the way home? How about picking up and holding a child? Are you winded after walking up ten flights of stairs, or only one? Incorporating exercise into your daily routine is a surefire way to gain strength and tackle the many facets of your daily routine with greater ease.

Now let’s move beyond the physical. There’s an old equation that goes something like this: a strong body = a strong mind. From a personal perspective, at times when I feel the weight of the world upon my shoulders, there’s nothing like some mind-clearing cardio or punching a speed bag to get some perspective. Some of my biggest moments of clarity have happened with sweat blinding my eyes and the sound of my pounding heartbeat filling my ears.

Instead of sitting around stewing over a problem at work or even worrying about a loved one facing an illness, why not give yourself a chance to really breathe? A long walk or a kickboxing class could offer your mind and spirit the boost of strength they need. The issue or issues you were stressing over will still be there when you’re done. However, based on my experience, a little oxygen can go a long way in helping me focus on how I’m going to handle the situation.

I want to close by sharing a quote I stumbled upon recently that deals with the emotional side of strength:

“Some people believe that holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go – and then do it.” -Ann Landers

Whatever the week has in store for you, I hope you find the strength to know whether to hang in there or simply let go. Whether you hope to make physical or mental gains in the days ahead, a little exercise can go a long way in the journey to have fun, be fit and feel fabulous!

Staying Fit Through The Holiday Season

It’s that time again. Time to think about all the turkey, trimmings, pies, cookies and cocktail parties that start at Thanksgiving and run right through New Year’s. While this is supposed to be a season filled with joy and wonder, let’s not kid ourselves. It’s also a time filled with stress, as we figure out how to get all the shopping, decorating and other holiday prep done on top of work, taking care of the kids and our other daily obligations. But that doesn’t mean you should put the sneakers and workout wear away until 2012. In fact, the extra stress and calories thrown at us at this time of year should make finding time to exercise more important than ever. It could be just what your mind and body need to actually enjoy some holiday cheer!

It may feel like there are fewer hours in the day with everything that needs to get done. If you normally spend more than an hour at the gym or take 90-minute power walks with your friends in the neighborhood, chances are you’re going to need to spend some of those minutes elsewhere. So, here are some tips on how to fit fitness into your busy holiday schedule:

  • Switch things up: Try working out in the morning. Trust me, I know this isn’t easy. I’m a post-work workout gal myself. However, at this time of year, if you can hit the gym, take a walk or pop in your Zumba DVD first thing in the morning, you’ll have gotten your exercise routine out of the way and you won’t feel so guilty about going to that holiday get together later that night.
  • Try group exercise classes: Most classes run approximately 60 minutes and can take the guesswork out of planning your own routine. Give total body conditioning or strength training classes a shot as they get your heart rate up and hit all the major muscle groups in a 60-minute window. The group environment also gives you the opportunity to strike up a conversation with someone else who may have his or her own survival tips for the holiday season!
  • Make shopping physical: If you drive to a mall, don’t look for the closest parking spot to the entrance. Also, be sure to change out of the heels or dress shoes into sneakers to help your body walk in good form while you’re rushing around.
  • Arm yourself with healthy snacks: If you’re running from work to shop, chances are you’ll be hungry. So instead of letting the smell of cinnamon, chocolate or some other temptation get the best of you, have some almonds or a high-fiber snack bar in your bag.
  • Don’t arrive hungry: Just like it’s a bad idea to go to happy hour on an empty stomach, don’t show up for Thanksgiving dinner or a holiday party feeling ravenous. If you’re eating late in the day, have portion-controlled healthy meals leading up to the “big” meal and a snack up to an hour before arriving at the feast. This will prevent you from grabbing the first high-calorie, high-fat item you see.

Be sure to check back on Wednesday when I’ll have some more eating tips to help you stay on track during this season so you can continue on your path to have fun, be fit and feel fabulous!

Confused About Muscle Confusion?

Photo by Leslie Hassler

I kick off this new work week addressing a great question from Ally.  She asked about “muscle confusion,” a key concept in the workouts you see all over TV that promise to get you “ripped” in 90 days without going to the gym.

First, I have to admit due to space limitations in all the apartments I’ve lived in since getting out of college, I’ve always worked out at the gym. So, I’ve never bought or used any of these 90-day surpreme workout programs. However, I do know many people who use them and love them.

Second, from an exercise science perspective, muscles can’t technically get “confused.” What they can do is grow stronger through a process called volume overload. Another phrase you often hear when people describe their fitness goals is a desire to “tone up.” Again, this is technically an incorrect statement as sticking with an exercise program won’t “tone” muscle, but it can help you improve your overall muscle definition. Basically, whether you’re working out at the gym or in front of the TV, if you increase the workload placed on your body, you burn more calories than you store, which leads to a loss in body fat and an improvement in muscular definiton.

Ally also asked me how often I change my resistance training routine. What I learned through the National Academy of Sports Medicine is that whatever phase of training you’re in, you should stick with a current routine for a minimum of four weeks before moving on to the next level. This gives your body time to adapt to the stimuli you’re placing on it.  That doesn’t just mean changing the exercises you’re doing, but adding to the workload you’re demanding your body to perform. When it comes to resistance training, that workload increase comes in the form of reps x sets x weight.

Remember, change doesn’t have to be drastic. It can simply involve cutting back on the amount of rest between exercises to push caloric burn to the max.  Change can also involve filling your schedule with group boxing class on Monday, group body conditioning  on Wednesday and a solo weight machine circuit on Friday. Want another reason to mix up your routine?  It’s simple: too much of a good thing is never good.  Doing the same exercises every day is a surefire way to increase your risk of overuse injuries.  Which brings me to another important reminder: your body needs adequate rest to make adequate gains. So, be sure not to work the same muscle groups on consecutive days.

I want to wrap up with what could be most important: in a world filled with instant everything, you need to be patient when it comes to reaching your diet and exercise goals. Anything done in an extreme fashion may produce fast results, but these results are often unsustainable. Drastically restricting your calorie intake and working out for 90 minutes, seven days a week may get you into that dress for the reunion. Chances are once you go back to your normal lifestyle, the weight will come back and any gains you made will be lost.

In the end, the choice is yours.  Whether you try a 90-day DVD exercise program, join a gym or start taking tennis lessons with a friend, the key is to find what works for you so that you stick with it and don’t stray from the path to have fun, be fit and feel fabulous!

Getting “Back” to Flexibiity

Photo by Leslie Hassler

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If only I knew more about human movement science back in my 20s (and probably even in my teens), I’m pretty sure I could have avoided a whole lot of hurt in my 30s. This is why I will never shy away from writing about the importance of stretching muscles so that you can strengthen others correctly. Since my high school friend, Jennifer, took the time to write in and express her shared interest in learning more about how the various muscle groups work together, I thought I’d take this opportunity to address some other common postural distortions that can wreak havoc on your body if you don’t take the time to address them.

In my previous post about flexibility training, I discussed how sitting at my desk for long periods of time causes the tightening of my hip flexors. Unfortunately, that’s not the only part of the body that suffers because of my day job. I admit my posture can get pretty bad after typing at the keyboard for awhile. Instead of sitting up straight, I slouch or round my shoulders and stretch my neck out much more than I should.  Needless to say this creates lots of tension in my neck and shoulders. (Just ask my chiropractor.)

This tension is a common problem for many office workers, and it comes from the tightening of the upper trapezius, scalenes and levator scapulae.  If you bring that tension to your workout without stretching the muscles,  it’s likely that when you try to perform an exercise that requires a push or a pull (e.g. a seated row or using a chest press machine) the shoulders will elevate and the head will protrude forward. This also indicates the mid/lower traps, rhomboids and rotator cuff need strengthening.

Again, while I can’t assess how you move through this blog post, I can tell you about what has worked for me in addressing this specific postural dysfunction as discovered by one of my own personal trainers in the past.  This link illustrates a static stretch that helped my overactive upper traps and scalenes.   I would perform one to three sets on each side, holding each stretch between 20 and 30 seconds. To strengthen my weaker muscles, my trainer had me perform the ball cobra. When it comes to strength training exercises for anyone just getting started on a fitness program, the recommendation would most likely be to one to three sets of 12-20 reps.

On any given day, our bodies are put under so many different stresses. The more we know about how flexibility and strength training work together in taking care of the muscles that move us, the better our chances of being able to stay on the right track to have fun, be fit and feel fabulous!

I Got Myself to the Gym. Now What?

You took the plunge and signed up for a gym membership. You change into your workout wear, turn on the iPod…and find yourself completely overwhelmed surrounded by a sea of equipment.  Don’t worry, you’re not alone.  One of my best gal pals from Northwestern University, Molly, recently posed the following questions:

“My problem with getting/staying fit right now is not knowing exactly what to do with myself once I’m at the gym. Should I just focus on cardio? (I’d like to lose a few pounds.) If so, do I stick with one machine like the treadmill and work on building speed and endurance, or switch it up and try the elliptical sometimes? Should I start again with the weight machines, which I haven’t done in a while? (I’d also like to tone up and gain strength.) Take a class?”

Two important points to address right away:

1) They key to losing weight is burning more calories than you take in. That can be done through cardio and/or resistance training. Whether you’re an exercise novice or seasoned gym-goer, your body will benefit most from a combination of the two.

2) Find what you like to do at the gym, and you will stick with it. Then with some help from perseverance, self-discipline and motivation, you can get the results you’re looking for.

Reminding myself how good I feel after a workout fuels my perseverance and self-discipline.  As for motivation, if you’re new to the gym, I strongly recommend meeting with a personal trainer at least once. Aside from helping you get familiarized with the gym, a personal trainer will also conduct fitness assessments to determine if you have any postural distortions that need correcting as part of your routine. In the simplest terms, you will learn what areas of your body need to be stretched and which need to be strengthened.

Many gyms welcome new members with a complimentary training session. If your gym doesn’t offer this service and a personal training session is not in your budget, then recruit a friend who does know his or her way around the gym to be your training partner.

Group exercise classes can also be a great source of motivation. With classes ranging from cardio kickboxing to Zumba, there is something out there for everyone. To avoid boredom at the gym, I’m a big fan of mixing up group exercise classes with your own program during the week.

Cardio is a topic that warrants its own blog post. For now, I recommend newcomers try the treadmill, elliptical and stationary bike for 10 minutes each. Determine which one you like best, then work on being able to run, stride or cycle for up to 30 minutes where you notice a moderate increase in your heart and respiratory rates.  Doing this five to seven days each week with two days of resistance training is a good workout plan to strive for.

One final note: it takes six weeks before something becomes a habit.  So, your first trip to the gym is the first big step in making exercise part of your routine to have fun, be fit and feel fabulous!

Fitness & Footwear

Like many women, I love shoes. I love them even more when I find a great pair at one of the discount shoe paradises that have popped up all over the country. There is one type of shoe, however, that I will gladly pay full price for if I have to, and that would be my sneakers. Why? Because wearing the proper footwear while you workout is one of the easiest ways to protect yourself from exercise-related injuries.

Here’s a little trivia for you: there are 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments and 19 muscles and tendons in each foot.  (No, I didn’t have those numbers memorized, I looked them up in AFAA’s Fitness: Theory & Practice, Fifth Edition.) That means there are 370 places vulnerable to injury in your feet alone.  Now consider that improper foot support can lead to compensations made by your knees and hips, and you are putting your body at risk for a world of hurt.

So, what’s the best footwear? It depends on your foot type.  If you have a high arch, you need sneakers with good shock absorption. If your feet are flat and/or “roll” inward or outward, you need a sneaker with stability. An “average” foot needs a shoe with both cushioning and stability.

I don’t know your foot type, but I can tell you what works for me.  Since my fitness routine includes walking, elliptical training, riding the stationery recumbent bike, rowing, and weight training, cross trainers keep me well-grounded and stable. I started wearing New Balance cross trainers five years ago (I currently wear the 1011s), and I get a new pair every six months.  I can honestly say if I wait longer than six months, I start to feel pain in my knees while I’m on the elliptical or while doing squats and lunges.   My current pair are two months old, and at the moment, I wear them with orthotics as I continue to recover from a stress fracture in my left foot.  (A subject for a future blog.)

While I am not a runner, most of my friends who are will only pound the pavement in running sneakers.  I also have friends who have sneakers specifically for when they’re on the tennis court. Many basketball players like high tops for the extra ankle stability. If there is one sport you play often, it’s a good idea to get a pair of sneakers specifically for that activity, and also have a more “universal” pair, like cross trainers, for days when you mix up your routine.

I look at it this way: I have far too many purses in my closet and most guys have more ties than they will ever need.  So why wouldn’t you spend the money to have at least one good pair of sneakers to protect you from injuries while you’re working so hard to stay healthy?

In the end, wearing the proper footwear is one of the easiest ways to have fun, be fit and feel fabulous!

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