Happy, Healthy Living

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Living a healthy life is always a choice. There can be barriers (financial, emotional, etc), but in the end, how much we move and what we eat are decisions we make. Health professionals are constantly trying to make healthy habits more accessible and understandable to the general population. For instance it’s now fairly common knowledge that one goal for good health is to hit about 10,000 steps a day. In the health field, we still talk about minutes of exercise and intensity, but for the masses, steps per day are easier to understand. What we’ve found, however, is that the problem isn’t not understanding what is necessary and good for our bodies, the problem is with the follow through, because let’s face it, if something’s not easy, we are a lot less likely to do it.

This is one of the reasons I love Australia. Here it is easy to hit 10,000 steps. I hit it every day in fact (usually surpassing my goal) just in my every day activities. Public transport is so efficient around the city that people end up walking to trams, trains and busses rather than just hopping in their cars. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of drivers as well, but overall this Aussie city seems to be very active.

Aside from walking by means of transport, it seems the whole city is buzzing with opportunities to get outside and move. At the Saint Kilda festival my first weekend down under, there were several different setups for exercising (a zumba class by the beach, a yoga session in the park, etc). Additionally, in each of the suburbs of Victoria there are weekly timed 5ks available for free to anyone who shows up. Back home in the states there were also loads of running groups (some free and some not), but any timed 5k I ever went to had a fee associated with it, and though usually it was a small sum of money, it was still a barrier. And barriers turn people away.

Being in the exercise field, I recognize that I am probably more aware of things like steps and avoiding inactivity, but with all the technology that’s available, there’s really no excuse. There are plenty of people here who still need to drive into work, as public transport is not easily accessible on some of the suburbs farther out, but even so I feel like the environment here supports those people who prioritize health. But again it comes back to individual motivation.

Beyond the movement aspect of health, even nutritional options seem to be superior here. At the fresh markets I’ve found, the cheapest things to buy are fresh fruits and vegetables. There are very few fast food restaurants around so the temptation to run out for a quick, cheap dinner just isn’t quite the same as in the states. The cost of dining out practically encourages you to cook a meal in, as it’s likely to be faster and cheaper. Even just a lunch out can run you anywhere from AUD$8-16 at an average café and much more at a nicer restaurant. While the high cost of dining out here isn’t really a selling point in everyday life, it is quite a good motivator for cooking a meal at home (with some inexpensive fresh veggies and fruits).

In the end, it doesn’t much matter where you live or what you do. If you want to make healthy choices you will. You will make the easy choices and the hard ones and barriers won’t slow you down. It is nice to see here at least, there seem to be fewer barriers to making those healthy choices…whether that translates to more people turning around their bad habits, only time will tell.

All I know for sure right now is that I am loving how well this city is supporting the lifestyle I am striving to live.

Cheers!

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Prepare for the unknown

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When I talk to people about moving to Australia, the reactions I’ve gotten have gone past the point of predictability. I can almost say the words with the person as they respond. The top three responses I’ve gotten have been:

That’s so cool. Gonna have some shrimp on the barbie, eh?

Kangaroos are so cute, but I heard Koalas sleep a lot.

You’d better go out to the outback! But don’t get bit by a snake. I swear everything there will kill you!

That’s it. That basically sums up an American’s view of Australia (all initial reactions that I had as well). And it’s funny, isn’t it? All these people who have never been to that side of the world giving input and advice on something they’ve never experienced. Even without having been to Australia, everyone feels like they know SOMETHING about it. And we all do…well, kind of. We know what little is presented to us. We know what movies and the media tell us, which, in reality, is only a highlights (or lowlights, if you will) reel of the top ten things that make Australia unique.

So here I am wondering, as an American going to Australia to live, what on EARTH do they think of Americans? Just imagine the top ten things that make America unique, and I bet even you would come up with a few facts that don’t paint us in a very pretty light. There are SO many stereotypes of America and Americans that are just not true of my life. So how on earth can I show up there assuming anything of theirs?

I’m not going there on “holiday.” I’m going there to LIVE. To live somewhere new you have to find a way to become a part of it. I can’t be an outsider looking in for four years. And if my goal is to be a part of that new world, I need to go there with as blank a slate as I can. For every assumption I have about the way Aussies live their lives, I’m sure they’ve got 10 for how I live mine. And chances are we will both be wrong.

So for me it is blank slate time. I’ve read the American ex pat books. I’ve read Bill Bryson’s Sunburned Country, and my boss has told me many stories of how the culture differs. Heck, I even watched the real housewives of Melbourne (purely for cultural research purposes, obviously). I have been completely inundated with expectations of the reality I will soon face, and now it’s time to simply prepare for the unknown.

That statement seems a bit ironic. Prepare for the unknown. Be prepared to face a future you do not know or understand. I guess what I really mean is that it’s time to prepare myself emotionally for something new. I need to drop expectations, comparisons and preconceived ideas and simply be there. Easier said than done, I know, but I’m trying. I think the idea of preparing for the unknown can be applicable to almost anything in life. Your unknown might not be a new country, but the same idea goes for a different state, a new house, a baby, a new exercise routine. You know what your now is, and you can speculate what the new might be like, but you don’t really know until you’re there—until you’re in it. If you go in comparing the new to the old, you’ll quickly discover all the things you miss.

So here’s my challenge to you and to myself. Face your next big change with as blank a slate as you can. Don’t assume, preconceive or plan. Just show up bright-eyed and bushy tailed and see where the change gets you. Oh, and in about 4 months, please remind me to do the same.

Size Matters

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Today as part of my ‘treat yo self’ day, I dined at the Cracker Barrel near my apartment. I had a gift card and haven’t been out to eat in weeks so I figured, why not? I ate by myself as I just wanted some quiet time and when the waitress came to take my order I asked for a biscuit while I waited. She asked if I wanted one or two and I responded “just one” knowing I had a whole plate of French toast, eggs and bacon coming soon. About a minute later she reappeared with a plate and two biscuits. “I couldn’t bring you a plate with just one…it’s just odd.” I gave a polite laugh, thanked her and enjoyed my one biscuit. I had already decided I would take the second one home and felt very good about that decision until five minutes later when my meal came out and VOILA—two MORE biscuits. Needless to say, I reevaluated the biscuit count and ate another, now having TWO to take home.

All of my southern friends are likely smiling at this point, appreciating this moment for what it appears to be—southern hospitality at it’s finest. And it WAS nice. I wasn’t charged for them and I didn’t ask for them (I actually asked to not have them, technically), but I was still provided with an over-abundance of food. I doggy-bagged half of my French toast and the two biscuits and feel like I have a whole other meal waiting for me tomorrow.

The problem is, 5 years ago I would’ve eaten everything. Splitting my one meal into two would have seemed silly, and even though I would’ve been stuffed full, I would have found a way to eat all of it. I think the vast majority of people follow the same pattern as I did a few years back, and therein lies the problem. We are taught from an early age to get the most “bang for your buck.” The more food you can buy with that dollar, the better. Ignoring all nutritional components of that food purchase, anytime you eat out (with the exception of fine dining locations) you are almost always getting “too much.”

You see, I personally hold the opinion that much of America’s obesity epidemic could be solder with one simple adjustment—portion control. I truly believe you can eat most anything (don’t go overboard with an all donut diet here…) so long as you manage the portion size. Mind the basic nutrition rules of having a good balance of protein, fats and carbs, but don’t worry AS much about what you eat as you do about how MUCH you eat. I can hear some nutritionists buzzing in my ear right now about endorsing a world without consist calorie counting, but hear me out.

I don’t count calories. I eat smaller portions of the things that I know do not provide the nutritional value my body really needs, while setting no portion limits for the “healthy” stuff. If I’m really craving some garlic bread (recent occurrence), I won’t just NOT eat a slice, but I will only eat one. Meanwhile, when I steam some green peas, I polish off a whole three serving bag without thinking twice. Does that contradict my portion size? Maybe a little, but let’s be honest here, most people in America aren’t getting anywhere NEAR their suggested vegetable or fruit intake…so when I am preaching portion control, I’m really speaking to what we presently overindulge in. I have never witnessed a health problem following overconsumption of fruits and veggies.

While portion control may seem an easy enough adjustment to make, sadly, the odds are stacked against us. Food companies list nutritional facts for a personal packaged pizza, but bury in the label the fact that this personal pizza is actually two servings. Restaurants provide “value” to the customer through quantity rather than quality and oftentimes most dishes are packed with enough calories to happily feed two people.

So what do you do? Society tells you beauty is in a small pant size and yet the food corporations are throwing a day’s worth of calories onto your dinner plate.

I’ll tell you what I do…I take back control. I listen to my body and what it needs. I eat when I’m hungry, but stop when I feel full (let’s face it, stuffing yourself full of food is only enjoyable for that one second that you taste the food…after that it’s all a terrible mind game of “why did I do that”). I don’t deny myself desserts or indulgences, but I maintain control over the portion size, and trust me, I’m not starving myself over here.

Dieting is everywhere. You can’t turn on the tv, read a magazine or even talk to a friend without the concept of losing weight or dieting coming up. As a professional in the health and wellness field, my exposure to this is probably about tenfold and I’ve recently hit my boiling point with the chaos that surrounds this topic. If I see one more top secret, magic wrap, pill or fruit I literally might implode…okay, not literally, but it is very possible I’ll hop up on my soapbox and simply never come back down. Take back the power. There’s nothing magical necessary to live a healthy life. You just need to have control. Control over your mind, control over your body, and most definitely control over your portion size. In the case of weight loss and healthy living, size really does matter.

(The video below explains portion control and why it’s necessary for some foods, and why having more veggies and fruits can actually help portion control for other types of food)

Women and Weights

Alright ladies, this post goes out to you. There are way too many misconceptions about women and weights, and I am here to set the record straight!

The honest truth is women need to lift more. We need to lift more weight and we need to lift it more times. I think the biggest hurdle to this task is that there is this belief floating around that if we lift anything heavier than those cute pink 5lb dumbbells that our muscles will suddenly explode into manly bicep bulges. Ladies, I can promise you that not matter how much you lift, no matter how perfect your nutritional timing and no matter how many gym trips per week you make, you will NEVER naturally attain that manly physique. Our bodies are simply not built in a fashion that supports that kind of muscular definition. Short of artificially pumping in some testosterone, we simply, hormonally and physically, are not capable of packing on the pounds (of muscle anyway).

And yet, that is still a fear. I can’t tell you how many women upon hearing me say lift heavier respond “I don’t want big muscles, I just want to be toned.” When I hear you say that I cringe a little bit. When you say I want to be toned, what you are really saying in the exercise world is “I want to lift heavy,” because the sad truth of it is, no matter how many times you can lift those little weights, they just won’t change your muscle definition. But why?

Our bodies work on the principle of efficiency. We strive for an equilibrium in our life the way our body strives for it in its daily function. If you sit around all day, your body will start burning fewer calories because it doesn’t NEED as many calories for inactivity. If you start lifting 5lbs a day for bicep curls, your body will adapt to that 5lbs until it feels easy. Whatever challenge you place before it, your body will respond accordingly, so why not REALLY challenge it?

Let’s go back to this muscle building thing. The way to build muscle is to overload it. If you only do workloads that you know you can do with ease, your muscles don’t NEED to grow. If you are told you NEED to run a mile, are you really going to run two? Probably not. Your body is the same way. So challenge it. If you can lift 5lbs twenty times, I bet you can lift 8lbs ten times, and ten pounds at least once. Your weight lifting goals should be to barely be able to finish 8-10 repetitions of lifting a weight (and do that 2-3 times). Work off the principle that the weights you lift should at LEAST be heavier than your purse. That’s right big purse carriers, I’m calling you out. If you walk around with a mini suitcase on your arm all day, and then pop into the gym for some light weights, you are actually getting less of a workout at the gym than you did all day! If the average purse weighs between 5 and 10lbs, that means you’ve got to exceed that weight at the gym.

Before you ask, yes I’ve read the articles that say to be toned you lift less weight more times and to build muscle you lift more weight less times. They are wrong because being tone and building muscle are the same thing. You should ALWAYS lift more weight. It’s good for your muscles to be challenged and it’s good for your bones. Building more muscle helps stabilize your joints and protect you from falls and injuries, especially later on in life.

Have I convinced you yet? We need to fight the stereotype that those cute little 1-5lbs weights are for the ladies. I love the look on a guy’s face when I reach around him to grab the 20lb dumbbells, and trust me, you’ll love it too. So if you found a happy place with what weight you like for each exercise, I challenge you to move on up. Grab the next level and sacrifice a few of those repetitions for a really good muscle burn. Oh yeah, and that soreness is a GOOD sign. When you lift heavy, you are quite literally tearing up your muscle so it is forced to rebuild stronger and better. So that lovely soreness you feel the day after is just a sign of a job well done.

So break the mold ladies and lift heavy. Challenge your body and yourself, and I guarantee you’ll love the results.

Be the placebo effect the world needs

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Can a positive outlook truly make a difference? It’s something I’ve always been curious about. Can you really be happier by simply TRYING to be happier? Can you be more successful by BELIEVING you can be?

This past May I traveled to a fitness conference to mingle with professionals and see what the latest exercise research is, and let me tell you, it was fascinating. I went there to learn more about my specific field of research, nitric oxide and nitrate supplementation, but since the studies in that area were somewhat lacking, I ventured out to explore other areas. One of the best talks I went to was about the placebo effect, and that talk has truly reshaped how I view research, exercise and motivation.

So for those of you unfamiliar with the term, a placebo is something presented as a real treatment that is in reality a “fake.” A placebo effect is when someone is given a placebo but still has a response (positive or negative) to the fake treatment. The response can be the same or opposite of the real treatment.

The studies presented on this topic were just incredibly eye opening. One described a situation where patients were in a hospital and were going to be given pain medication. Both groups got the pain medication, but one had a doctor come in, present the drug, and explain how it should help, while the other group was given the drug without their knowledge via a slow drip controlled by a machine. So, both groups got the drug, but when the patients were asked to report their pain level over a period of a few hours, those that had the doctor injected drug saw a significant decrease in pain, while the people who unknowingly had the drug injected reported no decrease in pain. Wait, what??

If both groups got the drug—this pain controlling drug—why didn’t both groups experience a decrease in pain? This goes to show just how powerful the mind truly is, and really this situation is proving how little the drug actually does. If the drug was the cause of the decrease in pain, then BOTH groups should have reported less pain, and yet only the group that had the doctor reassurance saw a decrease. The positive reinforcement from a doctor decreased a person’s sense of pain, not the drug.

As far as medicine has come, our mind is far more powerful. And as powerful as our mind is, encouragement and positive reinforcement are perhaps even more influential. So how does this apply to the world outside of medicinal drugs? Well, what if all someone needs to make it through the next squat is your reassurance that they can? What if all they need to get past a tragedy are your words of understanding and sympathy? If that’s the case, your words just became crucial to someone else’s success. And conversely, your words could equally assist in someone’s failure.

Live life positive. Think about the cans and not the can’ts, and share them with those around you. Be that positive placebo effect for your friends and family. Even when you have nothing to offer but words, you can help reassure them and give them the strength and confidence they need for that positive life change. Words cost you nothing and yet the right ones can change everything.

 

****This post is not meant to suggest that drugs are ineffective or to spark debate on their use. In many instances, medicinal intervention is the best option. I’m just trying to suggest that they are not the ONLY option.

No “easy button” for life

There have been several days in the last week where I sincerely wished life had an “easy button.” I want a giant red button I can hit and skip over all the challenges coming my way, but then I ask myself what an easy button would really accomplish for me? If I use a quick fix my immediate problems disappear, but what’s to stop the same thing from happening again? The idea of an easy button is good in theory, but bad for living. Your life is composed of all the problems you face, as well as your responses to them, and to put it simply, no good can come from a quick fix solution.

I shared a while back that I am on a focused, goal-oriented regimen to bring my weight, BMI, and overall healthy feeling back to where I am comfortable. Too many people see weight loss and health issues as short terms goals that an 8 week diet and bootcamp can fix. I’m here to remind you that this process should be a lifestyle change, and anything that tells you different (or promises you immediate “unbelievable” results) is trying to be your life’s “easy button.” You don’t want easy, you want long-lasting results and a healthier you. I’ve put together some dos and don’ts from my experience that can hopefully help you…

 

DO drink water. I still have a post coming about this, but in general, water is a crucial component to weight loss. Ever notice how most “miracle pills” suggest you take them before eating with 1 8oz glass of water? Yeah, because after you drink a whole cup of water your tummy is just a little more full, and in turn leads to you eating smaller portions. Staying hydrated also helps with overall energy. If you have a headache or are feeling drowsy-drink a cold one (water), and I promise you’ll perk up!

DON’T fall for the fad diets. A whole post needs to be dedicated to the shortcomings of all of these, but the main takeaway is that they just aren’t sustainable–or at least not enjoyably sustainable. You tell yourself you’ll do it for 3 months to get down to your ideal weight, but as soon as you revert back to your old eating patterns, the pounds race back. In the end, there really isn’t such a thing as long-term dieting. It’s called a “lifestyle” change.

DO find ways to monitor your progress. If you have no way to gauge your success, chances are you will lose interest and motivation at an alarmingly fast rate. So find something and monitor it–weight, fitness testing (preferred), inches, size, etc.

DON’T obsess over this monitoring. I am an exercise physiologist and despite having a masters level understanding of human physiology, I still found myself stepping on my scale every day, and sometimes to my horror, TWICE a day. A week in I caught myself in this pattern and realized my mood of the moment was entirely dependent on what number that little plastic machine spat out. This is NOT the way to live. If you are getting healthier the right way–you shouldn’t see daily changes. Let me repeat, if you are making healthy changes, you should not see daily fluctuations. Now that you know this simple physiological fact, join me in taking the power back from that scale. Sure, monitor your progress (maybe weekly), but do not obsess.

DO change your routine. While nutrition plays a huge component in trying to be a healthier you, so does what you do everyday. If your nutrition changes but activity stays the same, your results not be quite what you’d expect them to be. Take a few extra steps each day. I’ve found myself wanting something from the store for dinner and rather than hopping in my car, I walked the 3/4s of a mile. I use a fitbit (a fancy step counter) and this extra bit of walking significantly increased my step count, and by proxy, my calorie expenditure.

DON’T quit. This is a lifestyle change. By definition you can’t quit–how would one even quit their “lifestyle? Results don’t ever come as quickly as we want them, but you have to stick with the changes in order to ever see them. Find a plan you can stick with (2000 extra steps a day, one less 10pm snack a day, etc), and make it part of your life. If the change becomes habit, you don’t have to worry about yo-yoing back to where you were.

Do enjoy the process. If you hate every minute of your small changes, you need to find new ones. Remember, the changes you make are for life, and who wants to live their life grumpy and hungry. Find changes that work and make you feel good about them.

So there are my tips, and trust me when I say they are “tried and true” (some by me, but all by many). Remember the most important thing is to view this as a lifestyle. There is no quick fix, no miracle pill and no easy button. There is just you and how you live. So live like you want to live the rest of your life (literally).

 

 

Ignore the Fat Burning Zone on Machines

Have you ever seen those low intensity “fat burning” zone settings on the workout machines at the gym? Well let me explain why you should AVOID them entirely.

Our bodies are constantly burning calories, and within that calorie burn, we are working off both carbs and fat in a set ratio depending on the intensity of activity. If we are sitting around or doing light exercise, our bodies are burning more fat than carbs. Conversely, if we are working out at high intensities, our bodies burn primarily carbohydrates.  To keep this basic, just understand that the processes by which we breakdown and utilize fats is a slow one, whereas carbs breakdown relatively easily. So during rest, it makes sense for our bodies to use fat stores because there isn’t a high demand for energy. During exercise, we need constant fuel and the breakdown of carbs is fast enough to maintain the energy supply.

So let’s go back to this fat burning zone. On the treadmill or elliptical, one of the options for preset workouts is a fat burning one where you workout for about 30 minutes at a relatively low intensity. In theory, the machine isn’t lying to you. You are indeed burning “more” fat at this low intensity- you are burning a higher percentage of “fat” because there is not a high energy demand- however you are burning less calories overall. So let’s say this is some kind of miracle machine where you are burning  90% fat at this fat burning setting. BUT you are going very slowly so you are only burning 4 calories a minute. After a half hour, you have burned (30 minutes x 4cals a minute) 108 calories. That seems not bad…Now 90% of those calories were fat (150 x .90), so you just burned 97 fat calories. Yay!

But wait, let’s say now you decide to go at your own intensity, a much harder intensity where you are burning 10 calories a minute and you go for the same 30 minutes (30 *10= 300 cals). You were going faster so you are burning more carbs and less fat, maybe only 40% fat (300*.40), but wait, even at only 40%, you’ve burned 120 “fat” calories. You burned more fat calories than in the “fat burning” zone.

See, my friends, it might sound nice to burn all those fat calories away, but at the end of the day it comes down to total calories. Going at a higher intensity burns MORE total calories, and therefore more fat calories than the low intensity. So if you really want a good workout, go for high intensity.

Moreover, studies have shown high intensity interval training (HIIT) to be the best type of exercise for weight loss. This type of exercise is composed of interval style workouts where you do 1 minute of high intensity work and 1 minute of low (or rest). I did a study at UNC  where we saw significant changes in weight and fat mass after only 3 weeks of 3 days a week, 20 minutes of 1min high/1min rest cycle exercise. That’s 60 minutes a week!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to only go to the gym for an hour a week. I AM saying that if you are in a time crunch and have 30 minutes to get your calorie burn on, turn up that resistance and do some intervals.

This post has focused mainly on calories and efficiency, but there is plenty of research available showing how the physiological and health benefits of high intensity workouts far outweigh those of low intensity workouts. Placing that kind of workload on your heart and lungs causes physiological improvements to occur. Your body will adapt to become more efficient at the workloads you are imposing on it. If you ask more, it will rise to the occasion. If you ask nothing, well, don’t expect much.

There is a place and a time for some long distance, long duration workouts depending on your goals, but if your goal is weight loss, high intensity interval training has been shown time and time again to be the most time efficient weight-loss exercise regimen.  So swap out that slow motion, kindle watching treadmill time for some kick your butt intervals, and see what happens. It will revolutionize your workouts and your results.