A 30-Day Push

It seems I can’t turn around these days without hearing about some sort of fitness or diet challenge. 90 days, 30 days, planks, squats, shake-drinking, clean-eating, detoxing, boxing… While I am not a fan of quick-fixes or fads, short-term goals like these can help provide focus that translates into long-term habits (I think my next challenge needs to be going for a whole paragraph without using a hyphen!). Still, none of these challenges piqued my interest.

I had seen seen the site http://www.hundredpushups.com before, but I think I would be as challenged mentally as physically to complete it. Honestly, my mind tends to get bored with the exercise before my body gives out. Then I found this push-up challenge. You build to 50 push-ups, but five different variations are involved. That should help with the mental aspect. Plus, the variations are more challenging that the straight-up variety.

I did the first day today, which consisted of one rep of each kind. It went easily except for the diamond push-up; I barely completed the single rep. I will probably need to do kneesies on that one as the challenge progresses. I also conducted a baseline test to see how many straight push-ups I could do before failure (29). It will be interesting to see what that number is at the end of the month. Hello, September. I am prepared to PUSH myself.

Will all of these push-ups make me into a Mean Girl?

As an aside, my friends at http://weshallhavepie.com/ have started their own September Skinny Jeans Challenge. Hop on over to their site if you’d like some ideas on healthy eating (A hyphen-free paragraph! Oh, wait… Crud.).

Do you have any September goals?

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Picture Perfect?

Fitspo. I’ve only recently learned the term, even though I’ve been seeing it for a while. Pictures of super-lean women, often accompanied by a motivational saying. Fit-spiration. I have friends that post it constantly. Some Facebook pages that I subscribe to pass it along daily. I have even snagged some images to re-post on my blog’s Facebook page. Long before the social media revolution, I created my own by clipping out pictures from magazines and catalogs, saving them in a binder, and flipping through them when I wasn’t feeling motivated to exercise. But does it provide inspiration or breed dissatisfaction?

I have changed some over the years, as I have become more focused on what my body can do than striving to look like some ideal. I want to eat healthfully and be fit, but I don’t want my entire life to revolve around food, exercise, and meal planning. I have come to terms with the fact that I’ll never completely eradicate arm flab and cellulite or have a bullet-stopping butt. Still, I have to admit that I am inspired by fine physical specimens. Athletes especially. I like to see the pinnacle of genetics and hard work combined out there doing magnificent things. It spurs me on to discover what I might be capable of.

The USA 4 x 400 meter relay team brought home the Gold in London and looked great doing it.

Some people don’t like that most people featured in ads and entertainment are decidedly not the average five-foot-four, 166-pounder, and ask “Where are the ‘real women’?” I have to admit that phrase bugs me a little. Is a thin or lean woman somehow less real? Women can be each other’s worst critics: muscular women mocking thin women mocking heavier women and round and round it goes… We are all born with a predisposition to a certain shape. Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe were both beautiful and yet so different. We have different physiques that we aspire to, different activities that we enjoy. And that should be fine. Treat your body well and enjoy it for what it is, even if you’re in the process of improving it.

Photoshopping, on the other hand, does bother me. I know I’ve felt discouraged about not looking like the women in magazines, but do the women themselves even look like that? Did Britney and Faith’s bodies below really need to be digitally altered? Is anyone ever good enough? How much are men’s perceptions are affected by these media-generated ideals? Is the expectation that we should never have a  bump, bulge, or blemish?

Images are powerful things, and the line between fantasy and reality is often blurred. Do you find models, fitness, fashion, or otherwise, motivational or discouraging? Does not looking like some ideal sap the joy from your life? I know it used to for me, and I’ve come to the realization that the worrying just wasn’t worth it.

Food Tripping

We all have those tumultuous relationships that bring us joy, guilt, pleasure, and anxiety. Sweethearts, parents, bosses… I will confess that I have one with food. It’s emotional and chemical. Many of us have been conditioned to enjoy food as a reward for a job well done, or to soothe ourselves with it after a tough day. I deserve this treat. Certain foods activate the pleasure centers of our brains, and once those sensations wear off, feelings of guilt and self-loathing sometimes follow, which can lead to even more eating… A study found that rats that were constantly fed a high-calorie, high fat diet displayed decreased stimulation in their pleasure centers, began to overeat compulsively, and eventually became obese.

I never had a full-on eating disordered, but I have definitely struggled with disordered eating. I loved to eat, especially junk food. I wanted to be thinner. Since these desires are at odds, erratic behavior ensued. Periods of severe restriction alternated with binges. The day after a heavy indulgence, I was convinced my thighs felt bigger. If I didn’t hate vomiting so much. I might have become bulimic. It has been a long process for me to eat a consistent, healthy diet. I am now able to think of food as nourishment and fuel most of the time while still allowing for the occasional treat. My palate has changed, and I enjoy food that’s healthful. Give me fruits, veggies, whole grains and good fats. My regular foods. Acceptable restaurants. Dietary détente.

Last weekend I took a road trip to the San Francisco Marathon (I ran the half) with my husband and two runner friends. Between the driving and the time spent in the city itself, it was five days away from home. Lots of time sitting in a car. Stopping when it was convenient and grabbing what what was available. Going easy on the water to avoid too many pit stops. Boredom munching. I didn’t go crazy, but it was a definite deviation from the norm.

Two nights before the race, we attended a complimentary Thai dinner, courtesy of my friend Keith who is an ambassador for the race. There was a buffet, and being a vegetarian, I was very limited in my choices. I ended up having a couple of spring rolls, which I de-skinned, and some Pad Thai, where I tried to go heavy on the veggies and light on the noodles. There were a lot more noodles than veggies, though, and I didn’t want to be a hog. As I was eating, I kept thinking about the oil, the refined rice noodles, and the sugar in the sauce. It made it kind of hard for me to enjoy the food, which was good, but not outstanding (I think it’s more a reflection on my affection for Pad Thai than the restaurant itself). I also had two of the mini cupcakes for dessert. While I do indulge sometimes, my general rule is that if I am going to eat something that’s somewhat unhealthy, it had better be amazing. I had the same feelings about the veggie pizza sub the night before the race and some cheesy mushrooms (the menu said stuffed mushrooms, but they were delivered swimming in a big, melty basin) that I had at a Mexican restaurant on the trip back. Good, but worth the calories?

I started thinking about how my issues with food haven’t gone away. When I go on trips, I usually enjoy having “treat” food for a few days, then long to get back to my regular eating routine. I no longer enjoy the food, I don’t feel like myself, and start to worry about gaining weight. Also, even though I stay active when I travel, it’s usually to a lesser degree than normal. Part of me thinks that I should just relax and enjoy myself. I don’t travel that often, and I believe that what you do day in and day out far outweighs the blips here and there. On the other hand, some people come back from trips several pounds heavier, and as we all know, weight is much harder to take off than to put on. Is either view completely right or wrong? I certainly don’t want to be a person who misses out on life’s experiences because I’m completely preoccupied with what I’m eating. I’m curious to know how others eat and think while on vacation.

I was up three pounds the day after the trip. A week later, I’m back to normal or maybe plus one. Even during normal life, weight fluctuates, so it’s hard to tell. The trip and race were incredible, though, and I will focus on that in an upcoming post.

Monitoring calorie burn

Many gym goers live and die by the calories burned feature of their heart rate monitors. Call me a Cynical Cindy, but I’ve always thought that some of the numbers that I’ve heard people throwing around seemed kind of, well, high. As someone who is interested in helping other people be fit, this concerns me. Could inflated numbers lead to extra eating (I burned it all off plus some, so pass me another cookie)? Will people become discouraged when weight loss is much more meager than expected? I don’t claim to be any sort of expert, but I enjoy research and this is what I’ve learned.

The best way to estimate calorie burn is by measuring oxygen consumption, but this is cumbersome outside the laboratory (and not to mention costly), so people have sought other methods. Heart rate is relatively simple to monitor and there is a relationship between higher heart rates and increased calorie expenditure. It’s not a perfect correlation, however. Heat, dehydration, stress, and caffeine can all increase heart rate even while calorie burn remains static. Unless an exercise session is short, cardiac drift also becomes a factor. As core temperature rises, the heart works harder even if oxygen uptake remains unchanged.

Heart rate zones vary from person to person and can change drastically as someone becomes more or less fit. The old “220 minus your age” method is a wide generalization and may be flat out wrong, especially for women. At the end of a hard race, I’m pegged at about 165, while a male friend who is about seven years younger will hit the 180s on a moderate run. This leads to the question “How accurate are the resting and max heart rate values that the monitor is using to perform the calculations?”, if even uses them at all. Most companies do not publish their formulas, so we don’t know.

How does weight factor in to the equation? According to recent findings, running burns approximately .75 calories per pound per mile (± 5 calories/mile). A 135 pound person running 7 miles in an hour expends around 700 calories, while a 160 pound person would burn 840, even if their heart rates were the same. Running is a good exercise for performing comparisons, because the movement is relatively standard and it’s much easier to benchmark against a measured mile than say, 15 minutes of Zumba. People who like to experiment might want to try running a mile with their heart rate monitor and compare the calorie burn against the formula above. If the numbers are extra generous (or stingy), I would expect that trend would carry over to other forms of exercise as well.

There are a few other caveats to consider. The less vigorous the activity, the less accurate the results. The numbers are virtually useless for strength training.  One scholarly source listed the Polar’s “laboratory error” as 16.9–20%, and some other brands were worse (see Table 1 in the linked document). Heart rate zones and weight need to be kept up to date to for the most accurate readings, but it’s easy to forget to do it. 

Even if the calorie readouts are skewed, there is still value in training with a heart rate monitor. If your goal is getting the most burn for the buck, they’re good for comparing different activities. They’re useful for tracking fitness gains. They can be help detect overtraining (is your heart rate much higher than normal during a certain activity?). Many athletes use them determine training intensity. They can provide clues about why you might be having an off day. For example, during one of my marathon training long runs, I really struggled through the last couple miles. My heart rate was low, which led me to believe it was a fueling rather than a fitness issue, and I was able to fix it the next time out. Some people find seeing a calorie burn can be highly motivating and might even go the extra minutes or mile to reach the next round number. By understanding its strengths and limitations, the heart rate monitor can be a valuable instrument for helping people achieve their fitness goals.

HTML tutorial
For more information on heart rate monitors and other methods of tracking calorie burn, check out the following article. http://www.wired.com/playbook/2012/08/fitness-trackers/

Want to be fit and trim? We have secrets!

I like fitness magazines. They’re a great resource for new exercises and recipe ideas. They keep me up to date on fitness trends and gadgets. And yes, I find the pictures motivating. On the other hand, the covers can wax a bit hyberbolic for my taste.

Your dream body in just 2 weeks!
Bikini Ready in 7 Days!
One minute to flat abs. Our must-try move.

Color me skeptical*. One word that’s been jumping out at me lately is secrets. I get it. Eating right and working out is hard. It’s tempting to think that the reason someone else is leaner, faster, or stronger is because they’re privy to information you don’t have. Is a new pill, diet, or exercise apparatus the missing piece to the puzzle? I decided to paw through a stack of old magazines, and I’m ready to spill…

Secret Dogs

Tell me how I can lose my pooch.

Drop a Dress Size 20-Minute Secret Solution (Shape, January 2012, page 100)

A workout featuring compound exercises using a FreeMotion cable machine. Many muscles are worked during each exercise so you can get an intense, full-body workout in a short amount of time.

45 Celebrity Hot Body Secrets (Shape, March 2013, multiple pages)

I couldn’t find an article, but there were celebrity tidbits sprinkled throughout the magazine. Were there 45 secrets? I didn’t feel like counting. Here’s what I learned: Jessica Alba and Elisabeth Hasselbeck do Crossfit, Emily Blunt does pullups (it says she can do four sets of 20 reps – if that’s unassisted, I’m seriously impressed), Ashley Greene does Pilates, weights, and yoga, and Eva Mendes works with a trainer.

There was a nice feature on Laila Ali’s diet on page 102. She eats things like oatmeal, egg whites, fruits, veggies, lean meats, flax, sprouted bread, almond butter, lean meats, and homemade ice cream. When she needs to get something quick, she’ll stop at Whole Foods or a Subway, where she asks for the bread to be hollowed out in the center.

Malin Ackerman “I work hard for my body!” Her summer shape-up secrets (Shape, June 2012, page 36)

To prepare for her bikini shoot, she consumed a diet of 85 percent vegetables/15 lean protein and bumped up her workouts to five SoulCycle classes a week. She normally eats fresh food as opposed to processed and enjoys a thick steak and french fries about once a week. She also acknowledges that she has good genes.

Get Sexy Legs Fast Pro Secrets Inside (Shape, October 2012, page 58)

arnold-press

I’ll be back with even more secrets.

Four exercises selected by none other than Arnold Schwazenegger. They include the Arnold press, concentration curl, front squat, and deadlift. I found it interesting that only two of the exercises actually work the legs.

Flat, Sexy Abs (Even After Four Kids) Brooke Burke’s Fit Secrets (Fitness, January 2012, page 24)

Her diet secret? Never skip meals. She’ll use harissa, a Middle Eastern spice paste, as a low-calorie way to jazz up dishes. She also works out  five days a week for an hour a session, mixing Pilates, strength training, and treadmill walking with a 15% incline. During exercise she wears a Baboosh body wrap, a product she created, to “sweat out all the bloat.”

Burn calories all day long! Slim down secret (Oxygen, Sep 2012, page 78)

Another article highlighting exercises that use multiple body parts to expend energy more quicly. Most of the moves are performed using cable machines.

15 “Keep it Tight” Secrets! (Oxygen, Nov 2012, page 84)

How stretching and flexibility affects overall fitness.

Shrink Your Belly Plus More Slimming Secrets! (Oxygen, December 2012, page 96)

An elastic band workout routine. Bands allow resistance to be applied to the muscle in certain directions that can’t be mimicked with free weights. Reps can be performed at high speeds, and you lose the ability to use cheat using momentum. Bands are also cheap and portable.

So, there you have it. There are some interesting tips. I’ll have to try harissa, but I’ll pass on the Baboosh – my sweat glands are active enough, thank you. Compound moves provide a great bang for the buck. For the most part, however, I see a lot of working out and healthy eating. Nothing earth-shaking there. Sure, there are some new exercises, but push ups still haven’t gone out of style and don’t cost a dime.

Try different moves to mix things up. Use the standards that have a proven track record. Just make sure to get moving, because no matter how great the advice in the magazine might be, turning pages doesn’t burn a lot of calories – and that’s no secret.

*This says the woman who has been known to succumb to an impulse buy when a magazine promises to Banish Cellulite Forever! I haven’t achieved full banishment, but I have managed to lock it up in a tower, Rapunzel-style, and give it a crew cut.

All That You Want – In A Weight Loss Strategy?

Becoming a consistent, healthy eater has a lot to do with what’s inside our heads – and I’m not just talking about taste buds. I’m always interested in learning what drives our eating habits. The March issue of Fitness Magazine introduced me to the concept of “habituation”. The basic idea is that the more a person is exposed to something, the less appealing it becomes. The article profiled one woman who kept 10 pints of Ben & Jerry’s Cake Batter in her freezer and gave herself permission to eat it at any time. After a few months of giving in to her cravings, it no longer interested her and she eventually lost 50 pounds. Another woman, whose weakness was cookies, allowed herself to indulge and found that she was satisfied after a few. After four days she said, “I realized that they are just cookies and don’t have special power over me.”

What motivates people to overeat and choose “bad” foods can be highly complex and very individual. My parents did not buy much junk food, but I’d spend my allowance on it and sometimes kept a stash at home. In junior high, my lunch money was often used to purchase ice cream bars. I’d eat Halloween candy until I felt queasy, wait for the feeling to subside, then dig in again. During my teenage years I worked at Dairy Queen and a shaved ice stand. I frequently partook of the goods without becoming “habituated” in the slightest. I spent a year and a half at DQ, during which I would swing between unfettered eating and diet soda and small amounts of fat-free yogurt. The shaved ice job only lasted for one summer. There were 20 or so different flavors to play with, and one slow day in August I made myself bowl after bowl until I felt sick.

There had been other times when I’d felt disgusted with myself after eating too much, but something was different this time. I vowed not to have any sugar (fruit was allowed) for two months and I stuck to it. When I started eating sugar again I still overindulged sometimes. I tried longer fasts. I mostly limited my sweet intake to the things that I really wanted, not just the ones that were available. Several years later, I was able to get to the point where I am now. I have special treats (cheesecake! Godiva chocolates!) a few times a year and a little extra dark chocolate every night. Sometimes I’ll eat more than I meant to, but it’s been a long time since I have gorged myself unto nausea. I don’t think that habituation would have been an effective strategy for me, but I wanted to learn more because it has obviously helped some.

Here are summaries of several studies on the subject1:

Specificity, Dishabituation, and Variety: Habituation is very specific and can be undone. When a habituating stimulus of lemon juice was introduced, there was a marked increase in saliva the first and second time, then the response lessened through the 10th trial. At this point, a “dishabituating” agent (lime juice or bitter chocolate) was introduced. The subjects were then re-exposed to the lemon juice and their salivary response returned to what they had been at the outset.

In another study, subjects were exposed to the sight and smell of cheeseburgers then given the opportunity to eat a portion at repeated intervals. After a short bump, the level of response dwindled until a new stimulus (apple pie) was introduced and interest in eating returned to initial levels.

Children who were repeatedly shown a variety of their favorite foods had a slower habituation response than those who only saw one. The study results were consistent whether high or low calorie foods were used. Even a small variation in the food, such as a different pasta shape, is enough to increased the amount consumed.

Distraction: Subjects who were given a complex computer task maintained a stronger response to the lemon juice stimulus than those who were given a simple task or none at all. Correspondingly, other research has suggested that watching television or listening to audiobooks will increase the amount of food consumed in comparison to a meal that it eaten without such distractions. Social settings can lead to similar results.

Obesity and bulimia: The habituation rates of obese children and adults were much slower than those of their thinner peers. Bulimic women showed no evidence of habituation.

Calorie content: Habituation can be independent of calories consumed or stomach content. Studies have shown that exposure to scents, visual cues, and calorically insignificant portions of lemon juice have been observed to affect people’s reaction to food. In one study, there was no difference in salivary response whether eating regular and artificially sweetened gelatin despite a 300 calorie difference.

And this affects me how? There is a limit to what researchers know. These habituation studies are all focused on the short-term and most people can control themselves around the lemon juice bottle. There are also many hormonal, emotional, and physical factors that play into what and how much we eat. Keeping the house stocked with junk food might lead to habituation for some, but could be a bad idea for others. Still, several practical insights can be gathered from this research.

Access to a variety of foods can make things much harder for a person trying to cut their consumption. Buffets, potlucks, the cookie aisle, and variety packs can entice us to overeat. Even after a filling, savory meal, it seems like there is always rooms for a sweet dessert. In our modern society, there is no shortage of food choices. How then can we re-stack the deck? One blogger found success by eating the same foods every day for a week2. I believe that one reason that the women in the Fitness article were successful was that they only allowed themselves unrestricted access to one single thing. Since the treat was allowed, they didn’t feel deprived, but because they only had one choice, they became habituated. On the plus side, the tendency to desire variety can be used to our advantage when it comes to healthy foods. A good strategy might be to allow ourselves very limited kinds of unhealthy foods while partaking in a wide assortment of nutritious ones.

Distracted eating is the norm. How many people haven’t started eating a bag a of chips while engaged in some other task, only to find their hands soon scraping the bottom of the bag while wondering where it all went. There’s a reason jumbo sizes are sold at the movie theaters. Some people have had success by eating meals without any TV, music, conversation, or reading materials. With nothing to focus on but the food, they find satisfaction sooner. It’s not realistic to eat like this most of the time, but it’s a worthy experiment. When I have dessert, if I pay attention, I usually notice that it’s the first few bites that taste the best. Habituation at work? When you do eat in a distracting environment, here’s something to try: serve yourself a measured portion and then put the rest of the food away to avoid mindless munching.

I don’t think there’s a single magic bullet when it comes to eating better, but I hope that some of this information has been helpful. I’d also love to hear what has (or hasn’t) worked for you.

1 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2703585/

2 http://blog.zocdoc.com/diet-habituation-could-you-eat-fish-tacos-every-day/