Debunking Abs Workout Myths

6pack-abs

Some fitness programs and many websites claim to have the key to great abs. They will typically feature 7 plank or other core or abs-focused exercises that you can do for 21 minutes to get well-defined abs “in no time.” (http://www.shape.com/fitness/workouts/abs-workout-secret-formula-flat-stomach)

This is extremely misleading, and disheartening to people who try it and do not see immediate results. But why don’t people generally see results? A six pack will not be visible if you have virtually any excess body fat because the stomach is one of the last areas to tone down and the first to flare up.

The only way to have a flat stomach is to be fit all-around. This requires daily workouts that focus on all of your major muscle groups. It also entails a well-rounded diet that minimizes sugars and processed foods. Additionally, for a six-pack, you also need to do core and abdominal exercises at least every other day. This would be a major lifestyle change for more than 90.0% of Americans!

I’m adamant about debunking such abs workout myths because someone I know shared the link above on Pinterest recently. Seeing it, I clicked and became sick at the thought that people believe such claims and then become demotivated when they do not see results. I was that person for most of my life! I never understood why my body had so much fat on it when I was working out regularly. Now I know that it was because I wasn’t actually pushing my body to the max for long enough periods, nor was I even watching what I ate. I wouldn’t ever say that exercising is a wasted effort, but I do believe that people have to know what they’re aiming for and the average overweight American should not expect to get a flat stomach with a six pack “in no time.”

Strength Training is For Everyone

snoopyUnlike cardio – which burns calories mostly during the time that you spend exercising, weight lifting encourages your body to build muscle. The process of building muscle consists of several steps, which makes your body burn calories for hours after a workout as it expends energy to forming muscle tissue.  So although strength training may burn fewer calories in the moment, it boosts your resting metabolic rate for hours after your workout.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in September 2012 concluded that people who partook in aerobic and strength training, as opposed to just one or the other, reaped the most health benefits from their workouts. Additionally, while cardio workouts helped participants reduce fat and body mass, resistance training was responsible for muscle formation.[1]

To put it simply, strength training helps your body become strong.

I was hesitant to incorporate weight lifting into my exercise routine because I had never done it before so I was worried that I would do it wrong and hurt myself. By focusing on form first, however, I learned how to position myself within each motion of the routines I did. It was a gradual process but I had fun teaching myself something new. If you’re not super body-aware and are afraid of being off-balance or otherwise hurting yourself I strongly suggest finding a good trainer that can teach you the ropes, or rather how to handle the weights.

Once I had figured out how to do each exercise properly, I began to focus on increasing weight and repetitions each week. My first time working with weights was when I did P90X and they set out goals and guidelines for you to follow. Building on the routines each week and writing down how much I was lifting I learned to keep tabs on whether or not I should increase the weight the next time around.  Tracking it also helped me to visualize my progress, which was much more motivational than simply being able to jump higher or run faster in cardio routines. P90X also switched up the weight lifting sequences every several weeks so I never got stuck in a boring rut and my muscles kept learning new movements.

Nowadays I try to incorporate weight lifting once a week, but I also do a lot of strength training using my body weight as resistance, like in yoga. This helps me not only focus more on my balance and core but also has helped me to maintain a leaner form.

After two rounds of P90X I had noticed that my muscle definition, especially on my arms, was too much for my personal taste. By paring back the weights and lifting my body weight I have successfully avoided “bulking up”.  Trust me, if you’re worried about having too much muscle definition you’ll notice it before others do, and you’ll know how to change up your routine by then. Cross that bridge when you get there. And in the meantime, have fun incorporating strength training into your routine!

Never Go Hungry!

start-journey-today

I ate healthy food for two years and remained slightly overweight, even though I was watching what I was eating. I would eat enough but irregularly, which meant that my body would store excess into fat and then eat away at my muscles until the next meal. I regularly put my body into starvation mode and prevented it from working properly. Now I know I should never go hungry!

I didn’t have the proportions right, which I discussed last week, and I certainly did not eat appropriate portion sizes.

Being healthy is not just about watching what you eat, but how much you eat and how often. This may seem obvious, but I didn’t realize that under eating, even by a little bit each day, can have even more destructive effects on your body in the long term than overeating.

Your body eats away at muscle before fat stores because muscle is easier to break down for fuel than fat. [1][2] The only way to burn fat is to focus your body on building muscle by providing it with plenty of nutrients and exercising. While I was eating relatively healthy food and working out, I still did not support my body properly: certainly not enough to be happy with my results. This was frustrating and discouraging, but figuring out the solution has been a rewarding process.

There is no universal solution to portion sizes. Every body burns energy differently.  But everybody experiences the same cues when they are satiated. The problem is that the cues most will notice often happen with a ten or fifteen minute delay. The key is to figure out how much food you need to feel content, without triggering your body to store away the food for later. This also means that you must exercise regularly so that after a meal your body is focused on forming muscles, as opposed to fat stores.

Another way to prevent your body from going into starvation mode is eating at a snack whenever you are hungry. Things that can satiate your hunger in small portions are generally relatively high in fat or protein. They include nuts, avocados, berries and cheese, and I always keep such snacks on hand. They’re in my desk at work, in my pantry at home, in my purse and even in the car.  If I undereat at the previous meal, or I’m running late, I always make sure that my body has something to continue fueling it until that next meal. I also make sure to snack a bit before going into a work meeting that could run long. No excuses!

Treat yourself but don’t cheat yourself

strawberries

Nobody is perfect, especially when it comes to consistently sticking to healthy food and a vigorous exercise schedule. But your overall health depends on how often and how much you stray from your ideal. As a result, treating yourself should be an occasional indulgence, not something to do every day.

There are many delicious ways to treat yourself yet remain committed to your diet or exercise plan. For example, I dipped strawberries in dark chocolate and refrigerated them before dinner… and they made for an amazing yet not too unhealthy dessert.  They were my fruit that day and I made sure not to eat chocolate throughout the week so I didn’t get used to its sweet taste. Other yummy treats I love include:

  • frozen yogurt (unsweetened)
  • dark chocolate
  • peanut butter oatmeal cookies
  • plantain sautéed in olive oil and lightly salted
  • gourmet tea or coffee

I always balance out my treats within my diet that day and week so as to avoid a sugar (or caffeine) rush and stay within my eating plan.

Treating yourself is not limited to food. Sometimes I treat myself by taking a walk or simply stretching instead of doing a rigorous workout. I’ll do this if I feel especially sore or sick, or if the thought of exercise is overly daunting. Often a brisk walk for the hour or so that I had scheduled to exercise clears my head and I end up working out later that day or early the next morning. Other indulgences, for example in terms of finances, include going out for a movie or live entertainment.

The right treat allows you to enjoy something that you generally don’t have planned, without letting yourself down. It won’t hurt your stomach or head, and it will help you relax and focus on your needs. Often I will treat myself when I’m frustrated because my husband is eating a ton of things I can’t, or if I simply have the urge to do something indulgent. This keeps me motivated and committed to staying healthy and happy.

Clean Out the Pantry

Pantry-Before-and-After
I wish that my pantry were this cute! Here’s a post from Taryn on organization.

One of the most motivational and productive things that made me want to stick to my diet even more than before was to clean out the pantry. After eating relatively healthy for a couple of weeks, I took everything out of the pantry. This made me realize just how much we had in there, and how unhealthy we had been in the past.

Not only did I find things that were expired to throw away, but I also took the opportunity to organize everything so that it would be more accessible. I only put things back that had no sweeteners, had low sodium, barely processed, and so on.  I tucked away items essential for hosting guests, items like sugar (which is expected while serving coffee) into less visible places so they don’t tempt me. Then I gave everything else away to the food bank.

Almost everything else, that is. I also kept whatever my husband insisted on or that I knew he would otherwise just go out and buy later on. It’s his pantry too, and he makes different food choices. This is the tricky part to doing this because if the people you live with are not onboard, you have to figure out a system that will work for you. For example, I keep most of the food that I can snack on toward the top shelves in the pantry, while other foods tend to be lower down.

To reduce the temptation of going out to eat, I also stocked up on healthier non-perishables like tuna (in water, dolphin-safe), black beans (no salt added), chickpeas and even dried chilies. I actually proceeded to repeat this process with the refrigerator a week later. I felt that I had accomplished a lot doing this, and have been happy knowing that whatever I reach for at home is healthy for me.

Get Your Zzz’s

effects-of-sleep-deprivation

One of my top priorities when planning my schedule is making sure that I get enough sleep.  Not only does lack of sleep harbor many physical side effects, as seen in the chart above, but also it makes me feel relatively incompetent.

Luckily, my lifestyle enables me to get enough sleep. I no longer need to study long hours and I am also much less stressed than I was in school; a regular 9-5 work schedule has helped regulate my time. Furthermore, while exercise has been even more instrumental in relieving my stress and anxiety, yoga has been my key to learning how to focus my mind and help my body to relax and wind down for the night.

Personally, the most infuriating part of sleep deprivation is my inability to focus. Not only does this disrupt my thought processes, but it frustrates me knowing that I’m not doing my best at whatever I am trying to accomplish. Therefore I aim for 7 hours of sleep each night, which, through trial and error, I have found to be optimal for my mind clarity. This is challenging if you tend to over-commit to doing things with or for others, or simply if you drank too much caffeine (or alcohol) that day. Occasionally I do sacrifice sleep, but I am doing this much less as I realize its effects on the following day.

I hope that you can figure out what affects your body’s ability to sleep and make sure to accommodate it as much as possible. Many diverse factors go into getting enough sleep, and because everyone is different I cannot possibly name them all in a blog post, so I’m just emphasizing sleep in general as a fundamental part of achieving health and happiness.

To Eat or Not to Eat: Eggs

2008_03_26-EggFreshness

Although they’re fairly easy to crack, eggs are a complicated topic to digest because of their diverse contents. Their complex nature, however, also makes eggs a versatile food that I eat frequently. Most people I know eat eggs at least twice a week, so the question stands: should we eat so many eggs?

Pros:

  • Eggs are a low-fat, low-calorie and low-cost source of high-quality protein. They also contain other key nutrients including choline, riboflavin, foliate, vitamin B12, selenium, tryptophan and even lutein.[1][2][3]
  • If you’re concerned about the way that hens are treated or want to support sustainable farming practices, locally sourced cage-free eggs are sold in most communities.

Cons:

  • The yolk of one large egg contains 210 mg of cholesterol, which is a lot.[4] But a doctor representing the Mayo Clinic has suggested that studies indicate that eating four egg yolks or fewer on a weekly basis hasn’t been proven to increase your risk of heart disease (which can be triggered by high cholesterol).[5]
  • Although eggs are not a common allergen for adults, an article in a pediatric journal suggests that they may be one of the most prevalent allergies among young children. The article suppositions that reactions to egg whites are more common than yolks.  However I haven’t found further literature on this subject, especially with regards to the prevalence of an egg intolerance or allergy among adults. This is particularly interesting to me because my friend recently figured out that her body reacts adversely to eggs. Please post in the comments if you have a similar story, or know of any other literature about eggs as irritants!
  • Many athletes put raw eggs into post-workout shakes, which makes the eggs easier to consume in higher quantities. But raw eggs can carry risks of bacteria like salmonella. Furthermore, your body harnesses more protein from cooked eggs than raw eggs, according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition.[6]

After all of this research, I will stick to my current diet of no more than half a cup of egg whites each day plus two to six whole eggs a week, which I generally cook thoroughly. I’ve also discovered that it’s been officially proven that the egg came first, not the chicken.

 

 

Additional FAQ I found fascinating:

  • When shopping in the grocery store, have you ever noticed the letter egg grade on the carton?  It’s generally AA or A, through grade B eggs are also occasionally sold at retail. I always thought it had to do with their size, but that’s exclusively the weight class category, which includes Jumbo, Extra Large, Large, Medium, Small or Peewee. Grades are given to eggs based on their appearance. Grade B eggs, for example, may have thinner egg whites or slight stains on the shells. So next time you are deciding between AA, A or B, consider that they don’t reflect much on how well the eggs will taste or anything.
  • You’re not supposed to wash eggs because the wash water can be absorbed into the porous eggshell and contaminate the egg white.
  • Good egg or bad egg? A spoiled egg will smell bad, whether or not it is cooked.

The USDA publicizes many of these facts and more: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/fact_sheets/Focus_On_Shell_Eggs/index.asp#0

Debunking The Secret Formula

top-secret-stamp

I am proof that the secret formula to looking and feeling great does not exist. I have exercised and eaten right consistently for just under one year, and I’m still noticing gradual positive changes in my body and mind. It is challenging, but so rewarding that I am highly motivated to continue this journey.

Before last March, however, I spent two full years struggling to find time to exercise three times a week and only mostly eating “healthy foods”.  I plateaued after several months and maintained a relatively healthy lifestyle, but I did not feel spectacular. The trick that got me off of the plateau was when I began P90X, at which point I began to exercise and eat right every single day. This was when I truly began to research what foods and routines would get me results.  Although I did just 5 months of the P90X routine, I studied up in the meantime and have incorporated many different workouts into my life now. I say, “studied up” because I had to first understand how to keep building on my physical and mental strength.

I have learned every body is different. Routines that work for me fail to motivate my friends, and vice versa. Foods that I love make others queasy; I’m still not entirely sure what my personal best diet is, so I’m experimenting by omitting various potential sources of intolerance and then adding them back in to try and gauge changes in how my body functions. That said, certain rules apply to everyone. Having a deep understanding of how fitness should work will help anyone to illuminate a path toward optimal health.  Learning how your body reacts to different foods and exercises is one of the most important steps toward finding out what works best for you.

Form is Everything

karate-kid-silhouetteFrom practicing yoga or running to lifting weights, form is everything. The best way to maintain good form is to be aware of your body and understand the purpose of the movements that you are putting it through. The most important thing you can do is to never push yourself to your strength limits unless you feel secure with the movements you are undertaking. If you are careless or ignorant, you can easily hurt yourself and by doing so you set yourself back.

Along the same lines, if you are hurt, you have to allow your body to recover and build it back to where you left off.  Generally you can find exercises to do in the meantime that focus on other areas of your body, and you will continue to build your fitness level and strength despite being injured.

Some basics rules that I find incredibly useful:

  • Never let your knee track over or past your toes when lunging (ideally it should be at a 90 degree angle with your thigh parallel to the ground)
  • Keep good posture unless a movement specifically requires you to round your back
  • Don’t lock or bang your joints; with the exception of your ankles, which you can flex to protect your knees

Study how your body reacts to various positions, and learn how to keep your balance.  Like in the Karate Kid, when the kid asks when he will be able to learn how to punch, the teacher replies that he’d “better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home.” Remember that it actually takes more energy sometimes to do things slowly with focus and awareness. Before you begin to push yourself hard read up on the various exercises you have worked into your routine so that you can catch yourself if something feels off.

Once you understand movements you can also find good, qualified instructors to teach you how to progress in your routine. I must say though, carefully watch how the instructor teaches to make sure that they are doing their job; I walk past many (outdoor) fitness classes and cringe because I see people aggravating their backs or knee joints through repetitions with terrible form while their instructors standby and say nothing.  A good instructor will help you become more aware of your body by helping to correct your form.

Basic Food Component Ratios

Guess which indulgence I picked for this graph. Hint: they sell these in the coffee shop where I am people watching and writing from.  (Answer at bottom)
Guess which indulgence I picked for this graph. Hint: they sell these in the coffee shop where I am people watching and writing from. (Answer at bottom)

Until recently, I fed into the food pyramid or food plate approach that we are taught in school. Unfortunately, this didn’t work as well as a scientific method that I learned to use when measuring out portion sizes in p90x. That program and many other weight-management programs use the three basic components of foods to measure your daily intake, as opposed to the food groups of the FDA. Each food is made up of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

A healthy individual that is trying to maintain weight will ration about 40% carbohydrates, 40% proteins and 20% fats each day. The basic food component ratio depends on your goals: if you want to gain weight you generally eat more carbohydrates and fats, whereas if you want to lose weight you generally choose a more protein-rich diet.  It’s is important to realize, however, that each food item generally will contain all three of these nutritional building blocks.

Apart from the nutrition label that you can deduce an approximate ratio from pretty easily, sites like nutritiondata.com can help you determine what these proportions are for each food – eventually you’ll catch on by grouping foods together, like beans and chickpeas. The first two weeks of figuring out the basics of doing this tested my patience, but it was definitely worth the work to re-balance my diet and develop sensible food awareness for the rest of my life.

Answer to the caption above:  Dark-chocolate coated coffee beans.