Welcome to "52 Weeks to a Healthier You"....

Are you thinking about making changes in your life to become a healthier person but don't quite know how to get started? Perhaps your doctor has suggested eating healthier, exercising and losing weight, but it all seems so overwhelming. Many of us already know what we should be doing, but implementing all of those pieces of information can be quite a challenge. Too often we embark on a new diet or exercise plan only to give up after a few days or weeks because it seems too difficult. Well, worry no more. You have arrived at the ideal place to help you make those changes. We are going to develop new habits, one week at a time. Health, exercise, and nutritional goals have been broken down into small, manageable steps. Each week you will add one new habit and have seven full days to perfect it before moving on to the next one. This is not a traditional diet and exercise plan, but rather a journey towards a permanent healthy lifestyle. The steps may seem small at first, but collectively they add up to major improvements in one's overall well-being. In just 52 short weeks, you will be amazed and proud of the changes you have made. You will look back and see just how far you've come on your quest to be a healthier YOU. Now, scroll down in the archives to January 2011/Week 1 and let's get started.... Then, follow each week's tip to a healthier YOU!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Week 19 - Add a second healthy snack to your day....


Up to this point we have covered the importance of eating a healthy, balanced breakfast, lunch and snack.  And we have discussed the importance of learning to calculate the ideal number of calories your body needs, whether for weight loss or maintaining your weight.  This week we are going to add a second healthy snack to our day and begin manipulating our calories throughout the day for optimal energy and nutrition.  Assuming you eat dinner each evening (healthy dinner options will be covered in a future post) the addition of this snack to our daily intake means we will now be eating at least five times per day.

Wait, you say... eat five times per day?  What happened to eating 3 square meals?  The idea of eating 5-6 small meals per day has been in vogue for the past few years.  Proponents of this method believe that spreading your calories throughout the day into smaller meals helps rev up metabolism, prevent energy reserves from running low, and prevent your body from burning up muscle for fuel.  It also keeps blood sugar levels steady due to a steady supply of energy. Let's examine the pros and cons of eating this way and see why it can help you achieve health and fitness goals.

Athletes, bodybuilders and fitness experts are able to manipulate calories, nutrients and exercise in a way that yields maximum results for their effort. They know from experience that eating frequent small meals helps  provide enough sustained energy to get through their rigorous workouts.  And they know that the best way to build new muscle and preserve the muscle they already have is to keep a steady supply of amino acids available in their bloodstreams through ingesting small meals containing adequate protein. They rarely let more than 2-3 hours go by before they are supplying their bodies with the next balanced and nutritious load of calories which includes protein, carbs and healthy fats. What does that mean for the rest of us?  It means that we can learn a thing or two about timing our meals/snacks in order to achieve similar positive outcomes.

The average person can only utilize a limited number of calories per meal. If you eat more calories than your body needs at the moment, the excess gets stored as fat.  Let's look at this example.  Suppose you are an active woman who requires 2,000 calories per day to maintain your weight.  The average woman can utilize somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 to 500 calories per meal.  If you divide the 2,000 calories into 3 square meals, that comes out to approximately 700 calories per meal.  Assuming your body can only utilize 400 calories of energy per meal, the extra 300 calories eaten has nowhere to go except stored in your fat cells for later use.  So while you are not overeating in terms of total daily calories, you are not supplying energy in an optimal way for your body. Now, assume like many busy women you skip breakfast altogether and only eat lunch and dinner, that comes out to 1,000 calories eaten per meal. This is approximately 600 calories more per meal than your body can handle at any one time.  Guess what happens to those extra calories?

Take the same 2,000 calories and spread it out over 5 meals, and this comes out to 400 calories per meal which is just about perfect for energy utilization.  Divide it by 6 meals and now you are down to approximately 350 calories per meal.  Remember that it takes about 2-3 hours for your stomach to empty, so if you are refueling with the perfect amount of calories at regular intervals your metabolism begins to operate in a much more efficient manner. When you begin to eat 5-6 times per day, you can see that there really isn't room for large, super-size meals.  Each meal becomes a smaller, nutritionally balanced choice that satisfies energy demands and isn't driven by cravings and low blood sugar levels.

Does that mean you can never go out to a restaurant and order a big meal again?  Of course not, but that should be the exception and not the rule.  Follow the 90/10 rule:  if you are eating correctly and optimally 90% of the time, you can afford to go off plan and splurge a little 10% of the time.  Perhaps that means one "splurge" dinner out per week instead of three or four.

The hardest part about eating 5-6 times per day is planning the meals in advance and then sticking to that plan.  It requires some forethought about calories per meal and redefining in our minds what constitutes a "meal".  Suddenly, a can of tuna mixed with pickle relish, a few whole grain crackers and a piece of fruit makes a perfect, filling lunch when it is surrounded hours before or after with a balanced snack.  You may find it very helpful to go back to Week 10 of our Healthy Tips and calculate just how many calories you should be eating in a day. If you truly want to improve your physique, build new muscle, and improve energy levels, dividing those calories into 5-6 meals per day is one of the best ways to get there.

“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligent an art.”
           ~ Francois La Rochefoucauld

Photo courtesy of Sura Nualpradid

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Week 18 - Take advantage of technology....

With all the technological advances these days -- from cars to computers, smart phones to smart houses -- it's no surprise that technology is reshaping the exercise industry too.  Tools that were once available only to elite athletes and sports professionals are now standard fixtures in gyms and for home use. Gone are the days where one has to stop in the middle of exercise, find their pulse, and use the second-hand on their watch to determine heart rate.  Today, tools like inexpensive heart rate monitors offer a precise analysis of not only current heart rate, but also whether or not one is training within the perfect intensity "zone."  The fitness industry is literally bursting with products and gadgets that can enhance your exercise experience. This week we will examine some tools that can aid in your efforts to improve strength, physique and overall fitness level.

Heart Rate Monitor
Since we've already mentioned the heart rate monitor, let's begin there.  There are several different "zones" one can be in when exercising.  For example, 50% of your maximum heart rate* is mainly a warmup zone.  At 60-70%, this is mostly a fat burning zone. 70-80% is an aerobic fitness zone, 80-90% is an anaerobic performance training zone, and finally at 90-100% you are at maximum effort.  This is a very intense level and most people can only stay in this zone for a brief period of time.  People often exercise for a certain length of time or distance, say 30 minutes or 2 miles, but they aren't certain whether or not their heart rate is in the "correct" zone to achieve their desired results.  If your primary goal is to lose fat, then you want to stay in the 60-70% range.  While increasing your effort to the 80-90% range might increase the total number of calories burned, many more of those calories will be coming from carbohydrates rather than stored fat.  Wearing a heart rate monitor can ensure that you are training in an optimal way.  Easy to use, the monitor consists of two parts:  a chest strap that fastens around your ribcage, and a wrist monitor that also functions as a regular wristwatch.  Heart rate monitors do much more than just monitor heart rate; more advanced models allow you to enter your personal VO2 max level (this is the amount of oxygen that can be removed from the blood and used to fuel working tissue/muscle during a specified amount of time) thus making the monitor very accurate for you (if someone borrowed your heart rate monitor they would get a slightly inaccurate reading since everyone's VO2 level is different).  Heart rate monitors can also store several months worth of exercise data including length and total number of workouts, calories burned, and percentage of time spent in your target heart rate zone.  You can design customized workouts and program those into your monitor as well.

Another useful tool, especially with regards to weight management, are the relatively new wireless personal fitness trackers.  One example, the bodybugg, was propelled to fame when it was featured on The Biggest Loser television show. Worn around the arm only (no chest strap required), it is designed to track calories consumed, calories burned, and includes a built-in pedometer to track steps taken. It has four sensors which collect data from your body and provides a reasonably accurate estimation of energy expenditure. It requires a subscription to a web-based software program and can be very helpful for managing diet goals. Mobile apps are now available for both Android phones and the iPhone making the bodybugg both portable and convenient.  A similar device, the Fitbit, tracks the same types of information with the added benefit of monitoring sleep patterns. 

pedometer weight lossPedometers have been around forever, but today's models are far more sophisticated and accurate than in the past.  Easy to wear, a pedometer can be a fun tracking tool that helps one stay motivated in a walking program. Health experts recommend a goal of 10,000 steps per day for healthy adults, and research shows that those who wear pedometers increase their daily step count an average of 2,000 steps per day (about one mile). Over the course of a year, those extra steps translate into as much as a 10-pound weight loss. This is one gadget where you really do get what you pay for, so learn about the various features available and buy the best pedometer you can afford.  They range in price from around $10 up to $40 or more.  The most basic models only measure the number of steps taken while more sophisticated models measure distance walked, calories burned, time spent walking, aerobic vs. nonaerobic steps, and more.  Some even come with software that allows the information from your pedometer to be uploaded to your PC each day to track progress and goals. I have personally owned various models of pedometers with my favorite being my current Omron HC720.  This is a very accurate device and can be clipped to a waistband, shoe, or even placed in a pocket.  For those of you who like to listen to music while you exercise, newer iPod Nanos come with a pedometer feature which can be handy. 

Body fat monitors can be an especially helpful tool when measuring progress towards one's weightloss goals.  Similar to bodyfat scales, these handheld devices are less expensive, smaller, and their portability means they can easily be taken along when traveling.  While not 100% accurate, they are a reliable indicator of body fat levels once you get the hang of using them.  Body fat analyzers have galvanized electrodes that send a small, painless current of electricity through your body. With the hand-held version, this signal is sent through one hand and travels down to the waist area, back up the body and through the other hand to the other electrode. It measures the subcutaneous fat under the skin (1). Tracking your body fat percentage is extremely important when dieting because you want to be sure you are actually losing fat, not muscle and water.  Newer, even smaller models are available which can slip right into your pocket.  As always, do your research first and find the monitor that best suits your needs.

Of course, none of these gadgets are necessary for getting in shape but they can sure make it a lot more fun!  When trying to accomplish a goal, we can all benefit from feedback and these tools provide an excellent assessment of how well we are progressing. Your task this week is to examine the different technologies and see if there is one that just might aid you on your path to better health.  Additional tools you may want to investigate include the Nike Sportband, Wi-Fi Body Scale, Phillips Activa music player, the Gruve, Wii Fit, Samsung My Fit, and the Adidas miCoach.

* To easily calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220.  While not completely accurate, this is a reasonable estimate of the maximum number of beats your heart is capable of.  Then, multiply this number by .5 to find 50%, .6 to find 60%, etc.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Week 17 - My Top-Ten Superfoods....

I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little tired of  reading articles that tell us (more like shout at us) a list of foods that we must eat.  "Top Ten Superfoods for Health!" or "Twelve Foods You Simply Must Be Eating!"  And nevermind that all of the lists are different -- sure, a few favorites like blueberries and tomatoes seem to make it on to every list -- but recently I stumbled across one that included kale and watercress.  Kale?  Really?  I'm not at all opposed to this leafy green vegetable but I can't ever recall a time when it was a "must have" on my shopping list. This got me thinking -- who comes up with these lists?  What makes one healthy food superior to another?  And how do they narrow it down to only ten foods?  I have noticed that some of them include far more than ten foods by listing very broad categories such as "fruit" or "whole grains."  That seems a bit like cheating, to me.  If you're going to tell people ten foods they must eat, then be specific.  Entire categories of food are too vague. 

I've always been a big believer that eating a wide variety of foods will help one cover all their nutritional bases.  Having said that, I notice that the same ten or twelve foods keep appearing on my grocery list and menu.  As mentioned in a previous Healthy Tip, studies show that people tend to eat the same foods over and over.  I guess I am no different.  Here is my list of favorites -- I almost always eat all ten every week, and oftentimes eat all ten in a single day!  I hope you will be inspired to include some of these on your shopping list and in your weekly menus:

1.  Blueberries - These little gems are like candy to me.  I eat them everyday, without fail -- in the morning on my oatmeal or yogurt, in the afternoon on a salad, after dinner with a tablespoon of whipped cream.  They are sweet, juicy and delicious and pair up beautifully with both savory and sweet dishes.  Loaded with antioxidants which help neutralize free radicals (unstable molecules linked to the development of a number of diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease and other age-related conditions such as Alzheimer's), they are an excellent source of vitamin C, manganese, and dietary fiber.  With only 80 calories per cup, they are a nutritional bargain for people watching their weight.  Compare that to a cup of pudding which has approximately 320 calories.

2.  Spinach - This nutritional workhorse is one of the easiest superfoods to slip into your everyday repertoire.  Bags of pre-washed fresh baby spinach are conveniently located in your grocer's produce section and make adding spinach to meals a breeze.  At breakfast, toss a handful in with scrambled eggs or an omelette.  At lunch, use it on a sandwich in place of lettuce.  Add it to tossed salads (a superior alternative to lettuces) and chilled pasta salads.  At dinner, add it to soups, sauces and hot pasta dishes.  Or serve it on it's own as a side dish -- drizzle a little olive oil, add a few fresh cloves of garlic, and steam it in a scant amount of water for only a minute or two, just until wilted. Spinach is low in calories, yet extremely high in vitamins, minerals -- especially iron -- and other phytonutrients. 

3.  Oats - I am willing to bet that most people who say they don't like oatmeal have never had it prepared deliciously.  Too often, people add boiling water to their oats -- usually the quick-cooking or instant variety rather than the old-fashioned rolled oats.  Quick-cooking and instant are mushier in texture because they have been more heavily processed, and water doesn't add any additional flavor or nutrients.  The end result is a gloppy, sticky, flavorless substance that resembles wallpaper paste!  On the other hand, old-fashioned rolled oats prepared with milk instead of water, drizzled with a bit of honey, and topped with berries, bananas and walnuts is unbelievably tasty.  The natural sugars in the milk add a hint of sweetness and flavor, and the overall texture is better.  Oats aren't just for breakfast though.  They make a delicious addition to meatloaf and meatballs, a savory coating for chicken and pork dishes, and elevate muffins, cookies and granola bars to a healthier level. Oats are a significant source of dietary fiber.  One component of this fiber is beta-glucans, a substance which acts as an "entrapment" for bad cholesterol.  In study after study, oats have been proven to lower cholesterol when eaten on a daily basis.  Oats contain hundreds of phytochemicals (plant chemicals) which are believed to reduce a person's risk of getting cancer.  Because of their high fiber content, oats have been shown to aid in bowel function as well as weight control.  Studies also show reduced blood pressure in people who eat a daily serving of oats.

4. Almonds - These teardrop-shaped treats just may be the closest thing to nature's perfect food.  Jam-packed with calcium, magnesium, vitamin E, phosphorus, potassium, and folic acid, they pack a powerful nutritional punch for something so small.  They are high in monounsaturated fats, the same type found in healthy olive oil, which are healthy for your heart and do not raise cholesterol.  Just one ounce -- approximately 20-25 almonds -- contains as much calcium as 1/4 cup milk so they are particularly attractive to people who need to avoid dairy products.  They come in many varieties including natural raw and oven-roasted and their portability makes them a perfect snack along with a piece of fruit.  Sliced almonds are delicious on cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, salads, and as a crunchy coating for fish and chicken.  While a very healthy choice, they are high in calories so it's best to measure these tasty tidbits into one-ounce servings.

5. Tomatoes - How can we possibly say enough good things about them in a single paragraph?!  Tomatoes are loaded with vitamin C and lycopene and are considered one of the healthiest foods on the planet.  But tomatoes weren't always so popular.  A member of the deadly nightshade family, tomatoes were once considered poisonous and inedible and were generally avoided in the western world.  It has only been as recent as the early 19th century that people realized not only were they safe to eat, tomatoes also had tremendous health benefits.  Lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that flushes out free-radicals from the bloodstream, is found in very high levels in tomatoes.  Lycopene gives tomatoes their rich red color and has been proven to reduce cancers such as prostate, cervical, colon, rectal, and cancers of the stomach, mouth, pharynx, and esophagus when consumed in high levels.  There are an endless variety of tomatoes which means they can be enjoyed in many ways.  Of course they are a staple in pasta dishes, soups and stews, delicious on top of a salad, and are a necessary ingredient in a BLT.  Smaller varieties like cherry, grape and cherub tomatoes make quick and delicious snacks.

6.  Fish - Ok, I realize this is one of those broad categories that I was criticizing earlier (sorry!) but I find it impossible to recommend only one kind of fish.  The reality is, with the high levels of mercury that can occur in all types of fish, it is best to mix it up and eat a wide variety. Fish is an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids which our bodies cannot produce on their own. Omega-3s have been shown to decrease heart disease, reduce blood pressure, and promote healthy brain function.  Omega-3 fatty acids are found in every kind of fish, but are especially high in fatty fish. Good fish choices for Omega-3’s include salmon, tuna (canned light), trout, sardines, sea bass, oysters, crab, perch, shrimp, and cod. (1)  The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fish per week.  My favorite quick and easy method for preparing white, flaky fish such as cod or halibut is to brush it with olive oil, season with Mrs. Dash, crushed red pepper, fresh ground black pepper, and top with fresh bread crumbs and chopped tomatoes (there are those tomatoes again!).  Bake at 400 degrees for approximately 12-15 minutes until fish is opaque and flakes easily with a fork.  This makes a perfect lunch or dinner.  Fish is high in protein, low in fat, and an extremely healthy addition to any diet.

7.  Eggs - Perhaps one of the most maligned food items in the past, the pendulum has swung the other way for the lowly egg.  Sworn off for their high cholesterol content, researchers and nutritionists now know that the egg can be a very healthy addition to one's diet.  Harvard researchers have concluded that "dietary cholesterol isn't nearly the villain it's been portrayed to be."  In a recent study, they found "the biggest influence on blood cholesterol level is the mix of fats in your diet—not the amount of cholesterol you eat from food," with trans fats and saturated fats being the biggest culprit in driving up cholesterol. (2)  Of course if you suffer from heart disease or diabetes you will want to check with your doctor first, but most health experts now give the green light to moderate egg consumption.  This is good news for healthy individuals who love eggs!  Eggs are quick to prepare, high in protein, relatively low in calories, and a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids.  They are portable when hard-boiled which makes them a convenient snack. Evidence shows that organic eggs from free-range chickens are much higher in Omega-3s, lower in saturated fats, and just plain taste better than eggs from commercially raised chickens.  This may be one area where it pays to buy the best.  If you are concerned about calories or fat, you can always add egg whites to one whole egg. This gives all the benefits of extra protein without the extra calories (55 calories in the yolk while the white contains only 16 calories).

8. Sweet Potatoes - If I had to pick a favorite among my Top Ten list, this is it.  This nutritional all-star is full of good things including vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, iron, magnesium and phytochemicals like beta carotene and lutein.  Only distantly related to the white potato (and don't confuse it with a yam -- it's not even the same species!), this superfood is versatile, portable and delicious. Even though they are called "sweet" potatoes, they actually take much longer to digest and enter the blood stream than white potatoes whose starches quickly convert to sugar.  Baked whole, oven-fried in olive oil, or mashed and served in a casserole, sweet potatoes make a perfect accompaniment to any meal.  What I love about them (and this is often overlooked) is how portable they are.  They can be microwaved at home and taken along when you go out.  Later, when they have cooled, they can be peeled like a banana and eaten whole.  Don't forget to pierce them with a fork a couple of times before microwaving or baking to allow the steam to escape. 

9. Extra Virgin Olive Oil - One of the few oils that is delicious enough to eat right out of the bottle, Extra Virgin olive oil comes from the first cold pressing of the olives and has the freshest flavor and the most nutrients.  Do not confuse it with Virgin olive oil or Pure olive oil.  Virgin olive oil is still delicious but comes from the second pressing of the olives so it has slightly less flavor and more acidity.  Pure olive oil can be rather misleading because it is often a blend of either extra virgin or virgin olive oil as well as poor quality olive oils that are refined.  The health benefits really are dramatically different among the three types of olive oil, so it pays to buy the best extra virgin oil you can afford.  A staple of the healthy Mediterranean diet, extra virgin olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats and relatively low in saturated fats.  In numerous studies, it has been associated with reduced risk of coronory disease, reduced cancer rates including breast, lung, stomach, small intestine and colorectal cancers, and supports overall bone health and cognitive function.  Extra virgin olive oil is especially delicious right out of the bottle when accompanied by a hearty whole grain bread for dipping.  You can drizzle it over steamed vegetables, add it to pasta sauces, and use it on noodles in place of butter to prevent sticking together.  It is perfect for sauteeing delicate fish and chicken cutlets, imparting a sweet, nutty flavor when heated.  Olive oil is also wonderful for skin and hair and can be applied to both as an extra-nutritive conditioner.  Include up to a tablespoon of this wonder-food in your diet each day to glean the most benefit.

10. Brown rice - The ugly duckling of the rice world, brown rice is quickly becoming the rice du jour among foodies and people with discerning palates. Unlike white rice which has had the germ and the bran stripped (thus almost all of the nutrients are gone) brown rice has had only the outer, inedible hull removed.  Because it still has the germ and the bran, it has as much as 70% more nutrients than its stripped, bleached and polished cousin, white rice.   It has a nuttier, chewier flavor and texture and retains its natural color from the fields. It is an excellent source of manganese, magnesium and selenium and is rich in fiber.  Like other whole grains, brown rice is slow to digest and enter the bloodstream, making it a perfect carbohydrate to pair with protein and healthy fats.  If the taste is too bland for your liking, you can add flavor by cooking it in low sodium chicken broth.  You can also make a delicious rice pilaf by sauteeing it raw in extra virgin olive oil, then steaming it with chopped cashews and mushrooms.

Well, there you have it -- my top ten superfoods!  You will notice that all of these foods are unprocessed and contain no additives or preservatives.  They are readily available in any grocery store and provide a wide array of nutrients.  They combine well with eachother and other foods, can be eaten at any time of day, and are convenient to prepare and store.  This week, your task is to add some or all of these superfoods to your grocery list.  Over the next few days and weeks, make it a goal to include all ten in your weekly menus.

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."
      ~ Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

1.  Health Benefits of Fish, Washington State Department of Health,  http://www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/oehas/fish/fishbenefits.htm

2. Fats and Cholesterol - The Bottom Line, Harvard School of Public Health, http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-full-story/index.html


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Week 16 - Drink more... (you guessed it)... WATER!!!

If it is starting to sound like a broken record around here with the "drink more water" mantra... well... all I can say is, "Drink more water!"  This is the third post on the site having to do with water so I hope it is becoming clear how important hydration is for your health.  At this point, you are already drinking at least four glasses of water per day -- one before breakfast and one before dinner, as well as one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon.  Time to add two more glasses to our schedule:  one after breakfast, and one after lunch. Easy enough?  It may begin to feel tedious trying to remember each glass at the specific time; one way to approach it is to purchase a water bottle which can hold up to 32 ounces, and sip 8 ounces at each strategic time of day refilling as necessary. Personally, I like the ones that have the ounces clearly marked on the side of the bottle.  As you chug your water, you can see the progress you are making towards your ultimate goal of six to eight glasses per day*.  If you choose a wide-mouth bottle such as the one pictured below, it is easy to fill it with ice.  You can also fit sliced lemons, limes and oranges if you enjoy your H2O with a citrus twist.  On the other hand, some people feel intimidated by the "giant water bottle" approach -- they feel overwhelmed at the thought of getting through all that water and prefer instead to fill and drink a single 8-ounce glass at a time.  Either method is fine as long as you are getting it in.
In previous posts, we examined some of the reasons why water is so important to our health.  You will recall that the human body is made up primarily of water (almost 75%) and that water is essential to every vital bodily system.  It transports life-giving nutrients, minerals and salt throughout our bodies, cleansing and purifying as it moves along.  It also helps regulate body temperature, keeps joints lubricated, and aids in digestion.  You will also recall from our first post about water, the jury is still out when it comes to how much we actually need each day.  Expert opinions vary widely on how much water to consume, whether or not only pure drinking water counts (or all beverages including coffee, tea, soda, milk, etc.) and for that matter, does the water obtained from food -- which accounts for nearly 20% of our total daily fluid intake -- count? 

In 2004, a noteworthy event occurred when the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, made an official recommendation about water intake for healthy individuals.  It was the first official recommendation of its kind and is especially significant because it came on the heels of the U.S. government's Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) conclusion that "it is impossible to set a water recommendation." (1)  The IOM study concluded that the recommended daily fluid intake is 91 ounces for women and 125 ounces for men.  That translates to more than ten 8-ounce glasses of water for women and nearly sixteen for men!  Keep in mind though that this recommendation was for the total daily fluid intake, not just pure drinking water, and included fluid from all beverages as well as water obtained from food.  While this still doesn't tell us exactly how much pure water to drink, one can see that drinking six to eight glasses per day is probably reasonable for the average American adult.

Research is lacking in this area because it would clearly be unethical to deprive humans of water in order to conduct the studies.  The average person can live for more than 30 days with no food, but only 4-5 days without water.  Dehydration can lead to severe medical consequences so it would be quite difficult to conduct controlled studies.  Additionally, our bodies have an amazing ability to adjust to varying levels of hydration -- whether overhydrated or underhydrated -- and this makes it especially difficult to determine cause and effect in the short term.  Most of the research is confined to the effects on athletes after sports' performances.  While this is helpful, it does not necessarily translate to the general population.  Athletes are in the unusual position of losing extreme amounts of water through sweating in a short amount of time.  Most of us become gradually dehydrated over a period of many hours and days.

So where does this leave us in terms of understanding how important water really is to our health?  Doctors, researchers, nutritionists, and other health professionals rely on clinical evidence, anecdotal observations and assumptions.  Because dehydration occurs at the cellular level, all  bodily systems have the potential to be affected negatively.  We release about 2.5 liters of water per day through respiration, perspiration and digestion.  If this water is not replaced we start to run a deficit and mild dehydration begins.  Early symptoms of dehydration include thirst, loss of appetite, dry skin, dark-colored urine, fatigue/weakness, chills, sleepiness, headache and dizziness.  As dehydration progresses, more serious symptoms develop such as increased or decreased heart rate and respiration, decreased sweating and urine output, elevated body temperature, extreme fatigue, muscle cramps, headache and nausea.  And there is an almost endless list of medical conditions that dehydration is known to exacerbate including asthma, allergies, constipation and digestive disorders, diabetes, eczema, chronic fatigue, headaches, high blood pressure, kidney stones, menopause, obesity, osteoporosis, respiratory problems, and stroke.  Many experts believe that something as simple as proper hydration could greatly reduce the complications associated with these conditions.  An estimated 80% of the American population does not drink enough water.  Are YOU part of that group?

This week, challenge yourself to get in all six glasses of water every day!  One upon awakening, one after breakfast, one mid-morning, one after lunch, one mid-afternoon, and one before dinner.  And of course, if you are exercising you should be drinking extra water as necessary to quench your thirst.  By spreading your water intake throughout the day you are ensuring optimal hydration.

"Water sustains all."
       ~ Thales of Miletus

* The goal of six-eight glasses per day is the recommendation for healthy adults.  Always check with your doctor first, especially if you are taking medication or suffer from heart, kidney or pulmonary disease.

1. Hydration Needs Throughout the Lifespan, http://www.jacn.org/content/26/suppl_5/585S.full

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Week 15 - Goal-setting and accountability.....

Most people, when they begin any new form of exercise, start out gung-ho and full of optimism.  They have big plans and big ideas on how to get started.  Donning new exercise clothes and brand new sneakers, they have big dreams for their final results.  After a few short weeks, plenty of muscle soreness (in muscles they didn't even know they had!) and less than stellar results, many people abandon their efforts altogether and slip back into little or no exercise.  Sadly, what they fail to realize is that there is no quick-fix when it comes to improving fitness and physique.  They didn't get out of shape overnight and they surely won't get in shape overnight.  Consistency is key and this is one example where slow-and-steady really does win the race.

If you have been following all of the Healthy Tips up to this point then you are already taking a daily walk, participating in strength training, and performing calisthenics and stretching exercises.  You have laid a very good foundation on which to build the ultimate fit YOU.  Perhaps you've already lost a few pounds and gained some strength and new muscle, but odds are that after only 14 weeks you have not yet seen a total body transformation.  This is the point where you might ask yourself, "Why bother? It's really not making a difference."  But the truth is, it is making a very big difference.  Too often we measure our progress by what we see on the outside -- scale weight, body measurements, clothing size, cellulite -- and fail to recognize what is really happening on the inside.  Lower blood pressure and resting heart rate, healthier arteries, stronger muscles, faster metabolism, improved circulation, etc. are all benefits from exercise that we don't necessarily "see."  We must remind ourselves of our ultimate goal -- to be as healthy as we can possibly be -- and not focus exclusively on our outward appearance.

This is the point where we want to dig in and stay focused.  Daily exercise and healthy eating are becoming  ingrained habits and this is no time to turn back when results aren't as fast as we would like.  We mistakenly believe our new plan isn't working because we are constantly barraged by media messages telling us we can transform our bodies quickly.  Magazine articles promise things like "Your Perfect Beach Body in 30 days!" or "Lose 20 Pounds by Summer" (and it's already May 1st).  These are unrealistic claims that are meant to sell magazines.  Would anyone buy a magazine with this headline: "Lose 2-4 Pounds in 1 Month!"  Of course not, and magazine editors are savvy business people who know how to sell their product.  We've all seen the glossy photo spreads of beautiful fitness models using five pound dumbbells to build muscle, doing crunches that promise 6-pack abs, and performing the latest, greatest belly-blasting workout.  What they don't tell you is the models usually diet for 2-3 weeks before a photo shoot, reduce water intake so that their muscles "pop" for the photos, and no one gets muscles like that from lifting five pound dumbbells!  Don't be fooled -- these models are pumping heavy iron at the gym.  To add insult to injury, the pictures are often heavily photoshopped so the models themselves don't even look like the pictures.  If your goal is to look like a magazine fitness model in a short period of time, then you are setting yourself up for major disappointment.  People who set realistic, long-term goals are much more likely to achieve them.

For most of us, getting in shape is a long, slow, steady process.  Fitness gains and health improvements come in very small increments.  Some weeks you may not notice any changes.  It is important, therefore, to look for other ways to keep yourself motivated.  Set short-term goals such as walking a little bit further each week, increasing the speed of your pace, or reducing the time it takes to cover a certain distance. Then, reward yourself for accomplishing your small goals.  These rewards can be a small treat such as a new book, new exercise clothes, or a spa service.  Perhaps the best reward of all is the great feeling you get after a workout.

One of the best ways to stay on track with your fitness plan is to involve yourself in activities where you must be accountable to someone else.  Exercising with a buddy means you have to show up at a certain time.  Working out with a personal trainer means you have someone waiting for you at the gym.  And my personal favorite -- signing up for an organized event such as a 5K walk or run.  When you commit to participating in an event like this (and especially after you pay the entry fee) you are much more likely to continue your training efforts.  These events are scheduled every weekend all across the country and are open to people of all fitness levels from total beginners to elite athletes.  Most events are for both walkers and runners. Your goal is to do your personal best, so don't be intimidated by more experienced participants.  You can find local races by visiting sites such as Active.com or Running in the USA.

Another fun way to be accountable in your exercise program is to join a local walking, swimming or biking club such as the American Volkssport Association.  This group organizes more than 3,500 events nationwide each year.  Volksmarching (non-competitive fitness walking that originated in Europe) is particularly enjoyable -- you can walk in organized events or you can complete the walks on your own.  Most cities have Volksmarch walks already mapped out so you can participate in your own hometown or even when you are traveling.  For a small fee you can buy a passbook to collect stamps showing the Volksmarches you have completed.

No matter which form of exercise you are participating in -- walking, biking, weight lifting, running, swimming, martial arts -- the most important thing is to do it consistently, set realistic goals, and be accountable.  Your task this week is to commit to an organized exercise activity in your community.  Search newspapers and radio stations for upcoming local events, sign up for one, and put it on your calendar!  Involve friends and family and make it twice the fun.  Training for an event like this can help keep you motivated and elevate your workouts to a whole new level.

"An athlete who tells you the training is always easy and always fun simply hasn't been there. Goals can be elusive which makes the difficult journey all the more rewarding."
         ~ Alberto Salazar

Friday, April 29, 2011

Week 14 - Good Carbs, Bad Carbs

With all the talk these days about good carbs and bad carbs, low carbs and no carbs, how is one supposed to sort through so much information and figure out which carbs are actually okay to eat?  Pick up any magazine or tune into any talk show and someone is espousing the virtues of eating low or no-carb.  Celebrities are shunning carbs, diets promising speedy weight loss warn us to avoid them, and it seems everyone is on some sort of carb-bashing bandwagon.  But why all the negative press for carbohydrates?  Exactly what is wrong with them and why are so many people eliminating carbs altogether?

To sort it out, we must first understand what a carbohydrate is.  Carbohydrates are the body's main source of fuel and are made up of sugars, starches and fiber. Our bodies break down most carbs into single molecules of sugar which can then be absorbed into the bloodstream.  Carbohydrates are classified into two main types: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are already single or double molecules of sugar and can easily be identified by their "ose" endings -- glucose and fructose (found in fruit), lactose (found in dairy), and sucrose (table sugar which comes from beet or cane sugar).  Simple carbohydrates are easily absorbed and contain little, if any, nutritional value other than providing instant energy for the body.  Complex carbohydrates are made up of many sugar molecules strung together like a chain.  They also contain starch and fiber which are important for good health.  Most starches break down into sugar, while fiber is indigestible by humans -- we do not possess the necessary enzymes to break apart the links, therefore it travels through the intestines acting as a "cleanser" for the colon and encouraging the growth of healthy bacteria in the lower gut.  Complex carbs require the body to work harder digesting them -- the long chains of sugars must first be broken down into single molecules -- and they contain plenty of other vitamins and nutrients that get absorbed along the way.  Complex carbohydrates include grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, corn and potatoes. 

The reason carbohydrates get such a bad rap is because most Americans eat a diet that is much too high in refined carbohydrates.  Refined carbs are foods which have been highly processed by food manufacturers.  For example, refined grains have had the high fiber parts (the germ and the bran) removed from the grain. When a complex carb is refined it loses its complex structure and thus all the properties that made it a healthy choice.  It takes on the properties of a simple carbohydrate and is processed by the body as such. White rice, white bread, sugary cereals, pasta, noodles and pretty much anything made from white flour, including packaged cookies, crackers and pastries, are all examples of refined carbohydrates.  Sodas, sugary beverages and fruit juices are also refined carbs. They are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream causing a rush of glucose which results in excess available energy.  Your body uses only the glucose (energy) it needs immediately and stores the rest as fat.  Once all the excess glucose is stored in the fat cells, you become hungry again and reach for more simple, refined carbs to satisfy the craving.  This cycle repeats over and over.  Eating too many refined carbohydrates can result in rapid weight gain.

Unrefined complex carbs are a much better source of energy for your body.  Because they are loaded with starches and fiber, it takes your body longer to break them down and move them through the digestive system.  There is a slow and steady release of glucose into your bloodstream -- think of unrefined complex carbs as "time-release" capsules -- so you stay full much longer and don't experience rapid hunger and cravings.  Small, frequent meals which include complex carbohydrates, along with protein and healthy fats, are the best way to control appetite and supply steady nutrition and energy.  Whole grain breads and cereals, fruits, vegetables, brown rice, sweet potatoes and beans are perfect complex choices.

Many popular diets would have you believe that giving up carbs completely is the answer to controlling your weight and appetite.  They perpetuate the myth that there is something special, almost magical, about low or no-carb diets.  The reality is when you give up an entire food category such as carbs, you eliminate a large number of calories from your diet.  There is nothing magical about it:  less calories = weight loss.  But weight loss at what price?  Diets that are too low in carbs deplete the healthy glycogen (the storage form of glucose) in your muscles.  Depleted glycogen causes dehydration which results in quick and drastic reductions on the scale.  Dieters are often encouraged by these early, large losses assuming it is fat that is melting away.  The fact is, the loss is due to water loss and muscle atrophy.  We know from our previous Healthy Tip on sarcopenia that a reduction in muscle results in a slowed metabolism.  And a slowed metabolism means rapid weight gain when one resumes eating normally again.  Studies show that most people cannot maintain a low carb diet for an extended period of time. 

When we distinguish between the health-robbing effects of simple sugars and other refined carbs and the health-giving properties of complex carbohydrates, it is easy to see that eliminating all carbs really isn't a good idea (1).  They are much too important nutritionally to just write them off.  Remember, not all carbs lead to weight gain!  Healthy, unrefined carbs are exactly what our bodies need and were designed to digest.  They are an important source of vitamins, minerals and fiber that cannot be gotten from any other source.  Fruit deserves a special mention -- although it contains simple sugars, it gives a lot of bang for the buck, particularly for those of us with a sweet tooth.  It is rich in vital nutrients, high in fiber, relatively low in calories, and provides instant sweetness and hydration.  In contrast, overprocessed, refined carbs are nutritionally "empty" and contribute to the obesity epidemic in our country and globally.

As in all the other nutritional Healthy Tips, I encourage you to start paying careful attention to the kinds of foods you are choosing and eating.  This week, your task is to keep a list of the foods you eat.  Place a star next to carbs that are refined or simple and begin to look for patterns.  When you ate a muffin made with enriched flour (simple carb) were you hungry a short while later?  Did eating a bagel made from whole wheat or a bowl of oatmeal (complex carbs) keep you satisfied longer?  Examine places in your diet where simple, refined carbs can be replaced with wholesome, complex ones.  Choose a piece of whole fruit instead of fruit juice, whole grain breads instead of white breads, and oatmeal rather than packaged cold cereals.  Choose whole wheat pasta over regular pasta, brown rice over white, and water over sugary beverages and sodas.  Try to reduce the number of starred items on your food list.  Commit to eliminating as many of the "bad" carbs as you can, enjoy the "good" carbs, and don't feel a bit guilty about eating them!  After all, they are your body's preferred source of fuel.

1. http://chicagolandwlc.com/Class1/week4CL1.pdf

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Week 13 - Laugh..... a lot!

Laughter is the best medicine..... we've all heard that expression about a million times.  But is it really the best medicine?  And for that matter, is it really medicine at all?  Mounting evidence through research certainly suggests that laughter is medicinal with its own unique healing properties.  Just how that healing occurs as well as laughter's full medical benefit is still a mystery.

One thing for sure... it feels good to laugh!  Laughter triggers the release of endorphins which are the body's feel-good chemicals.  Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being in the body and can even temporarily reduce pain.  Laughter eliminates negative emotions; anxiety, depression and anger all take a back seat when one is laughing (1).  Laughter can also help reduce stress and tension.  Muscles stay relaxed up to 45 minutes after a bout of laughing.

Researchers know that laughter can be a powerful ally in improving health and fighting disease. A recent study conducted at the University of Maryland found that laughter lowers blood pressure, improves the function of blood vessels, and increases blood flow which can help protect you against a heart attack and other cardiovascular problems. According to Dr. Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, the most significant finding in the study was that "people with heart disease responded less humorously to everyday life situations." They generally laughed less, even in positive situations, and they displayed more anger and hostility. Miller adds, "We know that exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list." (2) 

Exactly what is laughter?  Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as a series of "rhythmic, vocalized, expiratory and involuntary actions."  Laughter is the physiological response to humor and is comprised of a unique set of vocal properties. According to ­behavioral neurobiologist and pioneering laughter researcher Robert Provine, it consists of short, vowel-like sounds that are repeated every 210 milliseconds.  Laughter is a universal language, understood in all cultures around the world, and occurs in adult humans an average of 17 times per day.  Interestingly, young children tend to laugh as many as 300 times per day!

Have you ever walked past a room full of people just as a loud burst of laughter erupts?  Most of us will stop, and even turn around, to find out what the laughter is all about.  Humans are naturally drawn to laughter; the cadence and rhythm are familiar and instinctual and we want to experience the same "feel good" emotions of those who are laughing.  Laughter is a bonding experience and can help break the ice and nervous tension among strangers. When we laugh together, we immediately have something in common. Laughter is also contagious and even when one misses out on the initial joke, he or she will often end up laughing just because others are laughing.  And one of the best things about laughter -- people don't even have to speak the same language to be able to laugh at the same things.

Laughter affects the body in much the same way that exercise does.  It increases heart rate and burns calories.  A study conducted at Vanderbilt University found that just 10-15 minutes of laughter can burn 50 calories or more.  A good belly laugh causes the diaphragm to expand, contracts the abdominal muscles, and even gives the shoulders a bit of a workout.  Interestingly, the brain does not know the difference between "real" laughter and "fake" laughter.  So even if you aren't in a particularly humorous mood, forcing yourself to laugh (which usually results in real laughter anyway!) can provide all of the same healthy benefits.  Laughter Yoga classes*, which have become quite popular in recent years, use this very method to promote wellness through forced laughter.

It is too easy to get bogged down in the details and seriousness of our busy lives.  Due to work or school, professional commitments, and quiet environments, there are times throughout the day when humor and laughter are inappropriate. Therefore, it is important to take advantage of the opportunity to laugh when you can. Try to find humor in everyday situations.  Learn to laugh at yourself, laugh with others and lighten things up a bit.  Laughter unites people during difficult times and helps shift perspective allowing you see situations  as less threatening.

There are many ways to incorporate more laughter into your life.  Aim for a solid 10-15 minutes of laughter each day.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Look for humor in everyday situations
  • Read the comics section in the newspaper
  • Spend time around funny people
  • Spend time with children
  • When you hear laughter, move towards it
  • Watch funny TV shows and movies
  • Visit a comedy club
  • Purchase a book of jokes
  • Practice telling jokes
  • Interact with pets -- they do some of the funniest stuff!

Remember, smile and the world smiles with you.  Smiling is the beginning of laughter....

"The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter."
           ~ Mark Twain

1. http://www.celebritydiagnosis.com/2011/09/ seth-rogan-and-will-reiser-talk-cancer-in-comedy-5050/

2. Laughter is the "Best Medicine" for Your Heart, University of Maryland Medical Center, http://www.umm.edu/features/laughter.htm

* For more information on laughter yoga, visit Laughter Yoga International at http://www.laughteryoga.org/

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Week 12 - Make time for a healthy lunch....

Lunch is often one of the most overlooked meals of the day.  Whether you are working, are at home, or traveling, it can often be a haphazard, thrown-together, last-minute-idea meal.  Lunchtime tends to be one of the busiest times -- people have a small window of time between meetings, others are busy running errands, and many are literally eating while they are driving.  A portable lunch is convenient on a busy day and people are tempted to whip through the nearest drive through and order a high-calorie sandwich and fries.  It can also be tempting to stay at your desk and work through lunch -- perhaps you are familiar with grabbing nutrient-poor vending machine food and beverages. And a staggering 58% of Americans admit to frequently skipping lunch altogether because they are too busy to stop and eat.  Skipping lunch can lead to snacking on non-nutritious choices in order to make up the caloric deficit; people often resort to eating candy bars, sodas and coffee just to make it through the afternoon.  Unfortunately, these foods are not ideal for fueling your tank midday.

Up to this point, we've already focused on choosing a balanced, filling breakfast as well as a healthy snack.  We are going to continue that theme by choosing the most nutritious and filling ingredients for lunch.  Instead of going out to a restaurant with coworkers or friends for an expensive, oversized lunch, a healthier option is to take a few minutes each evening to plan a balanced midday meal.  A few minutes of planning in the evening will ensure that there are nutritious choices at your fingertips when hunger comes calling.  Knowing that your lunch is already planned and waiting will eliminate bad choices and rash decisions. There's certainly nothing wrong with going out to lunch once in awhile, but make it a treat, not a daily occurrence -- eating out daily can contribute to a shrinking wallet and an expanding waistline.

Just like breakfast, lunch should include a substantial number of calories, enough to keep you full for 3-4 hours.  Most likely you have been running full steam all morning.  Breakfast was hours ago and unless you've included a healthy snack midmorning your energy reserves are running low.  This is the time of day to replenish your body with superior nutritional choices so you have the energy you need to get through the afternoon.  Avoid refined carbohydrates, excessive amounts of sugar, and high-fat meals; instead, choose lean sources of protein, healthy fats such as olive oil and avocado, and unprocessed, complex carbohydrates including plenty of vegetables and fresh fruit.

How do we determine the number of calories to include in our lunch?  For now, try to keep it somewhere in the neighborhood of 350-500 calories (can be slightly higher if you are male or very active, slightly lower for females or sedentary people).  In future posts we will be combining all of the information we've learned about basal metabolic rate (BMR), total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), and determining the number of meals/snacks we want to eat in a day.  It is important to remember that not all calories are created equal.  There is a big difference between eating a large tossed salad with grilled chicken, nuts, vegetables and olive oil vs. eating a burger with fries.  While both meals may contain the same amount of calories there are far more nutrients available to your body in the salad.  Don't fall into the trap of believing that "any old thing will do" for lunch; make this a meal that is chock-full of nutrients and delicious ingredients.  Lunch is your second best chance (after breakfast) to get it right!  Also, don't make the mistake of undereating at lunch.  You have all afternoon to keep moving and burn off calories, so fill up now and keep your metabolism revved all afternoon.

Here are some suggestions for healthy lunches during the busy week:

  • Leftovers from dinner make a perfect next-day lunch.  I find it easiest to put the leftovers into lunch-size plastic containers when I'm cleaning up after dinner.  That way, lunch is ready to go the next day; just grab a container from the fridge and you're all set.
  • Get into the habit of cooking extra meat at dinner.  Grilled or sauteed chicken, fish, pork or lean cuts of beef can be used the next day in a sandwich, on a salad, or mixed in with pasta to make a delicious chilled pasta salad.
  • Salads are particularly quick and easy to put together.  Assemble a base of assorted lettuces and spinach.  Top with a variety of chopped and grated vegetables, a small amount of nuts, shredded cheese and lean grilled meats.  Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
  • On Sundays, make a pot of brown rice.  Drain and rinse a can of black beans and store in a plastic container.  Do the same with canned corn, chickpeas or any other bean/legume.  To prepare a fast lunch during the week, just scoop some of each into a bowl, toss in some chopped lettuce, top with leftover meat, chopped tomatoes and mashed avocado for a delicious, nutritious lunch.
  • On Sundays, also consider making a serving or two of whole wheat pasta.  Drain and chill in the fridge.  To assemble a quick weekday lunch, scoop some pasta into a container; top with a small amount of marinated olives/artichokes/sundried tomatoes/mozzarella (this can be purchased in the deli section of most groceries).  Toss in fresh cherry tomatoes, a handful of fresh spinach and top with leftover chilled meat and a few almonds or walnuts.  The oil from the marinated vegetables is usually sufficient, but you can drizzle a little extra olive oil and balsamic vinegar if necessary.
  • Individual serving size packets of salmon or tuna make a quick and delicious lunch served on a sandwich or a salad.  They don't need to be drained so keep a few of these stashed in your desk at work or in your pantry at home.
  • Leftover homemade soup and chili are a nutritious option for lunch.  It is easily portable in a small thermos.
  • Use a variety of whole grain breads, wraps, pitas and tortillas so sandwiches don't get boring.  Add unusual toppings like sprouts, cucumber slices, avocado, sliced hard boiled egg, and spinach to spice things up.
  • Don't overlook "breakfast" foods for lunch -- yogurt, oatmeal and eggs are just as healthy and delicious at the midday meal.
  • Chopped vegetables with hummus or cottage cheese make a nice side dish for sandwiches -- a healthy alternative to chips
  • If you do end up eating out, review the restaurant's menu and nutritional information online before you go.  There are plenty of healthy options even at fast-food restaurants -- salads, baked potatoes, chili, subs with lean lunchmeat, fruit salads, etc.  Know before you go!
  • Add a piece of fresh fruit to all of the above suggestions to balance out your meal with plenty of healthy carbs and fiber
  • Click here for more delicious lunch options from Eating Well magazine.

Whether you are in the workforce or are at home during the day, taking a proper lunch break is important because it gives you a chance to decompress and destress for a few minutes.  Don't make the mistake of always working through lunch or standing at the kitchen counter snacking while you continue to do housework.  Everyone can benefit from sitting down to a nourishing meal and really focusing on the food in front of them.  Chew your food well (this aids in digestion) and appreciate the different flavors and textures.  Give your mind a rest from your "to do" list.  Take a moment to read something for pleasure, talk with a friend or listen to music.  Allow lunch to be the repast* it is meant to be -- nourishment that is good for the mind, body and soul and will help you face your busy afternoon.

*repast (r-pst) n
1. a meal or the food provided at a meal a light repast
2. food in general; nourishment; the act of taking food or refreshment

Friday, March 25, 2011

Week 11 - S-T-R-E-T-C-H..........

Have you ever watched your pet dog or cat when they wake up from a snooze?  Likely, one of the very first things they do is yawn and stretch.  Front legs extend out on the ground, hind end up in the air, followed by a good stiff-legged stretch of all four legs -- they sure seem to have the art of stretching perfected!  Like our animal friends, we also know how good it feels to stretch upon waking; to reach our arms above our heads, point our toes and extend our legs fully. Sadly, for most of us, as soon as the alarm clock sounds we roll out of bed and hit the deck running.  No time to linger, and certainly no time to stretch.

Up to this point, we have focused on cardiovascular fitness through walking, and strength fitness through resistance training.  The third component we need to add for improved health is flexibility which is accomplished through stretching and other muscle-lengthening activities such as yoga, pilates, tai chi and swimming. Stretching upon waking is a good first step, but we want to incorporate a targeted program into our daily routines just like we did with walking, calisthenics, and resistance training.

Why stretch?  Here are some of the many benefits:
  • improved circulation
  • improved posture
  • stress relief
  • improved coordination
  • improved range of motion
  • reduced risk of muscle and joint injury
  • increased energy levels

While studies about stretching have yielded mixed results -- some show that stretching helps, while others show little benefit (1) -- most health experts agree that stretching, if done properly, is beneficial for overall fitness.  As we age, our muscles tighten and range of motion in joints can become more limited.  Tasks that were once simple, such as reaching something on a high shelf or twisting to pick something up, can become quite difficult and hinder day to day activities.  Regular stretching can help lengthen the muscles, keep motion fluid and prevent injury.  Regardless of age or flexibility, everyone can learn to stretch safely and effectively.  Athletes, and anyone who participates in a sport or exercise, will find stretching to be very beneficial for their particular activity.  For example, golfers have a series of stretches that are specifically designed to help prevent repetitive motion injuries during their swing.  Runners have specific leg and hip stretches, rock climbers rely on a series of upper body stretches, and football players focus heavily on hamstring, glute and groin stretches to prevent injury during explosive moves.

Many of us remember the old-style stretches that were used as a warmup before our "real" exercise -- ice cold muscles were stretched using a bouncing motion which could actually be quite painful at times.  This bouncing motion is known as ballistic stretching and research has shown that this type of stretching is not good for muscles and joints.  Ballistic stretching can cause the muscles and ligaments to expand too far and too fast and result in a pulled muscle.  Also, microscopic tears occur when muscles that have not been properly warmed up are stretched in this manner.  These tears heal by forming new scar tissue and this scar tissue can lead to tighter, less flexible muscles!  A gentler, more effective method is static stretching which involves a long, slow lengthening of the muscles.  This is the type of stretching recommended by most health experts.

Static stretching should be done slowly, and only as deeply as you can comfortably go.  A typical stretching exercise should last anywhere from 15-30 seconds and can be repeated one or two more times.  You should feel some tension on the muscle, but NOT pain.  If you feel pain, you are stretching too hard and too far.  And it is important to feel the stretch all the way through the muscle rather than in the joint. 

How much stretching should you do?  There is no clear cut answer since every person's fitness level, genetics, and motivation are different.  In general though, the more frequently you stretch, the more quickly you will gain flexibility.  At a minimum, you should try to stretch 3-4 times per week for 10-15 minutes per session.  Ideally, you will build up to daily stretching sessions which include all of the major muscle groups.  Incorporating your stretching in with your other exercise is a great way to ensure that you get it done.

Your muscles should always be warmed up before you stretch as stretching cold muscles can increase the risk of pulls or tears.  You can warmup your muscles by jogging in place for a few minutes, doing some light calisthenics, or even taking a warm shower or bath which raises muscle temperature.  Do not lock your joints when you stretch -- try to keep them slightly bent to avoid unnecessary stress.  Breathe normally during stretching.  Do not hold your breath.

It is important to remember that stretching is no longer considered the warmup to an activity, but rather an integral part of your exercise that comes after an effective warmup.  Stretching incorrectly can cause injury so it is important, as with any exercise, to have good instruction.  For the Mayo Clinic's excellent slide show demonstration of basic stretches, click here.  Or you can visit Sparkpeople's very thorough stretching guide here.  You do not have to do the same stretches over and over; muscle tightness can vary from day to day so feel free to try different stretches depending on which muscles need the most attention. 

And now, back to the morning stretch -- when the alarm goes off, resist the urge to hit the snooze button and roll over back to sleep.  Your muscles are already toasty from being under the covers, so use those extra few minutes to get a good stretch in before you get out of bed.  Stretch arms, legs, feet and toes; then slowly draw your knees up to your chest and wrap your arms around your calves.  Feel the long slow pull in your back and through your shoulders and arms.  Hold for 15-30 seconds, and then face your morning already feeling rejuvenated! 

If you're still unsure how to perform a stretch, you can take your cue from this little guy...

1. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stretching/HQ01447

Friday, March 18, 2011

Week 10 - Know your numbers....

It seems that every few years the pendulum swings wildly when it comes to counting calories -- new diets come and go touting everything from strict measuring and weighing of food, to knowing the caloric content of every single item that passes your lips, to burning off a certain number of calories through exercise.  At the other end of the spectrum comes the recommendation to disregard calories altogether -- that as long as you're eating "clean" foods in just the right combinations of carbs, proteins, and fats, calories don't matter at all.  In other words, eat correctly and the calories will take care of themselves.  While both approaches may work for some people, the truth lies somewhere in the middle for most of us.

The reality is, calories do matter.  The human body is a highly complex machine with an amazing ability to adjust to fluctuations in nutritional intake.  But like any machine, it obeys certain laws of physics that just can't be avoided, and the way it utilizes and stores energy is no exception.  Calories matter because the human body only needs so much energy on any given day to perform all of its necessary functions.  We take in a certain number of calories through the foods and beverages we consume. Our bodies do one of two things with those calories:  either they are used immediately for energy, or if not needed at the moment, they are stored as fat.  This law of thermodynamics is quite simple -- eat too many calories and you will gain weight.  Eat too few calories and you will lose weight.  So, if it's that easy, why so much controversy surrounding calorie counting?

To answer that question, we must first understand what calories are. A calorie is not a tangible thing; rather it is a unit of measurement of the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree centigrade.  Huh?  Let's just simplify things by saying that different foods contain different amounts of energy within their structure, and this energy is measured in calories.  A medium apple contains about 100 calories.  A small square of chocolate also contains about 100 calories.  Both foods contain the same amount of energy for our bodies to use.

Counting calories can be quite tedious.  It requires knowledge of (or access to) an exhaustive list of the caloric content of foods.  It requires becoming familiar with exact portion sizes so caloric estimates will be accurate.  It means constantly thinking about every morsel that passes your lips which can diminish the joy of eating.  Counting calories involves scales, measuring cups, and mathematics.  And since most calorie counting is associated with "dieting," it can be downright depressing to have only a relatively small number allowed per day.  Ask anyone who has ever tried to stay on a 1,200 calorie-per-day diet for very long -- it's miserable!

But, to just forget about counting calories because it's too much work can be a huge mistake.  It is very helpful to know approximately how many calories your body burns in a day; in other words, how much energy your body is using up in relation to how much energy you are taking in.  In this way, we can learn the optimal amount of food we should be eating to meet our daily nutritional requirements, prevent excessive weight gain or loss, and maintain a healthy body weight.

The average American male needs around 2,700 calories per day to maintain his weight and the average American female needs around 2,000 calories.  These are only averages; age, activity level, metabolism and genetics all play a role in determining caloric requirements but this is a good starting point for most people.  Keep in mind that the more active you are, the more calories your body needs.  The American Heart Association suggests these calorie levels for most individuals:

     Activity Level and Estimated Calories Burned
 Gender Age (years) Sedentary1 Moderately Active2 Active3
  Female 19–30
  Male 19–30

1  Sedentary means you have a lifestyle that includes only the light physical activity associated with typical day-to-day life.
Moderately active means you have a lifestyle that includes physical activity equivalent to walking about 1.5 to 3 miles per day at 3 to 4 miles per hour, in addition to the light physical activity associated with typical day-to-day life.
3  Active means you have a lifestyle that includes physical activity equivalent to walking more than 3 miles per day at 3 to 4 miles per hour, in addition to the light physical activity associated with typical day-to-day life.

These levels are determined by first taking into consideration one's basal metabolic rate (BMR) -- the amount of calories required by your body just to be alive.  Imagine sitting in a chair all day and not moving at all -- no standing, walking, moving, or anything else.  Your BMR is the amount of calories needed by all of your body systems to function at total rest -- your brain, organs, digestion, respiration, circulation, temperature regulation, immune system, etc.  When you begin to add in any activity, even something as minor as standing up, the caloric demand goes up.  Normal daily walking, household chores, exercise, gardening, lifting and carrying, etc. drive the caloric demand way up above the BMR.  By knowing your BMR and then determining the amount of activity you get on most days, it is easy to come up with a fairly accurate number of calories needed per day.  This number is your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).

There are many different ways to calculate your BMR and TDEE including the Harris-Benedict formula, the Katch McArdle formula* or the more precise method of gas analysis which requires going to a testing facility with specialized equipment. Click here for an easy-to-use BMR calculator. Once you know your BMR, you can calculate the amount of activity you get each day by using an activity calculator such as the one at Fitness Partner.  Add your BMR together with your total estimated daily activity to come up with the amount of calories needed to maintain your weight (TDEE).  While not completely accurate, an even easier method for determining daily caloric need is:

   For fat loss:  multiply 12-13 calories per pound of bodyweight
   For maintenance:  multiply 15-16 calories per pound of bodyweight
   For weight gain:  multiply 18-20 calories per pound of bodyweight

You can play around with the different formulas but in the end you will see that they all yield very similar results.

Are you interested in losing weight?  Since there are 3,500 calories in one pound of fat, you must reduce your total caloric intake by 3,500 calories per week in order to lose a pound.  This conveniently works out to 500 calories per day which can easily be accomplished by trimming only 250 calories from what you eat as well as burning an additional 250 calories through exercise.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Unfortunately, studies show that Americans grossly underestimate the amount of calories they are eating in a day!  The good news, however, is studies also show that most people tend to eat the same foods over and over.  Once you learn the basic caloric values for these favorite foods it becomes much easier to meet your nutritional and bodyweight goals.  Dining out can present a significant challenge because it is often difficult to estimate the number of calories in a meal that someone else prepared.  More and more restaurants are including nutritional information for their menu items and many even publish the information on their websites.  For an eye-opening look at just how many calories some restaurant meals contain, check out the Worst Restaurant Meals Slideshow.  Once you realize that some of these meals contain an entire day's worth of calories, you may begin to rethink your dining choices!

This week, your task is twofold:  to determine your basic daily caloric needs using the formulas or AHA table above, and to begin learning the caloric values of some of your favorite foods.  A good place to start is at Calorie Count.  The site is completely free and offers a wealth of nutritional information as well as online community support.  At this point, we are not interested in counting every calorie down to the last morsel, but rather gaining a general sense of the amount of calories in most of the foods we eat and determining whether certain foods are actually worth the "tradeoff" -- realizing that it takes a 45-minute bike ride to burn off a single brownie just may have you reaching for the apple instead!

In future posts we will be examining calories more closely and coming up with strategies to stretch our calories further -- eating foods that are more nutrient-dense so we stay full longer.  We will investigate "empty" calories in junk food vs. "filling" calories in healthy foods.  For now, get in the habit of reading food nutrition labels and sticking with correct portion sizes. We are building awareness of the delicate energy in/energy out balance under which our bodies operate and this will be very helpful in the future as we restructure our eating habits for optimal health.  Pay particular attention to the number of calories in the healthy breakfasts you are already eating as well as your healthy snack.

For a really neat site that allows you to easily compare foods you are considering eating, check out two foods.  It just may help you make a healthier choice!

* For more information on these formulas:
Harris-Benedict Formula
Katch McArdle Formula