October 04, 2010

Intuitive Eating & Exercise, Cranky Style

Photo: Plan59

Do you keep up with the latest research to create your own health and fitness routines? Follow a best-selling diet book or a popular fitness guru? Or do you take an intuitive approach?

If you're one of those Tweeple who Twitter, or if you've stopped by the blog over the last few months and peeked at the right-hand column, you may have noticed that even though I've been too lazy busy to write blog posts, I'm still tweeting some of the latest health studies. (However, I still don't get Twitter and stubbornly do it all wrong. You're probably better off following a real fitness tweeter with an updated blog like @joycecherrier). But the reason I Tweet is because I'm addicted to these stupid health studies and want to share them. And no matter how ridiculous or inconclusive they are, they often end up influencing my own approach to fitness and nutrition.

Is interval training better for you than conventional cardio? Will drinking milk help you lose weight? Is your morning coffee poisoning you or will it help you live to be 100? What are the absolute best superfoods and the most efficient exercises? When, where and for how long should one exercise/eat/abstain/imbibe/sleep/ruminate/eliminate/meditate/cogitate/medicate/procrastinate/masturbate/exfoliate?

So many questions, and the scientists and experts say they have the answers! Hell, if there are sure-fire secrets to becoming stronger, healthier, happier, slimmer, more energetic and smarter, I want in on 'em.

But there are also a lot of people out there who are moving away from one-size-fits-all expert advice, and who are ditching structured approaches to fitness and nutrition. They are refusing to count calories or label foods as "good" or "bad" or "forbidden." They are participating in only the physical activities they enjoy, and are not worrying overmuch about whether the scientists say there are a bunch of other, better activities they should be doing instead. They check in with their own bodies rather than the latest Science Daily RSS feeds, and trust their own intuition about how to become fit and healthy.

What does Crabby think about all this? Does she have any opinions about how to balance personal intuition and expert advice?

Of course she does--Crabby has opinions about everything! However, before we get into that, here's a totally unrelated question for those with short attentions spans who came here googling "one rule for flat stomach" and are about to surf over to cats morphing into croissants or something equally compelling. Hang on a sec before you leave:

Does anyone have any advice re: Maintaining Fitness post-Menopause and/or Recovering from a Hysterectomy? Please email me at CrabbyMcSlacker at gmail dot com or leave a comment!

I'm planning to do a post on this topic eventually and would love reader advice, warnings, personal experiences, weird-shit-your-mom-told-you, helpful links, etc. I'll run the post sometime after my hysterectomy, scheduled for October 19th. OK, so if they give me any good drugs, I may not understand the advice, but I'll appreciate any I can get. (And no worries, no cancer or anything scary; just loads o' big honkin' citrus-fruit sized fibroids. However, on the cancer front, Cranky co-blogger Jo has been dealing with some tough stuff; be sure to check in over at Head Nurse if you haven't already.)

Now back to the topic at hand...

So Who Knows Best What Your Body Needs: You? Or the Scientists?

Scientists Are Full of It!

How's this for a comforting statistic: apparently almost 70% of findings published in medical journals are refuted within a few years of publication. (Hey, thanks for that info, CalorieLab! ... Um, I think?)

However, I'm not sure what to make of that 70% figure. If over half of the medical research findings are bogus, that means that some of the studies that refute the bogus studies are bogus, which means... wait, my head hurts. And if that's true, wouldn't we be better off letting monkeys flip coins to determine answers to our health and medical questions? They'd be 20% righter!

But wait, if we asked the monkeys, they'd probably tell us to eat a lot of bananas and brachiate more often--which is fine, we'd get lots of potassium and have awesome upper body strength. But then if we only believed the monkeys and ignored modern health and medical discoveries, we wouldn't have doctors or medications or hospitals or iPods or deodorant or elliptical trainers, and we'd have to throw away our meditation tapes and start flinging our own feces around for stress relief. That can't be good. So all in all, I'm not quite ready to ditch the scientists for the coin-flipping monkeys just yet.

However, even if you prefer science to monkeys, it's awfully frustrating that many of the health headlines we read end up being contradicted by other health headlines practically the next day. Following every twist and turn and making lifestyle changes accordingly can drive a person bonkers! (Seriously, I am that bonkers person. Ask the Lobster--it's not pretty).

And that's just the actual scientific research. For every peer-reviewed fitness or nutrition article out there, there are dozens of self-styled pseudo health experts telling you to clean your colon with coffee grounds or do 5000 push ups before breakfast or eat nothing but bee pollen, grapefruit and shiitake mushrooms to rebalance your broken metabolism. No wonder people are saying "the hell with it" and trying to figure out what works best on their own.

But Most People, If Left to Their Own Devices, Are Even More Clueless

If you take a look around at what the average Joe or Jane is eating and doing for physical activity, it makes both the scientists and the monkeys look pretty darn smart. I don't think even a monkey could sit still for four or five consecutive hours of "reality" TV, or contemplate eating a pizza the size of a beach umbrella followed by a quart of Ben and Jerry's. Yet that's what most folks, listening to their own intuition about what they're hungry for and what activities they're up for, end up doing.

As to the successful, healthy intuitive eaters? I suspect they didn't just wake up one day craving brussel sprouts instead of brownies. My guess is that the path to healthy eating involved at least some exposure to scientifically derived "good for you" and "bad for you" information. And also some effort, whether conscious or unconscious, to start hankering after the healthy stuff rather than the junk.

At Cranky Fitness, we tend to take the boring middle ground in most debates, because well, it's firmer and more comfy than the steep teetery controversial edges. So here are some special guidelines incorporating both schools of thought for you to read and ignore when constructing your own health and fitness plan.

The Cranky Fitness Informed-Intuitive Approach to Fitness and Nutrition.

A. How to Use Expert Advice

1. Be at Least Somewhat Aware of Scientific Consensus

Weirdly enough, there is actually a lot of agreement these days among health and nutrition experts about a lot of things. Do you really want to rely solely on intuition to determine if a food you're eating is going to give you cancer or diabetes in 20 years? Take advantage of all that research, you paid for it!

For example, experts seem to agree that getting lots of exercise and not sitting all day is Good for You. They also think refined grains, sugar, HFCS, transfats, processed meats, and excessive sodium are Bad for You. Foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, lean protein and even goodies like dark chocolate, green tea, red wine, avocados and coffee? These are good for you, hooray! (As to high-fat dairy, red meat and artificial sweeteners: sorry, slightly more controversy and contention there).

So if your intuition keeps telling you you need to eat a lot of Cheetos and Krispy-Kremes and Cherry Cokes and footlong chili-cheese dogs? You might want to tell your intuition to go f*ck off for a while until it has something sensible to say.

Sadly, there is a long way to go from the average American junk food diet to the point where one is debating whether raw whole milk from grassfed cows beats pasteurized nonfat, or whether you need to eat fish for Omega-3's or if you can get it from flax seed. So most people can skip worrying about the controversial stuff. Unless you're prepared to make a half-time job out of your health, you'll be doing better than 98% of the population if you just listen to the mainstream experts and heed their advice, however unhip these experts may seem.

2. Consider the Source

Sometimes you read some interesting health tidbit somewhere like "eat papaya every day it burns fat and fights cancer," or, "stop eating tropical fruit, it's got too much fructose and it's gonna give you metabolic syndrome." Well, it's human nature to store that information, no matter how questionable the source. Then you tend to forget where you heard it, and have a totally different reaction when you pass the big pyramid of papayas at the grocery store depending on which article you read.

Tip: don't even open junky non-reputable magazines offering health tips, because the crap you read in there will burn itself into your brain. And when your next door neighbor with the mail-order degree in natural healing starts telling you about the amazing supplement you can buy for only $99 a week that's going to give you more energy than Superman on steroids? Run away!

Where to get boring mainstream advice? Places like WebMd, or Mayo Clinic, or various disease groups like the Heart Association or government agencies like the ones that put out exercise guidelines or the food pyram.... oh wait. Never mind. The food pyramid people seem to have their heads up their asses.

3. Temper Advice With Moderation

Even expert, research-tested advice can be really stupid if you take it to an extreme and don't use common sense. For example, HCFS or transfats may not be good for you, but to freak out over an occasional processed cookie will cause more damage in stress than anything else. Very few substances, even the junky ones, are so toxic that you can't have them every once in a while. There's very little chance that ingesting a single package of Twinkies will cause you to dissolve instantly into a pile of chemically scorched molten mush. That hardly ever happens.

4. Be Prepared to Come Full Circle

I'm old enough to have worn bell-bottoms in the early seventies, and to watch them go from hip and happenin' to ugly and unfashionable and hideous. So then when they came back around again in the 90's and filled the store shelves so I had to buy them all over again? It just killed me!

Same thing happens in health research: old, out-of-fashion ideas come back around. For example, I am now pouring whole milk in my coffee (albeit the organic, grassfed, CLA-rich kind), after I totally trained myself to like nonfat. It tastes good but it seems so wrong! I'm prepared to switch back off it again if this whole CLA thing turns out to be a bunch of hooey. But I doubt my own intuition would have led me to embrace, reject, and then re-embrace dairy fat over and over.

B. How to Use Your Own Intuition

1. Slow the Heck Down and Pay Attention

"Intuition" doesn't mean habit, impulse, reflex, or half-assed, distracted, illogical thinking. It requires careful observation of your own body, how it reacts in different situations, and some monitoring of your own thought processes.

Sometimes it's hard to figure out whether you're really hungry or just bored; whether you're too tired from over-training to work out or just feeling lazy; or whether it's time to stop ignoring that funny lump and make a doctor's appointment. These decisions are even more difficult if you're on auto-pilot and not really paying attention.

So if you want to move away from diets and programs and rules and guidelines and doctor's orders? Then you have to step up and be present and accountable for your own well-being. There are some basic intuitive eating principles you can read about, and folks like Marsha over at A Weight Lifted or MizFit are big believers in intuitive health and fitness; check out their blogs for a sane, self-affirming approach to ditching diets and learning to personalize your own routine.

2. If You're Like Me: You May Have to Start With the Counter-Intuitive Approach

I follow a lot of the principles of intuitive eating, and intuitive exercise too. But totally by accident! I didn't arrive at the point where I actually enjoy and crave healthy foods and vigorous exercise by following my intuition. My intuition is pretty darned happy with cheeseburgers and cokes and brownies. Instead, I ignored my deep-felt preferences and inclinations and forced myself, over years and years, to try a lot of healthy, unappealing foods until I got used to most of them and even started to like them. And I made myself cut way back on yummy, delectable treats that I love, until I got out of the habit of expecting them very frequently. Exercise? Same thing. I sweated out a lot of classes and workouts that were sometimes no fun at all to get to the place where I've discovered enough fitness options I don't hate to keep me in reasonable shape.

However, if you naturally crave steamed vegetables and brown rice and getting up at 4 a.m. to work out, and you happen to despise warm cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven, crunchy nachos smothered in melted cheese, and lazing around reading the Sunday paper when you could be exercising, you may not need a Counterintuitive training period at all.

3. Don't Confuse Intuition with Wishful Thinking

This seems obvious in theory but is harder in practice. How many times have you heard someone express a self-serving, short-sighted, self-destructive impulse as a "gut feeling" that they just had to go with? "Sure, it may sound crazy to walk out on my job and my 20 year marriage and my darling kids to follow the hot Pilates instructor to Portugal to start an avant-garde theater troupe featuring trained parrots doing Shakespeare in exotic costumes, but I looked deep within and I just know, intuitively, that I'm doing exactly the right thing!"

4. Find Your Own Answers

Here's where the intuitive style and the scientific style can most complement one another. Learn to become your own lab rat! Because mainstream scientific advice often is about averages. And people are not statistics. Do you build more muscle mass using heavy weights and low repetitions, or light weights and high repetitions? Well, it doesn't matter what the scientists say if you've performed your own experiments and found out what works best for you. Can you skip breakfast with no ill effects? Does coffee keep you up at night? Do artificial sweeteners help you lose weight or cause you to put on pounds? Does chocolate give you migraines? Some questions don't require you to wait for the results of 20-year longitudinal studies of 200,000 randomly assigned research subjects. Pick something you're curious about, change it, and meanwhile don't mess with anything else for a few weeks, and then observe the results.

For example, in the course of dealing with my stupid plantar fasciitis, I found out that while interval training and long walks and strength training and stretching are all fine and dandy, my blood pressure only drops into a happy range when I'm doing 30-60 minutes of pretty heavy-duty cardio 5 or more days a week. Of course it took not being able to walk for more than ten minutes at a time to motivate me to stay on the elliptical that much, but whatever. Useful information! (And yes, I am finally seeing a PT for the PF and I'm hoping to God to see some improvement soon or I'm going to shoot somebody.)

5. Know When Your Intuition Tends to be Horseshit

Some mistakes that are so psychologically compelling, we just keep making them over and over because they feel so right at the time.

For some, it's the fantasy that "I'll just have one...[potato chip, tequila shot, week off from the gym]." If you are a person who can just have one, or a few, but get back on track? No worries! If you can't, your intuition may be screwing with you. If it does so over and over, it may be time to replace intuition with actual, you know, rules.

Another common "intuitive" error? Thinking that a short-term feeling of virtue is so important it's worth risking long-term health. This can lead to fad diets, weird cleansing rituals, or exercising too much while injured--which I suspect is the reason for the never-ending plantar fasciitis I was talking about. (Of course the most hilarious expert in over-training issues is Charlotte at The Great Fitness Experiment. Since all of you are fans already, and probably haven't been offline nearly as much as I have over the summer, I probably don't need to tell you she's back blogging again and has a new fitness book coming out soon! And another blogger inspiring me to pay attention to my foot issues and stop overdoing it is the always amusing Cranky co-blogger Merry, who is over at Sheesh dealing with frustrating foot issues of her own.)

So how about you guys? Do you take an intuitive approach, follow an expert, read the studies, or have other methods for deciding how to get fit and healthy and stay that way?

June 08, 2010

Thoughts on Turning 50... Besides: Holy Crap, How the Hell Did That Happen?

So this is the post that's supposed to go something like: "Oh gosh, I'm hitting a major milestone birthday today and... I'm just thrilled to pieces! I'm not growing older, I'm growing BETTER! And now readers, hold onto your hats: I'll reveal some surprising secrets to enjoying a deliriously happy middle age!"

That's what most health and fitness writers would do, right? Everyone else in this game seems to age gracefully and cheerfully. It's supposed to come with the territory: not only should a health blogger be physically healthy, but she should have frequent life-changing epiphanies and accumulate valuable wisdom. Looking deep within to find profound spiritual meaning in everyday moments, she accepts with gratefulness the inevitable life transitions, opening her heart fully to greet the wonder of each new day.

Yeah, well, screw that.

Like it or not, I'm turning 50, and I find my skeptical, introverted, semi-neurotic personality still pretty much intact. Which I'm fine with--but it means I'm probably not the best person to give others advice on handling this transition. So instead I'll just share some personal observations about what sucks for me and what doesn't suck so much about turning 50.

Things I Hate About Turning 50 And/Or Becoming Middle Aged

1. It came way too fast

Such a cliche, right? But I swear I just turned 30 about 2 years ago. Which means in another 4 years: poof! I'll be 90.

So hey, smarty-pants scientists, could you folks get on this? Surely there must be some practical application for your string theories and strange attractors and black holes and quarks and whatnot. Let's spend a little less time developing apocalyptic video games and surprising new flavors of vitamin water, and a little more time figuring out how to slow time the fuck down, okay?

2. Wait, whose face is that in the mirror?

Has this ever happened to you? You're out having a fun evening with friends, laughing and feeling all social and happy and carefree. Then you go to use the restroom, and as you finish washing your hands, you innocently look up in the mirror just to make sure you haven't got visible vegetable matter stuck in your teeth or a tomato sauce rorschach blot displayed on the front your blouse. But what's this? The lighting is coming from some weird, wrong direction, casting creepy shadows that reveal the reflection of a hundred year old woman with your hairstyle and clothing.

Hello? Who is that woman? Oh wait, that's YOU! Not the fresh-faced 30-year old version of you that lives only in your head and your old photo albums. No, it's the real you complete with crows feet, frown lines, jowls, and those oh-so-special "marionette" lines. Sigh.

I'm afraid my customary facial anti-aging techniques are no match against the steady march of time. They consist of: (1) wishing I hadn't spent my youth in the sun; (2) cursing my genetic predisposition to premature wrinkles; (3) wearing extra sunscreen now to retroactively undo the damage despite knowing it doesn't work that way; (4) thinking someday I should actually purchase and learn how to apply make-up like most female humans but never actually getting around to it because department store cosmetic saleswomen scare me; and (4) avoiding mirrors except for ones with extremely flattering light.

Many signs of aging you can fight with exercise, but despite some weird infomercials I've seen, I don't think wrinkles are one of 'em.

Scientists? Um, if it's gonna take too long to figure out how to slow time down, could you at least give us a pill that eliminates wrinkles? Even at 50 I'm way too immature to simply not give a crap that I look 10 years older than I am.

3. The whole ticking clock issue
Those of you who do the religion thing and believe there's a happy heavenly eternal afterlife where you get to be reunited with anyone you've ever loved? You probably don't have a huge problem with the whole limited-time-on-earth concept. The same for those of you who expect to be reincarnated. And those of you who don't think there's an afterlife but find the awareness of your impending mortality to be a life-affirming inspiration to enjoy every moment? Good for you!

Me? Knowing that 50 is more than halfway to Dead just creeps me the hell out.

4. Oh Yeah, and My Memory is Crap

As I may have mentioned before about a thousand times.

Things About Turning 50/ Middle Age I Have Mixed Feelings About:

1. Gray Hair

The strands of silver (or ok, white) that are appearing with increasing frequency serve to remind me that I'm not young anymore. That part I don't like at all.

But I've always had dark brown hair, and it would have looked fake and ridiculous had I tried to highlight it with anything other than slightly-less-dark brown hair. So for me, having little flecks and streaks of another color in my hair is kinda fun! Even if it's the color most often associated with using walkers and wearing Depends.

2. The "Change of Life"
I'm having my first hot flashes, and strangely enough, I'm kinda happy about that. I know, check back with me in a few months when I'm complaining mightily, but for right now, I'm kinda ready to get this whole "menopause" show on the road. I'm reaching the part of peri-menopause where some women (lucky us) are blessed with epic menstrual cycles of the "I can't stray more than 5 minutes away from a restroom or it will look like a Sam Peckinpah film in here" variety. I equate the start of hot flashes with, I hope, the beginning of the end of Periods from Hell.

3. Wear-and-Tear Injuries

Yeah, my knees, my feet, my back, yada yada yada. I hate when I can't do my most favorite sort of workout. It seems to happen a little more often now that I'm older, though I've had knee issues off and on since I was 17.

But here's the thing: I always find something I can do when injured, and after I've recovered, I'm really glad to have learned some new tricks. I'm too stubborn and lazy to change up my routines unless I absolutely have to. I figure occasional messed up knees and feet and back muscles are nature's way of saying "Take your head out of your ass and do something DIFFERENT, Crabby!"

Things That Actually Kinda Rock About Turning 50:

1. I feel great.

Seriously, I have more energy, more muscle strength, less anxiety, a stronger immune system, and less trouble maintaining a healthy weight than I ever had before. I sleep great, never get sick, have a ton of fun, a great marriage, awesome friends, and I'm pretty darn content with my life. (Now watch, I'll head into menopause and it will all go straight down the toilet--but for now at least, all is good). As a young adult looking ahead, it never would have occurred to me that being 50 could feel this good. So, dear young people: you know all that cheerleady crap you hear about how you should eat right and get exercise and plenty of sleep and not smoke or abuse drugs and how you should nurture your close relationships and be financially responsible, etc., etc. etc? It's annoying as hell to listen too--but weirdly enough, it's true. You'll thank yourself later.

2. "Wisdom" may be putting it too strongly, but...

There are lots of things you get smarter about as you get older. In fact, there's a book I've been meaning to read, "The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind," but, um, I keep forgetting to see if the library has it in yet.

Apparently memory isn't one of those surprising middle-aged talents.

But anyway, it does seem like what we lose in processing speed and recall, we gain in general smarts. At least, when I think back to some of the dumb-ass things I did as a young adult, I hope I'm getting smarter.

3. The Road Ahead Looks Less Crappy Than I Would Have Thought

So the major drawback to hitting my fifties seems to be the idea that I'm in my 50's--and the assumption that life will soon start to accelerate in a downhill direction. And yet, I hang out with folks in their 50's, 60's, and 70's who are still kicking ass and having a blast. (True, those I know in their 80's and 90's are slowing down a bit, but many are still hanging in there with pretty reasonable quality of life). And every day I seem to read about some promising new study or medical intervention or anti-aging strategy. So perhaps it's not inevitable that my body is going to disintegrate in to a rickety, malfunctioning, toxic pile of bitter complaints anytime in the near future. (And if I'm wrong, please stay tuned for my new blog, "Really, Really, REALLY Cranky Fitness.")

Anyone else facing a Big Birthday or life transition? Any helpful advice?

April 19, 2010

Happiness is a Home Gym

Who cares that we finally got around to putting a home gym in our basement? Well, nobody, probably, but that's why it's great to have a half-dead blog visited by a bunch of imaginary blog readers. I can post stuff occasionally when I get all excited and just pretend people are reading it. (And if the lovely folks at Blogher decide to syndicate the post), I even get to feel like a real blogger again for a few minutes.

So yeah, after years of petty, bitter complaints about our local gym (The temperature! The squeaky equipment! The "having to share!") we finally decided to create a more functional exercise space in our basement. We already had a super-cheap but quite serviceable treadmill (thank you, Sears warehouse) as well as some dumbbells and other odds and ends.

The problem? We figured a workout space that didn't evoke suicidal thoughts might be nice.

But this is what we started with:

Nice, huh?

Though for some perspective... here's a shot of that same space when the previous owners occupied it:

Walking lunges? A bit of a challenge.

And now? Well, we're still dealing with a poorly lit, unfinished basement-- complete with an exposed ceiling, ugly pipes, rusty beams, inexplicable holes, odd protrusions and miscellaneous dangly things. But at least it's now a freshly-painted and cleaned-up unfinished basement.


Note the low-tech approach: what we couldn't slap paint on, we covered up with shower curtains. And the gym "flooring" came from Costco and cost approximately the same amount per square foot as toilet paper.

Now wait... what's that back there under the window? Is that... no... could it be?

Yes it is! It's a Precor 5.23 elliptical! Crabby has been pining for one of these babies FOREVER.

Yes, this was the real motivation for the "dump the gym, workout at home" initiative. We hunted for a refurbished Precor, shopped it to death, and finally found this EFX 5.23 for a tiny fraction of what it cost new. Which was still a crapload of money.

But hell, we figure in about 147 years, we should save enough in gym dues to totally make up for it!

Let's see it from another angle, shall we?

See how happy I look? I really have wanted one of these since the dawn of time.

Note: the Lobster was also photographed on the elliptical, and looked totally adorable, but she failed to appreciate this obvious fact and refused to let me post her photo. Spoilsport. But I do let her use the elliptical sometimes too, I promise.

What else is in our home gym? Well, lots of miscellaneous doohickeys we've accumulated over the years. You may notice the collapsible Crabitron in the background; it's still one of my favorite workout machines.

Another awesome feature that the handy Lobster added was a pull-up bar. Now, after years of failed attempts, I can finally do two whole pullups in a row. Or even more fun, three chin-ups! (Yes, some people work doggedly to save the earth, create financial empires, build massive skyscrapers, heal the sick, find inner peace... my goal was one unassisted pull-up before I turned fifty. I'm so proud.)

And yeah, I'm actually still using that TRX thingy you see hanging there, though not to make fitness porn movies, I swear.

Now here's where a real health blogger with a non-imaginary audience might offer some fresh tips on creating your own home gym. But, well, I'm too lazy. I can, however, offer some stale tips written 6 months ago on budget home gyms.

In any event, it is rare for me to be so HAPPY about working out. I'm sure when the novelty of our new home exercise space wears off, I will go back to my usual whining.

How are all my imaginary friends--having a good spring? Finding any new fitness options that don't suck? I miss you guys!

February 26, 2010

Auntie Jo's Final, Timeless Rules for Fitness and Whining

This guy is great! I have a hat of his, and it's kickass.

I hate goodbyes. Especially long ones. Especially ones I didn't think of myself. And most especially those that take me away from the poolside blogging hut, complete with cabana people and fruity drinks and foot massages.

But, you know, some things just have to happen. As Gigi said, it's not everybody who can go out on a high note. She and I have been very lucky to get to blog with Crabby McSlacker in her prime, and I'm endlessly thankful for the opportunity.

That said, I can't go away without imparting some final long-winded yammering wisdom.

Thus, Auntie Jo's Timeless Rules for Fitness and Whining.

There are only three. See long goodbyes, above.

Rule Number Three: (we're doin' it Letterman-style!)

Do What You Like.

If you really hate running on the treadmill but have a ridiculous passion for Scottish country dancing, what the hell are you still doing on the treadmill? You might get fit that way, but you'll never get happy.

Rule Number Two:

All Things In Proportion.

Note here that I do not say "moderation". I'm not a big fan of moderation; life is meant to be experienced in (as Robert Heinlein said) big bites. Go big or go home, I say, with one caveat:

If what you're doing is out of proportion to the rest of your life, it will end up hurting you in the long run.

Trying to get rid of that last ten pounds is admirable. So is trying to run a marathon by your fiftieth birthday. BUT! If your obsession with or attention to those things are making you miserable every time you look in the mirror, or taking you away from things which ought to be more important, you need to moderate. You might reach your goal by being obsessive, but you won't be happy about it.

And, finally, Rule Number One:

Do What Makes You Happy.

Seriously. That's it. And that's it, coming from a person who has a whole stable of tips, techniques, and drugs to keep crushing depression and anxiety at bay.

Happiness is a goal, not a destination, yadda yadda yadda. Even in the absolutely worst times, though, you can still grab a little dose of happy. It might be through playing with your kids, or somebody else's kids, or patting a puppy, or doing an imitation of a drunken orangutan during your workout. Whatever it is, grab it and savor it. Never pass up the opportunity to giggle. Never pass up the opportunity to tell a really corny joke, or disco your way through step class, or generally be a lunatic, if that's what makes you happy. If what makes you happy is acting like Constipated Dick Cheney, then do that too, but stay the hell away from me.

Thanks again for your attention and support these last months. I'm available at both Head Nurse (nursey blogging goodness!) and The Wednesday Whine, which is my civilian blog.

See you on the track/in the gym/on a walk! (I'll be the one in the squid hat.)

February 25, 2010

Happy Trails To You....

Happy Trails, Crabby...(sniff)
Photo: whatleydude

I’ll be riding off into the Cranky Fitness sunset today as it is my last post here, although I can still be found at the less palatial offices of ChunkyMonkeyMama, where I’ll be brewing my own coffee and doing my own manicures from now on. Stakes are being pulled up and Crabby’s new camp will set up again in parts beyond here. She’s moving on but, as with every successful person and helpful friend we’ve had the pleasure to know and admire in life, she’ll be leaving a part of herself still here at Cranky Fitness while she takes on a new challenge elsewhere. I’m sad to have it end but oftentimes, the wisdom to know when something’s done, and to be able to step out at the top of your game, is undervalued in times like these. I cite Frank Sinatra’s many retirement “comebacks” when the last impression he left us was sounding (and looking) like Joe Cocker instead of the fabulous albums made with Nelson Riddle or Count Basie. The “American Pie” sequels go on and on like a herpes virus, and Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve - will somebody please tell him it’s time to get off the stage. Very few of us are lucky enough to go out on a high note and on our own terms but Crabby hit just the right balance here.

And speaking about balance, how genius was it of her to combine fitness – which many of us still view with loathing and contempt – with humor? If there’s one thing I’ve learned here (and it’s damned hard to teach this old dog new tricks), it’s that anything can be made more palatable when you add gentle humor and oh-so-subtle sarcasm. Or even ballpeen hammer sarcasm. Laughing at ourselves or the process lightens more than just the numbers on the scale (which I know is not the only measure of fitness, as we’ve discussed here many, many times) – it also elevates our spirits so we finally start believing that yes, we are supremely capable of achieving our fitness goals.

Crabby is a genuinely gifted writer. She has always been informative and funny, interested and inquisitive, and has always cared deeply about her friends and readers. Even her throw-away lines like, “your mileage may vary”, would leave me laughing. I hope the sadness she feels at leaving is somewhat tempered by how much she has contributed to the discussion and by how many of us she informed, entertained and befriended. I feel so honored to have been a part of it and hope she remembers me when I show up some day at the stage door of the Broadway theater at the premiere of “Cranky Fitness – The Musical!”

Good luck, my friend. Many thanks for the opportunity to work with you and all the laughs. You’ll be missed. 'Til we meet again.

February 24, 2010

So Long, Everyone!

So, wow. This is my last scheduled post for Cranky Fitness.

I figured I should leave you all with some sort of thoughtful, inspiring finale. An earnest but well-crafted farewell, filled with genuine gratitude, a nostalgic round-up of fond memories, some sincere good wishes, and a few helpful, hopeful, final words.

But then I realized that someone was actually gonna have to write the damn thing.

And wouldn't it be weird if Crabby McSlacker's goodbye post was earnest, thoughtful, and inspiring? I'd have to hire out, and you'd probably notice the difference, and you'd wonder where all the swear words and incomplete sentences went.

So I'm afraid you're stuck with regular old Crabby McSlacker, saying a rather half-assed goodbye. Sorry! I'll try to keep it short and simple.

First off, a few administrative things:

1. There are still a couple more days of the old Cranky Fitness, and Jo and Gigi haven't said their goodbyes yet. (And yeah, I know it's confusing that there are three of us).

2. Even after my cobloggers sign off, Cranky Fitness will still exist, just not as an ongoing blog--it will be more like a regular website. And there may still be occasional updates, so check back every now and then!

Also, I'm hoping to come back and organize the posts by topic so you can find things in the archives more easily. There is some actual health research back there, as well as questionable advice, bad puns, pointless quizzes, and a ridiculous number of LOLcat pictures and Natalie Dee cartoons. I promise I'll come back and knock some cobwebs off and tidy up the shelves a bit.

3. To cope with blog withdrawal symptoms, I may be using that dadburned newfangled "Twitter" thing I recently signed up for. I still don't quite get what the point is, but I've discovered that the 140 character limit is still more than enough space for me to express all my profound thoughts. I wonder if I'm brilliantly succinct? Or just completely empty-headed?

Wait, that was a rhetorical question...

Anyway, whether you're already on Twitter or if you just need an excuse to sign up so that you can find out what it's about, please follow me! Not that I'm desperate or anything. I don't mind being that geeky kid in the playground no one wants to eat lunch with. Really, it's nice not to have to share my sandwiches, and peace and solitude are conducive to deep and meaningful reflection, don't you think?

4. Some of you have asked about my new job: yes, it is web-based and involves health writing, hooray! But, well, I'm afraid it's a commercial-type site and not a blog. It involves medical equipment and honestly, it's not probably anything you'd want to read on purpose. The site hasn't launched yet, but when it does I'll mention it on Twitter, and you can go there and think: Oh! Well, Crabby was right, this isn't very much like Cranky Fitness. Let's just buy some expensive medical devices and then leave quietly and pretend we never clicked.

And now for some final thoughts:

Oh my gosh, I am SO going to miss you guys!

Some of you, like Leah and BunnyGirl, have been here from the first few posts. (This is back in the day when I wrote, quite awkwardly, in the third person. I don't actually recommend you go back that far to browse). Others of you have started coming to Cranky Fitness more recently. But none of you probably have any idea how much it's meant to me to get to hang with you.

I love reading your comments, visiting your blogs, receiving your emails, and spying on you through our stat program to see which pages you've visited and what search terms you used to get here. (Oh, sorry, did that last part creep you out? Don't worry, the stat program doesn't give bloggers your actual name or address or picture or anything. Yet.)

Cranky Fitness readers are unrivaled in their original, insightful, and hilarious comments on everything from self-esteem and weight discrimination to push-ups, fish oil, and semi-naked soccer players. I often share my favorite comments with the Lobster, and she agrees: you guys are the best.

And I've been especially lucky to share the blog with such wonderful cobloggers. Fortunately Merry, Jo, and Gigi all have blogs of their own and I hope you will follow them at Sheesh, Chunky Monkey Mama, and Head Nurse.

So gosh... I guess this is it! I've had a total blast with this thing.

Photo: Plan 59

Goodbye! Be good to yourselves! And thanks again for all the good times.

Over an' Out,
Crabby McSlacker

February 23, 2010

I just have to tell y'all this:

Remember that stupid exercise that broke my knee? (Well, sprained it and made it make weird popping noises.) My trainer emailed the woman from whom she'd learned that move, and got the following breezy response:

"My clients wear knee braces during plyometrics to prevent that sort of injury."

Auntie Jo just made up a new rule. I am pretty damn hardcore in my workouts, but I will stick to this one:

If you have to have protective equipment to prevent a lifelong injury *while working out in your own home*, YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.

In lighter news: My new trick knee went out from under me last night at work, causing me to lurch forward suddenly. The patient whose room I was in looked up from the bed and said, "Oh! I didn't realize Toyota was making legs now!"

Let's Talk Snacks.

I think not.

It's Tuesday, the perfect day to talk about snacks. *Any* day is a good day to talk about snacks, but there's something about Tuesdays that just makes me all about the snackage.

I work nights. Working nights is unnatural, stressful, and makes you prone to weight gain. (Old joke: What's the difference between a night nurse and an elephant? About ten pounds.) It's also hard to eat a real meal when you work nights, as eating a real meal will make you want to fall asleep immediately thereafter, and there's always something going on you shouldn't sleep through.

Working nights also means you don't have a lot of appetite during the day, if you happen to be awake. I've developed a Theory Of Serious Snacking that has gotten me through two months of night shift without weight gain (in fact, I've lost another seven pounds or so), without nappitude, and without blowing my daily allotment of points or my patience.

The first thing to remember about snacking is that there are certain foods that will make you sleepy or bloated or just knock out your energy. For me, those are carbohydrates. In moderation, I can handle carbs; give me a meal composed mainly of them, though, and I'll be snoozing on the desk in no time.

The second thing to keep in mind is portion size. Snacks are meant to be consumed in small portions, frequently, to keep your blood sugar up and your metabolism off baseline. My own rule of thumb is that if it can be rolled up in a small corn tortilla, it is officially snack-sized.

And finally, what you want in a snack is contrast. You want something a little crunchy, a little savory, maybe a little sweet (though I don't have much of a sweet tooth). You could call a cup of mashed potatoes a snack, but it would be kind of unsatisfying unless you're eating it while standing in the kitchen in your bathrobe.

Sugar snap peas are my go-to crunchy thing. Alone, they're tasty. Dipped in some ranch dressing that was made with nonfat buttermilk, they're divine. Steamed, with a shake of rice vinegar, they're sort of Asian-influenced and can be eaten cold, as they keep their crunch nicely.

Carrot chips and sticks and slices are another good choice. Being a root vegetable, they contain enough carbohydrates to feed your brain without making it want to crash from dopamine overload. With peanut butter or without, they're surprisingly satisfying. If you want the sweetness of carrot but you can't stand carrot, try jicama slices. Jicama is that vegetable that looks like a turnip on steroids--it can be sliced and eaten raw, and it's nummy.

I often steam, then marinate, asparagus and green beans. You can find both in the freezer section in steambags. Both can be eaten cold, out-of-hand (after you drain the marinade off), and both will inspire envy and admiration in onlookers.

Baby corn and artichoke bottoms are another envy-inspiring combo. I prepare these by opening the cans and rinsing off the excess salt. Put in a plastic container with some thin strips of red or orange bell pepper, they're visually pleasing and surprisingly filling.

"Okay, fine," I hear you saying, "But what about the protein? Rabbit food won't keep me going through a long day of meetings and ferrying the dogs around to playdates and picking out paint at Walgetspotorama."

Depending on your Snack Situation, you can go one of two ways; Non-stinky or stinky protein. I snack around a forgiving bunch of folks, many of whom come from cultures where dried, then deep-fried, baby squid are considered a treat. You should try those, by the way--they're quite nice. Anyway...

Non-stinky protein choices include low-salt deli meats rolled up with a small amount of cheese, salted or unsalted nuts (watch that portion size, though), cheese sticks, yogurt, protein bars (ick yuck blargh ptooie), or a serving of a cereal like Kashi Go Lean. Any of those choices can be stuck into a plastic container and eaten with your fingers, except maybe the yogurt. Unless you like messy snacking.

Stinky protein involves things like tuna, drained and dressed with olive oil and a grinding of black pepper and a squirt of lemon juice. Yummy! It could also mean flaked salmon with a dollop of sour cream and some pepper. Or maybe you have some leftover deep-fried squid you're hankering after: if you work with me, I might try to bogart some. Peanut butter falls under the Stinky Protein category, primarily because of the prevalence of peanut allergies in the world. Be careful when eating peanut butter in company; you don't want somebody falling over with a reaction in the middle of your nosh.

The final category of Snackages is The No-Brainer Snack. Fruit is the perfect example: with the exception of things like pinapple and kiwi, it can be eaten out of hand, without preparation. It's sweet, it's filling, and it gives you a little boost of energy.

Crackers and other savories are also No-Brainers, but be watchful of fat and sodium content. Target has these house-brand multigrain crackers that are like crack to me, but I can only have a few. A few, though, is what a snack is all about. Check out your local ethnic grocery or World Market for things that are slightly off the beaten path, like Asian or Indian snacks. They can add a little spice--figuratively and literally--to your three a.m. or three p.m. nosh.

Granola bars and weird healthy cookies are good choices if you want something sweet. Just try to get the sort that contain enough protein (at least a couple of grams per serving) that you don't end up having a sugar crash halfway through little Murgatroyd's soccer practice.

I package everything in those little stash-sized bags with the zip tops, or in teeny little plastic containers I can throw in the dishwasher. And I haul a veritable smorgasbord of snackage to work with me every day. (The word smorgasbord reminds me: why not try tiny slices of good rye bread with tomato and dill? Or a little thinly-sliced roast beef rolled up with a smear of horseradish? Or some smoked herring? No? Okay.)

Basically, look at what you had for dinner. If you can imagine eating it cold, then it's a good snack candidate. Once you've gotten out of the mindset that snacks have to come prepackaged in a vending machine, the world opens up. You can eat healthier, without sugar dumps, and maybe--if you play it right--trade some of that rye bread with tomato for a couple of little squidlians.

February 22, 2010

The Care and Feeding of Your Inner Crab

There are a hundreds of health and fitness bloggers out there who can offer excellent tips for improving your diet, getting in great shape, staying cheerful in the face of adversity, achieving your most cherished goals, and just generally approaching life with an energetic, positive attitude.

Obviously, that's never been my forté.

I don't think everyone is naturally cheerful, or easily motivated. On the other hand, plenty of grumpy, unenthusiastic, and downright lazy folks like myself have discovered the amazing benefits of good nutrition and vigorous exercise. We can commit to healthy living, and we do it. We may even enjoy certain aspects of it. But often we grumble. Healthy living can be a huge a pain in the ass.

But please don't pity us foot-dragging, cautious cynics. It's my contention that a certain amount of cranky skepticism when approaching health and fitness is not necessarily a bad thing.

Ever notice how many cheerful optimists announce plans to go completely raw-food vegan, or run a marathon, or lose 50 lbs--and then they just as cheerfully abandon these plans a month later to take up scrapbooking or tend to virtual livestock on FarmVille? They never expected that lifestyle changes would be such a hassle! Meanwhile, grumpier folks might complain about missing our cheeseburgers or Krispy Kremes or setting our alarms at 5 a.m. to work out--yet decades later, here we are, still doing our whiny best to tackle this whole "healthy living" thing. It never occurred to us that it would be easy.

So as the good ship Cranky Fitness sails off into the sunset (this is our last week of regular posting, though the blog will remain open for occasional updates) I'd like to offer some advice on Crabbiness. We all have an Inner Crab; but unlike the Inner Child movement, few people have advocated letting the poor Inner Crab out.

Well, phooey to that! There good times and bad times to be a Crab. A few ideas:

When to Exercise Your Inner Crab

1. Evaluating Sales Pitches

Image: indiamos

Optimistic types are much more likely to believe claims like "Read this book and lose 20 pounds in two weeks!" or "tone your entire body with one simple exercise!" or "try this cucumber-cactus needle 30 day cleanse and feel like a million!" Just because you want something to be true, does not make it so. Wishful thinking is a natural human tendency, and if someone can make a buck off yours, they will. So before you part with hard-earned money, listen to your Inner Crab and accentuate the negative. Don't believe what advertisements say until you've done some independent research.

2. Time-consuming and/or dangerous endeavors

Let's say your best friend's lifelong dream is an ascent up Mount Everest--and she wonders if you'd like to come along. Do you picture yourself at the top, admiring the view and posing for pictures, and figure the rest will just come naturally? Or do you envision frostbite, altitude sickness, avalanches, alienated family members, drained bank accounts, and extended periods of being freezing-ass cold and eating crappy food?

Well, the ability to imagine the downside of energy-sucking or risky pursuits, no matter how glamorous they sound, can be a huge advantage in setting meaningful priorities in life. Unless it's been your lifelong dream to climb the stupid mountain, in which case, what the hell, go for it.

3. Bullies

True, a crabby attitude won't help you if someone is threatening to give you a wedgie if you don't hand over your lunch money. But as an adult, bullying can be more subtle. Some folks feel threatened or inconvenienced by healthy habits, and might try to guilt you or otherwise manipulate you. Perhaps they want you to eat food you know isn't good for you, or skip your workout to go out barhopping, or to jump on the back of a motorcycle without a helmet.

You don't have to be a Crab to be assertive, but it helps. Sometimes non-crabby people are so optimistic about human nature they make excuses for assholes overly demanding companions, and become so easy-going they always put others first even when the demands are unreasonable. If you know you're being bamboozled into bad behavior, maybe it's time to embrace your Inner Crab and say "screw it!"

4. Lame Temptations

It's one thing to indulge in a tempting pleasure that you've earned and that you know you will enjoy. But if you're faced with an indulgence you don't even really want all that much, and are just succumbing out of habit or weakness, then be crabby and pissed off about your stupid choice before you make it, not after. Be pessimistic and emphasize the negative; don't exaggerate the potential pleasure a guilty treat will give you. (And then celebrate your awesome self-discipline when you take the high road).

5. Setting Goals

Another good time not to be too optimistic: when you're committing to a new self-improvement endeavor and figuring out how much you'll expect of yourself. Many would disagree with me, but I think optimistic over-promising can lead to a sense of failure, when you're actually making positive changes! Let your inner Crab reign in your expectations just a little, so that there's more room to exceed your own expectations.

When to Cage the Crab

Even lifelong Crabs like myself know that there are times when pessimism and orneriness are not our friends. So proper Inner Crab training involves the frequent use of at least a leash and/or a muzzle.

1. Poor Performance and General Screwing Up

In any self-improvement endeavor, there will be times (LOTS and LOTS of times) when you won't measure up to your own expectations. This is normal and natural and it does not mean that all is lost or that you will never meet your goals. It means you need to stop beating yourself up, figure out a better strategy, and keep on doing your best.

So when you screw up and need to encourage yourself to get back on track? Put a muzzle on that grumpy crab and think positive thoughts! You really CAN recover from even the most monumental fuck-up as long as you don't give up entirely.

2. Injuries

If you are a lifelong exerciser, you WILL hurt yourself. And you will have to do things differently if you want to stay active. Whether these changes are major or minor, temporary or permanent, they pretty much always suck.

At first, go ahead and let your Inner Crab bitch and moan all it wants. Pretending all is well when it isn't may lead to that creepy "I'm lying to myself" feeling. But after a couple days, it doesn't help to dwell too much on what you're missing out on; that energy is better spent exploring new alternatives. You need to cross-train anyway, and injuries are sometimes life's little kick in the pants to get you to mix things up.

3. Food Frustration

Healthy food takes a while to get used to. If you've been eating lots of sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, and refined grains, then you're just not going to appreciate the joys of fresh produce and lean proteins and whole grains right away. This is perfectly natural; there's nothing wrong with you. You have two choices: either adjust gradually, or suffer through an ugly transition period. Either way, it's not a good time to get all pessimistic and think that healthy eating will always be torture. Because it won't. Your tastes will change with repeated exposure, I promise. The trick is to keep finding more stuff you actually like, so cutting out 90% of the crap that the rest of the world eats doesn't feel like such a hardship. But this process can take a while, and focusing on the good things you can eat instead of the evil yummy things you shouldn't is a much more effective approach.

4. Dealing With Cheerful Companions

The cranky, skeptical viewpoint that comes in so handy for us crabs in evaluating options and keeping us out of trouble can, weirdly enough, depress and alienate our more cheerful companions. They often don't appreciate our realistic caution, and tend to see it instead as Party Pooperism.

This does not mean that a natural Crab has to be fake cheerful all the time. But it does help to be judicious with our crabbiness. For example, it's best to save skepticism for times when there are choices to be made and it is still possible to change the situation; after-the-fact "I knew this was a really stupid idea" type speeches are seldom well-received.

Anyone else have advice on harnessing your Inner Crab? Or are you all cheerful optimists just peeking in to see how the other half lives?

SparkPeople DVD Winners

The random number generator has spoken! The winners of the SparkPeople workout DVD are:

Jenna Z, and
Katie (and sorry, not Katey; I hate to disappoint when there are similar names)

Please email: crabby mcslacker at gmail dot com to claim your prize! Any DVD's not claimed by midnight Friday Feb 26 will be given away via Twitter sometime over the weekend. So heads up my tiny band of Twitter followers, you still have a chance!

February 19, 2010

Fun Friday: Favorite Workout Tools

Ummm...okay, I could go a little higher tech than this.
Photo: andy_carter

If you Google the “Top Weight Loss Tools” like I just did, you’ll find an avalanche of ideas and many with some product they’re trying to promote. (Quite honestly, I doubt ginsu knives and erectile dysfunction products count but who am I to judge?) Our Cranky Fitness readers are a sophisticated lot who have seen it all and done it all when it comes to weight loss and fitness, so who better to ask than you?! It could be whatever gadget, idea or habit that you find you rely on the most to help keep your head in the game.

Everyone's favorite workout tool? Being this guy's yoga mat.
Photo: Engin Erdogan

From my personal point of view, my favorite tools are my iPod (helps make exercise suck less and seem shorter), my food journal (helps me keep track of what I’m eating and in how many metric tons), my dog (makes me accountable to someone even though I’m holding the leash and he isn’t – let’s hear it for opposable thumbs!!) and my blog (by far the BEST source of support and humor around – and it’s FREE). And if money weren’t a consideration (oh, if you only knew how many sentences I start with that phrase), I’d add a personal chef and trainer to that list who both bear a striking resemblance to Hugh Jackman (tools sometimes cross over into fantasy so just please bear with me. Oh, I apologize – I just realized that sounded a little dirty even though I didn’t mean it to.).

A fellow blogger had this neat post with links to all kinds of cool online tools for those of you into tracking and measuring your stats. For the technology-impaired among us, our favorite tool could be a piece of equipment like a bike or a treadmill.

Low tech yet oh-so-effective
Photo: smowblog

A pedometer is still a little too wonky for me but others swear by them and the 10,000 steps they aim to measure every day. I mentioned my iPod above and have stored many decades of music to move to, but our friends Miz and Shauna have come up with a great podcast team called Two Fit Chicks and a Microphone for that take-along motivation that only they can provide. Or maybe you've got a couple of favorite workout DVDs that you couldn't do without.

So what about it? What are your favorite fitness tools that have helped you out the most along your weight loss journey, and why?

Five Weightlifting Moves That Saved My Back, or How To Torture Yourself More Efficiently

I'm in the middle. That's Attila on the right.

There are five moves I simply cannot live without doing. I'm not talking about the Couch Curl-Up or its more-advanced sister, the Power Nap With Kittehs, nor do I mean the Twelve-Ounce Repeater Swig. I'm talking about weightlifting moves that Attila has me do on a regular basis that have saved my back and made a huge difference in my body.

They're all kind of unpleasant (is lifting weights supposed to be a bed of roses? No? Drat.) and they all have one thing in common: they use multiple muscles, mostly in the lower body. They're not tricky combos like the Snatch-Clean-Squat-Boogaloo; they're very basic exercises.

Herewith, then, the Five Moves I Get Grumpy If I Don't Get To Do:

1. The Good Morning: Friend Penny calls this one the "Good Morning? I Don't Effing Think So." It's a dead-basic exercise that works the lower back, hamstrings, and to a lesser extent, your abs and shoulders.

Put a bar loaded with a relatively light weight on your shoulders. Keeping your knees soft, bend over with your back straight until your upper body is parallel to the floor. Stand up again. That's it. The first set of these (if you've got the weight right) will feel easy-peasy and meditative. The second set will be somewhat more challenging, but still doable. Midway through your third set, you should feel your obliques working and begin to tire out. If you start to tire out earlier, you have too much weight on the bar.

2. That Damn Ball Pass: I hate this one with a screeching passion. Grab a fitness ball and place yourself on your back on the floor or on a step. With your arms and legs straight, pass that ball back and forth by vee-ing up into a bad imitation of what you see on Pilates videos.

I normally do three sets of twenty with an inflatable fitness ball, but my form is suffering and I'm cursing by the end.

This move works your abs, obviously, but also your shoulder girdle and your legs.

3. The Deadlift: This one, again, is for lower back and legs, with the abdominals getting in there toward the end.

Load a bar with enough weight that it feels just about heavy enough to be challenging. Place that bar on the floor in front of you. Bend over, without locking your knees, and grab the bar. Straighten up. Replace the bar on the floor. Again, very simple and very, very challenging toward the end of your sets.

If you want to really knock yourself out, you can add:

4. The Overhead Lift That Threatens The Ceiling Fan: After straightening up from your deadlift, lift that bar overhead. You'll have to use less weight, probably, than you do with a straight deadlift. This one definitely works your abs, along with your shoulders, chest, and upper back. It will leave you gasping for breath and very sore the next day. I love it.

5. Finally, The Squat: You can do this with barbells or with a bar with weights on it. Place the bar across your shoulders (or hold the barbells at your sides) and squat down. Don't go all the way down like you see Belgian weightlifters doing on TV; go far enough to engage your leg muscles and make them work. You want to save your knees, right? Right. Now stand up. Scream if necessary, then repeat.

Squats are one of those exercises that everybody does, and most people do wrong. They either don't go down far enough, thus working only their quads, or they go too far and strain their joints. What you want to feel is all the muscles in your upper legs working without screaming (at least on the first set), and you don't want to feel like you can't get up from the squat position, or like you're messing up your knees.

Squats work the legs, obviously, and also the lower back. They're also fantastic for balance.

I do lower-back and leg work while wearing a pair of Masai Barefoot Trainers, those weird rocking shoes that look like half a basketball's been glued to your foot. I'd estimate that that adds a good twenty percent to my workout in terms of muscle engagement, as I'm trying to lift things while balancing forward-to-backward. I do not recommend trying that, though, until you get the basic moves down to the point that you're not waggling all over the place during maximum muscle effort.

And, as always, do these with a spotter. If you collapse under the weight of a loaded bar, it's kind of hard to get out again without somebody there to lift it off of you. If you collapse under the weight of your inflatable fitness ball, then you really do need somebody there to go get you some Ben & Jerry's and a kitten. (I've had days like that, believe me. Kittens help.)

February 18, 2010

Food & Workouts: Not Mutally Exclusive Anymore. Sort Of.

Dude, you're gonna need a bigger breakfast.
Photo: Sorgatron

So you’re working out to get fit and you’re so into this new goal you’ve set for yourself that maybe you’re not eating enough to have it work right. What?! You’ve always thought that calories out had to exceed calories in for this fitness thing to work. True enough. Eating is an important part of fitness and there are some foods that actually compliment your workout routines. You still need fuel in your machine to make it go.

Avoid working out on an empty stomach. This can result in low blood sugar which can make you feel weak and lightheaded. You don’t want to be wobbling all around the gym, bumping into walls and having people mistake you for Amy Winestein.

About an hour before you begin your workout, you should have a small snack primarily composed of carbs with about 100 to 200 calories; something like half a banana, grapes or toast with jam. Or you could work out within 2 hours of a light meal. Avoid working out on a full stomach (3-4 hours prior to your workout) or you could have problems with nausea and cramps as the blood flow is focused on digestion rather than supplying energy to your muscles. You should also drink 8 – 16 ounces of water within an hour of working out to avoid dehydration. A good rule of thumb is to drink 6 to 8 ounces of water for every 15 minutes of exercise. If you’re at it for longer than an hour, try a sports drink like Gatorade. Chances are you’ll have enough fuel to finish your workout (generally less than an hour) but if not, try having half an energy bar for a quick high-carb snack.

Post workout eating should include a protein snack or light meal for muscle repair and recovery within 2 hours of exercising. Some suggestions for after workout snacks are low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit, apple slices with peanut butter or half a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread. A light meal should contain protein, complex carbs and healthy fats. And again, take care to rehydrate yourself within an hour.

But beware! According to this article, there’s a little something called “compensation” that can occur after workouts. It’s a little “post-workout binge” where people tend to bribe or reward themselves for working out more than they normally would have. While it’s true that exercise can induce hunger, it’s often temporary and doesn’t affect everyone. If you’ve done a little extra time on the elliptical and on your way home you stop at your usual coffee shop but get a chocolate donut burrito versus your typical medium black coffee, you just may be a compensator.

Why, yes, I DID just finish my workout. Why do you ask?
Photo: ultrakickgirl

Compensation can be triggered by intense workouts or it may be as simply explained as people overestimating the amount of calories they burned during a workout. We’ve all got the wiring that tells us hard work deserves some reward. The good news is that even if you do compensate, you’re still reaping some health benefits – although you’re not losing the weight as quickly as you could, your cardiovascular system is working better and your waist circumference is a bit smaller. I frankly would need Magellan and his boys to circumnavigate my waist, but that’s a post for another time. It was found that this desire to have √©clair lasagna for dinner eventually goes away on its own. But if it doesn’t, you can take some of the following steps to break the pattern: track your caloric intake AND the amount of calories burned from exercise, find another way to reward yourself or workout with a friend who will help hold you accountable.

So how do you all “eat your way to fitness” when working out? And do you find that you “compensate” after working out?

February 17, 2010

Whole Grains: What's the Problem, People?

I'm old enough to remember when "brown bread" was something exotic and vaguely threatening that only the hippie family down the street was brave enough to eat. As a kid, I assumed there was only one "normal" kind of flour: white. Same thing with rice. And the only variety we got as far as grains were bowls of Cheerios, Cornflakes, or Raisin Bran. But most often, we got our grains in the form of Wonderbread, Oreos, and Poptarts.

Fast-forward a few decades: scientists have learned a lot more about nutrition, and we've all been urged a few hundred thousand times to eat more whole grains because they are so damn good for us. Like many of you, I got with the program. Now I try to save refined grains for treats, not fill up on them as a staple.

So why are most people in this country still eating like I did as a third-grader back in 1968? And an even more important question: Why are the desires of all these ignorant third-graders still controlling what the rest of us can get at restaurants and grocery stores?

OK, so those aren't really questions--they're complaints. I don't actually care why a huge majority of the population keeps shunning whole grains. Probably because it takes a lot less effort to eat familiar white fluffy foods than to acquire a taste for healthier, earthier fare. And I know perfectly well why the preferences of the unhealthy masses dominate the food and restaurant industry: Welcome to capitalism, Crabby! It's also the reason we have Big Macs, Barbie Dolls, and The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

But I'm not sure what's worse: the general unavailability of whole grain options (unless you want to make things from scratch all the time, ick) or all the Fake-Healthy Not Really Whole Grain products out there. Most people are fine with these choices, because they are not equipped with enough grouchy skepticism to read a food label and then curse the lying sonsabitches who are trying to fake everyone out. Normal people just find a product they like that says "multi-grain" or "now made with whole grain," and they say to themselves: Awesome, I'm all set!

Of course these folks don't realize that a healthy-sounding ingredient like "organic wheat flour" still means "white flour," and that the crap they're eating is 98% refined flour and sugar, with maybe a pinch of bran or a single rolled oat thrown in there somewhere.

And if people want to eat mostly white flour and a few of these fake options too, knock yourselves out! But it would be nice if there were more options for us stubborn whole grain folks too. I'd love to have brown rice available at a Thai restaurant, or the option of a real whole grain roll at a bakery, or more choices at the supermarket when it comes to breads, pastas, crackers, etc. (And Whole Foods? You guys are the worst when it comes to your bakery. Where the hell is the healthy stuff? Last time I looked, it was virtually all desserts packed with refined flour, butter, and sugar. What's so "whole" about that?)

So Why Are Whole Grains a Healthier Choice?

According to the "world's healthiest food" people, there are a ton of great reasons to eat whole grains. (Note: These folks tend to be an optimistic bunch, but they do at least cite a bunch of studies).

Some of the research they've pulled together suggests that eating whole wheat or other whole grains can help with: weight management, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, inflammatory conditions, gallstones, gastrointestinal issues, heart disease, childhood asthma, breast cancer, dropsy, plague, possession by the devil, and vapors. (OK, so I was just messing with you on those last four. Well... who knows? Anyone driven out the devil with a bowl of oatmeal lately?)

But Some Folks Refrain from the Grain

Even if it's a whole grain and not refined one, there are some people who would just as soon give it a miss. If you have celiac disease, for instance, and must go gluten-free, then that lovely blueberry bran muffin that I have my eye on is gonna be Very Bad News for you. There are serious health consequences for people with this condition if they eat wheat, rye, barley, or anything contaminated with gluten. However, there are apparently some good gluten-free whole grain alternatives, like brown rice, wild rice, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, sorghum, quinoa, and even popcorn. (Oats don't naturally contain gluten, but they can be tricky because there's a high risk of contamination).

There are other folks besides celiacs who don't think grains are a great idea, whole or not. Some low-carbers avoid them as much as possible, and Primal folks like Mark at Mark's Daily Apple argue that we'd be better off ditching grains entirely. But most mainstream nutrition experts have a different message: ditch the refined grains; but it's ok to eat whole grains instead.

Looking for Convenient Whole Grain Products?

Good luck! Actually I'd love to hear your suggestions. I'm a terrible dietary example, because I haven't been nearly adventurous enough about exploring outside my familiar trinity of whole wheat, oats, and brown rice. On my to-do list: try quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and other more interesting choices. (But then I've been saying that for years).

Our bread-maker broke a few years ago, and I'm too lazy to make my own bread, so I either try to find a local bakery that that features a whole wheat bread (and then I worry that they're lying to me) or I scour the supermarket shelves for the healthiest looking brands and I carefully inspect the ingredients list. Alvarado Bakery seems like a good West Coast option; I'm a little more perplexed by East Coast brands. Anyone have some good suggestions?

I have a rice cooker, and love the fancy-pants brown & wild rice mixes, but often I don't think about rice until it's too close to dinner time. Fortunately, the microwaveable already-prepared brown rices have gotten a lot better--Trader Joe's has a couple of good options. (Note: if they have them, the frozen pouches beat the kind in a cup).

As to pasta, have you notice that the whole wheat kind doesn't suck anymore? At least not some of the better brands.  I tried it years ago, thought it tasted like boiled brown paper bags, and said no thanks.  But in the last year or so there seem to be more tasty whole grain options.

What about Cooking or Baking from Scratch?

Excellent idea, then you can use any kind of grain you want! So that's what organized, healthy, non-lazy people do and I totally recommend you do that. Someday, maybe I will too. Actually, on the rare occasions when I bake I use winter wheat, which tastes pretty close to white but is actually a whole grain. And Charlotte at The Great Fitness Experiment  alerted me to another white-tasting alternative, some sort of magic "ultragrain" flour that sounds intriguing. For a whole grain brownie recipe, Tracey's Culinary Adventures has a tempting one--though it's still got a boatload of butter and sugar so it's not exactly a health food.

And for a whole slew of healthy whole grain ideas, Kayln, who blogs at Kaylyn's Kitchen, did a series at Blogher on cooking with whole grains. There are posts on brown rice, quinoa, and bulgur featuring lots of recipes and leading to all kinds of awesume healthy cooking blogs.

[Note: this post is being edited and reposted in July of 2011 to test something technical with the blog. My apologies if any folks with feed readers get this accidentally and think it's a new post.  On the other hand, if you got this far without realizing it was old... how pissed off should you really be?
What do you folks do about the whole refined vs whole grains issue? Any good tips or suggestions?