January 29, 2010

Goals for my 40th year: Jo navel-gazes.

Not one of my goals.

Yeah, so. I'm turning forty. In about three weeks. This is not a huge deal, anxiety-wise; I had more worries about turning 25. The way I see it, if my forties are half as good as the last half of my thirties were, they'll kick some serious good-times butt.

Still, good times don't just happen. You gotta make 'em happen, and one of the ways to make 'em happen is to make sure that all your ducks are in a row as far as what you want goes. So I've made a list of five things I intend to accomplish this year, most (but not all!) of them health-and-fitness based, and I'm going to share them with you.

Check it out...

Goal the first: Lose this other twenty poundses.

I've lost about twenty pounds (give or take) since April, but I have twenty more to go. If it takes me all year, fine. If it happens faster, fantastic. I'm still doing the DASH diet combined with Weight Watchers, so I figure it'll happen, slowly--but it's still a goal to keep in the front of the ol' brainbox.

Goal the second: Drop my blood pressure by another 20 points.

Thanks to DASH, two things have happened: my systolic BP is down 20 points, to 130, and I can no longer tolerate processed food of any sort. The BP, like the weight, still has to come down some more, though. It's ironic that it skyrocketed *after* I reduced my weight, but I guess I'm in that minority of folks who are sodium-reactive.

*sigh* No more pizza for me, I guess.

Goal the third (not health and fitness related): Buy some real damn cosmetics.

I have to wear makeup to work. It's not a requirement of the manglement, or anything, but I find that it makes people both take me more seriously and not ask me if I'm feeling poorly.

I also work twelve-hour (more like thirteen-hour) shifts. Hot, nasty, messy, sweaty, dirty, blood-soaked, sputum-ridden shifts. At the end of one of those shifts--oh, gosh, let me be real: at the two-hour mark--my makeup has melted down my face or disappeared into the creases of my eyelids, regardless of the primer I've used or the skill with which I've applied it.

If I'm gonna have to wear (redacted) (expurgated) (deleted) paint on my face, I'm goin' straight for M.A.C.

Goal the fourth: Go back to doing yoga.

My flexibility is cruddy right now, and it shows. It's time to get back to yoga so I don't stiffen up and become like Colossus.

Goal the fifth: Have a life outside of work.

For the last year or so, all I've done is work. The past three months were spent training for this CCU job I've got; the nine months before that, my previous work situation was so miserable that all I did on my off-days was curl up in a ball and whine. It's time to have a life, defined as going outside during the daylight hours, going to bookstores, talking to real meat people, and occasionally going with friends to, say, get coffee. Having a life outside of working, blogging, and working out is a prerequisite for mental health. My mental health, once as cruddy as my flexibility and my makeup, has taken a definite uptick. It's time to reap the benefits.

So whoop, there 'tis. I'm thinking numbers three and four will be more-or-less immediately attainable, while numbers one, two, and five will require work (and, in the case of the last one, getting off the night shift). I'll keep you all updated as to progress this year. I'm also taking longer-term suggestions of Things Not To Put Off Until I'm Fifty.

January 28, 2010

Yog-ahhhhh or Yo-grrrrrrr? A Review Of The Biggest Loser Weight Loss Yoga DVD

It has been suggested by people who know me (and some people I pay to know me) that perhaps my weight loss is so glacial because I am supremely stressed. Yes, I know – we’re ALL stressed – that much I will grant you. But while many are lucky enough to have stable personalities allowing them to take it all in stride, there are the others of us who are fragile messes scanning the skies for the next house to fall on us. I reluctantly admit to falling into the latter category.

Unrelenting stress releases the hormone cortisol, which elevates your appetite and helps produce visceral fat – the more active kind of fat which settles deep in your belly and can interfere with liver function as well as wreaking other kinds of havoc. This varies from the other kind of fat – subcutaneous – which lies just under your skin and poses no serious health risk – unless you’ve got so much of it that you’re obese. To help alleviate stress of this nature, deep breathing exercises, antidepressants and yoga are often suggested. I’ve had my dance with antidepressants and while they helped soothe my jangled nerves, they also helped pack on 35 pounds that I wasn’t expecting. Eventually, I felt so stressed out by the additional weight that I stopped taking the meds (tapered down under doctor supervision). The deep breathing is all well and good but I needed something that didn’t give casual onlookers the idea I was a heavy breathing perv. Enter yoga.

I heard about the DVD a little while ago and rented it first to see if it looked doable. No sense in shelling out real money if you can’t stand the instructor, music, scenery or the moves resemble something along the lines of the Flying Wallendas (and look what happened to them!). It looked like something I could do (as long as no one else was in the house to witness the calamity) so I bought it for $7.99 at Amazon.com.

Let me first congratulate the producers of this DVD for using the Biggest Loser trainer and mellow fellow Bob Harper, instead of the screeching Jillian Michaels. I know a lot of you are huge Jillian fans because all that yelling motivates you but when one is trying to de-stress, being chided and humiliated is not a good jumping-off place. To me, Jillian is the female equivalent of counter-terrorism agent, Jack Bauer from “24”. I love me some Jack, especially when he’s going all Slingblade on the bad guys. I would not have such warm, fuzzy feelings if Jack were delivering the beatdown to me. Ditto on the Jillian verbal assault.

This DVD is Bob at his laid-back best; before he started dropping f-bombs all over the place a couple of seasons ago. Whatever happened to the good cop-bad cop approach that he and Jillian had going when the show first started? Who thought this bad cop-bad cop deal was such a good idea? What’s next – Biggest Loser: Reservoir Dogs Edition? Quentin Tarantino as guest trainer? But I digress. Bob hits a perfectly mellow pitch and is oh so gently encouraging in this DVD.

The workout has three levels of ability plus a five minute warm-up and cool-down. There are also the requisite disclaimers about checking with your doctor before beginning any exercise video – which we at Cranky Fitness endorse as well. Besides a DVD player, the only other piece of equipment which I’d recommend is a yoga mat; especially if you have wood floors.

The warm-up is a good mix of deep breathing and stretches which instantly helped to relax me. I selected Level 1 as I am a rank beginner at yoga and I have the coordination skills of a hippo jumping double dutch. I should caution you that if you’ve never done yoga before, it’s a little like that simplistic attitude some of us had about parenting before we actually had kids of our own: “What’s all the fuss about? How hard can it be?” Brace yourself.

This is not me (sigh)
Photo: Canon in 2D

It starts off easy enough except that Bob puts you in a downward dog position (on your hands and feet with your butt up in the air) from the get-go so that you’re facing the floor when you really want to see what’s happening on the screen. This happens at various times throughout the workout and I just took whatever liberties I needed so I could see what he was talking about. The pace was nice and slow as he worked me from one position to another (that’s not really as dirty as it sounds). I could not bend over and palm the floor or get into a plank position without granting myself some “accommodations” but that was just okey-dokey with Bob. Moving from one position to the next was a little awkward but I can see with practice that it could flow much more smoothly. There was the ever-present Forrest Gump on-screen participant doing the “Help, I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up” version of the workout so I wouldn’t feel so alone.

The yoga poses themselves were not very difficult until Bob instructed us to hold them for what seemed like an eternity, usually with one knee at a 90 degree angle to the upper leg. Oh yes, thighs will be cooking tonight. Make sure Frank Perdue and his Fry-o-later don't catch wind of this free range bird going rogue.

A difficult move for me was the plank – arms straight and supporting the upper body with a straight line down to your toes, which are supporting your lower body. Is there such a thing as “wrist splints”? I only ask because mine were screaming during any of these upper body poses. At this point, Bob wants to “test” your upper body strength and see if you can go from a plank position to a half push-up, and then into a full push-up. Maybe it’s just me but my upper body regimen is pretty much restricted to turning door knobs and threading needles. I double-Gumped my way through that one.

THIS is me.
Photo: lululemon athletica

As I neared the close of the workout I was indeed exerting myself. Muscles once lost had been found. There was ample moisture in all the right places but perhaps that was just flop sweat. I had to laugh (once I regained the use of my lungs) when Bob kept telling us to breathe throughout the workout, even if we were bent in such a way that our ass fat was impeding our diaphragms, making breathing a bit labored. Here again, that might have just been me.

All in all, I really did feel like I had gotten a good workout. Having tensed and relaxed so many muscles proved to be very relaxing once the workout was over. Yoga is not some glorified tree-hugging exercise. It really works your muscles and your core. I was sufficiently sore the next morning, which in my book makes it worth the effort.

I suppose for the weight loss benefit to kick in I would have to do this work-out more than just this one time. Kind of like eating your vegetables. Sure, I’ve eaten vegetables – back in 1979. You can’t get the desired benefit unless you repeat the process over and over.

Have any of you tried yoga? What did you think of it and have you made it part of your fitness regimen?

January 27, 2010

Circuit Training: A Great Idea! (For Other People)

Sure, Sunshine, I Bet It's Really Really Fun!

I was thinking that since we're still in New Years resolution season, it might be a good idea to write about How To Get Started With Strength Training. But then I remembered: Whoops, I wrote that post already. So instead I thought: how about discussing circuit training? Circuit training is a clever and efficient way to do cardio and strength training all at the same time!

Then I remembered: I hate circuit training. I'd much rather do my cardio and weights separately, and be half as miserable for twice as long.

But of course I'm Crabby by nature, and I hate a lot of things that are good for you. And many of these healthy things I avoid (like celery and exercise bikes) are much beloved by others. So just because I don't actually do circuit training myself, that shouldn't keep me from encouraging other people to try it. So let's just pretend I'm Kirstie Alley telling you how to lose weight, or John Edwards giving you marital advice. Because "Do as I say, not as I do" is a time-honored didactic strategy, right?

So what is Circuit Training?

Circuit training is basically a series of resistance exercises done one after the other with a minimum of rest in between. The idea is to try to get a full-body strength training routine in, but to keep rest periods short enough (30-90 seconds) so that your heart rate stays in your aerobic range the whole time. That way, you get double credit--two workouts in the time it usually takes to do one.

The best circuit routines are designed so that consecutive exercises use different muscle groups. That way, you can go quickly from one exercise to the next without screaming in pain. Or, if you do end up screaming in in pain, you're at least screaming about different body parts. "Oh my god, I'm dying, my thighs! My thighs! My thighs!" gets boring after a while. Whereas "Please just shoot me now! My thighs! My back! My shoulders! My ass!" is a slightly more interesting sort of misery to experience or observe.

Why is it called "circuit" training?

"Circuit training" may sound like some sort of punitive regimen in which you are administered powerful electric shocks if you don't move quickly enough. But that's not true! It's a punitive regimen involving no electricity whatsoever.

Sometime "circuit training" does actually involve a formal circuit of exercise stations arranged in a circle. That's how the whole thing started back in the fifties. But there are lots of ways of approaching it now. Many people do circuit training on their own, with minimal equipment, customizing their own programs. And they don't have to run around in circles unless they enjoy getting dizzy.

What are some ways to get started with circuit training?

1. You can take a class or join a circuit-type gym.

Many gyms have circuit training classes, and this is a popular way to get started. Also, whole franchises like Curves use a circuit approach. This way, you can let some perky, motivated instructor handle the "thinking" and "planning" parts of the workout, and you can just show up and do what you're told and suffer whatever torture they dish up.

The downside of classes or circuit-gyms? If you, like me, are opinionated about what sort of muscles you want to work, how hard you want to work them, and how long you want to do it for--well, that's just too bad. Get over yourself. If these classes involve people moving from station to station, you can't dawdle or skip things or you'll mess everyone else up.

2. Get a Circuit Training DVD.

This way, you get all the perk pre-packaged, and you don't have to design your own program. Plus, the instructor can't see you, and you don't have any actual classmates. This means you can be as slow, klutzy, or half-assed as you want, and no one has to know but you!

3. Design your own circuit training routine.

If you already do strength training, you've got the building blocks for your own customized circuit training routine. But you may need to adjust a little and modify your usual exercises.

If you work out at a gym, one of the cool things about it is the variety of different strength training options you have. However, without prior planning, it can be a bit of a challenge to do circuit training there. Unfortunately, you can't just toss people off your favorite equipment when you need it, shouting "Sorry dude, I only have 7 seconds left before I need that roman chair!"

Well, you can try, but you won't be very popular.

Another issue is that circuit training works best with exercises that get you breathing hard, as opposed to the kind that exercise only one small muscle group at at time. So, for example, if one of your normal strength training exercises is a bicep curl, you may be better off ditching that for a combo move like pull-ups (or assisted pull-ups). Likewise, if you do an exercise just for your triceps, you may want to substitute some push-ups instead.

And because of the need to go quickly from one exercise to the next, it's best not to count too much on equipment that could be in use or that needs a lot of adjustment before each new user. So it helps to have a number of alternative exercises in mind that use your own body-weight, elastic bands, kettle bells, stability balls, free weights etc. Plus, the minimal-equipment approach is great for home exercisers who don't want to spend a fortune on fancy home gym set-ups.

Another thing to keep in mind is that circuit training works best with moderate resistance done with higher repetitions. If you're toning; that's great. But if you're used to doing high-weight/low rep body-building stuff, with substantial rests between sets, your regular routine may not work as well in a circuit.

4. Sample Circuit Training Routines:

So, want some ideas on good exercises to use to build your own circuit training workout? Here are a few ideas to get started with:

SparkPeople has some general instructions and some great 30 minute circuits for beginners, intermediate, and advanced exercisers; each exercise has a link with further instructions.

At Girl Get Strong, they've got a "hot body" circuit workout you can check out.

At Weight for Deb, you can get circuit workout emphasizing balance and stability.

And Go Workout Mom has some at-home bodyweight exercises that are a very handy option for your circuit training routine; and in addition, at Truth 2 Being Fit, there are 10 more At-Home strength training exercises you can incorporate into your circuit training.

Do any of you have any advice about circuit training? Or do you prefer to do your cardio and strength training as separate activities?

[Note: This is also being posted at Blogher's 10x Club. Join us there for daily challenges, rewards, encouragement, and of course, plenty o' whining.]

January 26, 2010

Seven things you should never, ever, ever, everever eat. And seven things you should.

Nnnng. Ew. Blar.

Continuing on last week's food-themed posts (yes, I know it's a new week, but I work nights, so my sense of time is a little off), yours truly has compiled a list of things nobody in their right minds should ever, ever eat. This list, by the way, is totally arbitrary and subjective.

I'm not one of those people who hews hard to the idea that only natural foods should ever pass your lips. Nor do I believe in strictly raw-food eating, or Paleo lifestyles, or Breatharianism. Frankly, a good White Castle slider is one of the best things in life, if you time it right. But there are some things--and I call them "foods" in charity--that you should avoid.

Ready to dive in? (Disclaimer: some of these items are not found in your normal grocery store. Blame the vending machines at the hospital.) From the bottom up, then:

Number Seven: Anything that resembles plastic.

Seriously: you can make a perfectly good macaroni and cheese without Velveeta. Likewise, you can probably live without fruit roll-ups in neon colors, strangely flexible donuts, or oddly shiny foodstuffs that resemble the packaging that they came in more than what they claim to be. If it looks, smells, and acts like plastic, it'll probably taste like plastic. Life is too short for that.

Number Six: Anything that is neon.

Neon is not a color found in nature. Neon colors belong to that subgroup of foodstuffs that are overly processed, loudly packaged, highly caloric, and all taste the same. Again: life is too short. If you want a cereal that dyes your milk blue or pink, toss some blueberries or strawberries or raspberries on it. Even frozen works, by the way, and gives you a nicely-colored milk moustache at the end.

Number Five: Those funky sandwiches in the hospital vending machines (or pseudo Hot-Pockets or their ilk).

No matter how hungry you are, these are a bad idea. Trust Nurse Jo on this one; she's eaten more bizarrely flexible food from hospital vending machines than she cares to remember. The one exception that proves this rule is White Castle sliders (see above), as those taste and behave exactly the same whether you get them from the drive-through, the freezer case, a vending machine, or unearth them from a Pharoah's tomb.

Number Four: Neural tissue.

I will eat almost anything. I have consumed (and sometimes enjoyed) blood sausage, grubs, sheep's head, haggis, and various unnamed entrails. I have even had brain, back in the late 1980's. Hell, I've eaten raw beef in Europe. But I won't eat neural tissue any more, primarily because Nasty Stuff Lurks In Neural Tissue. It's not just variant CJD prions that can live there; it's all sorts of viruses and other prions and....well, suffice to say that, after seven years doing neuroscience nursing, I just won't go there any more. (I do understand that commuting eighty miles a day on one of the country's biggest highways and working in a crappy neighborhood are larger risks than the occasional brain sandwich, but the possibilities are squicky.)

Number Three: Anything that looks or smells "off".

You would be surprised how many people ignore this simple rule. Following it will protect you from almost every nasty food-borne illness save botulism, and careful attention to your canned goods will help keep you from that, too.

Number Two: The entirety of anything larger than your head in one sitting.

This is more portion-control than foodstuff-related, but it's important. If it's bigger than your head, whether it be bowl of popcorn, cantaloupe, or butter sculpture, it's more than one serving. Failure to follow this rule will result in your hating whatever food you've consumed too much of for months, if not years.

And the Number One Thing You Should Never (evereverever) Eat:

Dishonest food.

If it has more than ten unpronounceable words on the wrapper, it's dishonest. If it's chocolate mousse made with carob, tofu, agave nectar, and decaf chicory espresso, it's dishonest. (On that last: if you have the bad luck to be a lactose-intolerant vegan, there are plenty of good desserts out there that will taste good and be honest. I have a chocolate cake recipe for you.) If it's anything that's imitating anything else, avoid it. I eat real butter--in much smaller quantities than I used to--because I like the taste of real butter. I Can't Believe It's Not Toxic Waste just doesn't do it for me.

Again, life is too short to put things in your mouth that are pretending to be something else. (Good dating advice too, come to think of it.) Exceptions can be made for cute sculptured cupcakes and Japanese food.

Now for the Seven Things You Should Eat:

7. Fresh vegetables in season, plain.

There is no greater joy in life than picking up a sun-warmed tomato from the farmer's market (unless it's picking it off your own tomato vine) and biting into it like an apple.

6. Good bread.

Ditch the plastic-wrapped stuff once in a while and treat yourself to real, honest, home-made or good-bakery-made bread.

5. Real dark chocolate.

Even if you think you don't like it, try it. Not only is it chock-full of good antioxidants, it's tasty. I like Green & Black's 70%.

4. Things you can't pronounce/don't recognize from a good Chinese or other Asian restaurant.

One of the best meals I have ever had started with a bowl of what later turned out to be cold, marinated tripe. Man, was that good stuff. Try being adventurous once in a while, and see what it gets you.

3. Tiramisu.

'Nuff said.

2. Real maple syrup.

See comment on #3.

And the number-one thing you should eat at every opportunity?

Fresh fruit in season.

A good peach from the farmer's market (or a good apricot, which is like a religious experience) might even out-do the perfect tomato. If you live in an area where cherries come into season for ten days out of the year, try some cherries. If you're in the South like I am, grapefruit and oranges are marvelous in the winter. If you live in California, I envy you and will come visit to sit in the shade of your lemon tree.

That's *my* totally subjective list. What's on yours?

January 25, 2010

Yogurt: 4 Things to Love (and 5 Things to Hate)

What's your problem, Crabby? Everyone Loves Yogurt!
[Photo: rikhei]

Sure, I know yogurt is good for you, and you can get it in convenient little single-serving containers, and the taste is not unpleasant, but is anyone else starting to find yogurt just a little bit... annoying?

Okay, maybe it's just me. I do eat yogurt, even if it sometimes pisses me off. So I'll make sure to say some good things about it before I put on my crankypants and go all whiny and negative.

Four Reasons To Love Yogurt!

1. If you can do dairy, it's really healthy

If you can tolerate milk products, it's hard not to notice that plain lowfat or nonfat yogurt is absurdly good for you. And many people who are otherwise lactose intolerant seem to handle fermented dairy, like yogurt and kefir, better than they can tolerate regular milk.

So what's so impressive about the health benefits of yogurt?

Yogurt has lots of calcium and protein, and a bunch of other helpful nutrients like potassium and B vitamins. (Greek yogurt has a LOT of protein; but regular yogurt is better on calcium). And yogurt has something called lactoferrin, which is supposed to make it even better than regular milk at helping you build strong bones.

At the "World's Healthiest Foods" they've compiled a bunch of the studies showing yogurt's potential health benefits. And while the jury may still be out on some of these benefits (not enough studies yet), there are still enough encouraging reports so that you can feel pretty darn smug about eating it. Medical issues yogurt might be helpful for include the usual digestive stuff, but also arthritis, ulcers, cholesterol levels, colon cancer, and weight loss, as well as just generally boosting the immune system and increasing longevity.

One of coolest health aspects about yogurt? If you buy a good brand with lots of active cultures, then you get the magical benefits of probiotics. Probiotics are bacteria, but they're the "good" kind of bacteria. They won't go around giving you plague or eating up your flesh or otherwise behaving rudely like bad bacteria do.

Some of the health benefits of probiotics, even according to the fairly conservative Mayo Clinic folks are: treating diarrhea, yeast infections, urinary tract infections, irritable bowel syndrome; as well as reducing bladder cancer recurrence, preventing eczema and boosting the immune system.

(And Melting Mama notes that for folks who've had gastric bypass surgery, research indicates probiotics can help with quicker weight loss, as well as with avoiding Vitamin B deficiencies).

But all strains of probiotics are not created equal. If you want to know a lot more about probiotics, check out Probiotics--Love That Bug, where you can get the details about which strains are best for your particular health concern, whether it's irritable bowel or hay fever or ulcers or whatever.

2. It Tastes Good

We tend to think of yogurt as a sweet fruity treat, and it does make a nutritious substitute for more decadent indulgences like pudding or ice cream. But yogurt can also shine as part of a creamy condiment (like Kayln's "World's Best Tzatziki Sauce,") or as a main dish ingredient, like in Simply Recipe's Spicy Turkey Soup With Yogurt, Chickpeas and Mint or in The Perfect Pantry's Chicken Tikka Recipe.

3. It's Convenient

Well, it's not convenient if you want to get all fancy like the folks at Chocolate and Zucchini and you decide to make gourmet Frozen Sheep's Milk Yogurt. But yogurt is not exactly hard to find, and it comes in all sizes of containers, and you can get any flavor you can imagine. It's a quick way to get a snack with both carbs and protein, and it requires no preparation other than rounding up some sort of spoon. And even the spoon is optional if you're really hungry.

4. It's Relatively Cheap

Of course you can spend a fortune for some brands, particularly if you like to patronize trendy frozen yogurt emporiums in upscale neighborhoods. But your basic grocery store brand is usually pretty cheap. (My personal favorite brand, Fage, is on the pricey end, especially if I'm nowhere near a Trader Joe's, but I'm awfully fond of it).

However, the cool thing about yogurt is that you can also make your own, and people swear it's not even hard. There's A Year of Slow Cooking's crockpot yogurt recipe, and Charlotte at the The Great Fitness Experiment makes her own with no special equipment at all.

So, with all these wonderful virtues, what is it about yogurt that gets me cranky? Well, enough weird things that I had to resort to making up my own words.

Five Irritating Things About Yogurt

1. Dessertification

Have you perused the yogurt section at the grocery store aisle lately? You can barely find any plain yogurt because there are 7,000 "flavors" of yogurt, all passing themselves off gourmet desserts. Even regular fruit flavors aren't "desserty" enough for most buyers; who wants lemon or lime yogurt when you could be eating "Lemon Cheesecake" or "Key Lime Pie?"

And it's not just the absurd proliferation of exotic flavors, it's that most of the stuff tastes unnecessarily oversweetened. Why do they need to add SO MUCH sugar and/or artificial sweeteners? It seems impractical to use up so much of your daily allotment on one little serving of dairy product, when you might as well be eating a big fat slice of chocolate cake. In my mind, yogurt ceases to be a health food when it's got more sugar than an ice cream sundae or is pumped up with enough aspartame to kill several large lab rats.

I've learned to just buy plain yogurt and flavor it myself.

2. Pharmification

While live active cultures are a good thing, the relentless health promotion around yogurt as "medicine" is getting irritating. Especially when big corporate yogurts start throwing in "healthy" additives, like extra vitamins and fiber, that don't occur in there naturally.

3. Feminization

My all-time favorite Sarah Haskins video explores this weird phenomenon: what's with the single-sex marketing of yogurt?

Are guys simply not allowed to eat yogurt? Are women required to eat yogurt? Have you ever seen a bunch of men in a commercial talking about yogurt?

Hmm... Maybe it's some sort of a conspiracy. Because doesn't it seem suspicious that it's nearly the same thing with Yoga? It's also marketed as "healthy" and targeted strongly at women. Yoga and Yogurt: For Women Only! Oh wait, but Yogi Bear was a boy, and not known for healthy habits, so I'm not sure the conspiracy is very well organized yet.

4. Packagification

Long ago, back in the olden days, you used to have a couple of sizes of yogurt. There was the Big-Ass economy sized yogurt, if you were willing to eat a lot of the same flavor, or a smaller size if you wanted variety. But I swear the small size was more like 10 or 12 ounces. Then that went down to 8, then many yogurts shrunk even further to 6, and now you see these itty bitty containers that have maybe two tablespoons of yogurt in them, they come welded to other itty bitty micro-yogurt containers. So you still have to spend a bunch of money, but instead of getting a whole massive amount of yogurt you get a little bit of yogurt and a whole heck of a lot of packaging.

Progress... ain't it great?

5. Proliferation

Yogurt is immensely popular, and so the major brands are taking more and more space in the coveted refrigerator section of your grocery store. And because it's so important to stock all those pre-sweetened yogurt varieties the public demands, your average chain spares little room for other healthy products that could be sitting there. The more natural yogurts made by the little guys? The non-dairy options? You often have to go to a health food or other specialty store to find them.

My own personal grudge: I like kefir. It's another cultured dairy product that tastes a lot like liquid yogurt, and has even more probiotic strains in it. From what I can tell, it might be even more awesome for you than yogurt is, but it's not as popular so there are even fewer studies on it. I love to add it to smoothies. Yet the chain grocery store nearest me doesn't stock kefir because they apparently need room for each and every one of those 7,000 yogurt flavors. (I'm thinking of trying to round up some kefir grains and start making my own. It's supposed to be fairly easy. However, the problem is the hippie-era distribution system, which seems to rely on knowing someone who knows someone who has extra. But enough about my Kefir Madness.)

So do you eat yogurt? Do you love everything about it or do you have any gripes?

Note: this post also appears at Blogher's 10X Club, where you can find terrifying daily health challenges that leave you spent and weeping, but grateful. Well, not really, most of them are pretty reasonable, but join us there anyway!

January 22, 2010

Grocery Shopping Savvy For The Health Minded Slacker

There’s nothing like promising yourself a hot new bod at the beginning of the year to make the everyday mundane goings-on take on new meaning – things like walking (counting your 10,000 steps versus the old rambling shuffle), drinking (it’s water in Mama’s sippy cup now instead of “adult” beverages) and grocery shopping with a new eye towards healthier selections. I’ve been doing grocery shopping for so many years that I could do it in my sleep. It has long since lost its charm for me and has its place of dread right up there along cleaning toilets and taking out the garbage. I used to send my husband out shopping but because it is still such a novelty to him, he winds up spending way too much money on brand names and exotic items. But now that I’m in full health-conscious mode, I’ve had to smarten up and pay more attention to how and what I’m buying.

I'll have what she's having.
Photo: autiscy

With so many of us pressed for time, we often take the quickest route to meal time. I must confess that in the recent past if dinner preparations required more than opening one box or two cans, I was over-thinking it. No more. Here are some easy tips on navigating the grocery store with a healthier mindset.

1) Plan ahead and make a list. This keeps you on task and focused. Trying all those new light recipes will require new ingredients so write them down. No more excuses for “wandering” over to the Hostess aisle. There’s no way you can make a Snowball fettuccine under 500 calories (It’s not important that you know how I know this – just trust me).

2) Don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry. I used to think this was kind of a lame tip until one day I shopped while ravenously hungry and wound up buying lots of fast, easy, fattening food that I could inhale as soon as I got home. Once home, I had buyer’s remorse but not quite to the point of throwing it out. My thinking then was better to eat something bad for me instead of wasting food and money. If I’d been better prepared ahead of time, I wouldn’t have been faced with this problem.

3) Shop the perimeter of the store. This is generally where the freshest, more wholesome, less processed foods are such as fruit, veggies, dairy, meat and fish. The aisles can be real junk food minefields.

4) Keep the ingredient count as low as possible. The lower the number of ingredients (5 or less), the better, as this means the food is less processed. Avoid artificial and multi-syllabic ingredients requiring a chemistry degree to decipher. And be really careful about buying anything with corn syrup in it. If it’s listed in the first 4 ingredients, you don’t want it. (Some experts think that the introduction of corn syrup into the food system might be one of the reasons for the obesity epidemic.)

Never trust a smiling toaster pastry.
Photo: Tracy Hunter

5) Shop for colors. I’m talking about fruits and veggies here – not the kind of food/cereal that changes the color of the added milk to something resembling Chernobyl run-off.

6) Avoid foods targeted to kids. If it’s got cartoon characters on the label then that may be pretty much the extent of its appeal. Nutrition has taken a back seat to entertainment. Also, be wary of labels “certifying” its nutritional value as many of these are merely marketing ploys.

7) Bag your own groceries (my own personal recommendation). Why spend all this time and thought on food shopping when Zeke the bag boy is going to place the watermelon on top of the blueberries and you’ll need a freaking payloader to lift the bag when he’s done?

"501, 502, 503...I'll help bag those for you in a second.
Just 497 more."
Photo: isa fmedia

What little shopping tricks are you using at the grocery store to stay healthy? Or are you just winging it and hoping for the best?

January 21, 2010

The Not-So-Usual Suspects: Some Surprising Weight Gain Causes

The Unusual Suspects.
Photo: exquisitur

Aiding and abetting weight gain – there ought to be a law. But until the scales of justice catch up with these nefarious no-goodnik reasons for gaining weight, we’ll just have to write about them instead. You might be surprised at some of the things out there that could be working against your efforts to get fit.

This article cited a study in which subjects only got 4 hours of sleep as compared to people who got a good night’s sleep. It was found that the sleep-deprived study subjects had an 18% decrease in leptin (the hormone that signals satiety or fullness) and a 28% increase in ghrelin (the hormone that triggers hunger). Overall, sleep deprivation led to a 24% increase in appetite. Not enough zzzzz’s, it appears, could lead to inhaling too many m&m’s. And if that weren’t bad enough, not getting adequate sleep could also impair glucose metabolism which could lead to Type 2 diabetes.

I know what you’re thinking – I can always catch up on my sleep over the weekend. Fresh research shows that this may not be as simple as previously thought. It is recommended that you get around 7 to 9 hours of sleep. Be careful to avoid any stimulants like high sugar or carbs before bedtime. And make sure to have a good sleep-inducing environment: no TV, bright lights or distracting technology. Petula Clark said it best: Don’t sleep in the subway, darlin’.

Dudes, you're doing it all wrong!
Photo: wOOkie

A lot has been written about the effects of stress and how it can hinder weight loss. A little stress is okay and generally pretty easy to deal with once the stress-inducing event has passed – like a close call in traffic or the babysitter canceling at the last minute. However, chronic stress – like a job loss, financial troubles or health worries – starts pumping high doses of the stress hormone, cortisol, through your body which elevates your appetite, which leads to overeating. It also shifts our food preferences over to the Dark Side: high fat, sugar and salt. And how’s this for a double whammy: Fat cells produce cortisol, too. Cortisol coupled with insulin produces visceral fat, which is more dangerous than regular fat in terms of increased heart attack and stroke risk. Where’s a Jedi knight when you need one?

Not everybody loves a clown.
Photo: Photo Denblow

There are some steps you can take to help relieve some of the stress. Yoga is highly recommended, as are deep breathing exercises. Also suggested has been 20 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation in which you cycle through the various muscle groups, alternating tensing and relaxing each one. Regular exercise will also help lighten the burden of chronic stress. But to really alleviate stress, the stressor itself must be addressed and reconciled as much as possible in order to keep us from reaching for the temporary food fix. Professional help might be called for if the stress is overwhelming. Taking care of your mental health is just as vital as taking care of you physical health and generally covered under many health insurance plans.

Don’t use this as justification for going off your meds without checking with your doctor, but some medications – for one reason or another – may have weight gain as a side effect. Generally speaking, they include: steroids, antidepressants, antipsychotics, oral contraceptives, and medications for diabetes, high blood pressure and heartburn.

Every drug is a little different, as is the person taking it so not everyone is going to be affected in the same way – if at all. If your meds are causing weight gain (putting on 5 or more pounds in a month without having changed your routine), they could be doing so by increasing your appetite, storing fat in a different way or interacting with insulin levels.

An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) could also be working against you. This is caused by too little thyroid hormone being produced. Signs of hypothyroidism include lethargy, fatigue, sleeping too much, sensitivity to cold, swelling, hoarseness or headaches. Your doctor can conduct a simple blood test for this.

Ladies, menopause will eventually rear its ugly head and cause your body to go to war against itself – or at least it will feel that way. As you endure your own personal version of climate change, courtesy of hot flashes and night sweats, you’ll also be treated to a “naturally” slowing metabolism, although trust me – nothing about this feels natural at all. The hormonal changes you go through will interrupt your sleep, trigger your appetite and alter your moods (and not for the better – you might actually consider changing your name to Sybil just to cover the variety of personalities that emerge during this blissful time). Ain’t nature grand? Stress-busting speaker, Loretta Laroche, has a great line that encapsulates all the wonders of menopause: “I’m out of estrogen and I have a gun.” ‘Nuff said.

To counter some of the effects of menopause, increasing lean body mass through lifting weights and strength training can be helpful. Other suggestions included taking calcium and vitamin D. I’m generally not a fan of hormone replacement therapy but that’s a conversation you should have with your doctor.

Do you have any of these – or other unusual suspects – working against you in your efforts to get fit? And if so, how are you dealing with them?

January 20, 2010

Best Workout Tunes!

Photo: wackystuff

I am always a sucker for lists of "best workout tunes" or "greatest exercise music" or "awesome playlists." This is because I NEED music to work out to, and the right tune can turn exercise from a dreary form of torture to a fist-pumping, heart-pounding, endorphin-generating, cardio extravaganza. I get so goofy and high when I hear good music, I'm surprised I'm still legally allowed to download mp3s.

But good tunes are hard to find.

To feed my addiction, I often find myself roaming the web checking out some fellow exercise enthusiast's "best workout playlist." Yet when I start sampling, what do I so often find?

Oh. My. God.

What planet, I wonder, are these people from? Who could possibly work out to such boring, grating, dirge-like, screeching, wimpy, offensive or just downright lame tunes? I am so often stunned by what execrable choices can land on someone's "best" list.

But the thing is, I know someone else listening to my playlist would find my favorites to be equally unfathomable and irritating. They'd think my taste in music sucks. They'd be wrong, but still. It's hard not to notice that musical taste is very personal. (And I bet many of you will hate my sample playlist at the end of the post.)

So what's the best way to find music you might actually like? Well, the short answer is a LOT of trial and error. However, here are a few ideas for expanding your search techniques, and I hope some of you will have better ones.

1. Steal from your spouse, partner, family members or friends.

Depending on your ethics, this may mean literally absconding with their mp3 player for your workouts, or asking for ideas, or gratefully accepting cd's burnt on your behalf.

There is often one person in your circle who not only likes to collect motivating songs, but who also likes to show off how eclectic and yet accessible they think their music is. If you are not yourself this person, take advantage of their desire to spread the musical love, and be sure to compliment their excellent selection even if only one or two songs are good and the rest are incomprehensibly terrible.

2. Expose yourself to a wider variety of tunes even when you're not working out.

You know that thing in your car with the buttons and/or dials that plays "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me," "All Things Considered" and gives you weather and traffic updates on the Eights? Well, if you're past a certain age, you may have forgotten that it also plays music. And if you're really determined, and keep hitting a lot of buttons, you may eventually find a station that plays music written after 1990. It may take many attempts to find a station that is not either playing the same old boomer music, or some genre like country or hip hop that may not be your favorite. And warning: along the way you may hear alarming bursts of talk-radio idiocy and petulance. But if you persevere, you may eventually start to hear thumping beats that make you want to nod your head or tap your steering wheel.

Alternatively, hang out in or near fitness classes, where upbeat music is played. Or, you can even go out dancing! You are more likely to hear music with a great beat on a dance floor than you are in a department store or coffeehouse.

3. Check with bloggers who have made lists or asked their readers for suggestions.

For example, Scale Junkie asked her readers for some ideas, and there tons of great suggestions in the comments of her workout mix post.

One problem with reader suggestions, however, is that in some blogs (like this one) it's really hard to put links in comments unless you know html. So to check out the listed songs, you may need to print off a hard copy or flip back and forth between different windows in order to find and preview the song.

So it's nice that some bloggers like the Fit Bottom Girls have created playlists full of workout songs you can check out. You can also get ideas from Music Savvy Mom, like this interactive workout playlist. Nicole from SparkPeople also shares some of her current favorite tunes. And there are fresh playlists every week at IntheGym.

4. Go to a big database and search through their categories or user favorites.

The advantage of a big sites like Amazon or iTunes or SonicTap is that they have huge catalogs and you can sample 30 seconds of the song before you buy.

However, has anyone else discovered how misleading that 30 seconds can be? And what horrors you can end up with?

I once got a song complete with gratuitious "no homo"asides, which, being a homo, I did not appreciate. (And here's an amusing explanation of the "no homo" phenomenon if you haven't come across it). And don't even get me started on the stupidity of so many of the lyrics. "You cheated girl; My heart bleeded girl... Gah!!! There is a reason I download many songs in Spanish or other languages I do not speak.

However, these big sites do tend to have sections devoted to exercise music where you can browse for new tunes, and there's a lot to look through!

For some reason I probably do most of my scouting using the user-compiled "iMix" feature of iTunes, probably out of habit. I search playlists for words like "cardio," "workout," "running," "spinning," "elliptical," or "exercise," and sort by "most recent." Not that you'd know from the average age of the songs on my playlists.

5. Let sites with fancy algorithms recommend things you like.

One of these is Pandora, which I love for creating custom radio stations. It takes songs or artists you like and then finds others that are similar to it, often in mysterious ways. However, I've found that while I have great luck with ambient, hanging out music (I have a jazzy "Diana Krall" station, and a chillin' "Buddha Bar" station, and an estrogen-packed "Shawn Colvin" station), Pandora has kinda sucked for me in terms of finding workout music. However, if you note my weird playlist below, who the hell could predict what I like? Not the Pandora people, alas. It would probably work much better for normal people. I've also noticed that iTunes Genius should be renamed Moron when it comes to suggesting tunes I would like.

6. Get pre-mixed or original workout music at set bpms.

Of course I have to mention my pal John at Hella Sound, who provides great running music at custom beats per minute so you can run or workout to the beat. (I believe I also have to mention that he provided our web design services and so he is probably technically a Cranky Fitness sponsor).

But just to show that I'm not totally pimping for friends with awesome products, there are other places to get music designed specifically for workouts, like Podrunner (free) or WorkoutMusic.com (not free).

7. Number seven has nothing to do with finding playlists.

But this whole subject reminded me of Heather's funny post on mp3 earbuds that I tried to work in somewhere earlier but couldn't quite manage. So what the heck; check out the post anyway.

8. And finally, check out a recent random playlist of Crabby's that you will no doubt find appalling!

(Let's see if this works...if not, you may want to try the link here.)

Get a playlist! Standalone player Get Ringtones

So does anyone else have any song resources or favorite tunes to suggest?

[And yeah, I posted this over at Blogher as well... if you get bored, come visit me over at the 10X club where we have daily challenges that are so hardcore and intimidating virtually no one ever completes them! Er... I think that must be the reason].

January 19, 2010

Dynamic Tension; or, Must Be Hard Work: Making Yourself Miserable Without Moving a Muscle!

Atilla had a new set of exercises for me today. Let me tell you about them. Misery shared is misery halved, right?


She brought in the usual light weights to use with my heavier set, her yoga mat, the step, all the normal torture devices. She then proceeded to do something completely different with them.

It's called "isometrics". It's also known as "static action exercise" or "Dynamic Tension," a la Chuck Atlas.

Isometrics involves keeping a muscle under strain in one position only. Sometimes, as in a plank or side-plank, you can stress multiple muscles at once (abs, shoulders, triceps). Other times, as in an isometric bicep curl, you stress only one muscle.

So what's the benefit to isometric exercise? Do they work? How can I, (you ask) the faithful Cranky Fitness reader, reap the benefits of standing and doing what seems like nothing, or lying and doing what seems like nothing?

Isometric exercise is nice because it changes things up. Let's face it: unless you have the weirdest job in the world, you're probably not going to have much use for strengthening a muscle only in one position. That's what an isometric exercise does: it strengthens the muscles used in the position in which those muscles are held. However, that sort of bizarre (from your muscles' point of view) demand can shake 'em up, make 'em wake up, and help push you through a strength plateau.

As for whether or not they work, consider this: Charles Atlas built an empire (which continues to this day) on isometrics. Yoga and Pilates have isometric components. An acquaintance of mine, an honest-to-Frog Olympic gymnast, tells stories of the Russians in the 1970's and 1980's doing their isometric insanities on the sidelines of the world championships. Isometrics alone won't make you the strongest man or woman in the world, but they can sure help you hold heavy things in one position for a long time.

So: how to manage an isometric exercise? Easy. Grab your five pound barbell and lie down on the floor. Put the barbell between your ankles and lie back down. Ready?

Sit up in a V-shape, steadying yourself with your hands if necessary (and boy do I find it necessary), and hold that position for, oh, forty-five seconds. Or fifteen. Or five. Whatever you can manage is fine; this is tough at first.

Or, grab an eight-pound weight. Hold it out straight from your shoulder (don't lock your elbow) for thirty seconds or so.

For real, true morning-after misery, assume the squat position. Hold it without moving for as long as you can.

If you're an advanced adherent of static action exercise, you can try this: (NOTE: I am not recommending that anybody try this exercise without a spotter, a mat, and an ambulance standing by. I've done it a few times and have always fallen flat on my face. Cranky Fitness, LLC, assumes no responsibility for plastic surgery bills, uproarious laughter, or public humiliation incurred by performing the following move. Always exercise with a buddy. Check with your health-care provider before doing anything this dumb.)

Face away from a wall. Put your hands on the floor. Walk your feet up the wall until they form an angle that doesn't kill you. Hold that position until you either fall over or somebody comes to rescue you.

Advanced version: Bend your arms slightly at the elbows.

Super-Advanced version: Have a cat jump up on to your back at a critical moment.

It's easy! It's fun! It's a strength-increasing, plateau-busting, muscle-building extravaganza! It's isometrics! And the best thing about the whole deal is that it's very, very difficult to trip over anything in the gym when you're not actually moving.

January 18, 2010

Balance Training: One More Damn Thing To Worry About?

Photo credit: Foxtongue

How's your balance?

I thought mine was pretty good. Then a while back Mizfit alerted me to a balance test that tells you how "old" you are based on how long you can stand on one foot, without swaying, with your eyes closed. I don't remember my exact score, but I think I came out somewhere around 113 years old. According to that test, it's a wonder I can get out of bed in the morning without falling flat on my face.

Now I'm still not convinced my balance is that bad. But even if it were, is this really a problem? I mean, judging by so many of the romantic comedies I've watched, isn't klutziness, clumsiness, and a tendency to stumble over things just a sign of adorableness? Don't pratfalls predict happy endings?

Well, apparently not in real life. When you're elderly and you take a spectacular tumble, it's not generally of sign of fun times and complicated romantic entanglements ahead. According to the CDC, falls are the leading cause of injury deaths among the elderly.

So, OK, we want to make sure we head into our golden years all solid and graceful, not all tippy and teetery. But if we're not that old yet, why can't we just put it off a few decades? It's not like we don't already have enough to worry about, between aerobics and intervals and kegels and flossing our teeth and eating our probiotics and organizing our tax records.

Well, according to a neurology expert quoted in Runner's World, "You can lose as much as 75 percent of your balance ability between the ages of 25 and 75."


So maybe it is best to take a look at this balance thing before is totally slips away from us.

Here are a few suggestions for working on your balance so that you don't become a CDC statistic someday.

1. Try bosu balls, wobble boards, stability balls, or other balance training gizmos.

There's something about investing in a fitness gadget that makes balance practice sound more appealing--at least for a few weeks until the novelty wears off. (I confess: I believe I have a wobble board somewhere in the basement that I haven't used in years.) Bosu balls seem to be getting very popular; and for a hilarious illustrated post on the proper use of one, go check out Jenny on the Spot.

2. Agility Training

I didn't even know this existed until Deb at Weight for Deb got all enthusiastic about it. Not only does it help with balance in dynamic situations, it can even sharpen your ability to think quickly. Which you'll need to do if you find yourself tripping over cones and ladders and hurtling towards the ground. Here are some sample agility exercises, and all I can say is: Yikes!

3. Wii Fit and other balance video games.

I keep hearing lots of great things about these, so I'm terribly jealous. Sounds like a great way to get a variety of balance exercises, but still be able to flail around in the privacy of your own home.

4. Yoga.

Yoga is great for balance. And not just in the evolved, serene, live-a-conscious lifestyle sense. But in the actual stop-tripping-and-falling-on-your-butt sense. For example, here you can find some online tips for standing balance poses.

5. Try fun-sounding sports that require balance.

These scare me to death, but braver souls than I seem to have a great time improving their balance by snowboarding, skateboarding, mountain biking, ice skating, skiing, surfing, or riding bucking broncos in the rodeo.

6. Regular Boring Old Balance Exercises:

Not as exciting as the rodeo, but there are many sources for balance exercises, like at Runner's World, Livestrong, Mayo Clinic, or 3 Fat Chicks on a Diet.

How about you folks, do you do have good balance? If not, are you doing anything to work on it?

[Note: This post also appears over at the Blogher 10X club, because Crabby is lazy like that. And hey, if you're feeling brave enough, you can even go check out the health and fitness challenges in the 10x forum.]

January 15, 2010

What To Do When Nothing Else Effing Works: A Short Guide To Silliness

Not exactly safe for work.
Didja know Richard Simmons has cruises? Seriously. They're called "Cruise To Lose" and the next one leaves from NOLA in late September of this year.

How cool would that be? Imagine: a whole cruise ship full of Richard Simmons devotees. And the man himself, teaching classes.

I'll just let you imagine the Bedazzled possibilities there.

All kidding aside, I love Richard Simmons. Dude has it *down* as far as eating right and exercising goes; he started doing what he's still doing in 1973, and has modified his plan according to research on nutrition and fitness. He's a darn sight better than the Johnny-come-lately fitness "gurus" who recommend you eat only carbs (*ahem*, Susan Powter--whatcha doin' now?) and those who recommend that women be "tiny" and not lift anything more than two pounds at a time (Tracy? Tracy Anderson? You got those lawsuits dealt with yet?)

But you know the reason I love Richard Simmons so much?

I'll tell you.

He's silly.

He has silly down as much as he does eating right and the whole process of learning to love yourself. He's not afraid to look like a big ol' queen on national TV, he still wears the same shorts he wore back in 1981, and he admits freely that his hair is all plugs--in a silly way.

He frolics, in much the same way young kids frolic when they play. Fitness is, I think, less a matter of daily slogging for him than of finding the fun, exciting things you can do to get yourself moving.

Therefore, this post on Silly Fitness is dedicated to Saint Richard.

Jo's Tips For Silly Fitness:

1. Frolic. It's the single most important thing you can do. If you feel too exposed when you frolic by yourself, find a frolic partner. Borrow a dog or a kid or go to an all-women's gym or class (my old gym had *great* women-only classes in a windowless room, in which the Pentacostals and the Muslims and the chicks like me would all get frolicky) and have some fun. Play basketball instead of going for a run if you like, or play "FORKS IN A BLENDER!!"*

2. Refuse to be put off by complex moves. Even if you screw it up, short of personal injury, you'll do no harm, and provide a laugh to somebody else. Attila had me doing something this last session that involved a series of short steps, a weight ball, a step, and the eventual collision of Jo with the wall. It got my heartrate up, made us both laugh until we cried, and showed Attila that this was not perhaps the best combo for her clumsier clients.

3. Take the opportunities that boring things present to be silly. Mopping the floor is one thing. Mopping the floor while doing your best Mick Jagger imitation is guaranteed to raise your heart rate and burn more calories than grumbling. Washing the car is great exercise--but it's better with Gloria Gaynor on the radio, turned up loud enough that you can hear it through your (closed) car windows. Even grocery shopping can be fun, if there's good music on the store speakers and you're in a deserted aisle. I'm lucky--the local Kroger plays everything from Louis Armstrong to Rage Against The Machine--but there are possibilities in upbeat Muzak, too.

Here's the thing about being fit: Being Physically Strong Enables You To Enjoy More Of Your Life. Period. That's the only reason to run, lift weights, and watch what you eat. Even if you're kinda fat, like me, you'll get way more out of life if you can keep up with your dog/the neighbor's kid/the hippies on the longboards than if you're a couch potato. And the way to get to where you enjoy More Of Your Life is to Enjoy What You've Got Right The Hell Now.

Seize the day. Frolic. Be silly. Set a bad example for the neighbors.

In twenty years, they'll be the ones muttering, "Stupid kids" while you zoom past on a skateboard, screaming in delight.

*FORKS IN A BLENDER!! is a favorite at the local gay bar. Everybody stops what they're doing, raises arms above head, spreads their hands wide, and yells "Tinkatinkatinkatinka!" while hopping around in circles. Trust me: if you can't do it for more than ten seconds without falling over laughing, you're doin' it right.

January 14, 2010

Diet or Exercise: Which Is More Important For Losing Weight?

When I joined my gym last summer, I was entitled to a one hour session with a personal trainer. As with many of these complimentary sessions, I didn’t get training suited for me personally but rather got a tour of the gym and instructions as to how to operate the equipment without harming myself or others. I explained to him that I joined the gym because I needed to lose weight and felt the exercise would help me accomplish that. The trainer told me that weight loss was comprised of about 80% diet and 20% exercise. Ruh-roh. I didn’t see this one coming. I felt it would be much easier for me to increase my activity level than to lay off the Little Debbies, but it made me curious as to just what the right balance was. Was there really a general consensus as to the right mix? And if there was, what was it?

Deciphering the diet/exercise code is not easy because everyone with access to the internet has an opinion. It’s like your, um, pie hole – everyone’s got one. Researching any topic generally has some monkey studies associated with it and this was no exception. This article pointed to a study of 18 middle-aged female rhesus monkeys whose ovaries were removed to simulate human menopause; that lovely time of life that is generally associated with weight gain. They then put them on a standard human high-fat diet (standard for us in the U.S., that is). The grease-eating menopausal monkeys were then dressed in polyester pants suits and put on a bus to the local casino. No – not really. They were allowed to eat and exercise as much or as little as they liked and were observed at length. Basically, they were given the old Chuck E. Cheese treatment; except for the head-rattling noise and cheap-o prizes.

The rare Rhesus Pieces Monkey
Photo: laszlo-photo

The conclusion was that diet mattered very little. Activity mattered quite a lot. The active monkeys were eight times more active than the lazier monkeys and it made a significant difference in how much they weighed. Even when a diet was introduced to the lazier monkeys, weight loss was minimal.

The researcher was not surprised at the lack of dieting success. Like humans, when the body senses fewer calories, it goes into a kind of survival mode and reduces the metabolic rate and activity level to compensate. His conclusion was that activity was key to weight loss.

I hate to say it, but math needs to enter the equation at some point here too. As I’m sure we all know by now, losing weight is a numbers game: more calories out than in. Each pound equals 3500 calories so that in order to lose weight, a calorie deficit must occur. This article favored an approach of diet being more essential to weight loss than exercise. While the benefits of exercise are numerous, including enhanced heart and mental health, it takes a heck of a lot of it to burn off enough calories to lose weight. Plus, it appears that we humans have a tendency to underestimate what we consume in food and overestimate what we expend in exercise. Who? Me? (Slowly puts down Little Debbie Deep Fried Éclair and Peanut Butter snack cake.)

A study cited in this second article showed that a reduced calorie program – regardless of its emphasis on fats, carbs or protein – caused weight loss in overweight adults. It made the point that food should be eaten more slowly so as to allow the food to be digested and signal your brain that you are in fact being fed; which takes about 20 minutes to register. Also, certain foods should be avoided because of their effect on certain brain chemicals which cause us to want even more of them. Care to guess which ones? Sweets, fats and salty foods – my three favorite food groups. You can still build a pyramid with just three blocks, right?

All in all, this article held that both diet and exercise are effective but placed an emphasis on diet.

And then there’s this third article which suggests that exercise may actually be adding to the obesity epidemic in this country. Their logic goes like this: Exercise stimulates hunger. Not only does it stimulate hunger but it also makes us engage in something called “compensation” – rewarding ourselves for working out by either eating more (because we’ve earned it, dammit!) or moving around less for the remainder of the day because we’ve “already exercised". They cite the Minnesota Heart Survey which reported that in 1980, 47% of the population said they got regular exercise versus 57% in 2000. And yet over that same time period, obesity rates exploded.

Ready for that post-workout donut cool-down.
Photo: slettvet

Conclusion for article #3: It’s more about what you eat and not how much you try to work it off. One suggestion they had in terms of solving this problem was to distribute our energy output more evenly throughout the day instead of just relying on one 45 to 90 minute burst, once a day at the gym.

Now that I’ve got you thoroughly confused, how do you feel about it? I know there are plenty of weight loss success stories out there who have obviously found the right balance for themselves. So how do you do it? Do you focus more on diet or exercise?

January 13, 2010

Vegetables: Painless Ways to Eat More of 'Em

Image: drewprops

Do we need to review the fact that vegetables are good for us? I think not. The only people who might argue that we should cut down on vegetables are the Meatatarians and the Breatharians. And do we really care what they think?

The problem is, while there are some people who love vegetables, most of us have more ambivalent feelings. We don't tend to crave them the same way we do cookies. And there may even be some vegetables we loathe so much that if we accidentally eat them, we might spit them out into our napkins when no one is looking. (Hello, celery? I'm talking to you).

On the other hand, there are times, depending on the vegetable and the preparation, when we don't even notice we're eating vegetables. Or, even better--sometimes they actually taste pretty darn good!

But for many of us, the number of servings of vegetables we should be eating a day adds up to way more vegetables than we can pretend to enjoy. Those darn nutritionists keep upping the recommended amount--I've actually seen experts who say nine to eleven servings a day. And holy crap, eleven is a big number when it comes to vegetables!

So for those of us who struggle a bit, here are some reminders about how to get more vegetables in without undue suffering.

1. Seek Out Variety. This is harder than it sounds, because there's something a little bit suspicious about unfamiliar vegetables, isn't there? If it was really tasty and good for us, why didn't we grow up eating it?

Well, the good news is even as a grown up, you can learn to like new ones if you try them a few times. And having a bigger variety cuts down on the "chore" aspect of making sure you get enough.

For example, I didn't grow up with kale, and on first try, I frankly thought it was kind of bitter and yucky. But after a few tries, I actually kind of like it! As it happens, this Blogher post by Kayln has a whole boatload of things you can do with kale.

Don't think you're a broccoli fan? Well over at Kayln's own blog, Kayln's Kitchen, she's got a great sounding recipe for sauteed broccoli with garlic, pine nuts and paremesan. Or, try a new preparation of asparagus--an asparagus medley with cashews, courtesy of Lesbian in the Kitchen. (And thanks, Elisa and Everyday Goddess for the tips!)

2. Take Short Cuts. If you can afford to spend a bit more money, there are a lot more convenient options for fresh produce than there used to be. Remember when you couldn't enjoy fresh spinach without spending forever washing the dang grit out of it? Of course if you've got the time, it still makes sense to buy vegetables in their freshest, most natural state. But if you're trying to encourage more healthy side dishes and snacks, and you're pushed for time, take advantage of all those pre-washed, pre-cut or frozen options that you grab when you just can't face all that scrubbing and chopping.

3. Roast Those Veggies. This trick brings brings out the sweeter flavors, and can turn make otherwise "difficult" vegetables like cauliflower or brussel sprouts into something that actually tastes pretty wonderful. There's a recipe for mixed vegetables over at Make-Ahead Meals for Busy Moms. (And I'm no expert, but I just had roasted cauliflower last night--tossed in a generous slathering of olive oil and garlic, and baked at 400 degrees for about a half hour. Weirdly enough? I loved it!)

4. Don't Fear the Fat. Sure, it's not a great idea to totally drown every vegetable in butter, cream, mayonnaise, or bacon grease. But cooking with a a healthy fat like olive oil can makes a huge difference in flavor. Plus, many of the nutrients in vegetables need some fat to be best absorbed, so you're actually doing yourself a nutritional favor. And heck, if a little bit of butter can turn an otherwise bleak vegetable into something tasty and comforting? Well, I say that's butter well-spent.

Like cheese with your veggies? Check out Melting Mama's cauliflower Mac and Cheese recipe. Haven't tried it yet but it sounds great!

5. Blend Them Beyond Recognition. Regular Cranky Fitness readers know I'm a big fan of the Green Smoothie. Tossing some fresh veggies in a morning smoothie along with fruit and whatever smoothie base you like (milk, yogurt, kefir, fruit juice, protein concoctions, almond milk, etc) is a great sneaky way to get a vegetable in at breakfast. Spinach works especially well, but I've also snuck in bok choy, cauliflower, and asparagus. The trick is not to get too aggressive with the veggies at first, and keep the flavor very much in the background until you get used to it.

6. Dip Them. Use fresh veggies as a conveyance for your favorite healthy dip, like hummus, guacamole, bean dip, or, if you've got some calories to spare, peanut butter!

7. Hide Them. If you've got a favorite guilty convenience food or takeout option, sometimes you can at least redeem the meal somewhat by slipping a lot more veggies into the sauce. I find that while I love Indian food, the ratio of vegetables to sauce at most places is always way too skimpy--so I nuke whatever I've got around and toss it in there--makes for more leftovers too.

And if you're making soups or stews, you may notice that cooking things for a hell of a long time gives you the ability to cram more veggies in there--because some of them sort of dissolve and become part of the broth. (And you can use a blender to encourage this. Especially if you have picky kids at home, because "invisible" vegetables cause much less whining than visible ones.)

8. Take advantage of Farmer's Markets or Grow your Own: Fresh vegetables are sweeter and tastier than those that have been shipped from halfway 'round the world. So if you live somewhere where it's feasible, go for the freshest stuff you can find.

9. Salads Don't Have to be Boring: It's so easy to get into a fixed routine with salads, and before long you may feel like you never want to eat another one again. But it's amazing how changing up your dressing or adding a couple of new ingredients can make a salad something to look forward to again. Try goat cheese, pine nuts, fruit, avocado slices, or other healthy but tasty toppings. A few extra calories may be worth it to make the salad seem like something to look forward to rather to endure like a 20 year prison sentence.

So do you get enough veggies? And does anyone have other ideas as to how to get more vegetables into our diets?

[Note: This post is also scheduled to appear at the Blogher 10X club, where, if you're brave enough, you can join us for healthy challenges in the 10X forum].