Ask Amanda: Nice to Meat You

I could dedicate my entire blog to the genesis for this post, which is a response to the pro-vegan, anti-animal-protein messages sent in the recently popular documentary “What The Health?”

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Don’t tell me to read The China Study; I already have.

But I won’t.  Why?  Because other people have already addressed it, and far better and more in-depth than I would have, and I’m sick of just straight ranting here every week. 😉

What I do want to address is this – the common question I get from vegetarians and those thinking about eliminating animal products from their daily diets – can’t I get all the protein I need from plant-based sources?  Do I really need to eat meat?

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Liiiiisaaaaaa….I thought you lovedddd meeeee

My simple and honest answers?  Not ideally, and sort of.

If I hear one more vegetarian tell me “but rice and beans are a complete source of protein!” I’m going to blow my top.  YES, there is some protein in beans (21.5g per 1/2 cup, along with 300 calories and 55g grams of carbs, hoo boy), and even less in rice (2.5g per 1/2 cup, along with 110 calories and 22 grams of carbs), but even when added together, don’t even come near the protein power of a 4-ounce chicken breast (35g protein, 187 calories and absolutely zero carbs).

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Calories still count, even in the pursuit of protein.

In short, it is a challenge for the average active, healthy person to get enough protein without overdosing on a big chunk of carbs (or worse, processed junky vegetarian snacks) if they’re not integrating some animal product (egg whites count; and I’m not neglecting tofu here, but there are a lot of other reasons to limit soy intake outside of its protein content).

Before this gets too inflammatory, let me address some common responses to this remark:

  • Protein is not the only macronutrient that makes a healthy diet (the others being fat and carbohydrates), and of course there is a danger to getting too much protein as well.  However, among my clients (especially women) that are trying to lose weight, protein is usually the make-or-break macronutrient – if they don’t get enough or try to get it all from non-animal sources, they tend to go over their recommended caloric intake, eat more, feel hungrier, have less energy, and have more of a problem maintaining muscle mass and losing fat.
  • Sure, there are high-profile vegan athletes like ultramarathoner Scott Jurek (whose sport demands lower muscle density and tons of quickly digestible carb calories) or even bodybuilder Alex Dargatz (who very likely keeps the protein powder industry in business from his massive daily consumption of the stuff).  But these athletes are not “normal people” (especially weight loss clients) looking to maintain a generally healthy diet – they are high-performing professionals with specific and often extreme macronutrient requirements.  For most people, eating too many carbs and not enough protein is a major reason for carrying around extra body fat.
  • Some animal products are (way, way) better choices than others.  I’d never advocate eating processed sausage over a nice vegan quinoa pilaf just to get more protein, or chowing down on a hunk of cheddar cheese over a fresh orange just to nosh more daily calcium.  Choosing organic, grass-fed, humanely raised, and free range meat, fish and poultry (and perhaps avoiding beef and lamb altogether) is a great way to make your animal protein intake more environmentally friendly (and if the cost of those things makes your pocketbook shudder, consider cheaper and also eco-sensitive protein sources like free range eggs, canned tuna, or Greek yogurt).

Let me digress for a moment to say that all of the above information and opinions are from a purely nutritional perspective, without considering the many (valid) moral and political reasons one may choose to eliminate his or her use of animal products (if you’re interested in my sole personal opinion on this issue, this article sums it up nicely).

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Deep thoughts.

I have absolutely no problem with anyone that chooses not to eat meat for any reason, but I will reiterate that not eating at least some animal products makes muscle gain, fat loss, and the general eating experience (everything from choosing healthy options at a restaurant to finding low-carb high-protein snack choices to tossing together a quick healthy meal at home) a heck of a lot tougher – and for many animal-free clients, that “toughness” becomes too great a barrier to eating clean (why toil over making a tempeh-cake -and-nutritional-yeast parmigiana when you ca just grab a nice, tasty vegan cupcake to go?).

If I can leave you with one nugget of takeaway from this entire thing, it’s this: the healthiest diet for humans is one that is based on ingredients grown and raised in the best possible conditions for the most possible nutritional value having gone through the least possible amount of processing.  That’s it.  So in my (professional) opinion – pick an apple.  Catch a fish.  Grow some herbs.  Your body will thank you.

Are you pro-meat or choose to abstain from it?  Are you a flexitarian, pescatarian, or have some other way of limiting your animal intake?  I’d love to hear from you!

Ask Amanda: Gimme a Gimmick

I ranted on the frustration of misinformation in the fitness industry a few weeks ago, and I suppose, in a way, this post is just the continuation of that.  Every day I get questions about products, workouts, foods, and supplements that purport to be “healthy” or “quick fixes” to weight loss or “the last diet you’ll ever need.”

Trust me, if any of that stuff was true and valid (for everyone/anyone/at a reasonable price point), there would be a helluva lot more healthy, fit people walking around these days.

That is NOT to say that there are not certain things that are better than others when it comes to how you spend your health and fitness dollars, and I want to highlight a few of the most common ones I get asked about along with my convenient rating system.

Here’s the deal, folks – for each product/service, I am going to rate both the level of GIMMICK and the level of actual UTILITY.  The reason I want to separate these two things is because sometimes, the two can come together in glorious harmony, as in my beloved Orangetheory Fitness, while in other cases, they are completely in opposition, such as the over-hyped (and IMO, unsafe) SoulCycle.

Let’s get started, shall we?

GREEN (AND OTHER MAGIC) POWDERSGIMMICK SCORE: 8/10; UTILITY SCORE 8/10

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I wrote an entire entry on the “magic dusts” that are the lifeblood of L.A.’s Moon Juice Cafe; recently a reader asked me a similar question about green powders (like the one above).  The basic concept is this – you take all the good things out of vegetables, you put them into a powder, you drink the powder and BOOM – it’s like you ate the vegetables.

Sort of.

Higher-quality green powders do in fact provide some nutrient value –  much like high-quality protein powders do in fact provide dietary protein.  The key thing to remember here is that green powders are better at providing micronutrients – think things like certain vitamins (be careful not to get TOO much of certain ones, like vitamin A), and some minerals – rather than all the great things a rainbow of fruits and veggies provide, such as water content, fiber, and non-green benefits (like beta-carotene).

I will always – always! – reiterate the mantra of REAL FOOD FIRST, meaning you absolutely do not need pills, powders, or anything that didn’t grow out of the ground to stay perfectly healthy and fit.

WAIST TRAINERSGIMMICK SCORE: 10/10; UTILITY SCORE 3/10

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Or should I say “waste (of time)” trainers?  Eh?  Eh?  

Ok, seriously though.  Let’s take an honest gander at the image above and what do you see?  A medieval-era throwback to a corset, except these bad boys are rubberized (to maximise sweat-related water loss, and no I’m not kidding) and close shut with metal.

If you’re wondering why I didn’t just skip over the whole explanation and give this one a utility score of 0, get ready to be aghast – I actually used one to shrink my own waist once, and it actually sort of worked (!).

In terms of short-term squeezing and sweating your skin into a particular shape for a particular dress, it works.  In terms of trying to permanently reduce the size or change the shape of your midsection for anything longer than a couple weeks, it doesn’t.  And there’s a ton of evidence that these things are dangerous, pointless, and ineffective.

SHAPE-UPS & “FITNESS” SHOESGIMMICK SCORE 9/10; UTILITY SCORE 1/10

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Look at that shoe.  Just LOOK at it.  I don’t care if the godawful thing gave you Blake Lively legs; I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing this monstrosity of a wedge with any public audience.

The concept here, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is that you walk in these “Shape Up” shoes all day and they rock your foot back and forth as you do, forcing your body to “use more energy” (the industry jargon for BURN CALORIES! LOSE WEIGHT! GET SKINNY!) and thus become fit.

If only.

Not only is there less-than-zero evidence for the “toning” effects of these rockin’ shoes, the unstable nature of the soles mean they’re not even fit for actual running or any sort of vigorous exercise, simply as a safety concern.  If a client of mine walked into my gym with these on their feet, I’d rather they work out barefoot.

AB-TONING BELTSGIMMICK SCORE 9/10; UTILITY SCORE 2/10

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My dear brother sent over an inquiry about this one after having watched a (very convincing, I must say) infomercial on the product.  Do ZERO exercise?  ZERO crunches?And STILL get abs?  LET’S ALL GET ONE!

Oh wait, no.  Because the caveat still remains: you can contract your abs a thousand times a day and STILL not have tight, visible muscles there.  Great abs don’t come from contracting the muscle (although of course, you have to do some of that, too).  They come from decreasing overall body fat to a point where it is low enough that the central muscles are visible – and this takes a very clean, lean diet and lots of (general) exercise.

The reason I gave this one a slightly lower gimmick score than the waist trainer is simply because it AT LEAST has some science behind it – there is ONE credible study of these machines that shows some moderate self-reported results.  But the fact remains: a belt like this does not deliver what it promises, and it sure won’t outweigh a bad diet.

MORINGA PILLSGIMMICK SCORE 5/10; UTILITY SCORE 7/10

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Finally, a quick note on supplements in general: I distrust them.  Even though I use a few myself (protein powder to hit my macros; BCAAs for better recovery; fish oil for Omega-3 support), I don’t recommend them to clients unless they are absolutely necessary (for example, a vegetarian anemic that might truly need an iron pill).

I want to separate “moringa” as a general supplement (which is what I assess here) from the brand-named Zija Moringa, which is a weight loss diet built on small doses of the actual supplement alongside larger doses of things like protein powder, caffeine, and a whole host of other fillers and crap to make it seem like it’s a legit thing (it’s not).

Moringa itself has some compelling scientific research backing marketers’ claims about its use as a “superfood” and “miracle cure.”  It has some proven antioxidant value and is more nutritious than kale when eaten raw (but um….maybe isn’t QUITE as tasty, to say the least).  More interestingly, there is some preliminary research suggesting it can slow or reverse the onset of Type 2 Diabetes and certain cancers (such as liver and kidney), meaning this so-called “gimmick” could actually become a valid medicine with a few more decades of well-funded study and double-blind research – I’ll sure be staying tuned.

Do you use/swear by something for your health that others consider a “gimmick” – and if so, why?  Have you ever been “underwhelmed” by a health & fitness product you tried?

TAF: The Tough(est) Club in Singapore

I interrupt this regularly scheduled blog for a shocking expat revelation I just found out about yesterday: the TAF Club.

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The unofficial mascot of the most offensive club ever

To Singaporeans, this term is no big deal – commonplace, even – if you went to local school.  To expats (at least Americans, where this sort of thing would be so inflammatory that it would incite several lawsuits, no doubt), it’s appalling – and I almost can’t believe it still exists (to some degree, which I’ll explain below).

TAF stands for “Trim and Fit,” which is the name of a Singaporean government-mandated weight management program that existed from 1992-2007.  It was targeted at school-age children – and by “targeted at,” I mean “required of those students with a BMI of 23 or higher.”  

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Asian BMI – yep, it’s a thing,

Yep, you read that right.  23.  Not even considered “overweight” by American standards.

TAF Club students would be required to complete intensive (often just outdoor running-based) extra exercise hours at school, typically arriving up to an hour before an already-early 7:20am morning start – and that’s not all.

TAF students were also required to do exercise instead of eating lunch (exercising, by the way, in full view of their peers and classmates happily eating their lunches), or would be forced to eat lunch at segregated tables where they could buy certain controlled food with “calorie cash,” a special currency that allowed only meals with a predetermined number of calories to be purchased.

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Can I buy half an apple with that 50-cal cash?

Shocked yet?  Yeah, there’s more.

The TAF Club students – and by the way, the irony of TAF being the word FAT spelled backward is not lost on me – would have their individual names called over the loudspeaker during school, meaning each and every student forced to join the club could not even quietly attend their exercise hours; they’d instead be announced to the entire school.

Add to this the fact that the exercise sessions were (often) led by less-than-sympathetic physical educators – people who should be modelling good health, not calling out students’ abilities (and in some cases, their “unfit” body parts) in a negative way.

A simple Google search for “TAF Club stories” yielded paragraph after paragraph of the obviously damaging effects of this type of weight-based differentiation on young kids. Showing up to class sweaty and stinky from a bout of morning exercise in 90-degree weather, being stuck in (and I would argue, condemned to) the TAF Club year after year if you weren’t demonstrably losing enough weight, and even developing lifelong eating disorders were just a a few of the known effects of this type of program.

Let it be known that childhood obesity rates in Singapore did decrease from 14.9% to 9.8% during the first decade of the program – by some measures, a definite success.  But a study done just after that same decade – surveying 4,400 Singaporean schoolgirls in 2002 – found a six-fold increase in anorexia and bulimia among the school-aged population during the very same window of time – coincidental, eh?

Since 2007, the program has been revamped to “shift the focus” away from weight and toward a more comprehensive picture of health and wellness.  The new Holistic Health Framework (HHF) has as its core values “total well-being, inclusion, and quality delivery,” which sounds like a great start to a better-organized program.

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Concepts in holistic health

But if you scroll down the page, you’ll see the carelessly worded admonition that “schools are encouraged to change the name of their weight management programmes from TAF to something more interesting” – meaning that not only do the schools not have to change anything about existing TAF programs, but they can also simply modify the name of the program to fit the new “holistic” guidelines.

Hmph.

I’m not saying I have all the answers when it comes to childhood obesity, a topic that in my opinion is much more complicated, sensitive, and multilayered than adult obesity. What I do know is that peer shaming, public ridicule, segregation, and punishment-based systems do not belong anywhere in public education – especially here in Singapore, where citizen harmony is considered a top priority by the government.

I also argue that putting all of the blame, shame, and responsibility for weight management onto the back of a child – rather than involving and educating the parents – is an absolutely abhorrent way of encouraging behavioural change.

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THIS is what we should be teaching kids about health and their bodies.

I have yet to meet someone who can give me a personal perspective on their experience in TAF – and believe me, I’d be open to hearing from a variety of men and women that have been through it – but I cannot imagine that the experience was anything less than degrading, emotionally damaging, and in the end, ineffective in developing long term weight management skills.

What do you think about forced weight management sessions for overweight school-age kids – and should the government be at their helm?

Ask Amanda: Healthy Packable Travel

Over the past two years, I’ve  traveled a lot.  Like a LOT lot.  There were times I would spend three weekends out of four outside the country in which I reside, and it was more common for friends to ask “are you going to be in town this weekend?” then actually invite me to something since it was about an 85% chance I would not be.

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I basically kept a toiletry bag, makeup kit, and bathing suit/sarong combo on the ready at any given moment, since there were literally times where I arrived in Singapore’s Changi Airport in the afternoon only to transit through it en route to another destination that evening.  It was amazing, but it was as exhausting as it sounds.

These days, I am much more “local” – I co-own two client-based businesses here in Singapore, which means I am much more tied down to my work.  Outside of a brief ski weekend in Japan earlier this year and a quick jaunt to Bali with my fambam last month, I haven’t gone anywhere for longer than 4 days in 2017.  Wow.

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Here are some places I haven’t been this year…oh wait, minus one, but it’s like an hour away.

That said, because I am traveling less often, I have the opportunity to be more intentional with my packing and travel prep (above and beyond the aforementioned sarong-stuffing), and I now have a few go-tos that I absolutely recommend for being a healthy, well-rested, and fit traveler.

[sidenote: I’ve written on the topic of healthy travel habits several times before, so if you’re looking more for that than what’s actually inside my travel bag, check out LOTS more tips here, here and here]

First of all, let me answer the big question I get most from clients: do you work out on vacation?  The answer is, of course, an unequivocal yes.  So does that mean I always pack at least one “workout” outfit and the requisite sneakers to go with it?  Sure does. But rest assured I make even this part simple – I pack a workout top with a built-in bra so I don’t need to worry about loading up separate sports bras, I exercise in black leggings and my most stylish-but-functional Nike Flyknits that I also wear on the plane, and if the hotel I’m staying at doesn’t have a gym, I pack a jump rope and a resistance band.  Done.

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Bands can make you dance.

Second, I make travel the time to pull out all those luxury samples I get from Sephora and treat myself to some major spa(like) indulgence…even if it’s just in the hotel tub.  I bring the thickest face cream possible and slather it on JUST before takeoff; use the BB/CC cream packets to clean myself up just before landing, and I bring at least one Korean face mask and some fancy body scrub to get glowing upon arrival.

Third, mostly because I am a hundred years old and tend to swell like hell on long airplane rides, I deploy the triple-play anti-ballooning defense of wearing compression socks, taking water pills (please note: this is a travel-only strategy and not something I’d recommend on a regular or even semi-regular basis), and bringing a huge collapsible water bottle on the plane so I can do my best to eradicate the edema situation.

Next, I’d recommend bringing along small sizes of your basic hygiene stuff – think wet wipes, antibacterial wipes, hand gel (for when you can’t get to a proper sink), Kleenex, Shout wipes, a few band-aids, and some probiotic and activated charcoal pills. This mini “first aid” kit will keep you clean, well, and balanced no matter where you’re headed.

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If you wanna get RULL serious about your first aid status…

And finally – what else fills my carry-on bag besides health-related stuff?  I love to drown out the world with my BOSE headphones, bring a couple of books (right now I’m late to the game on You Are A Badass, but loving it so far!), tuck into some unsalted nuts or if I’m ambitious, homemade protein balls, and lay into my super-cozy hooded neck pillow for a nice long haul.

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Not me; perhaps it’s THAT fit blonde?

What are your healthy travel must-haves?  Any tips for maximizing carryon essentials?

Ask Amanda: Wellness WHUT?

After reading a particularly harsh NY Times account of the navel-gazing self-indulgence carnival that was Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Summit, it made me think – what does the public think that wellness professionals actually do all day?

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Are we a bunch of wheatgrass-shooting, collagen-chugging hippies that have completely lost touch with the mundanities and responsibilities of the real world?  Muscle-bound meatheads that only talk about food as “macros” and eschew any workout that doesn’t revolve around a plate-stacked bar?  Even worse, are we jargon-spewing, unlicensed, fancy-rhetoric fanatics armed with a bunch of lazily Googled anecdotes to support whatever pill/product/program we’re pushing at the time?

God, I hope not.

The health/fitness/wellness industry as we know it is a multibillion-dollar one, including all manner of things from gym memberships to supplement sales to sleep analysts to meditation apps.  We’re a diverse group of people and organizations dedicated to (hopefully!) bettering people and the planet by providing healthy and holistic solutions to common human problems.

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Not everyone defines wellness as I do, but for my line of work, I like to use the simple idea that wellness is an active and self-aware pursuit of better health.  This situates wellness both as a process and an activity, not a passive “state of being” that somehow just arrives onto your doorstep.  You must work toward it, strive for it, and be realistic in the acceptance that wellness is a journey toward “better” – not “perfect.”

To refine my role in the wellness sphere more specifically, I am a personal trainer (first and foremost, I stand for the transformative and empowering experience of building strength and fitness), a nutritionist (not a clinically registered dietitian – rather, someone who advises individual food choices based on stringent data collection, iterative testing, and program revision), and a wellness coach (above and beyond the goals of weight loss and proper nutrition, I also help clients find balance with their sleep patterns, stress and time management, coping strategies, and goal setting).

Whew.  It’s a lot.

But know this: it should be a lot because I’ve been doing this a long time.  Looking back on my now 11-year career in wellness, I’ve been certified as a personal trainer by the American Council on Exercise, a group exercise instructor by the Aerobics & Fitness Association of America, a pre and postnatal corrective exercise specialist by FitForBirth, a nutritionist by both Precision Nutrition and the American Sports and Fitness Association, and a myriad of smaller sport-specific agencies (SPINNING, TRX, BOSU, SilverSneakers, THUMP Boxing, IndoRow, Aquaspin, and Stages Cycling, to name a few).

My point with listing all this here is this: it is crucial that you look at the qualifications of your wellness professional before you commit to an intimate, expensive, and time-consuming process with her or him.  Ask questions about their experience, their success stories, and their methods.  Ask for data.  Ask for photos.  Do not hesitate to tell them what you expect from working with them, and ask for progress reports and indicators toward those goals.  And above all, make sure you “click” with them; you trust them, and you think they might inspire you to find a better version of yourself.

One of my fave quotes about working with a wellness coach in particular is this: “it’s like hiring a tour guide to a place you already live.”  My day-to-day job involves a lot of “behind the scenes” wellness work with clients – for every hour I spend with them in the gym or consult room, there’s at least a half hour of workout planning, another half hour of text and email communication to ensure they’re feeling well and check in, potentially another hour of reviewing and commenting on food photos, and so on.  I try to be entirely present with my clients, taking each of them for the individuals that they are, and giving full credence to their place in their personal journey.

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Ok, now I’m the one sounding like Gwyneth.  But it’s true: my most successful clients are those who use me as a guide, sounding board, facilitator, and second opinion – rather than co-depend on me as a guru, “yes” man, decision maker, magician, or savior. Finding a wellness pro to partner with you and help you create and stay accountable to action steps (a coach!) is much more valuable than finding someone that forces their way of wellness on you, pats you on the back for anything and everything you do, or worse, uses criticism and shaming to reprogram your habits and beliefs.

My message for this week’s #AskAmanda is this: we should all strive toward wellness, and we could probably all use some help doing it.  Finding a trainer, nutritionist, wellness coach, or other professional to help you set and reach goals is a worthwhile investment, and one I (obviously) recommend as a top priority.  Whether it’s coaching in-person, online (using a service like Trainerize) or simply exchanging a few well-thought-out emails with someone in the industry, investing in your own health is never a waste of time – as long as you do it with your best interests (and realistic expectations) in mind.

Have you ever sought professional help to reach a health, fitness, or wellness goal?  What lessons did you learn?

Ask Amanda: Need the ‘Fo

In my line of work, perhaps more so than in a lot of others, there is a ton of misinformation.  From trainers telling you there’s “no pain, no gain,” to nutritionists advocating “low-fat” diets, to random people on the street suddenly calling themselves fitness “experts” because they happened to lose a bunch of weight once, I find myself calling bullsh*t nearly every day on something a client/friend/family member asks me about.

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I know I posted this before, but it still makes me laugh.

For example, just the other day a client was telling me that her former trainer told her that squats were bad for her knees (you can read an entire diatribe on why this is untrue here, but just know this – proper squats are the things that are going to SAVE your knees), so she hadn’t done a single one in years (!).  All the time I am asked about certain supplements (mainly commercial diet pills, sigh), exercise trends (you know how I feel about the elliptical, but you can also put SoulCycle and the Tracy Anderson Method on that list), and nutrition gimmicks (an even larger SIGH to Atkins, South Beach, and anything that basically eliminates an entire macronutrient group and calls it a “diet”).

I want to set the record straight: I am not a registered dietitian, meaning that I do not have a bachelor’s degree in nutrition nor did I pass a clinical licensing exam that qualifies me to practice nutrition in a hospital or medical setting.  That said, I am a certified personal trainer and exercise instructor with over a decade of teaching and training experience, have been a certified nutritionist (and will soon be an advanced PN-1 nutrition coach) for over five years, I have trained over 100 (!) actual clients with everything from a double hip-replacement to Ironman to morbid obesity to pregnancy, and I also hold two Masters degrees and have done published research in health science.

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Because of all this experience, my bullsh*t-o-meter is set to extra sensitive, and I absolutely will not have it when someone makes false claims about fitness and nutrition, relies on sh*tty science to back up their preferred workout or meal program, or worse yet, tries to get someone to spend money on a product or service with full knowledge that it won’t work (like the aforementioned diet pills, personal training without any attention to nutrition, or some crappy piece of home gym equipment).

That being said, I have a few reliable sources/coaches that I can always rely on for accurate nutrition and fitness information, and I wanted to share them with you should you want to further educate yourself (yes, beyond the scope of this amazing blog, hahaha) toward better health on your own terms.

First off, I have to plug my nutrition certifying agency, Precision Nutrition.  Not only did they write the bible on intermittent fasting (of which I am a strict devotee), but their blog and infographic library is unmatched, and covers the questions that “real life” people ask the most – like how do I really get that six-pack, or how do I make vegetables taste good when I really don’t  like eating them, or what’s the actual best diet for me?  Their stuff is always research-backed, spelled out in layman’s terms, and often a bit funny to boot – a great combo when looking to explain a tough concept to someone.

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Speaking of certifying agencies, my training cert organization – the American Council on Exercise – also produces a great deal of useful and timely fitness research by sponsoring a great deal of in-depth studies on topics like senior fitness, TRX, compression garments, HIIT training, and even stand-up paddleboarding.  If you’re looking for the latest info on all things exercise, this is the one-stop shop for sure.

Next, I go back to my grad school days and check out what’s happening on Google Scholar.  Yep, whenever there’s a new trend or supplement out there (right now it’s Ma Huang-Guarana that’s all the rage, and there is some evidence to support its efficacy!), I run it through the ol’ Google-S to see what the “real deal” is – and if there’s no science or even discussion to support it, I won’t breathe a word about it, curious clients or otherwise.

Finally, I consult the professional advice of some of my trusted trainers and friends in the industry, including Heidi Powell, my registered dietitian buddy Carrie over at Steps 2 Nutrition, and the lovely, diverse experts at the Huffington Post Healthy Living section (vetted, to be sure).  Science is always best, of course, but sometimes having the experience of actually applying concepts to people and groups can provide insights that research doesn’t divulge.

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As a general rule, don’t accept anything “revolutionary” you read in commercial media about fitness and health without first looking at it critically, second, asking a professional in the industry to help you interpret it, and third, doing a little old-fashioned research to see if the claims hold true across time, location and different populations.  As the old adage says, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is – so sorry, Hollywood Cookie Diet, (yes it’s a real thing!) you don’t make the cut after all.

Where do you get your fitness & health information?  Any myths you want/need busted?

Ask Amanda: How Much Exercise is Enough?

Let us be real – we all want to be generally healthy, but we all are (inherently) a little bit lazy.  There’s something within human nature that is constantly asking, what is the minimum amount of effort that I can put in to get the maximum amount of return?  And of course, with something that a lot of people (definitely not trainers!) consider “unpleasant” like exercise, that elusive bare-minimum level is often speculated upon.

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Why we exercise.

How much exercise is considered “enough”?  I get this question all the time, and the easy (and by the way, correct) answer is of course to say that it varies by your age, performance goals, medical history, genetics, and ability level.  For example, if you are 80 years old and have arthritis, a daily 1-mile walk with some at-home grip work might suffice.  If you are an Olympic power lifter training for the next Games, the above program would not even remotely suffice.  Get it?

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate (think walking, easy lap swimming, or playing doubles tennis) exercise per week, which can average out to 30 minutes on 5 of the 7 days.  Alternatively, you can perform 75 minutes of vigorous activity (think running, swim sprints, or playing singles tennis), or a combination of the two.  In addition, they suggest doing muscle strengthening exercises on all major muscle groups twice per week.  They also make it clear that unless you are doing a combined 300 minutes of exercise per week (about an hour per day on six days per week), you probably will not be losing any weight (sigh, I know).

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Ideas for how to get your movement on.

An avid ThisFitBlonde reader had asked me a while back if doing Spin class twice per week and barre class three times per week was “enough,” and using the above formula, let’s figure it out.  If you take the Spin class seriously (this is why I love the more accurate intensity-calibrated bikes used in a studio like Flywheel rather than something more….shall we say…”bouncy,” like a SoulCycle), you’re logging about 80-90 vigorous minutes.  The barre classes would add up to about 180 moderate minutes, and given my understanding of the type of classes, would also “count” as muscle strengthening. Therefore, yes – that combo on paper would be “enough” for general health, but perhaps not enough for weight loss – and definitely not enough for a completely different performance goal like running a marathon or completing an obstacle race.

This is where you have to be honest with yourself about why you’re exercising, what your performance and body composition goals are, what you expect to gain from the type of exercise you’re doing, and how your diet supports your workout regimen.

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She gets me.

Want a window into my exercise world?  Here we go: I am currently training for a long-distance obstacle race (Spartan Beast Malaysia), an ultramarathon relay (Ragnar Napa Valley), and a hot-weather marathon (Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon).  Using the above questions, here’s my metric and exercise prescriptions for myself:

WHY ARE YOU EXERCISING?  Because I’m a g*ddamn beast, but also sort of an idiot, so I’ve decided to line up three giant endurance races at the end of the year to keep myself motivated, excited to keep working out and focused.

WHAT ARE YOUR PERFORMANCE AND BODY COMPOSITION GOALS?  I’d like to complete the Beast without injury, feel strong and recovered on all three Ragnar legs, and finish the marathon with my partner in less than four hours (ambitious given the heat).  I’d also like to lose 5 additional kilos and about 4% body fat along the way.

WHAT DO YOU EXPECT TO GAIN FROM EXERCISE?  I expect to lose weight, run faster and more efficiently, build upper body and grip strength, and practice fueling and hydration for hot-weather endurance events.

HOW WILL YOUR DIET SUPPORT YOUR WORKOUTS?  I will continue to alternate low-carb and higher-carb days (carb cycling) within the framework of intermittent fasting.  I will increase my protein intake on lifting and recovery days and supplement with BCAAs. I will try to eat a salad daily for lunch to maximize vitamins, minerals and nutrients and keep alcohol to a minimum, particularly within the last month before the three events.

MY WORKOUT PRESCRIPTION: Garagecircuit (obstacle/circuit/strength training) 2X/week.  Two short runs (5-8K) and one long run (10K+) per week, building up to 30K by December.  Stairs/boxing circuit (stair running, sprints, push-ups, squats, lunges, and sparring) 1X per week.  Obstacle-specific (Fitness Protocol) training when possible; at least once per month.  Yoga once per two weeks for mobility and anti-inflammation.  One rest day per week (can include yoga but no other workouts).

If you’re confused about how to tailor your workouts to your goals like I did above, if you’re not sure working out “enough,” and/or if you don’t know how to develop a nutrition plan that complements and makes the most out of your exercise routine, it is definitely worth the investment in a few sessions with a personal trainer, nutritionist, and/or registered dietitian to make sure you’re on the right track.

Do you think you exercise “enough”?  How do your workouts move you toward your goals?

Ask Amanda: Back Back Front and Front

A loyal (and well-informed) reader had a fairly simple #AskAmanda for me this week, but I think it’s one that bears repeating given that I consider myself a back-to-basics style of trainer.

I’ve written a few posts on the basics of weight training, where to start if you’re just coming back to exercise, and even how to train just your upper body for maximum results.

I will return time and again to the importance of fundamental movement skills – squat, lunge, deadlift, bench press, push-up, pull-up, and plank – and remind everyone to pick up the heaviest weights you can handle with good form to get the most out of each workout.

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Pushups, rows, squats, and deadlifts – do ’em.

That said, one thing I’ve never addressed is what exactly makes for a “heavy” weight (sidenote: it’s also based on your age, weight, gender, body type, history, and overall goals, besides what I’m going to tell you below) and how much you should actually be lifting for the type of physique and fitness level you’re looking to achieve.

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Dude on the left does LOTS of aerobic endurance work and probably does not lift.  Dude on the right lifts heavy things and does lots of anaerobic work.  Different types, different needs on the iron.

The short answer for “how heavy should I be lifting?” is this: for general fitness, you should lift whatever weight you can maintain for 8-10 repetitions without failure or form breakdown.  If you are looking to build mass, you should lift whatever weight you can maintain for 3-5 reps without failure or form breakdown.  If you are looking to build muscular endurance (say, cross-training a hamstring for running efficiency, or training your abdominal muscles to carry your posture through a long-distance cycling event), you should lift whatever weight you can maintain until muscle failure (for most people, about 30-50 reps) without form breakdown.

The longer (and more scientific, if you’re into that sort of thing) answer is to figure out your 1-rep maximum (trainer shorthand for this is 1RM) and use percentages of that maximum to train in different ways.  For example:

(let’s assume your 1RM for a back squat is 50KG, or about 100 pounds)

General Fitness – 3 x 10 repetitions @ 75% (37.5 KG; 75#) with 30-60 seconds rest between sets

Muscle Build – 2 x 5 repetitions @ 85% (42.5 KG; 85#) with 2-3 minutes rest between sets

Endurance – 1 x 30-50 (to failure) @ 30% (15 KG; 30#) – one set only per exercise

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A sample hypertrophy (gainz) set, working up to 1RM

Not complicated enough?  Let’s go further into the dynamics of anterior/posterior chain movements.  Anterior muscles are the “vanity muscles” – the ones you see on a daily basis in the mirror, such as chest, biceps, shoulders, abdominals, and quads.  Posterior muscles are the “balancers” – the stuff that holds our bodies upright, such as lats, triceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

Typically folks tend to overtrain our anterior (front) muscles and undertrain our posterior (back) muscles, leading to imbalances in posture, strength, coordination, and sometimes even injury.  That said, our posterior-chain muscles can often carry a lot more weight than our anterior-chain (for example, right now, you can probably deadlift more than you can bench, assuming you can maintain proper form for both movements).

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2 Chainz (anterior/posterior)

You can figure out your proper weight for posterior-chain movements using the same process outlined above (using 1RM), or you can use an even simpler process called ratio training. Olympic lifters (and yes, some regular people that WISH they were Olympians) use a 3:4:5 ratio in regards to bench, squat, and deadlift weights.  In this example:

(assuming again that the 1RM on the back squat is 50KG, or about 100 pounds)

1RM: BENCH 37.5KG or 75# : SQUAT 50KG or 100# : DEADLIFT 62.5KG or 125#

5-REP SETS: BENCH 32KG or 56#: SQUAT 42.5KG or 85# : DEADLIFT 47 KG or 75#

10-REP SETS: BENCH 28 KG or : SQUAT 37.5 KG or 75#: DEADLIFT 47KG or 100#

Even after all this technical math, some practical advice: if your deadlift looks like crap, even if you’re using 25% of your 1RM, it’s too heavy.  Similarly, if you have strong form and a commitment to actually getting stronger, lifting the same weight forever (I’ve had to talk many a female lifter out of the “baby weights brigade” to actually get their bodies to change and lose fat) won’t get you any real fitness gains.

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Real talk.

And one more thing – if you’re unsure about any of this, or you simply don’t have time to take a calculator down to your workouts, bite the bullet and hire a certified personal trainer.  They do all the dirty work for you, keep track of the weight you’re lifting, teach and monitor your form, and motivate you to stay accountable to a progressive program.  In my (professional and of course personal) opinion, that’s worth every penny.

What are your favorite – and most effective – strength training movements?  Are you confident in the weight room?

 

Nobody Likes You When You’re 33

(by the way, if you get the reference from this blog title, bless you, we’re probably of the same pop-culture generation)

I interrupt this regularly scheduled #AskAmanda blog spot with a not-so-riveting revelation:

In just a couple of weeks’ time, I’ll be turning 34.

34 is not an exciting birthday, it’s not the type of birthday you make lists for (“30 Things to Do by Age 30”) or feign dread about (“OMG 40! Over the hill!”) or even anticipate with anything more than a mild sense of whimsy (“My 21st is gonna RAGEEEEE”).  It’s sort of one of those birthdays that gets lumped in with all the other ones from 31 onwards, and maybe gets marked with a few spirited beverages with friends or a nice dinner out.

That said, I was reading an article about how to age gracefully today, and in that article, it said that the official age category of being considered “young” is 1-49, which gives me a solid 15 more years of scientific youth.

Whew.  I’ll take it where I can get it, surely.

But of course, in the same article, it noted some of the inevitabilities of physiological aging, such as bone degeneration (yep, a little every year after age 30 for women), muscle loss (3-5% per decade after 30), running speed decline (up to 20% between ages 20-59), and the biggie, of course – the end of “biologically optimal childbearing” kicking in at a the ripe ol’ age of 35.

Sigh.  One more year, and even my poor neglected uterus can’t keep up.

Perhaps some (or all?) of this started weighing on me more heavily the past year, particularly as I was going through a rough patch personally over the past eight months. Every time I looked in the mirror I felt old, slow, lethargic, a little less vibrant, a little less confident.  I didn’t like this feeling, so I sat down to make a list of all the things I wanted to do differently in the coming year – since, as I tell my clients, you are your own problem, so you must be your own solution.

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The first thing I wanted to address was my mental game.  As I’ve aged (and moved beyond my many, MANY years of formal education), I feel like my brain fires a bit more slowly, I can’t find the words I’m always looking for, and I’m a bit less clever.  I recommitted to keeping this blog alive on the regular (you’re welcome), as well as reading at least one book per month, and I signed up to advance my nutrition coaching career by going through the (quite comprehensive!) Precision Nutrition curriculum.

I’ve also downloaded the app Buddhify and tried to complete at least one meditation every other day, ranging on every topic from “calm” to “sleep” to “focus.”  I’m actually not too much of a stress case despite my insane schedule, but I definitely lack mindfulness, and it is something I definitely need to work on – especially when it leads to easy mistakes at work or temper tantrums in my personal life.

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The second focus is of course, outward appearance.  Decades of being an “expressively” emotional person means I have some impressively deep wrinkles on my face, so I finally bit the bullet and went for Botox, which I’d been talking about doing since I was 30.  Believe it or not, the whole experience was easy-breezy, especially considering they’re putting needles directly into your face without painkillers.  I noticed major results (around the eyes and forehead, in case you’re wondering where) immediately and short of wearing an I ❤ BOTOX t-shirt, I am a total convert and devotee. #faceneedlesforever

I’ve also committed to getting regular facials (kind of a cheat since I really started doing this when I moved to Singapore in 2015), actually caring about how my nails look (you know, throwing some non-chipped color on there once in a while), and taking care of my skin and hair – including, believe it or not, not only regular haircuts (!) but my first round of eyelash extensions which, I must say, were absolutely spectacular and gave me a near-Botox-level feeling of addiction after the first treatment.

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Look Ma – no wrinkles!

The day after the extensions I decided to double down and even go for my first LED lamp tooth whitening treatment, which despite the sensitivity factor (I have sensitive teeth and gums even without putting chemicals all over them), gave me back the sparkling-pearly teeth I remember having before rampant coffee addiction took over my life.

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Mah teefs, before and after

And now for the third prong in the self-improvement game – emotional wellness.  I noticed that I feel better when I am more connected to family and friends, even during uber-busy times at work, and that when I don’t have these relationships thriving, I feel exhausted and empty no matter how well I’m doing with my career.  The demands of opening and operating a small business have definitely taken their toll over the first half of this year, but I’m not letting it get me down – I’m recommitting to my closest and most important relationships no matter what this year.

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NOT happening.  Not again; not ever.

I’m going to Skype with my parents once per week.  I’m going to remember to send postcards to my niece when I travel.  I’m going to cook dinner for my partner once per week, and go out of my way to make him feel special.  I’m going to keep my (pen-to-paper) journal updated.  I’m going to say YES to friends and NO to clients when the latter start to drain my energy with unreasonable demands.  And I’m going to rediscover my yoga practice – yes, the one I actually had for so many years – at least once per week.

There are some things in life that are non-negotiable when it comes to maintaining health and happiness, and in my (impending) 34th year, I’m focusing on exactly what makes life worth living – no more working toward other peoples’ priorities at the expense of my own health and sanity.  As the poet Robert Frost once said, “Time and tide wait for no man, but time always stands still for a woman of thirty.”

As for me, you read it here first: I’m going to use every bit of the next 365 days to its fullest.

What are your best habits for staying well as you age?  What keeps you going each day?

Ask Amanda: Precision Nutrition

A long time ago in a place far, far away, I got my first Sports Nutrition certification.  For what I was doing at the time (mainly, teaching group exercise classes and giving some basic diet advice on the side), it was enough – I was able to articulate the basic tenets of metabolism, energy balance, and clean eating with some level of authority.

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Don’t get it twisted – I never was, and (probably) never will be, a registered dietitian.  An R.D. is authorized by the Commission on Dietetic Registration of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  All R.D.s have a bachelor’s degree (at minimum), have undergone extensive scientific coursework in the area of dietetics, have completed an internship in various nutrition settings and have passed a licensing/registration exam.

Whew.

As for me, while I do have two Masters degrees (one perhaps more relevant to these topics than the other, but hey, all education is worthwhile, right?), I am “only” a nutritionist – defined as a person who studies or is an expert in nutrition.  And since no one asked me any specific #AskAmanda questions this week (sniff), I figured I’d tell you guys a little bit about the Precision Nutrition certification I am working on right now.

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The PN certification itself is incredible – it covers a wide range of topics from the nitty-gritty (cellular makeup, metabolic processes, nutrient breakdown) to the psychological (nutrition counseling, working with difficult clients, motivational skills) to the practical (PDFs of helpful forms, legal documents, and assessment tools).  But I am not here to promote the PN cert – they’re not paying me for that (ha).

Rather, what I love about Precision Nutrition is that it doesn’t end at the textbook – they have a lively, active Facebook group and an incredibly informative blog with super-helpful infographics that I’ve already used with a variety of clients to explain topics like:

The biggest thing for me about being a qualified nutritionist is debunking all of the crap advice that people get from who-knows-what sources (US Weekly magazine; some celebrity website or trainer; a doctor who got board licensed in the 1960s; American President Donald Trump) and doing my best to provide up-to-date, relevant, digestible, and helpful information to my clients in the most straightforward way possible.

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That said – here are my quickest, best nutrition tips that I give to almost every client:

  • fat doesn’t make you fat – sugar and refined carbs are the problem
  • whatever cuisine you’re eating or wherever in the world you are, if you can find a meal consisting of protein and vegetables, that’s going to be the healthiest choice
  • eating late at night is a really bad habit.  Cut it out.  Same goes for post-alcohol binges.
  • try eliminating dairy and/or wheat, especially if you have persistent bloating and swelling issues
  • drink enough (2-3 liters daily) water, and if that’s too boring, add in some green tea, black coffee, and coconut water – but not much else
  • and finally – eat enough food.  Starvation destroys your metabolism.  You’re better than that.

If you’re truly interested in fitness, you must also be interested in food – and really, you should be interested in understanding fuel.  There is no one “diet” that is right for everyone, but there are certain tenets of health eating (as I’ve outlined above) that really do transcend individual differences and make a big impact on how we look, feel, and perform.

What are your best clean-eating habits?  How do you regulate your healthy diet?