Ask Amanda: Getting Older Is A Bear

A lovely client/friend of mine (and definite hot mama!) asked me the tough question the other day – why, even though I’ve been working out for years and keeping the diet in check, is it harder and harder to keep the weight off?

Mind you, this is a fit, healthy-weight woman with good muscle tone and great cardiovascular endurance.  She does not have to worry about her weight, however, she found in the past that it was easy to lose 5 or 10 pounds here or there simply by amping up the workouts and/or cutting down the carbs – and nowadays, not so much.

Sound familiar?

Especially for us ladies, the metabolic reality of aging is grim.  Our insulin-resisting (read: skinny-keeping) hormones decrease after 30, our muscle mass (read: natural fat-burning stuff) decreases at a rate of about 3-5% per decade, and even our calorie needs decrease (bummer).

Men, you’re not immune either – after 30, your testosterone starts to drop (meaning no more “I worked out once this week but I’m still swole” delusions) and your DHEA (the hormone that makes you feel like a beast in the gym…and in bed, tee hee) drops right beside it.

Le sigh.  So what DO we do?

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Listen up, and listen well: to stay fit well into older age, you must be open to change.  I can’t tell you how many clients tell me they had “no problem staying fit” when they were 20 years old, or “used to have so much more energy,” or “could eat anything in college and not gain an ounce.”

But guys, let’s face it: you’re not 20 years old anymore, you lack energy because you don’t work out enough or eat right, and yes we ALL could get face-deep in a pizza at age 18 with relatively zero consequences.  #realtalk

The crucial point of aging healthfully is that you must adapt to your body’s changing activity, fuel, and sleep needs and adjust your wellness program accordingly.  Make small changes incrementally so that it doesn’t feel like everything’s crashing down on you all at once – growing up is still supposed to be fun, remember?  Consider these 5 starting points:

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The only thing we all have in common is that none of us are getting any younger, so the sooner you come to terms with the fact that you are aging – and the fact that you CAN take control of your health at any age – the happier you’ll be.

What strategies do you use to stay healthy as you age?  What’s your best tip?

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Lose Weight the FAST Way

Guys, I’ve written on this topic before – but I feel it bears repeating, so stay with me if you think you’ve heard what I have to say about the “silver bullet” of weight loss (yep, it exists) called Intermittent Fasting.

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Intermittent Fasting (shortened to IF for the duration of this post) simply means not eating during a specific period of time throughout the day, then “feeding” (eating) during a small window of time.  The type of IF that I do is 8 hours on, 16 hours off, which means that I eat for 8 waking hours of each day, then do not eat again for 16 hours, save for coffee (legit) and beer (not so legit, but LAY OFF ME it’s my own body, ok?).

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During those eight hours, I eat relatively clean (mostly salads, sandwiches, rice-and-veg dishes, or tuna on avocado) but not impeccably so – I have been known to throw down some pizza, burgers, or cookies on occasion (and by “occasion” I mean “at least once every week I totally eat these foods”).

In addition, and again by personal choice, I eat low-carb for one week out of each month (typically the last week) to maintain my ideal body composition (ratio of fat: muscle).

In doing this, and only this (though truth be told, I am a personal trainer and so by necessity spend many, many active hours in and out of the gym every day), I managed to lose 22 pounds (10KG) from last September to present.  A lot of clients and friends have asked me how I did it, and I am being completely transparent when I say it was IF and not much else (my workout routine, sleep habits, and social life have all remained the same).

So why does IF work so well?

If you think about the “eating several small meals a day” thing, consider that the glycogen roller coaster – you eat food, your body uses the food for fuel, you eat food again, your body uses the food again.  Sure, you are continuously eating and burning (assuming you are a perfect human being whose caloric intake and output are in exact balance, cough cough), but you are never actually attacking your body’s fat stores – and never training your body about how to convert fat to energy.

Frequent Small Meals

See, by continuing to feed the body over all of your waking hours, you are only training your body to produce more and more insulin – which can lead to increased abdominal fat storage (yuck), insulin resistance (uh oh) and eventually even diabetes (NOPE) and metabolic syndrome (worst of them all).  By never giving your body a chance to actually mobilize and utilize fat (versus glucose) for energy, and so it never does, and this results in you thinking, “why am I eating these tiny tiny meals but NOT losing any weight?”

Frustrating.

Luckily, by feeding yourself larger meals in a smaller period, you give the body a) the lovely and wonderful feeling of satiety (no more 250-calorie “mini meals”), b) tons of fuel-based energy during the feeding hours, and c) a metabolic kick in the ass by waiting until your body actually needs fuel to feed it.  Not bad for something that takes little to no effort (other than, uh, watching the clock?), is completely free, and fits into a busy person’s lifestyle (and often makes healthy eating even easier, since you don’t really need to worry about that whole “breakfast” thing anymore) really well.

The last common question I get from clients is do I fast every single day – and the answer, dear readers, is yes.  I find that it makes more sense for me to stick to IF as part of a lifestyle, much like sticking to a bedtime or an exercise program or flossing or any other healthy habit, rather than treating it like a fad or a temporary “quick fix.”  I’ve been fasting fairly religiously (save one week traveling in Japan and a couple drunken late nights here and there) since January and I find that it is the easiest and most effective weight control strategy I have ever used or recommended – and you can quote me on that.

If you are looking for a ton more science behind why and how people fast, this article has it all laid out for you, and you can even download a free 5-page starter kit from James Clear here if you are confused about how to get started on IF.

Let me know if you’ve tried – or would try – IF, and how fasting worked for you!

Ask Amanda: Breaking Up Is Easy To Do

Welcome back, loyal readers – as always, I’m here on Wednesday talking to you straight about your pressing health, fitness and wellness issues.  Today’s questions are two of the most common ones I get as a personal trainer, and they’re definitely related:

  • what’s the best time of day to exercise?
  • it is more effective to do one longer workout session or break it up into pieces throughout the day?

The answer to these questions, respectively, are: whenever, and whatever.  But I fear that may be a little vague for the general population, so let’s dig a little deeper on these.

As for the best time of day to exercise, the best time truly is the time that you will consistently make part of your life.  I used to have a client that wanted to train at 6am because she’d heard that exercising first thing in the morning spikes your metabolism (sort of true, but whenever you exercise will speed up your metabolism, FYI) but four times out of five, she’d oversleep and cancel.

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Clearly, this was not doing her metabolism nor her fitness level any favors.

What I tell all of my clients is to schedule your workout like you would a doctor’s appointment – something that you value for the sake of your health, that you feel guilty canceling on, and that you don’t have to justify to anyone else – you just go.  Whatever time of day it is, pencil PEN it in, prep your stuff (workout clothes, water, mat, etc.) and do it.  Don’t ask questions, don’t make excuses, just get it done.  #toughlove

As for the second question – breaking up a workout into smaller parts versus doing one longer session – I am a HUGE fan of tackling a workout in pieces if it works for you.   The key here, which you may sense is a theme for me, is to make sure you actually commit to those pieces – for example, if you say you’re going to do 10 minutes HIIT in the morning, 10 over lunch, and 10 before dinner, then do it – if you’re only going to do the first one and then kind of “forget” about the rest, I’d rather you take it in one 30-minute dose instead.

Make sense?  You know yourself, you know your habits, be honest about what you will and will not do.

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For some people, facing the gym for a full hour feels overwhelming – but somehow, fitting in a half hour of gentle yoga to wake up and then kicking out 30 minutes of boxing drills once you’re wide awake after work feels doable.

For others, the idea of getting sweaty twice in one day is nearly unbearable, so they’ll stick to a solid 45-to-60 minutes that combines a progressive warm-up, weight or resistance exercise section, core stability training, (see one idea below!) and an easy cooldown, all in one complete package.

Science will tell you that breaking up a workout into bite-size pieces (caveat: bite-size pieces that are VERY INTENSE every time) is more effective than a single session on markers like lowering blood pressure and cholesterol and improving aerobic fitness, while for certain types of athletes (think marathoners, triathletes, or long-distance swimmers) it’s the LSD (long, slow distance) workouts that really makes the difference.

The key point of all of this is, as I said at the outset – you need to choose the workout time and type that works for your lifestyle, not the one you think you “should” do or that your friends are doing or that even your trainer told you to do (hey, we’re professionals but we’re not with you 24 hours a day, either).  Trust your body, trust the process – and know that there is never just one single path to reaching your fitness goals.

Are you a morning exerciser or a post-work warrior?  How do you use your workout time?

Ask Amanda: The Push-up Problem

If I were to generalize the one single movement that the majority of my clients struggle to do correctly, it would be the push-up.  I have clients that can squat, pull, and jump like champs – but when it comes to push-ups, their form literally collapses.  And as much as I hate to say it, the problem is more common in women than in men (due to biological differences in strength distribution, to be sure, but still it’s just a reality).

Last week I had an #AskAmanda reader (and former client!) ask me about the chaturanga specifically – a yoga-inspired style of push-up (below) where the elbows are kept close to the sides and the body is lowered in a controlled motion (not unlike a push-up, but not exactly the same).  Please note: a chaturanga is wayyyyy harder than a push-up, so I’ll address that movement in a bit.

chaturanga.jpgAs for the perfect “regular” push-up, it all starts with the perfect (full, on your hands) plank.  You need to get used to supporting your body weight on your arms, utilizing your core for stability, and setting your basic alignment in place so that when it comes time to actually drop into the push-up, the basic foundation is already strong.  I suggest starting with 10 seconds of planking every morning and evening, then adding 10 seconds (to each morning/evening effort) daily until you reach a full minute – you can then begin working toward your push-up.

plank.jpgOnce the full minute plank is easy, it’s push-up time – but don’t worry, I’m not dropping you to the floor yet.  I start all of my clients on incline push-ups, which means putting your hands on something elevated (like a chair, bench, or box) and moving your chest toward the edge of that thing.  Unlike doing push-ups from the knees, which I only recommend in case of injury (like lower back strain), doing incline push-ups trains your body in the same position (i.e. on the toes) as you will eventually maintain on the floor.  Start with 3-5 push-ups where you can actually touch your chest to the surface, then work your way up to a set of 8-10.

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Once you can drop your chest to the bench every single rep with full contact, you’re ready to try push-ups on the floor.  There are various ways to start here – you can try negative push-ups, positive push-ups, or bottom-up push-ups, all of which are covered in great detail here – until you can complete one full, beautiful, perfect form push-up (hurrah!).  And believe me – all that work is worth it, because the push-up is actually one of the most effective, comprehensive, and efficient upper-body exercises you can do – and it requires no equipment of any kind and you can do it anywhere (#winning).

Now, onward to the chaturanga – the “real” topic of today’s #AskAmanda.  Let’s be real – if you can’t do a perfect push-up, you probably won’t have a half-decent chaturanga.  And that’s ok – because here, dropping to the knees is a great modification to learn how to perfect this yoga staple – just make sure the upper body is still perfectly aligned, like this:

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In the meantime, while you’re keeping your knees down on chaturangas during class, work on developing the “right” muscles outside of class – namely, the chest, triceps, shoulders, rear delts, and rhomboids.  Great exercises for these include chest flye, triceps dips, rear flyes, and seated rows, as well as combination movements like – you guessed it – regular push-ups.  Strong muscles build a structure onto which you can refine movements – rather than trying to “force” challenging movements onto a weak foundation.

If you are looking for more specific guidance on the chaturanga itself, check out this comprehensive article on form and function of the pose – very helpful even for us more seasoned yogis!

Thanks again to my readers who keep suggesting GREAT #AskAmanda topics – and keep ’em coming!  What health/fitness conundrum would you like solved?  Ask away  in the comments!

Ask Amanda: Stress Eating

Tell me if the following scenario sounds eerily familiar to you:

You start a new eating program – maybe it’s a Clean & Lean, or a Whole30, or just Paleo or low-carb or something of the sort.  You adhere to it strictly, almost religiously, and you start to see the weight coming off.  You are motivated.  You feel in control.

Until one day, life throws a curveball.  Maybe you and your partner have a fight, or perhaps you have a sh*t day at work.  A single cookie won’t deter your results.  One little Frappuccino after lunch isn’t a big deal.  But suddenly the cookie turns into a whole bag, or before you know it there’s a croissant accompanying that Frap.  And one slip-up turns into two.  And two slip-ups turn into a reverse read on the scale.

Within what seems like a painfully short amount of time, you are back where you started.  The clean eating thing seems so far away, like a friend you were once really close with but haven’t spoken to in years.  You feel discouraged, tell yourself that losing weight is impossible, and slide back into the habits you were initially trying to break.

Hitting a bit close to home?

Even the best (healthiest?) of us have some version of this story to tell – but the difference is that it doesn’t end the same way.  When I finally decided to get my weight under control, I committed wholeheartedly – which absolutely doesn’t mean I became a perfect clean eater (read: the drunkenly-consumed FULL BAG of Tostitos I ate on Monday night).

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What it means is that I committed to the process (in my case, intermittent fasting) and refused to let one bad decision or snack derail my entire program.  Whether I break fast a couple hours early on a super-hungry morning or slip into the aforementioned late-night snack, I never let one screw-up become multiple.  I take a deep breath, remind myself why this way of living is important to me, and refocus my priorities.

My friend and client Laura asked me to talk about some strategies to combat stress eating (to which I am going to add boredom eating / drunk eating / general feelings-eating) in this week’s Ask Amanda and I cheerfully obliged, as I do feel it’s one of the “dirty little secrets” that even fitness professionals struggle with (and are ashamed of doing themselves).

First of all, if you are trying in earnest to lose weight (or heck, accomplish any major goal, really), you have to commit to a plan.  Just saying “I want to eat better” or “I want to clean up my diet” is too vague to have any practical meaning, and it will only frustrate you to try and find your way without an inkling of a road map.  Again, there are several ways to do this – this article suggests a few starting points – but once you’ve selected one that sounds feasible, make sure you give yourself every bit of preparation needed (food prep, mealtime adjustments, grocery shopping lists) to succeed on your given plan.

Second, identify your stress (or boredom, or sadness, etc.) triggers and create an “immediate action” plan of what you are going to do – besides eat – when they hit.  Soldiers in the Singapore Armed Forces practice IA (immediate action) drills to train themselves to react quickly in case of a rifle malfunction – their reactions to such problems then become automatic and applicable without a split second of confusion.  This is what you want for when your own cravings hit – an immediate deterrence (think deep breathing, taking a bath, reading a magazine, going out for a walk, calling a friend) that you turn to without a second’s thought instead of going directly to food.

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Third, be sympathetic to yourself.  You are likely wanting to stress eat because something is going wrong and you don’t feel great – so don’t beat yourself up further with the guilt of overindulging in food and going “off plan.”  Instead, get inside your own head and retrain your brain – the power of positive thinking isn’t just a new-age mantra, it really works!  Be kind and respect the feelings you have when food cravings hit, then reassure yourself that this, too, shall pass – and channel that energy somewhere else (I always recommend a good workout, of course).

Remember that no one at any stage in her personal health journey is absolutely perfect – as they say, life is what happens when we’re making other plans.  Give yourself room to enjoy food, indulge once in a while, and maintain the pleasure of feeling healthy and satisfied.  Learn to feel the difference between hunger and stress and practice giving your body and mind outlets other than food for when the going gets tough.  And as I said before, having a strong meal plan to “fall back on” when you’ve been derailed can be a very comforting and supportive thing – not a “diet plan,” per se, but a true lifestyle choice.

What has helped you win the battle against stress eating – and what’s your “immediate action” plan for when you need a little help?