Ask Amanda: Health at MANY Size(s)

So I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately, mostly because I have been taking on a lot of new, diverse clients with new, diverse needs.

For example, I have a woman trying to get pregnant but can’t kick the junk food habit and lose the body fat she needs to get there.  I have a fellow who has never lifted weights and is struggling to develop even the basic muscle mass to support his (bigger) frame.  I have another gal who second-guesses every bite of food she puts in her mouth…and ends up skipping meals because she feels so unsure about what healthy choices look like.

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Point is this: I work with, and like to think that I help, a lot of different people with a lot of different needs, so I like to stay informed about what’s new and current in the world of fitness and nutrition – and expert podcasts are a great way to do that.

Some of the ones I listen to are as follows (and guys – PLEASE comment if you have a fitness/wellness/nutrition podcast that you absolutely love so I can subscribe!):

  • Love, Food – a podcast addressing common psychological issues surrounding food
  • Nutrition Diva – a science-focused podcast with short bites of nutritional research
  • Don’t Salt My Game – a body-image and nutrition podcast by an anti-diet dietitian

It was on the latter that I discovered a particular – but strong and prevalent – bias I have regarding my entire nutrition practice and how I approach diet and exercise and it is this:

I don’t believe in – and will not entertain as a tenet of professional practice – the HAES (Health At Every Size) movement.

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Lots of HAES activism out there!

I don’t agree with what it stands for, I don’t believe what it implies, and I think that what it does to the social perception and critical understandings of health, fitness, wellness, and nutrition is more detrimental than helpful.

Ok, whoa.  Even as I wrote that, it sounds harsh.  But allow me to extrapolate.

Starting with the source – the main “hub” for the HAES movements, the HAES Community page, who suggest that:

The war on obesity has taken its toll. Extensive “collateral damage” has resulted: food and body preoccupation, self-hatred, eating disorders, discrimination, poor health, etc. Few of us are at peace with our bodies, whether because we’re fat or because we fear becoming fat.  Health at Every Size is the new peace movement.”

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Sounds ok so far, right?  I mean, I am obviously in support of a pro-health, pro-acceptance community that values wellness and balance over self-hate and illness. 

So let’s keep digging, shall we?

Wikipedia further defines the HAES movement (my underlined emphasis added) as:

“…a pseudoscientific theory advanced by certain sectors of the fat acceptance movement.  Its main tenet involves rejection of overwhelming evidence and the scientific consensus regarding the link between excessive calorie intake, a sedentary lifestyle, and lack of physical exercise, improper nutrition, and greater body weight – and its effects on a person’s health.”

RationalWiki (did everyone else already know this exists – and that it’s glorious?) takes an even deeper jab and defines the HAES movement as (my underlined emphasis added):

“…a pseudo-scientific concept peddled by certain fat activists which asserts — in complete opposition to current medical knowledge — that no kind of obesity is linked to poor health or unhealthiness…this leads to the assertion that if obesity is always a natural state of being then it’s perfectly fine and not at all unhealthy.”

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Now we’re getting to the stuff I take issue with, readers: the science.

The reality is this: health at every size is a myth.  A seminal 1979 study on the topic found that obesity (a BMI of more than 30, which for a 5’4″ person is over 155 pounds/79KG) and for a 6’0″ person is over 200 pounds/100KG) is not only related to the more obvious health risks of diabetes, gout, heart disease, bone/joint and gallbladder problems, but also correlated with:

  • psychosocial disability
  • greater risk during surgery/anaesthesia, especially when aged
  • more frequent absenteeism from work and school

Another crucial study found that overweight and obese persons tend to die sooner than average-weight persons with the same habits – and that the younger you are when you first become overweight, the stronger the mortality risk throughout your life – but what’s also important to point out is that the “ideal longevity BMI” (the BMI correlated with the longest recorded lifespans) is 20-24.9 (for our 5’4″ person, thats 115-140 pounds/52-63KG, for our 6’0″ person, that’s 145-180/65-81KG).

And guys, it’s outside of the scope of this piece – but don’t even start me on the costs of treating obesity worldwide, particularly when compared to the potential costs of preventing it.

So how to reconcile HAES with this actual, data-backed science?

Here are my two cents.  Every day, (primarily) women walk into my gym with complaints about their bodies – about how they function, sometimes, but mostly about how they look.

Almost always the former can be addressed with some strength work, flexibility improvements and moderate fat loss (if overweight); the latter is the one that I think HAES is trying to “free” us from – but with all the wrong messages.

The message that medically at-risk bodies are healthy is wrong.  The message that you are mentally and physically thriving at a 30 (obese) or 40 (morbidly obese) BMI is misleading.  The message that staying/being/becoming fat is a preferred way to address size-based discrimination and eating disorders is horrific.  I don’t like any of it, and I think that promoting this kind of thinking, especially among young women just starting to know their bodies and how they exist in the world, sets up a lifetime of struggle.

Where the HAES and other body-positivity movements have it right is this: encouraging self-respect, intuitive eating, the joy of movement, and compassionate self-care should be a priority for all fitness and wellness professionals.

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When we participate in a culture that promotes body-shaming, negative-reinforcement training methods, overly restrictive or unsafe diet practices, or overtraining (over-exercise, under-sleeping, under-eating, over-stressing), we are part of the problem. 

When we make a commitment to separating value and character judgments from human bodies, employing positive-motivational coaching, helping clients with intuitive and mindful eating habits, and monitoring our clients for all markers of overall wellness (not just their weight and fat), we become part of the solution.

Thus, #fitfam, I suggest and stand for the revised term of Health at MANY Sizes, rather than HAES.  There is no one body type that means healthy, just like there is no one body type that means beautiful, or that means worthy.  My best self might not resemble yours, and what’s healthy for me might not be ideal for you.  That’s ok.

But if we are painfully honest with ourselves about what we look and feel like when we’re thriving – I know I used that word before, but I really do love it – I bet a healthy weight is right in there, alongside the glowing skin, high energy, stamina, and resilience that is characteristic of true wellness and health.

What’s your opinion of HAES?  When do you feel like you’re truly thriving?

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Ask Amanda: (Don’t) Fall Into the Gap

In honour of today being Valentine’s Day, I figured I’d do a little piece on self-love, with a side of ranting (because come on, that’s what I do best).

I was on a Skype call recently with a remote client that I train online (you can do that with me, by the way, should you not be local to Singapore), and I was trying to demonstrate something – so I stood on a chair so she could clearly see my legs.

Before I could get into the explanation of the thing itself, she stopped and said – “your thighs – they don’t touch!”

I’d heard of the so-called “thigh gap” before, of course – but it caught me by surprise that it was worthy of being called out over Skype.

thigh gap

Thigh gap vs. no gap.  Scintillating stuff, I know.

For those of you who aren’t in the know (and believe me, when it comes to this trend, consider yourself lucky to be out of the loop), the “thigh gap” for many women is the ultimate expression of thinness, fitness, desirability, physical perfection – it’s like the six-pack for men, but perhaps more unattainable (and stupid, IMO).

But what bothers me most about the thigh gap, more so than its association with the above ideas, is its association with being FEMININE and FRAGILE, or as Wikipedia says:

“…the thigh gap had become an aspect of physical attractiveness in the Western world and has been associated with fragility and femininity, although it is also seen as desirable by some men as a sign of fitness.”

A sign of fragility (um…not so great for hip-breakin’ in your elder years?).  A sign of femininity (let me hike up my 1950s hoop skirt and see…)? And a sign of FITNESS?!?  ABSOLUTELY untrue.

Having a thigh gap is a sign of one of three things: you have very thin (often NOT fit) legs, you are bowlegged or have a wide-set pelvic structure, or you stand a certain way to “roll back” your legs into a thigh gap a la Instagram models.

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Many athletic-bodied women actually have NARROW hips, meaning fit women may be LESS likely to have a thigh gap.

My point in all this is that ALL a “thigh gap” is telling you is whether or not you can feel the cool breeze between your upper legs – and not a thing more.

Just like the “thighbrow” (don’t fall down this rabbit hole, guys, unless you really want to) or what my pre-social media generation used to call “gratuitous cleavage,” the thigh gap is nothing more than positioning parts of your body in such as a way as to be perceived more attractive or desirable to the (small; IMO irrelevant) component of the population who actually notices and/or values that load of sh*t.

Which brings me to my actual point.

I train and work with women (and men) every day, and what I notice most about how women (versus men) self-talk in the gym, it’s this: they’re we’re almost always commenting on the way their bodies look (rather than how they feel or function). 

If we lift something heavy, we want to make sure it’ll “pay off” in visible leanness.  If we run, we might notice certain areas “bouncing around” and we assume they shouldn’t be.  If we stretch, we turn away from the mirror so we don’t have to see our (perfectly normal) skin folded over our waistbands as we bend.

It’s a whole can of worms, folks.  And the GD “thigh gap” is just one symptom of it.

As women, we have to call ourselves on the default habit of bringing everything back to our physical bodies – particularly while we’re doing something healthy for those fabulous bodies (like exercising, or getting a massage, or dancing with friends).

If your thighs touch when you stand up, it’s not a sign of poor fitness.  If your belly flops over a bit when you BEND OVER, that’s a completely normal effect of human movement.  If you notice that your butt bounces a few moments behind you when you’re running on the treadmill, it’s probably because you have some nice muscles back there flexing to help you stride – not because you have too much “junk the trunk.”

I challenge my clients to focus on the intrinsic benefits of exercise and clean eating, even if it doesn’t seem natural at first.  Instead of obsessing over getting into a certain dress or wearing a bikini at whatever vacation or seeing a magical number pop up on the scale, why not consider:

  • how much better you sleep when you’re being consistently active
  • how much more energy you have when you’re not eating crapola
  • how much better sex is when you’re in good physical shape (cough, er ah, just sayin’)
  • how much your kids appreciate when you have energy/ability to keep up with them
  • how great it feels to accomplish a solid, write-it-down-in-numbers fitness goal (like running your first full mile, or lifting a new PR on the weights floor)
  • how much less stress you have when you drop the body loathing and celebrate the body doing

Especially as a fitness professional, where my body IS part of my business no matter how much I’d pretend or hope it wouldn’t be, I know I can work harder to change the body focus for myself – and encourage that among the women that I train.

We can all take a few moments to appreciate the things our bodies can do, the humans our bodies have produced, the memories our bodies have walked us through, and the adventures our bodies have yet to experience – without saying a single bad word about ’em.

Right?

So let’s.  And this Valentine’s (or GALentine’s, as I’ve noticed the cool kids are starting to celebrate) Day, I hope you can incorporate some beautiful self-love rituals that do not have a damn thing to do with the way your body looks (my plan? holding hands with my adorable man all night, eating a fine meat-filled dinner, and getting a little buzz off some overpriced craft beer).

What’s your favourite way to celebrate Valentine’s Day – or celebrate your healthy bod?

Ask Amanda: The Five Stages of Haircuts

As many of you who know me IRL are already aware, last week I cut and dyed my hair.

Front page news, I know.

But seriously folks, after not having had a haircut in three years, and having never dyed my hair (other than with chalk colours or washable markers in high school), it was sort of a big deal for me – and I went through the corresponding stages of mental insanity before and after the big chop.

Just for fun this week, since I’m sure you’re inundated with “get in shape for 2018!” and “lose ten pounds in two weeks!” resolution-y stuff all over the internet, I’m going to take this week off writing about fitness and nutrition and fill you in on what it’s like to cut nearly 13 inches off your hair and bleach it to high heavens for the first time ever.

STAGE 1 (pre-cut; browsing on Instagram): EXCITEMENT & BADASSERY – who’s gonna stop me now?  I’m gonna cut my hair, b*tches.  I see all these celebs with cute, wavy lobs (translation: long bobs) and I bet I’ll look just as cute.  Cuter, maybe.  Ok maybe not as cute as Cara Delevigne, but somewhere between Khloe Kardashian and Julianne Hough levels of cuteness.  Yeah, I got this.  I’m gonna be the hair envy of every other blonde on the block.  I am such a baws.

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You are so beautiful, to me.  Can’t you see?

STAGE 2 (after making appointment): FEAR & LOATHINGwhy in the fresh hell did I make that appointment?  I should probably cancel it.  Yeah, I think I’m feeling sick anyway, my Chinese zodiac said something about not making major life changes this year so I’ll just bump this cut to 2019 to ensure double happiness.  My hair is fine the way it is, I can braid away the split ends and paint over the greys and no one will be the wiser.  Yep, all good.

STAGE 3 (at salon, after first snip): DISBELIEF & RAGEdid that psychopath just cut my hair with actual scissors?  WHAT HAPPENED TO THE FOLD-IT-UNDER AND SHOW ME THE POTENTIAL LENGTH BEFOREHAND THING?!?!?  Is that MY blonde-ass hair on the floor?  Is this real life?  Did someone authorise this act of brutality?  Show me this man’s aesthetician license.  SHOW IT TO ME RIGHT NOW SO HELP ME GOD.  I can probably get a work visa in Cambodia until this grows out, right?  BECAUSE I CANNOT BE SEEN IN PUBLIC WITH HUMANS FOR MINIMUM FIVE CALENDAR MONTHS.

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Like honestly it felt like he was balding me.

STAGE 4 (at salon, after colour is finished): CAREFUL ACCEPTANCEok, so the cut is whack, but I’m pretty sure I’m now a modern-day Marilyn Monroe with this ice blonde amazingness.  Is this colourist a magician?  Is it still going to look like this when I leave or will it wash out in the rain like my old Crayola-marker highlights?  You can’t see a single grey hair on my head because it’s so platinum.  Gwen Stefani, move aside.  I think I may be able to be seen outdoors now (albeit after somehow deflating this 1950s bouffant they styled me into toward something more like the “beachy waves” I actually asked for).

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Right colour; wrong era.

STAGE 5 (a week later, after a multitude of kind words and compliments from dear friends & clients): PEACE & JOY it’s just hair, Amanda, holy sh*t.  Get over yourself.  #firstworldproblems to the maximum degree.  It looks a thousand times healthier, more modern, and stylish than the brassy mop you used to carry around on that narrow head of yours, and it shows that you’re able to actually take a risk every once in a while.  Breathe.  Recover. Now grab your can of thickening spray, bust out that little round brush, and take that bangin’ new ‘do out on the town!

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The finished product.

And so we did.  Alls well that ends well – and #2018yearofthebadass is off to an epic start!

Do you plan to make any major changes in the coming year?  What and why?

Ask Amanda: Back It Up & Drop It

I’ll admit it: I’m one of those lame fangirls women that follows all sorts of stupid celebrities on Instagram (Kylie Jenner, Lilly Ghalichi, and Gwen Stefani, to name a few) – but even more shameful are the NON-celebrity, “Instagram famous” peeps I pay attention to.

For example, ever heard of competitive bodybuilder @keriganpikefit (nearly 50K followers)?  Or ninja supermom @charity.grace (313K followers)?  Or perhaps the esteemed Aussie fitness legend @kayla_itsines, who has a staggering EIGHT MILLION followers?!??!

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I am actually in love with Charity, though.  No lies.

Believe it or not, even though these “fitness celebrities” have a lot of different pathways toward getting in shape, one thing they all share is a commitment to reverse dieting: the idea that after cutting calories to get down to a certain physique/body composition/weight number, they slowly ramp the calories back up (gradually; intentionally) to a level that is sustainable but doesn’t ruin their metabolisms.

This is an urgent concern for many of my formerly overweight training and nutrition clients that reach their goal weight and wonder – am I going to have to cut calories forever to keep this hot bod?  And the answer is: HECK no (but you can’t go crazy the other way, either).  Let me explain:

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It’s no fun, I get it.

When you go on a deep-dive into a calorie-and-carb restricted diet, your body responds in a few ways.  At first, it senses the deprivation in calories and draws on fat stores to close the “energy gap,” which is the intended effect – so you lose weight.

But the body is smart, and once you get it down to a healthy “set point” (a point about which I could write an entire other article, but for now, here’s a brief synopsis), it does everything in its power to slow down the weight loss bullet train, including:

  • Making your organs consume less energy.
  • Slowing down your heart rate
  • Adversely releasing hormones that influence metabolism and appetite (thyroid, testosterone, leptin, ghrelin)
  • Burning less energy during nonexercise activities (which for most of us make up most of our day)
  • Using fewer calories to absorb and digest food (mostly because you’re eating less)
  • Helping muscle tissue become more efficient, requiring less food-fuel for a given amount of exercise

Crap.  Is your body, then, your own worst enemy?  No,  my friends, it’s simply a beautiful adaptation.  And again, your gorgeous body is so damn smart, it adapts not only to the food restriction, but to increased levels of physical activity as well – meaning all that “bonus” cardio you’re doing to maintain your weight loss might be working against you on a calorie-restricted diet- and breaking down muscle to boot.

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Sigh.  I know, so far I’m not making a huge case for strategic weight loss, am I?

Well friends – here’s the light at the end of the tunnel: the concept of reverse dieting actually means you eat more food, do less cardio, and kickstart your maintenance (or in some cases, even more fat loss) diet in a way that makes you feel satisfied and energetic, rather than deprived and listless.

Here’s a breakdown of how to do it – and how to do it right:

  • first, figure out how many calories you’re eating on an average day (my clients know this since their nutrition programs are completely calorie-counted for them; you can figure it out by tracking your intake for a few days on MyFitnessPal)
  • second, figure out your protein intake by measuring 1 gram per pound of body weight, then multiply that by 4 to get the calorie intake of your protein needs
  • third, subtract your protein calories from your total calories, then divide the remaining calories 60/40 (either fat:carbs if you do more weight lifting, carbs:fat if you do more cardio or are training for an endurance event) and divide those numbers by 9 (for total grams of fat) or 4 (for total grams of carbs) to get your daily macros (I know, this probably where I lost you, but I’ll share an example below)
  • fourth, decide if you want to go progressive (2-5% increase in fat: carbs per week) or aggressive (6-10% per week), and multiply your macros to figure out how much you need to add to each week’s diet, then continue tracking your food to make sure you’re hitting those numbers
  • finally, weigh yourself once per week to check in and make sure you’re not going too fast/aggressive (gaining weight) or too slow/ineffective (losing more weight / going underweight) on your “reverse” diet plan

As promised, here’s a real-world example (me): I take in about 1700 calories per day and weigh 133 pounds.  That means I need to take in 133 grams of protein daily, or 532 calories’ worth of protein.  That leaves 1168 calories for carbs and fat, which I eat in a 60/40 split because I am currently training for a marathon.  1168 x .6 = 700 calories of carbs and 467 calories of fat, which are 175 grams and 52 grams, respectively*.

If I wanted to slowly reverse diet after the race, I would add about 3% to my carb and fat grams (5g carb and 2g fat) each week until I felt super satisfied with my intake and happy with my body fat-to-muscle ratio.  I’d keep all that great protein and see how my weight responded to the increase in calories, charging up my metabolism along the way.

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This is not me.  But she IS killing it on her reverse diet plan.

Again, this is a program intended for someone who has recently lost a lot of weight and wants to maintain the loss and the body fat reduction without becoming a total slave to calorie restricted eating (sound familiar, yo-yo dieters?).  It is also for someone who is willing to cut cardio (yep, reverse dieting depends on little to no steady-state cardio) and focus on heavy weight training at least 3-6 days per week to maintain every bit of their lean muscle metabolism (critical in this process).

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Even if you continue your cardio, prioritise your strength.

And as always – stay safe and happy, people.  Never drop calories into the three-digit zone just to see a certain weight number, or avoid weight training just because muscle looks heavy on the scale.  Making healthy choices includes making choices that are good for your mental health, so if you’re so hungry you can’t sleep at night, or avoid going out with friends so you don’t “eat bad,” it may be time for a different approach.

Whaddya think, weight-loss readers?  Would YOU give reverse dieting a try?

*fun fact: I checked today’s ACTUAL macros after I wrote this, just to see how my “real self” stacked up to my “ideal” self in this entry.  Turns out I went under on carbs (only 78g today – wtf?) and over on fat (67g) when left to my own devices.  Time to carb up (and cut the fatty fat fat) for this weekend’s long effort!

 

Ask Amanda: Mommy Tummy

Let it be known: I have zero kids.  I am 34 years old, in good-to-excellent shape, with great genes, and I love exercising,  Believe me, I take none of those traits for granted – and I know that once I do become a mother, some of those things will matter more than others in how my body responds to pregnancy.

That said, I train a ton of mommies currently, and I’ve trained lots of women from before they were pregnant, throughout their pregnancies, and afterward.  I see how their bodies change (not everyone in the same way, by a long shot) and I see what problem areas recur again and again after giving birth (hello, pelvic floor – don’t skip those Kegels!).

The most common postpartum body complaint?  Mommy tummy.

Even if you’re not personally familiar with this area, “mommy tummy” can be summed up in a single, profound image:

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Mommy.  Tummy.

I want to make one thing abundantly clear: I am in no way body shaming or judging the above image.  If you earned this by growing and producing a life, you should walk around bearing your belly like a baws anytime you see fit.  However, most of the moms I know aren’t super happy with the stretch marks, loose skin, and extra fluff that tends to hang around the midsection after having a (or two, or three) kiddo.

Depending on your prenatal moisturising routine, your genetics, your age, your weight, and the natural elasticity of your skin, you will have wildly different responses to the necessary expansion of a pregnant belly – and there are a lot of different treatments (including radiofrequency, which I offer at my personal training studio) available to help return your midsection to its former glory.  I’m not going to take time addressing those options here, but rest assured that in certain cases, no amount of exercise is going to fully reverse more severe skin issues related to pregnancy, and you may need to seek some cosmetic work if that’s your prerogative.

Furthermore, if you have diastatis recti (abdominal separation) postpartum, you will also need to make some more significant considerations on what you can and cannot do to help tone and tighten your tummy post-baby.

Anyhoo, let’s assume you’ve got the run-of-the-mill mommy tummy and let’s assume you’re healthy enough to get your workout on to address it.  That’s my specialty.

First off, you want to focus on a couple specific kinds of exercises: twisting (to narrow the waist, which can widen with each pregnancy) and TVA contracting (the deep “pulling” of the transverse abdominus that helps lean out and lengthen the appearance of your entire stomach).

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Get familiar with the muscles you’re workin’ with.

You may be wondering at this point: “but what about my lower abs?  That’s where my little ‘pooch’ seems to settle!”  And believe me, mommies, I hear ya.  But the reality is this: your lower abs tend to be the weakest after pregnancy, particularly soon after delivery, so targeting them with more aggressive contractions may cause pain and in many cases won’t deliver the results you’re thinking (Britney Spears circa 2001).

I prefer to help my clients strengthen their waist and deeper abdominal muscles (the aforementioned TVA) to help pull the muscles “up” and again, lengthen and lean out the appearance of the entire stomach (including that persistent little pooch).

Without further ado, here are the exercises I recommend to actually do that:

  • Russian twists – with or without weight, these help trim and tighten the oblique muscles that support the waist (more advanced: windshield wipers)

    russian

    Add weight if you’re feeling like a baws mama

  • Knee-to-elbow – activates the TVA and gives you a twist through the core as you reach the knee to the opposite elbow (more advanced: add a downward dog

    crossover

    Really aim for the triceps, not just the elbow

  • Heel taps – incorporates TVA, rectus abdominus, and unilateral core engagement yet is safe for all levels and is a great “kickstarter” to return to your abs workouts after baby (more advanced: reverse crunches)
    heel

    Move slowly and tap the heel lightly on the floor

     

  • Double crunch – as the name suggests, this movement requires a deep contraction from both the upper and lower abs at the same time (more advanced: V-ups)

    double

    Make sure to raise upper and lower half simultaneously, and keep feet together

  • Plank twists – more challenging when done from the elbows, this exercise combines both dynamic and isometric contraction to strengthen, lengthen, and lean out the midsection while redefining the sides of the waist as well (more advanced: rotating side plank)
twist

If you can’t make it all the way to “tap” the floor, that’s OK!  Do your best.

As always, check with your doc before doing any of these exercises to make sure they’re safe for you – but if you’re cleared for exercise, complete each of the above five movements for 10 reps each, three times around.  If you want a harder workout, complete the BASIC version of the set followed by the ADVANCED version of the set (so, 20 reps per exercise) three times.  Feel the burn!

A quick note on both genetics and nutrition – they will both affect, to an even greater extent than exercise, the way your body looks after baby.  If you have stretch marks, you can’t just exercise them out.  If you have loose skin from a large pregnancy or multiples, crunches might not be the (sole) solution to a tighter tummy.

Similarly, if you eat junk off your toddler’s plate and/or order in pizza more nights than you cook and/or drink more wine than you do water, you probably won’t see visible results – or at least they won’t be anywhere near what clean eating, regular cardio, and solid sleep will get you (easier said than done, I do understand).  Consider that your abs are just one little indicator of an entire lifestyle of fitness – and make the changes you can, incremental as they may feel, to your food, sleep, exercise, and stress levels (self-care counts too!) instead of focusing on one area on your beautiful, life-giving bod.

Do you struggle with your midsection – and what are your fave exercises for that area?

Ask Amanda: The Bulk of the Issue

There are a lot of keywords in health and fitness that drive me crazy because they mean absolutely nothing yet are used ad nauseam.  “Natural” is one of them (in terms of describing food products).  “Fat-burning zone” is another (in terms of justifying boring, low-intensity exercise).

But the worst offender of all, in my opinion, is “toning.”

Toning is a fake fitness word that savvy marketing execs invented to sell weirdly-wedged sneakers, tiny little hand weights, and complicated thigh-squeezing contraptions.  The gentle and often feminized concept of “toning” gives women the (misguided) idea that they can firm up / tighten / reduce the size of their body parts without having to – dare I say it – lift heavy weights in the gym.

tiny weight

I can legitimately GUARANTEE that THIS woman does not only lift THOSE weights.

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of Instagram-famous influencers and trainers out there that have bodacious bods that they may (or may not) have gotten though one or more of the following “toning” go-tos: body resistance exercise, yoga, Pilates, barre method, or pole fitness.  But the reality, gals and gents, is this:

  • if you are a man, you need to lift heavy weights and build muscle mass to maintain your testosterone levels, stay energised, ensure proper posture, and keep your central fat deposits from accumulating
  • if you are a woman under 35, you need to lift weights and build lean mass to protect your bone density, especially if you plan on having a healthy pregnancy, and speed up your metabolism while you still can
  • if you are a woman over 35, you need to lift even heavier weights to maintain your lean mass (as it starts to decrease with every passing year no matter what you do, sigh), kick your slowing metabolism in the booty, and make sure certain body parts (read: tush & tummy) don’t fall victim to the insidious threat of gravity

And don’t be fooled, folks – pretty much ANY exercise (and in many cases, none at all) will “tone up” a genetically stick-skinny twentysomething subsisting on a steady diet of gluten-free oxygen puffs and armed with an endless set of Photoshop and photo-filter tricks (and on a semi-unrelated note, a bunch of those booty-licious internet babes claiming to have gotten their backsides from a few cable kickbacks and good genes may be uh, as they say, hiding some implants under the hood as well).

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Spoiler alert: this is NOT from a SQUAT

Snark much?  I digress.

But the main point of what is unexpectedly turning into a rant is this: lifting heavy weights (often heavier than you think, even weights attached to bars) will not make you bulky. Lifting weights in excess of 4KG / 8 pounds will not make you masculine, or hulk-ish, or broad. Very few women (and I’ve trained over 100 of them of all ages, races and sizes for over 11 years) start a serious weight-training regimen and get bigger – unless gaining mass and size is her goal.  As I’ve noted before:

lose weight

Lots of women carry around excess body fat precisely because they don’t lift weights, and therefore can’t build or maintain enough lean mass to help burn off the calories they eat – plus they tend to undereat protein and overeat carbohydrates, which is a post for another time (but still a common and significant issue).  And as I’ve said so many times before:

cupcakes

Ok, so enough of making the case.  What exactly should you be doing in the gym (and kitchen) to achieve the “toned” look (sigh, but for the sake of the post, humour me – and know that the “toned” look can of course mean different things to different people, just like the term “bulky” can mean different things to different people)?

 Allow me to give you some true trainer-tried-and-tested tips:

  • first, get a trainer.  Shameless self-promotion?  Maybe a tiny bit.  But before you start picking up heavy things, you should make sure you have at least one session with a trainer who can show you how to pick up heavy things correctly.
  • next, streamline your goals.  Do you want killer arms (hello bench presses and pull-ups)?  An overall lean bod (try compound movements like thrusters)?  Legs to kill (meet your two new best friends, squats and deadlifts)?  Six pack abs (spoiler alert: these are actually made mostly from protein and salad; less from crunches)?
  • third, get a program.  Whether the aforementioned trainer writes it for you or you get it from a reliable source like figure competitor Jamie Eason, make sure you have a specific, measurable weight training program to keep yourself accountable to – and don’t forget to keep records of sets/reps/etc. to make sure you’re on track
  • fourth, progress yourself.  A lot of my clients have sailed through steps 1-3 but then hit a wall, thinking that once they know “what weight they use for stuff” they’re good to go forever.  Not the case for getting lean n’ mean.  You’ve gotta keep upping the ante and building your body stronger (and yes – leaner in the process) within a reasonable program of progression.  Again, a trainer really helps with this.
  • finally, eat your protein.  Even the best-toned of intentions fall flabby when they’re not coupled with a high-protein, lower-carbohydrate diet.  If you’re looking to build lean muscle, consider 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (about 2 grams per KG), and if you’re looking to maintain your muscle, consider about .75 grams per pound (1.5 grams per KG).  Lean protein sources are best here, so think about egg whites, chicken breast, protein powder, white fish, and Greek yogurt.
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Clean, lean and mean (I mean, that fish is giving me the eye) protein

My lovely people over at Girls Gone Strong sum it up best:

“Lifting heavy” doesn’t give you one particular body type.  Lifting heavy will give you a strong, sexy, fit, kick-ass version of the body you were given.

Mic drop.

Ask Amanda: How Healthy is TOO Healthy?

In the course of my Precision Nutrition coaching homework, I’ve read a lot about overcoming the “introductory” type of of challenges you get when coaching folks that are new to health and fitness (things like, “I don’t like vegetables” or “do I really have to eat protein with every meal?” or “why are five Diet Cokes a day a problem if they have zero calories?”).

However, it’s not the newbie clients that are the most challenging.  Not by a long shot.

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My clients are too savvy for me to sneak this by them 😉

I am currently reading the chapter about “special scenarios” in nutrition, and it is here that we delve deep into the many, MANY types of disordered eating (DE).  Mind you, this is not the psychiatric/clinical type of “eating disorder” we associate with diagnosed anorexia or bulimia (although those are definitely disordered).  DE habits can include:

  • constantly obsessing over food / eating / not eating
  • eating behaviors that both cause and are trying to relieve distress simultaneously
  • eating in a way that doesn’t match physiological need (i.e., eating way more or less than you actually need for optimal health)
  • eating behaviors that harm yourself or others
  • orthorexia
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One lonely tomato does not make a healthy meal…for anyone

If you haven’t heard of that last one, you might want to read up on it, as orthorexia is one of the fastest growing DE tendencies around the world.  It means an obsession with “clean eating” – not just healthy eating to lose weight, but an all-consuming focus on the relationship between food choices and health (alongside an increasing inabilty to enjoy food socially, or feel satisfied by food that isn’t stringently prepared/”approved”).

But is that such a bad thing, you might ask?  Don’t all us high-falutin’ nutrition folks wish the world were more like us, with our macros and our tracking apps and proper portions and our real-food-focused organic gluten-free sugar-free dairy-free spelt grains?

Sort of…well, actually probably no.

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Mmm, salad.

Here’s the thing I always try to hit home with my clients: human nutrition is, and will always be, a balancing act.  You have to balance the food you want to eat (fries!) with the body you want to have (abs!) with a lifestyle you truly enjoy (fun!) and the best possible health you can achieve (fit!).  Examples:

  • If you have the fries sometimes, you will probably have the fun, you likely won’t have all six of the abs, but you just as likely won’t probably do any long-term damage to your health.
  • If you never have the fries, you probably have no fun (though perhaps also no guilt?), you might just find your abs, and your general health can still go either way.
  • If you have all the fries all the time, it probably gets less and less fun, you can forget about the abs, and you are probably not living in your healthiest body.

You see how this works?  There are mandatory tradeoffs between lifestyle and nutrition, and they’re not all either damning or rewarding – they just are (one of my favorite-ever infographics about this very topic can be found here).

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Why is time always wayyyyy in the other direction?

As a trainer, I feel a dutiful responsibility to demonstrate a strong, fit body, balanced nutrition, and a healthy life-work balance to my clients – but I have long given up on the pursuit of perfection.  As a wellness and health coach, I make my own tradeoffs too, and those of you know who me know that I will always choose an ice cold beer over uncovering those 3rd-6th abs (I’m ok with a two-pack at age 34, aight?).

So how do you know if you have a disordered relationship with food?  A wise man once said, check yourself before you wreck yourself:

  • Are you terrified of becoming overweight (especially if you have never been overweight)?
  • Do you feel guilt after eating?
  • Do you avoid eating, even when you are physically hungry?
  • Have others expressed concern over how much you eat, whether too little or too much?
  • Do you exercise with the sole purpose of burning the caloric content of your food?
  • Do you feel controlled by the food that you choose to eat (or not eat)?
  • Do you feel like others pressure you to eat more/less?
  • Do you claim to feel better when your stomach is empty?
  • Are you constantly preoccupied with thoughts about being fat or being thin?
  • Do you avoid trying new foods, going to social events with food present, or celebrating with food because you are afraid of eating “bad” food?

There’s no “grade” for the above test, but it is loosely based on the Eating Attitudes Test from Psychcentral.com, a screening tool used to pre-diagnose common disordered eating patterns before they become full-blown disorders – and I find it helpful to start some necessary – if often uncomfortable – discussions with clients that I sense may be heading down the DE path (or recovering from former DE patterns).

If you think you might have some of the warning signs of DE, definitely get an appointment with a nutritionist or dietitian to get your habits back on track and make sure you’re eating a balanced, satisfying, and nutritionally sound diet for your body. Healthy eating is a major part of a wellness lifestyle, but it’s not the only part – and when eating (or not eating) takes away the joy from other parts of your life, you know it’s time to reevaluate.

What tradeoffs do you make in balancing your body, health, diet – and sanity?

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.

holistic

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: 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.

fundamentals

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?