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: 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?

 

Ask Amanda: An Elliptical Matter

When I was consulting with my investors to outfit my boutique gym FIT N’ FRESH here in Singapore, I had some very clear requests when it came to cardio machines:

  1.  Two treadmills; one rower; one stairmill.
  2.  No bikes or recumbent bikes.
  3.  ABSOLUTELY NO ELLIPTICAL MACHINES.

And if all caps in typing stands for YELLING, that’s accurate – because I nearly screamed when I walked into my beautiful new gym this past January and saw – gasp! –  a freaking elliptical, right there in the middle of the gym floor, taking up precious space.

The investors argued that their equipment providers – i.e. salesmen just trying to unload the most amount of product at the highest margins possible – said that “no one will go to a gym that doesn’t have a bike or an elliptical machine.”  I tried so hard not to roll my eyes that I think I popped a vessel.

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Beast Mode does NOT happen on indoor cardio machines

From a trainer’s perspective, let me offer you this: if a gym is stocked with rows of elliptical machines (and even worse, recumbent bikes, but that’s a blog for another time), it is very likely a gym that doesn’t focus very much on functional, movement-based training (or is at least is a gym that has a ton of money to throw away on useless, clunky cardio equipment).

Think about some of the best movement-based training modalities out there: CrossFit. Parkour.  Orangetheory.  OCR.  Aquastrength.  F45.  What do they have in common?

ZERO ELLIPTICALS.  ZERO INDOOR BIKES.  And more importantly, they’re jam-packed with functional (and often less expensive) equipment like kettlebells, bars, rings, and ropes.  They have “toys” that teach your body how to respond, how to adapt, and how to perform – not just how to move your legs and arms in meaningless circles (also my problem with high-rep, micromovement-based “baby weights” programs like Tracy Anderson, but AGAIN, I digress).

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Putting the “fun” in functional fitness.

So why do I hate the elliptical machine, specifically, so much?

Ok, sure – moving is better than not moving, and I would never discourage your mom or your grandpa or your friend with the arthritic knee from hopping on the elliptical for a short go (although even so, I’d recommend all three of those people work with a certified personal trainer!) – but in terms of movement patterning, calorie burn, and actual fitness gains, elliptical machines are just about the least effective thing you can do in an exercise environment.

Elliptical machines teach your body to repeatedly move your legs – without lifting them from the ground – in a weird, flat oval pattern (not useful for running, jumping, skiing, or really any other activity outside of…elliptical-ing), often far too quickly to maintain proper joint alignment.  And speaking of joints – the separate-pedal movement of an elliptical machine (unlike that of a bike, where the hips and torso are stabilized on a seat) can exacerbate already loose or misaligned joints, such as hips, especially for those with joint replacements, those who are pregnant, or those with ACL/MCL injury.

Elliptical machines are also less weight-bearing than treadmills or stairmills (don’t confuse this with low-impact, by the way – climbing up stairs and walking on an inclined treadmill are also relatively low-impact but produce far greater fitness results) and the ones without moving handles – you know, the ones you see people leaning on to read magazines – teach your core muscles to turn off, encourage crap posture, and burn just next to zero fat (again, compared to “real” cardio like HIIT or circuit training).

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If you can do this much while exercising, you’re not quite exercising.

At this point you might be wondering – if I can’t just hang out on the elliptical anymore and call it a workout, what should I be doing for cardio?

Snarky answer: you actually don’t even need to DO cardio, or at least the “cardio” that we’re talking about here (steady state, indoor, low-impact, etc.) to get fit and lose weight. Read more about that here, if you don’t believe me.

More useful and trainer-like answer: there are better ways to elevate your heart rate, develop cardiovascular fitness, burn fat, and lose weight than the elliptical machine, and here are a few of them:

The take-away I want to leave you with is this: there is no “bad” workout.  There is no completely useless exercise.  There is no time when I would prefer you stay sedentary rather than move your body.  However, if you’re looking to maximize the short time you have to work out, lose actual weight and body fat, and gain functionally effective fitness – the elliptical machine isn’t going to get you there.  Truth.  #themoreyouknow

What is your favorite way to build cardiovascular fitness, in the gym or outside?

Ask Amanda: Max Your Metabolism

After (semi) lecturing a client about why it was important to lose body fat BUT maintain lean muscle (even if the “weight” on the scale stood stagnant because of it), she looked me straight in the fact and said, “So this whole process is just about building a better metabolism?”

I wanted to hug her.  “YES,” I cried to my dear and startled client, “YES IT IS!”  

And herein lies one of the most obvious but most misunderstood connections between exercise, body composition, and nutrition: metabolism.  Scientifically, metabolism is the sum of all the chemical processes inside our body that help us maintain life.  In layman’s terms, metabolism is the way in which your body converts and uses energy for fuel.

So why does this metabolism stuff matter to those of us out here in the streets, just trying to get fit?

There are lots of reasons.  Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) refers to the amount of calories your body burns at rest – and the higher your BMR, the less you have to do to actually burn the energy (read: food) you consume.

People with a greater muscle-to-fat ratio have higher BMR, even if their weight is exactly the same as someone with more fat than muscle.  Men tend to have higher BMR than women (sh*t, they win again!).  And people who go on starvation (VERY low-calorie) diets, even temporarily, can actually permanently decrease their BMR by sending the body into a “starvation mode” and causing it to hold onto energy and store it as fat.

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A bit exaggerated…but like, not much. #damnyoumen

In short: metabolism matters, and you definitely don’t want to mess yours up.  So what can you do to promote a faster, better metabolic rate?

First and foremost – SLEEP!  A lack of sleep, particularly when chronic, can lead to a neuroendocrine imbalance that not only makes the body store more energy as fat, but can also make you feel ravenous all day long (increased appetite hormones) and forget to tell you when you’re had enough to eat (decreased satiation regulators).

Second of all, lift weights.  I’ve talked about this time and time again, but the single best thing you can do to “speed up” (and I use this term loosely since you don’t actually change the metabolism itself but rather its efficiency in processing energy) your metabolism is to build lean muscle.  Every pound of muscle burns TRIPLE the amount of calories (six versus two) than the same weight in fat.  If you want to burn more by doing less (something appealing even to my least-active client), muscle is where it’s at.

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Beginners Guide to Lifting Weights for Metabolism

Third – and this may seem obvious – eat food.  Your metabolism is like a gas grill, and it doesn’t spark a fire without fuel.  When you don’t eat enough, not only does your body think it’s starving (and start holding onto every bit of energy/food you DO put into it), it starts to cannibalize your precious muscle tissue (SEE ABOVE) for energy – not good. What you eat is also important – protein is the best muscle-retaining macronutrient out there, fiber can rev up the fat-burning process even more, and staying hydrated (with water, by the way) makes all of your body’s most vital processes run smoothly and more efficiently.

Finally, be a mover (and heck, while you’re at it, a shaker).  Separate from the resistance exercise I mentioned above, what scientists are now calling NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) can actually be more effective in helping you lose weight and build fat-burning metabolism than “actual ” exercise.  Everything from fidgeting to taking the stairs up to your office to standing instead of sitting to take a phone call counts as NEAT, and in very active individuals, their NEAT daily calorie burn is more than what most other people might burn in a 30-minute elliptical session (something many people mistakenly consider a “workout,” which is a topic for another time).

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The combination of what you eat, how you move, and your other lifestyle factors (sleep, stress, etc.) is mostly responsible for how efficient your metabolism works – but don’t discount the “big G-factor” known as genetics (womp womp, I know).  If your family is prone to PCOS, Cushing’s Syndrome, diabetes, or thyroid issues, or if you’re on certain antidepressants or other medications, your metabolism may be slower than most – and it’s out of your control.  But even with these clients, I always encourage them not to use their medical conditions as excuses to be lazy with diet an exercise – but rather as a catalyst to rise above what they can’t control and focus on what they can (clean eating, regular workouts, and a positive mindset).

Do you think you have a “fast” or a “slow” metabolism – and do you personally believe it can change over time and/or with lifestyle habits?

Ask Amanda: The Opposite of Exercise

A wonderful (and sidenote, gorgeous) TFB reader and bride-to-be came to me with a frustrated #AskAmanda question earlier this week, and I felt for her, because I feel like it’s something I commonly hear from training clients that are just starting out:

“I’m busting my ass in the gym (or, training for this marathon; or, doing CrossFit; or, taking the 40-day hot yoga challenge, etc. etc.) and I’m actually GAINING weight.”

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Sound familiar?

Believe it or not, I’ve been there.  There was a time in my life when I was running more than 25 miles per week, lifting weights, and doing CrossFit, and watching that infuriating little red ticker on my scale NOT BUDGE AN OUNCE.  Here I was, legitimately exercising at a high intensity at least 2 hours per day and not losing weight.  Seems impossible, right?

How could adding more exercise produce results that are the exact opposite of exercise?

So….here’s the thing, guys.  Remember my 80/10/10 theory (if not, read all about it here)? The basic idea is this: only 10% of the way your body looks in terms of fat-to-muscle composition comes from the gym.  The other ten percent comes from genetics (hey, don’t fight Mother Nature).  And the remaining EIGHTY (eight-zero) percent comes straight from what you put into your mouth: your diet.

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Focus on the first and last columns.

Anyone who’s lost a significant amount of weight without illness or surgery will tell you, if they’re being honest, that it’s making a radical dietary change that made the final difference in watching the scale go down, down down.  Social media, pop culture, and fitness magazines do their best to tell you that it’s “gettin’ swole” in the gym or doing some particular sort of workout that’s going to make your six pack pop – when in reality, dropping carbs for a week will do more for your abs than a thousand crunches ever will.

That being said, of course there are some nutritional strategies that are more effective than others, and there are some workouts that are more effective than others, and there are some “insider” trainer tips that can help speed along body fat loss – and I want to give you a little insight into all of those, right now:

BE.  CONSISTENT.  Above all, you need to be consistent in your diet and exercise routine.  As you know, I am a big fan of intermittent fasting (IF), and the reason it works for me is because I do it every day.  Maybe IF isn’t for you, but maybe the four-hour body is.  Maybe my style of working out (mid-distance running interspersed with traditional weight training and twice-per-week obstacle training) isn’t for you, but Pilates is.  I am not as concerned with WHAT clean-eating plan you’re following or WHAT workout you’re doing, as long as  you’re not doing it a couple days a week and acting “shocked” when results aren’t there.  Success is a full-time gig, my friends.

TRACK & CONQUER INFLAMMATION.  Especially when picking up the iron for the first time, a lot of my clients experience a great deal of muscle soreness and inflammation, which can lead to skipping workouts, poor sleep quality, and just general feelings of OUCH.  I wrote a whole blog on how to get over this initial exercise adaptation (so hey, I’m not gonna repeat myself too much here) but just know this: if you don’t reduce inflammation in the body, your brain doesn’t receive enough of the leptin hormone (yep, the one that controls and regulates your appetite), and you end up hungry & tired.

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TIME YOUR MEALS TO CONTROL YOUR APPETITE.  A lot of first-time marathoners complain that they’re ravenous because of their increase in weekly running mileage – but the strategy here is to use your meals strategically so that they curb your appetite and refuel your body rather than leave you stranded and starving.  My best advice is to exercise first thing in the morning – yes, before you’ve even eaten – to “use” a large, nutritious breakfast (NOT this “fat-free yogurt and fruit” BS that so many of my clients think is healthy) as your recovery meal (by eating before you work out, you “use up” the fuel during your work out, and often feel hungry afterward and need a “second breakfast” to keep going).  Have a lunch that features lots of protein and a healthy carb, then let the carbs go after 4pm – focusing on protein alone as afternoon snacks (read: hard boiled egg, protein shake) and as the centerpiece at dinner.  As the old saying goes, “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.”

DROP THE WHITE STUFF.  Speaking of eating, the three food “groups” (eye roll) you can let go in a jiffy if you’re honestly trying to cut fat are sugar, flour and salt.  Point blank. These three ingredients (especially when consumed to excess) are poison to your system, dull your skin, slow your metabolism, clog up your bowels, and worst of all, make you fat.  You know what DOESN’T make you fat, in the ultimate irony?  FAT.  You can even lose weight drinking liquid butter for breakfast – but not if you can’t drop the croissants.

DIURETIC YOUR DIET.  A lot of us retain a lot of water (per the above, often due to overzealous salt and sugar intakes) that in turn makes us have the “appearance” of chubbiness even when body fat is not that high – think puffed-up cheeks, swollen hands and feet, and distended bellies.  If you are one of these people (and hey-o, I am too!), diuretic foods and beverages can be your best friend.  Granted, you don’t want to lose all the water in your system and you need to stay super hydrated throughout the day for diuretics to be healthy and effective, but integrating diuretic foods can help beat the bloat and give you a slimmer, tighter appearance almost instantly (definitely a fitness-model trick for photoshoot day, believe you me).  Here’s a list to help you figure out what to eat.

Finally, USE YOUR GYM TIME WISELY.  Most of us don’t have hours to slog away on the treadmill and per my above points on inflammation, appetite, and weight loss – you don’t want to be doing that anyway.  Building more muscle is the surest way to make your body a lean, mean, metabolic-functioning machine, and building more muscle comes from a combination of eating enough protein and 3-4 sessions per week of lifting heavy weights (ladies, you too).  Add in a day or two of HIIT-style cardio to shed a little more fat and bingo – your kick-started fat loss journey has begun.

What’s worked for you in terms of body fat loss – and if you’ve never needed to lose weight, what are your best stay-slim strategies?

Ask Amanda: Size Me Up

I meant to write this entry weeks ago when the whole Lady Gaga body shaming thing came out, but other #AskAmanda inquiries came up, and I had to save my little soapbox for a while.

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ZING!

But now, I’ve been thinking about my dear Lady as well as some other recent body-related posts I’ve seen (female boxer Alicia Napoleon on what being “beautiful” means; H&M’s new body positive advertising) and I just feel like it’s the right time to talk about an issue that underlies so much of the communication, presentation, and function of the fitness industry – especially as it applies to women*.

(*Male readers, by the way, don’t think you’re “excused” from the conversation – if you choose to leave, you’re just part of the problem.)

“The problem,” by the way, is this: the true definition of fitness as an ideal should be a strong, healthy body, mind and spirit – but the working definition of fitness in our culture is a muscled yet somehow miraculously lean body without much attention to the whole “mind and spirit” thing and even less to the whole “life in balance” thing.  Throw in the fact that many female representations of “fitness” are often just regular (underweight) models wearing sports bras, and I think the issue is quite clear.

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Not hating on how she lives her life, but it probably doesn’t involve a lot of exercise – or food.

Think of how fitness companies sell their products – whether it’s gym memberships, vitamins, group classes, fancy equipment, clothing, whatever – it’s usually by showcasing these impossibly “fit” bodies (and again, if we’re talking about women, usually “fit” and “skinny” are frustratingly and inaccurately interchangeable, since visible muscles can actually have the opposite effect on sales) and promising that the product/apparel/supplement will deliver them as quickly as possible.

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She has no muscles; he has a bunch; somehow they both got the same result from 6 minutes with a hand-held vibrator?  Let’s use our brains here, people.

In a word: wrong.  And in another word: misleading.  And allow me one more: destructive.

Even if these companies have the best of intentions, they’re still delivering the age-old message that the only reason to get fit is to have a hot (thin/muscled, again, depending on gender) body, and if a certain method doesn’t guarantee a hot (thin/muscled) body, it’s not worth pursuing.  Screw you, tai chi.  Forget it, low-impact cardio.  Sayonara, stretching.  Our fitness culture screams push, starve, sweat, burn – rarely if ever, balance; and nearly never, fitness at any size.

Furthermore, advertising and communicating this message does double damage in that it negates the actual reality of achieving hot (thin/muscled) bodies, which is that it often takes much more sacrifice and social isolation than the average person is willing to commit, and that a hot body is no more a symbol of true health than a Louis Vuitton bag is a symbol of true wealth – it’s just an easily identifiable status symbol, and just as shallow.

I once had a client tell me that she would not have signed up to train with me if she didn’t “want my body” – how I interpreted that was, if my body shape and size didn’t meet her ideal of what a fit body should look like, she would negate the decade-plus experience I’ve had professionally training clients and hire someone who “looked the part” better than me.

I’ve had it with that type of bullsh*t.

Because I specialise as a weight loss coach, you may think it’s a bit hypocritical for me to harp on the hyperfocus on body size and shape as a problem, since it’s exactly that “problem” that keeps me in business.  But I counter with this: I specialise in helping people get to their healthy weights, with lots of lean muscle, functional mobility, clean nutrition, and personal growth along the way.

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Mmmm, I’ll have an extra large serving of downtime please.

Not a single one of my clients is encouraged to take supplements, go below normal recommended calorie targets, slog away hours of cardio, or even give much credence to the raw number on the scale (I emphasise the importance of body fat percentage and body measurements as the appropriate progress metrics for fat loss).  No one in my gym gets by calling themselves “weak” or “fat,” and I really try to discourage (particularly female) clients from pointing out singular body parts as “problem areas” and rather encourage a full-body fabulous approach to training.

I refuse to accommodate women who tell me they don’t want to get “too muscular” (for the record, it’s never one happened, because gaining muscle is not an easy feat for most of us) from training with weights, and I absolutely have no patience for clients who choose to starve themselves or do hours of cardio to “lose weight” rather than do it the right way.

Before I lose focus (and I know, I’m almost there), I want to leave you guys with the summary point of all this: how you look on the outside is only one (often misleading) indicator of how you’re functioning on the inside, and no one – not even your doctor, not even your trainer – can assess your health and fitness just by looking at your body shape or size.  You control your real health outcomes with attention to clean eating, resistance training, and proper sleep and stress management, and when you do those things well, you’ll see exactly what your healthy body is supposed to look like.

Have you ever had comments about your body, fitness, or size that hit a nerve?  How do you – did you – deal?

Ask Amanda: Total Recall

The timing on this legit reader-request #AskAmanda could not be more perfect as I’ve just returned from a wonderfully indulgent vacation in Japan.  She asked me how I get myself back on track after a weekend (week…month…year…life….) of too much food, too little exercise, and a general lack of health and fitness habits.

To give you an idea of what I mean when I’m talking about overdoing it, take a peek below. Over the five glorious days I spent in northern Japan, a typical day of eating looked a lot like this:

As you can imagine, upon my arrival back to Singapore, I solemnly and quietly slid my bathroom scale away under the sink, vowing to give myself a week to “recover,” and devised a plan on how to get back to my fit, firm self after a weekend of overindulgence.

Step one: food.  Whenever I need to clean myself out, I don’t go for the typical quick fixes (think juice cleanses, starvation diets, or some protein-shake regimen).  I simply buy the clean, healthy foods I enjoy and commit to eating them – and only them – for about a week.  For me that looks like:

  • breakfast: none; I return to my intermittent fasting program
  • fast breaker meal: banana or apple with natural chunky peanut butter
  • lunch: can of water-packed tuna mixed with plain hummus and 1/2 avocado
  • snack: a cup of full-fat Greek yogurt with blueberries and nuts
  • dinner: 1/2 avocado and 3 eggs over German bread with a side spinach salad

Sure, it’s not super exciting, but it definitely works – and that’s what matters to me.  The ingredients are cheap and simple, there’s barely any cooking involved, and I like all the food listed here.  I pair every meal/snack with 1/2 liter (16 ounces) of water and make sure I drink at least one container of coconut water (especially important in the Singapore climate) per day to offset all the dehydration of the (black) coffee I tend to gulp by the gallon.

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Step two: workouts.  When I’m coming back from an inconsistent or nonexistent workout schedule, I like to come back with a week of two-a-days – either an endurance cardio workout in the morning and superset weights in the afternoon, or a HIIT workout early and a slower weights program later.  I don’t overdo it in either workout session, but I do like to make up for lost time a bit and recommit my body and mind fully to exercise.

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Step three: sleep and skin.  After even one weekend of indulging, especially at age 33, I can see the effects of too much alcohol and sleep deprivation all over my (bloated, dull, patchy) face.  I like to use the first week back to do some serious rehab on my skin (think exfoliating scrubs, hydration mask, and heavy-duty eye cream every night, plus a scheduled facial as soon as I can make time for one), and get tons of sleep (for me “tons” is anything above 7 hours, and I cherish every second of it) until I no longer resemble the walking dead.

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If the Korean girls do it, I’m doing it – cleanse, tone, eye cream, face mask – ALL OF IT!

Finally, a wonderful step four: massage.  Sure, I was just on vacation, surrounded by leisure time and onsens aplenty, but I was also crammed into an economy-size airplane seat for about 10 hours each way and traveled two red-eye flights to make the trip happen. When I got  back, my neck felt like it had been strangled and my sore legs (from two days of snowboarding after an 18-year hiatus from the sport, sigh) felt like they were radiating pain.  I like to get a nice, deep, almost-painful massage to work out the travel tension and body aches from a whirlwind trip and help me get back in the mindset of work, business, and responsibilities again.

What are your best post-vacay rituals?  How do you get back to your healthy routine?

Ask Amanda: Slim, Shady

I was in an Uber yesterday when the driver (a homeopathic-remedy enthusiast and roughly 70-year old Sikh man) was regaling me with his detailed and lifelong fitness regimen, including everything from jogging around the block every day to taking “two mugs of warm water” upon waking to rubbing saliva in his eyes to relieve conjunctivitis (again, I said he was enthusiastic, if not a bit senile).

When he mentioned that his wife had the propensity to fall ill at a much higher rate than himself, I asked what her fitness practices were, to which he simply replied: “Oh, she’s very slim, she doesn’t need to exercise.”

I don’t think there’s a sentence in the world (regarding health and fitness, at least) that can make my blood boil more than that exact sentiment, although as an aside, these are close:

  • “I want to lose weight but I don’t want to change my diet”
  • “I want to look ‘toned’ but don’t want to get big manly muscles”
  • “I have to cut down a few pounds fast, so I guess I’ll just do some extra cardio”
  • “But foods high in fat will make me fat!”
  • “The elliptical machine is my favorite”
  • “I won’t try yoga because I’m not very flexible”

And honestly, I could probably go on for pages if only I’d kept a running list of every piece of fitness and health-related misinformation I’ve heard in my 11 years in the business.

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But, I digress.

The issue at hand is this: everyone needs to exercise.  Everyone.  You.  Me.  Your grandpa. Your pregnant wife.  Your uncle with the knee replacements.  Your parents.  Your best friend that doesn’t put on a pound no matter how much she eats.  Your boss. Everyone.

What bothers me the most about this sentiment is the implication that just because someone is not overweight, he or she is “spared” the burden of exercise; the idea that the only feasible reason that a human being would ever want to move their body in a manner outside of the basic activities of daily life is to achieve a particular weight, shape, or body type.  For the record, this is bullsh*t – solid, wretched, bullsh*t – and I hate it.

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The benefits of exercise far outweigh (zing!) the empty vanity of being thin.  Exercise is a key component in longevity (assuming, hey, you might wanna stay on this Earth for a while), heart health, bone density (don’t wanna be that grandma with the ol’ broken hip, do you?), diabetes control, and injury and chronic pain prevention.  It reduces stress and anxiety as effectively as many medications, helps you sleep better and longer, gives you more energy during your waking hours, and improves your mood.

I’ll go one step further and say that it’s not just exercise, but weight-bearing and resistance exercise, that is most crucial for people of any size.  Without strong muscle support, your joints become weak and more susceptible to impact and overuse problems, especially as you get older.  Being frail is not a good look for aging – and in fact, studies have shown that people with a slightly overweight BMI actually live longer than those who are “slim.”

Furthermore, lean muscle boosts metabolism and burns more calories even at rest, meaning that you can afford the occasional indulgence without stressing about weight gain because your body becomes more efficient at burning off the excess fuel.

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Both of these women weigh 150# (68KG).  On the left is lean muscle, due to exercise.

And yes, there’s more to my soapbox before I step down.

At the ripe old age of 33, I have plenty of friends and acquaintances that “used to be” skinny.  “Used to be” fit.  And sure as hell “used to” eat a lot worse, drink a lot more, and exercise a lot less than they do now (on this point, I will include myself, haha).  But many of these are the folks that, at age 18-22, I now call “future fat.”  They’re the ones that didn’t establish healthy eating and exercise patterns because they “didn’t need to,” relied on crash diets and skipping meals to trim down every now and then, and are now facing the worsening effects of a permanently damaged yo-yo metabolism, higher-than-desired body fat, and the uphill battle of trying to go back in time while stuck with a body that is situated firmly in the present – and in its mid-30s (spoiler alert: NOT AN EASY PROCESS).

Perhaps living in Asia has heightened my sensitivity to the “don’t need to exercise” remarks because many Asians here in Singapore, particularly women, are genetically slim and actually do believe that they don’t need exercise to stay healthy (since, again, the prevailing measure of “health” is simply “size”).  I’ve heard from many of my Asian clients here that they’re the only one in their household that “has to” exercise, or that they won’t bring their wife or daughter to train with me because “they’re already skinny” – and each time, I have to bite my tongue nearly off to avoid making a scene.

When will we dissociate the holistic idea of “health” from the vapid ideal of thinness?  And how?