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.

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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: The Myth of Discipline

Settle in, folks.  Maybe grab a green tea.  This here’s a long one.

When I started my Precision Nutrition coaching course, I never expected it to teach me so many life lessons in addition to the nitty-gritty nutritional information.

Furthermore, the folks at PN have a really clever way of putting into useful mantras/slogans the habits that I find myself coaching clients about on the regs – helpful tidbits like “eat to 80% full,” “aim for a little more, a little better,” and my personal fave, “don’t bother mowing the lawn if the house is on fire” (referring to, for example, those folks that INSIST on getting a Diet Coke alongside their 1000-calorie fast food McDonald’s meal).

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Spoiler alert: it’s not a huge deal.

Today’s lesson made the shocking assertion that discipline is a myth – and furthermore, that health-industry keywords like willpower, motivation, and inspiration are all pretty much myths, too.  The basic idea is this: it’s not some holy-grail epic opening of the heavens that drives us to make healthy changes in our lives, it’s simply the repetitive act of small habits and better choices that add up to great things.

It reminded me of an article I’ve brought up time and again since first being exposed to it in graduate school in 2007 called The Mundanity of Excellence.  To summarise Dr. Daniel Chambliss:

“Excellence is mundane.  Excellence is accomplished through the doing of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualized, compounded together, added up over time.  The action, in itself, is nothing special; the care and consistency with which it is made is.”

Wow.  Just wow.  Go ahead, read it again.  I’ll be here.

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I admit that I am a “doer” almost to a fault; I am a big fan of favouring the “done” rather than the “perfect,” which sometimes results in less-than-ideal outcomes – but more often results in people getting what they need at the time in which they need it, which is a cornerstone of success in my business.

That said, taking action is the most important first step to the idea we formerly knew as “motivation,” and taking that action consistently becomes the pattern we used to talk about as “discipline.” 

The early-morning slog to the gym in your dirty old sneakers; the game-time decision to order the salad instead of the sandwich at the local deli; the choice to shut off the Netflix at 10pm so you can get a full night’s sleep – these are the actions, these are the patterns, these are the little things that make big changes to your life.

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Cheat sheet – print it out and rock on!

And so I turn it back to Precision for some little nuggets that can help you move from the ideal world of myths and grandeur to the real-life world of actions and habits (all their words, not mine, by the way):

  • There is no such thing as discipline.  Rather, ask yourself: What do you really love? Because you are the result of what you love most.  You either love and cherish six-pack abs more than potato chips, or you love potato chips more than washboard abs.  It’s as simple as that. Don’t beat yourself up – you’re allowed to love what you love.
  • Make truly self-loving choices that lead to increased strength of body and mind. When people comment on your results and say things like, “Wow you have a lot of discipline”, answer, “No, I just make the best choices for myself.”
  • The best defence is a good offence.  Nutrition is something within your control and you should take responsibility for this.  Every day you wake up and decide what it’s going to be: a day of struggling or a day of rising to the occasion.
  • Be motivated by the knowledge that you will never regret doing the right thing, even if it hurts to do it. But you will regret doing nothing. Keep a “daily wins” log. Over time, you have “real evidence” that you are progressing… and more importantly, have the capacity to progress further.
  • Understand that sh*t will happen. There will be “down” days. On those days, become a minimalist. Find the smallest thing you can do and do it. If all you ended up doing was your “smallest” thing, then you still can take solace that you did something. If you did more, bonus.
  • Change your focus, change your environment, change your attitude. If you’ve been physique focused, find a performance or health goal. Find something that inspires you and put your attention to that. Introduce something new and fun to your “plan”. Decide what you really want and decide if you’re willing to do what it takes to get there.
  • Motivation is crap. Exercise and eating well is ambivalent. Some days you feel like doing it, so you do; other days you don’t feel like doing it, so you don’t.  Eventually you must learn to dissociate feelings from actions. You must go to the gym, or eat your vegetables, even if you’re downright screaming “AW HELL NO!!”  Regardless of how you initially feel about it, starting the right action makes it easy to finish it. And once you overrule your “hell no”, it gets easier to do it the next time.

This year, I’m not really setting resolutions; I don’t really have different goals from this time last year.  But I am determined to stay committed, act with dedication and consistency, and stay focused on my long-term plans for my life – and I hope you will, too.

Do you have big goals for 2018?  What are your plans to take it to the next level?

Ask Amanda: Hatching Healthy Habits

There’s two types of people in this world: people who feel excited and hopeful about the coming of a new year, and people who feel overwhelmed and defeated by it.  As is my general glass-half-full attitude about most things in life, I am of the former camp.

Last year I wrote a bit about setting purposeful health-oriented New Year’s resolutions, and I stand by that advice – which was, by the way, to be mindful, realistic, and consistent in whatever you set out to change about your overall well-being.

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Two years back I was talking about the things I WON’T be doing in the new year, which is sort of hilarious and eye-opening to look back upon (let’s just say I’ve gotten over SYTTD and 36-ounce jars of peanut butter sort of naturally, if not willingly, haha) – and I even did a little post about what to call your goal-setting list if not “resolutions.”

This year, an old friend of mine posted a fantastic article about habits – little, everyday things that really do add up to complete life changes – that really hit home.  See, this is exactly the kind of thing I encourage my clients to do at DISCREET, and small incremental changes really are the only way I find that people can hold on to healthy behaviours for more than a few weeks. at a time.

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Should you be clickbait-averse (the full list is linked above), allow me to summarise the ones I love most below:

  1.  Drink a glass of water every morning when you wake up.  Guys, the ONE thing that each and every one of my clients gets on their meal programs is the admonition to drink 3 liters (100 ounces) of water per day.  It matters.
  2. Eat raw fruit or vegetables with every meal.  With nutrition, think about adding more produce and protein before you think about taking things away.  It works.
  3. Sit in silence for a few minutes every day.  I downloaded Buddhify this year and haven’t looked back – almost every day, I make time for a 5-20 minute meditation session it reenergises and focuses me as much as a nap or a coffee might otherwise have done (though truth be told, I still love my naps and coffees).

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  1. Respond to all invitations and opportunities with, “I’ll check my calendar.”  Too many times my default response is “sure!” simply because I want to come off agreeable and helpful – only to find that I’ve painted myself into a corner in terms of my schedule.  On the other hand, there are certain things I always say “no” to (like my friend’s African dance class that she’s invited me to a thousand times) that I could probably give more time to consider and maybe even (gasp) attend!
  2. Write a thank-you note every week.  I am decent about writing handwritten notes for gifts, but not so good about writing them for abstract gratitude (of which I have plenty!).  Step one is buying cute cards you’re proud to give; step two is leaving them directly in your line of sight so you have no choice but to pen ’em up.
  3. Keep your bike out where you can see it.  I used to own a bike but it wasn’t really a “commuting” type bike (think triathlon geometry).  Now, all over Singapore they have these bike-sharing programs where you can literally just pick up a bike off the street, scan it with your phone, and pay a nominal fee (like .50-$1 per half hour) to ride it where you need to go.  Ashamedly, I haven’t tried this yet – which is why it’s DEFINITELY on my to-do list for 2018!

I’ll try and do a longer resolutions post next week as I have a lot of major plans for 2018 (turning 35, potentially considering childbirth, moving, revamping my business) but I wanted to throw out these little nuggets of inspiration to get the ball rolling now.

What are your go-to healthy habits?  What do you do every day to stay well?

No One Asked Amanda: Endure This

Last weekend my partner, friend and I conquered the Spartan Beast Malaysia.  For those of you unfamiliar, here’s a quick summary:

  • 21K (13.1 mile) outdoor trail course including hills as steep as 16-20% grade; 25-30 obstacles with a 30-burpee penalty for noncompletion; water crossings and mud as deep as your knees
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Pro marathon tips.

Just six days prior to that, my partner and I also completed the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon, and while I know you all understand what a marathon (42K / 26.2 mile) means, the SCSM also means:

  • a death-march, double-back and out-and-back-filled course starting in the pitch black of night at 4:30am and performed in 90-95% humidity from start to finish

To put it mildly, I’m good on endurance events for a whileMaybe forever.

I’ve done a lot of reading about the impact of endurance training and racing not only on an athlete’s body, but on a woman’s body in particular (granted, I’m not exactly built like a typical woman either what with my giant shoulders and long arms, but whatever).

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There was a time when I solved the problem of “too much running” by training for triathlons (swim-bike-run combo events) and making sure I balanced the pounding on my joints with some good old-fashioned flotation and cycling therapy.  But to be honest, with my current schedule and commitments, triathlon training just isn’t viable time-wise or expense-wise (those carbon-frame bikes don’t come for free, yo).

But these days, I vacillate between feeling completely unmotivated to get out and run 20 or 30K every weekend (ugh) and feeling completely destroyed after I inevitably do because I know I need to do it for training (double ugh).

Couple this with the fact that my partner nearly died twice on the aforementioned events (ok, death obviously averted, but he suffered from crippling calf cramps in both races and some nagging injuries afterward) and both of us are a bit burned out on the whole idea of slogging long distances for the sake of pride.

So what’s next?

I’ve signed up for the Zoo Run 10K just to see if I’ve got my speed chops still kickin’ (most recent PR was last year’s 3rd-overall finish of 43:28. which I fear I will never again beat) and I want to try a 5K in February or March for the same reason.

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Looking at “meters” rather than “kilometers” gives me LIFE

I also want to set goals that aren’t just related to speed/racing/running, such as getting back into yoga (I was doing it at least 1X/week for so long, and in 2017 I only did it twice in the entire calendar year), getting stronger at Olympic and basic lifts (definitely going to keep up my Orangetheory and Garage habits), rediscovering my weekly stairs workout and boxing routine, and working on shortening and intensifying my workouts in general.

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Short and not-so-sweet; that’s why I LOVE boxing

I want to get back to the track and feel truly fast again.  I want to remember what it feels like to inspire a group of people by teaching energetic group exercise (namely Spin).  I want to punch something (to refrain from punching someone, haha).  I want to just be free to move my body in ways that aren’t designated by a training plan or competition.

This ol’ bod is telling me it’s time for a change – and as they say in my line of work, if you listen to your body when it whispers, you’ll never have to hear it scream.

How are you going to spruce up your workout routine in 2018?

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?

Ask Amanda: Wellness WHUT?

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

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

God, I hope not.

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

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

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

Whew.  It’s a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody Likes You When You’re 33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Look Ma – no wrinkles!

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

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Mah teefs, before and after

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

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NOT happening.  Not again; not ever.

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: 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?