Ask Amanda: Health at MANY Size(s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lots of HAES activism out there!

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s keep digging, shall we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ask Amanda: (Don’t) Fall Into the Gap

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

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

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

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

thigh gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to my actual point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right?

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

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

Ask Amanda: The Five Stages of Haircuts

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

Front page news, I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Like honestly it felt like he was balding me.

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

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Right colour; wrong era.

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

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The finished product.

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

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

Ask Amanda: Back It Up & Drop It

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s no fun, I get it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Even if you continue your cardio, prioritise your strength.

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

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

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

 

Ask Amanda: Mommy Tummy

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

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

The most common postpartum body complaint?  Mommy tummy.

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

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Mommy.  Tummy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    russian

    Add weight if you’re feeling like a baws mama

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

    crossover

    Really aim for the triceps, not just the elbow

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

    Move slowly and tap the heel lightly on the floor

     

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

    double

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: The Bulk of the Issue

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

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

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

tiny weight

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

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

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

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

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Spoiler alert: this is NOT from a SQUAT

Snark much?  I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mic drop.

Ask Amanda: 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: 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?

Ask Amanda: Real Talk About Cellulite

At one point or another, almost every female client of mine has asked me about cellulite.

Why is it there?  How can I get rid of it?  What in the holy hell is it?  And why does it seem to plague some of us more than others?

First of all, I’ve never seen an issue so universally shared by women than the fight against cellulite.  It’s a selling point for endless books, online manuals, and even one of the companies I work for (Aquaspin, by the way, and I’ll tell you in a bit how doing underwater cycling can actually help in this effort!) – and as a trainer, just uttering the words “cellulite reduction” is bound to get you at least a couple hits/views/likes on your social media.

cellulite

But let’s be real.  Cellulite is body fat, and just like any other excess fat on the body, it takes overall calorie reduction and lean muscle gains to disappear (or simply reduce in prominence).  Sure, it’s not super attractive (comparisons to cottage cheese or an orange peel are common, both ew) but it’s also not fatal.  As a health professional, I wish more people were concerned with their blood pressure, glucose levels, or sugar intake rather than a few bumps on a thigh, but I promised I’d write about cellulite so I digress.

The basic concept of cellulite is that it’s the outline of the compartments that separate fat cells, forming a round-shaped pattern.  Imagine overstuffing a mattress (in this case, the fat cell) and seeing the excess bulge out around the edges – that’s what cellulite looks like in the human body. cellulite

And in case you’re wondering why you don’t see it as much in men (lucky bastards), it’s because their “compartment outlines” run horizontally, in a cross-cross pattern rather than a rounded one, preventing the bulge visibility – plus their skin is naturally thicker so the cellulite they may have is less visible beneath it.  Again, jerks.

Remember that no matter the gender, fat is soft (versus muscle, which is hard) and doesn’t lie flat under the skin – it puffs out, takes up more space, and is more visible than lean muscle.  This leads to my first point – that reducing overall body fat and increasing lean muscle, especially in women over 30 (we lose muscle at an alarming rate after this age), is your first and best defense against cellulite.

Movements like side lunges, donkey kicks, and squat-lifts target the common “sitting” areas where cellulite lies (thighs, hips, and glutes) and allow for easy progressions in difficulty from bodyweight-only to versions using dumbbells or barbells.

Second, cellulite is often a symptom of poor circulation, and I’ve seen clients actually derive great results from simply incorporating dry brushing (or self-massage, whatever floats your boat) into their morning routines.  Using a dry brush to stroke the body in the natural patterns of the lymphatic system can help increase fluid drainage, move toxins away from the body, and yes – decrease the surface-level appearance of cellulite.

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If you want to take your circulation game to the next level, consider coffee scrubs after your dry brushing routine – just combine 1/4 cup of coffee grounds with 3 tablespoons of brown sugar and 2 tablespoons of coconut oil and massage it into affected areas with an anti-cellulite brush for about 2 minutes per area, per day.  The caffeine can actually help tighten and rejuvenate the skin by removing dead cells and improving appearance.

Finally, consider your diet and hydration patterns when you’re trying to work on cellulite reduction.  Simply being dehydrated can make the skin look deflated and loose against already-fatty areas, and diets high in white starch (yep, that includes sugar), saturated fat, and sodium only make it worse.  Structure your diet around the cornerstones of high-water-content fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and nuts to help lean out all over (and boost energy to boot!).

The main point of me telling you all this great stuff about cellulite is to emphasize that despite its fancy name, at the end of the day cellulite is just fat.  Plain and simple.  To reduce fat you must reduce caloric intake, build lean muscle, and stay active.  Boom – no secrets.

What have you tried to reduce cellulite – or body fat?  Have you had success?

 

Ask Amanda: Getting Older Is A Bear

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

Le sigh.  So what DO we do?

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

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

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

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

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