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?

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Ask Amanda: Need the ‘Fo

In my line of work, perhaps more so than in a lot of others, there is a ton of misinformation.  From trainers telling you there’s “no pain, no gain,” to nutritionists advocating “low-fat” diets, to random people on the street suddenly calling themselves fitness “experts” because they happened to lose a bunch of weight once, I find myself calling bullsh*t nearly every day on something a client/friend/family member asks me about.

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I know I posted this before, but it still makes me laugh.

For example, just the other day a client was telling me that her former trainer told her that squats were bad for her knees (you can read an entire diatribe on why this is untrue here, but just know this – proper squats are the things that are going to SAVE your knees), so she hadn’t done a single one in years (!).  All the time I am asked about certain supplements (mainly commercial diet pills, sigh), exercise trends (you know how I feel about the elliptical, but you can also put SoulCycle and the Tracy Anderson Method on that list), and nutrition gimmicks (an even larger SIGH to Atkins, South Beach, and anything that basically eliminates an entire macronutrient group and calls it a “diet”).

I want to set the record straight: I am not a registered dietitian, meaning that I do not have a bachelor’s degree in nutrition nor did I pass a clinical licensing exam that qualifies me to practice nutrition in a hospital or medical setting.  That said, I am a certified personal trainer and exercise instructor with over a decade of teaching and training experience, have been a certified nutritionist (and will soon be an advanced PN-1 nutrition coach) for over five years, I have trained over 100 (!) actual clients with everything from a double hip-replacement to Ironman to morbid obesity to pregnancy, and I also hold two Masters degrees and have done published research in health science.

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Because of all this experience, my bullsh*t-o-meter is set to extra sensitive, and I absolutely will not have it when someone makes false claims about fitness and nutrition, relies on sh*tty science to back up their preferred workout or meal program, or worse yet, tries to get someone to spend money on a product or service with full knowledge that it won’t work (like the aforementioned diet pills, personal training without any attention to nutrition, or some crappy piece of home gym equipment).

That being said, I have a few reliable sources/coaches that I can always rely on for accurate nutrition and fitness information, and I wanted to share them with you should you want to further educate yourself (yes, beyond the scope of this amazing blog, hahaha) toward better health on your own terms.

First off, I have to plug my nutrition certifying agency, Precision Nutrition.  Not only did they write the bible on intermittent fasting (of which I am a strict devotee), but their blog and infographic library is unmatched, and covers the questions that “real life” people ask the most – like how do I really get that six-pack, or how do I make vegetables taste good when I really don’t  like eating them, or what’s the actual best diet for me?  Their stuff is always research-backed, spelled out in layman’s terms, and often a bit funny to boot – a great combo when looking to explain a tough concept to someone.

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Speaking of certifying agencies, my training cert organization – the American Council on Exercise – also produces a great deal of useful and timely fitness research by sponsoring a great deal of in-depth studies on topics like senior fitness, TRX, compression garments, HIIT training, and even stand-up paddleboarding.  If you’re looking for the latest info on all things exercise, this is the one-stop shop for sure.

Next, I go back to my grad school days and check out what’s happening on Google Scholar.  Yep, whenever there’s a new trend or supplement out there (right now it’s Ma Huang-Guarana that’s all the rage, and there is some evidence to support its efficacy!), I run it through the ol’ Google-S to see what the “real deal” is – and if there’s no science or even discussion to support it, I won’t breathe a word about it, curious clients or otherwise.

Finally, I consult the professional advice of some of my trusted trainers and friends in the industry, including Heidi Powell, my registered dietitian buddy Carrie over at Steps 2 Nutrition, and the lovely, diverse experts at the Huffington Post Healthy Living section (vetted, to be sure).  Science is always best, of course, but sometimes having the experience of actually applying concepts to people and groups can provide insights that research doesn’t divulge.

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As a general rule, don’t accept anything “revolutionary” you read in commercial media about fitness and health without first looking at it critically, second, asking a professional in the industry to help you interpret it, and third, doing a little old-fashioned research to see if the claims hold true across time, location and different populations.  As the old adage says, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is – so sorry, Hollywood Cookie Diet, (yes it’s a real thing!) you don’t make the cut after all.

Where do you get your fitness & health information?  Any myths you want/need busted?

Ask Amanda: How Much Exercise is Enough?

Let us be real – we all want to be generally healthy, but we all are (inherently) a little bit lazy.  There’s something within human nature that is constantly asking, what is the minimum amount of effort that I can put in to get the maximum amount of return?  And of course, with something that a lot of people (definitely not trainers!) consider “unpleasant” like exercise, that elusive bare-minimum level is often speculated upon.

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Why we exercise.

How much exercise is considered “enough”?  I get this question all the time, and the easy (and by the way, correct) answer is of course to say that it varies by your age, performance goals, medical history, genetics, and ability level.  For example, if you are 80 years old and have arthritis, a daily 1-mile walk with some at-home grip work might suffice.  If you are an Olympic power lifter training for the next Games, the above program would not even remotely suffice.  Get it?

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate (think walking, easy lap swimming, or playing doubles tennis) exercise per week, which can average out to 30 minutes on 5 of the 7 days.  Alternatively, you can perform 75 minutes of vigorous activity (think running, swim sprints, or playing singles tennis), or a combination of the two.  In addition, they suggest doing muscle strengthening exercises on all major muscle groups twice per week.  They also make it clear that unless you are doing a combined 300 minutes of exercise per week (about an hour per day on six days per week), you probably will not be losing any weight (sigh, I know).

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Ideas for how to get your movement on.

An avid ThisFitBlonde reader had asked me a while back if doing Spin class twice per week and barre class three times per week was “enough,” and using the above formula, let’s figure it out.  If you take the Spin class seriously (this is why I love the more accurate intensity-calibrated bikes used in a studio like Flywheel rather than something more….shall we say…”bouncy,” like a SoulCycle), you’re logging about 80-90 vigorous minutes.  The barre classes would add up to about 180 moderate minutes, and given my understanding of the type of classes, would also “count” as muscle strengthening. Therefore, yes – that combo on paper would be “enough” for general health, but perhaps not enough for weight loss – and definitely not enough for a completely different performance goal like running a marathon or completing an obstacle race.

This is where you have to be honest with yourself about why you’re exercising, what your performance and body composition goals are, what you expect to gain from the type of exercise you’re doing, and how your diet supports your workout regimen.

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She gets me.

Want a window into my exercise world?  Here we go: I am currently training for a long-distance obstacle race (Spartan Beast Malaysia), an ultramarathon relay (Ragnar Napa Valley), and a hot-weather marathon (Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon).  Using the above questions, here’s my metric and exercise prescriptions for myself:

WHY ARE YOU EXERCISING?  Because I’m a g*ddamn beast, but also sort of an idiot, so I’ve decided to line up three giant endurance races at the end of the year to keep myself motivated, excited to keep working out and focused.

WHAT ARE YOUR PERFORMANCE AND BODY COMPOSITION GOALS?  I’d like to complete the Beast without injury, feel strong and recovered on all three Ragnar legs, and finish the marathon with my partner in less than four hours (ambitious given the heat).  I’d also like to lose 5 additional kilos and about 4% body fat along the way.

WHAT DO YOU EXPECT TO GAIN FROM EXERCISE?  I expect to lose weight, run faster and more efficiently, build upper body and grip strength, and practice fueling and hydration for hot-weather endurance events.

HOW WILL YOUR DIET SUPPORT YOUR WORKOUTS?  I will continue to alternate low-carb and higher-carb days (carb cycling) within the framework of intermittent fasting.  I will increase my protein intake on lifting and recovery days and supplement with BCAAs. I will try to eat a salad daily for lunch to maximize vitamins, minerals and nutrients and keep alcohol to a minimum, particularly within the last month before the three events.

MY WORKOUT PRESCRIPTION: Garagecircuit (obstacle/circuit/strength training) 2X/week.  Two short runs (5-8K) and one long run (10K+) per week, building up to 30K by December.  Stairs/boxing circuit (stair running, sprints, push-ups, squats, lunges, and sparring) 1X per week.  Obstacle-specific (Fitness Protocol) training when possible; at least once per month.  Yoga once per two weeks for mobility and anti-inflammation.  One rest day per week (can include yoga but no other workouts).

If you’re confused about how to tailor your workouts to your goals like I did above, if you’re not sure working out “enough,” and/or if you don’t know how to develop a nutrition plan that complements and makes the most out of your exercise routine, it is definitely worth the investment in a few sessions with a personal trainer, nutritionist, and/or registered dietitian to make sure you’re on the right track.

Do you think you exercise “enough”?  How do your workouts move you toward your goals?

Ask Amanda: Back Back Front and Front

A loyal (and well-informed) reader had a fairly simple #AskAmanda for me this week, but I think it’s one that bears repeating given that I consider myself a back-to-basics style of trainer.

I’ve written a few posts on the basics of weight training, where to start if you’re just coming back to exercise, and even how to train just your upper body for maximum results.

I will return time and again to the importance of fundamental movement skills – squat, lunge, deadlift, bench press, push-up, pull-up, and plank – and remind everyone to pick up the heaviest weights you can handle with good form to get the most out of each workout.

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Pushups, rows, squats, and deadlifts – do ’em.

That said, one thing I’ve never addressed is what exactly makes for a “heavy” weight (sidenote: it’s also based on your age, weight, gender, body type, history, and overall goals, besides what I’m going to tell you below) and how much you should actually be lifting for the type of physique and fitness level you’re looking to achieve.

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Dude on the left does LOTS of aerobic endurance work and probably does not lift.  Dude on the right lifts heavy things and does lots of anaerobic work.  Different types, different needs on the iron.

The short answer for “how heavy should I be lifting?” is this: for general fitness, you should lift whatever weight you can maintain for 8-10 repetitions without failure or form breakdown.  If you are looking to build mass, you should lift whatever weight you can maintain for 3-5 reps without failure or form breakdown.  If you are looking to build muscular endurance (say, cross-training a hamstring for running efficiency, or training your abdominal muscles to carry your posture through a long-distance cycling event), you should lift whatever weight you can maintain until muscle failure (for most people, about 30-50 reps) without form breakdown.

The longer (and more scientific, if you’re into that sort of thing) answer is to figure out your 1-rep maximum (trainer shorthand for this is 1RM) and use percentages of that maximum to train in different ways.  For example:

(let’s assume your 1RM for a back squat is 50KG, or about 100 pounds)

General Fitness – 3 x 10 repetitions @ 75% (37.5 KG; 75#) with 30-60 seconds rest between sets

Muscle Build – 2 x 5 repetitions @ 85% (42.5 KG; 85#) with 2-3 minutes rest between sets

Endurance – 1 x 30-50 (to failure) @ 30% (15 KG; 30#) – one set only per exercise

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A sample hypertrophy (gainz) set, working up to 1RM

Not complicated enough?  Let’s go further into the dynamics of anterior/posterior chain movements.  Anterior muscles are the “vanity muscles” – the ones you see on a daily basis in the mirror, such as chest, biceps, shoulders, abdominals, and quads.  Posterior muscles are the “balancers” – the stuff that holds our bodies upright, such as lats, triceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

Typically folks tend to overtrain our anterior (front) muscles and undertrain our posterior (back) muscles, leading to imbalances in posture, strength, coordination, and sometimes even injury.  That said, our posterior-chain muscles can often carry a lot more weight than our anterior-chain (for example, right now, you can probably deadlift more than you can bench, assuming you can maintain proper form for both movements).

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2 Chainz (anterior/posterior)

You can figure out your proper weight for posterior-chain movements using the same process outlined above (using 1RM), or you can use an even simpler process called ratio training. Olympic lifters (and yes, some regular people that WISH they were Olympians) use a 3:4:5 ratio in regards to bench, squat, and deadlift weights.  In this example:

(assuming again that the 1RM on the back squat is 50KG, or about 100 pounds)

1RM: BENCH 37.5KG or 75# : SQUAT 50KG or 100# : DEADLIFT 62.5KG or 125#

5-REP SETS: BENCH 32KG or 56#: SQUAT 42.5KG or 85# : DEADLIFT 47 KG or 75#

10-REP SETS: BENCH 28 KG or : SQUAT 37.5 KG or 75#: DEADLIFT 47KG or 100#

Even after all this technical math, some practical advice: if your deadlift looks like crap, even if you’re using 25% of your 1RM, it’s too heavy.  Similarly, if you have strong form and a commitment to actually getting stronger, lifting the same weight forever (I’ve had to talk many a female lifter out of the “baby weights brigade” to actually get their bodies to change and lose fat) won’t get you any real fitness gains.

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Real talk.

And one more thing – if you’re unsure about any of this, or you simply don’t have time to take a calculator down to your workouts, bite the bullet and hire a certified personal trainer.  They do all the dirty work for you, keep track of the weight you’re lifting, teach and monitor your form, and motivate you to stay accountable to a progressive program.  In my (professional and of course personal) opinion, that’s worth every penny.

What are your favorite – and most effective – strength training movements?  Are you confident in the weight room?

 

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: Precision Nutrition

A long time ago in a place far, far away, I got my first Sports Nutrition certification.  For what I was doing at the time (mainly, teaching group exercise classes and giving some basic diet advice on the side), it was enough – I was able to articulate the basic tenets of metabolism, energy balance, and clean eating with some level of authority.

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Don’t get it twisted – I never was, and (probably) never will be, a registered dietitian.  An R.D. is authorized by the Commission on Dietetic Registration of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  All R.D.s have a bachelor’s degree (at minimum), have undergone extensive scientific coursework in the area of dietetics, have completed an internship in various nutrition settings and have passed a licensing/registration exam.

Whew.

As for me, while I do have two Masters degrees (one perhaps more relevant to these topics than the other, but hey, all education is worthwhile, right?), I am “only” a nutritionist – defined as a person who studies or is an expert in nutrition.  And since no one asked me any specific #AskAmanda questions this week (sniff), I figured I’d tell you guys a little bit about the Precision Nutrition certification I am working on right now.

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The PN certification itself is incredible – it covers a wide range of topics from the nitty-gritty (cellular makeup, metabolic processes, nutrient breakdown) to the psychological (nutrition counseling, working with difficult clients, motivational skills) to the practical (PDFs of helpful forms, legal documents, and assessment tools).  But I am not here to promote the PN cert – they’re not paying me for that (ha).

Rather, what I love about Precision Nutrition is that it doesn’t end at the textbook – they have a lively, active Facebook group and an incredibly informative blog with super-helpful infographics that I’ve already used with a variety of clients to explain topics like:

The biggest thing for me about being a qualified nutritionist is debunking all of the crap advice that people get from who-knows-what sources (US Weekly magazine; some celebrity website or trainer; a doctor who got board licensed in the 1960s; American President Donald Trump) and doing my best to provide up-to-date, relevant, digestible, and helpful information to my clients in the most straightforward way possible.

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That said – here are my quickest, best nutrition tips that I give to almost every client:

  • fat doesn’t make you fat – sugar and refined carbs are the problem
  • whatever cuisine you’re eating or wherever in the world you are, if you can find a meal consisting of protein and vegetables, that’s going to be the healthiest choice
  • eating late at night is a really bad habit.  Cut it out.  Same goes for post-alcohol binges.
  • try eliminating dairy and/or wheat, especially if you have persistent bloating and swelling issues
  • drink enough (2-3 liters daily) water, and if that’s too boring, add in some green tea, black coffee, and coconut water – but not much else
  • and finally – eat enough food.  Starvation destroys your metabolism.  You’re better than that.

If you’re truly interested in fitness, you must also be interested in food – and really, you should be interested in understanding fuel.  There is no one “diet” that is right for everyone, but there are certain tenets of health eating (as I’ve outlined above) that really do transcend individual differences and make a big impact on how we look, feel, and perform.

What are your best clean-eating habits?  How do you regulate your healthy diet?

Ask Amanda: An Elliptical Matter

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

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

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

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

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Beast Mode does NOT happen on indoor cardio machines

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

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

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

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Putting the “fun” in functional fitness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: Max Your Metabolism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beginners Guide to Lifting Weights for Metabolism

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: Food As Fuel

As a sports nutritionist, my practice is a little bit different from that of your average clinical dietitian or clinic nutritionist.  As opposed to trying to cure a condition or better your overall internal health, my real background is in eating for optimal performance – to run faster, for example, or to get a stronger swim stroke.

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Be better.  Move more.

Sure, the majority of my nutrition clients are looking for something more general – weight and/or fat loss – but a lot of my high-performing friends (think other trainers, competitive athletes, and amateur racers) are actually clueless about how to best fuel their bodies to better their sports performance.

This week’s #AskAmanda centers on exactly that – what to eat before and after a workout, when to eat it, and how important is sports-specific nutrition.

A reader mentioned that she is perplexed about what to eat before yoga, since if she doesn’t eat anything, she’s lightheaded during practice, but if she eats too much, she feels heavy and inflexible.  In this case I would absolutely recommend taking in a small amount (100-200 calories) of liquid, easily digestible carbohydrate-focused calories, such as a glass of enriched soymilk or a nondairy fruit smoothie made with 1/2 cup almond milk and a handful of strawberries, or if you can stomach real food while holding a headstand, go for half a banana, a few dates, or a piece of sprouted grain toast.

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Oats, oats, they’re good for your heart…

For longer duration exercise (think runs of 60+ minutes, Spin classes, 2000-meter swims, or similar), you’ll need a bit more fuel – but it’ll have to be equally digestible. Here I’d recommend taking in closer to 300 calories of mostly high-GI carbs, such as a baked potato with olive oil, a bowl of organic rolled oats made with non-dairy milk and a handful of berries, or a couple slices of sprouted grain bread spread with 1/2 an avocado. Endurance exercise lasting under one hour, by the way, requires no extra nutrition outside your normal meals – if you’re feeling low on energy, try mixing coconut water into your water bottle, or nosh a handful of nuts just before you head out.

Finally, high-intensity training – such as HIIT, weight lifting, Crossfit, or similar – means high-impact protein is needed to repair and build muscles as soon as possible after the activity.  Assuming you start your workout well-fueled, aim to take in about 200-300 calories of mostly protein and a few lower-GI carbs within 30-60 minutes after exercise. Here I’d recommend something like a small can of tuna mixed with 2-3 TB Greek yogurt spread on a few whole grain crackers, a sweet potato topped with steamed broccoli and shredded chicken breast, or a quick sandwich of sprouted grain bread and natural peanut butter.

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Choose quality protein over junky carbs.

The crucial foods to avoid before any physical activity are oily, spicy meals (think heavy sauces, fried foods, and curries), dairy products (milk, lactose protein powders, and yogurt are definite barf-brewers), beans and seeds (gas-o-rama), eggs (zero carb), and fancy coffee drinks (the combination of caffeine, dairy and vigorous movement is like a gastrointestinal time bomb).

What are your favorite pre-and-post-workout foods – or do you have an “uh oh” fuelling horror story?

Ask Amanda: Gimmicks Make Me Gag

A few friends of mine in L.A. have been #AskingAmanda about the true “health factor” of a popular spot called Moon Juice and seeing as I’ve been a bit out of the scene (you know, just 8000+ miles) for a while, I had to do some online digging to find out exactly what that place was.

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Pretty pretty Moon Juice, Los Angeles

For those of you who are as ignorant (or non-SoCal-residing) as me, here’s a primer:

The Moon Juice slogan is “plant-based alchemy to elevate body, beauty, and consciousness,” which in layman’s terms means “we’re going to charge $7 for the same bag of dried mango you can get at the neighbourhood bodega, and serve it up with a side of self-righteousness.”  Ok, I’m being a bit harsh.  But places like this have one thing in common:

They sell you basic (and usually inexpensive) ingredients, repackaged and upcharged to make healthy eating seem hip.

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Don’t forget your daily…ashwagandha.

At its simplest, I have no problem with this marketing strategy (and guys, recognise it for what it is: A MARKETING STRATEGY).  I’d LOVE for my nutrition clients to use more anti-inflammatory spices in their meals; if it takes baking cumin into a swiss chard “crisp” and charging six bucks an ounce for it, well, that part is actually fine with me (the “dusts,” activated nuts, and powdered supplements from Moon Juice are all perfectly healthy, unlike a lot of competing “natural” foods brands).

The problems I have with this new batch of new-age “granola” food are as follows:

  • they’re expensive AF, perpetuating the excuse that “I can’t afford to eat healthy”
  • a lot of it is just masking and repackaging unhealthy ingredients (read: sugar!) in seemingly healthy ways (don’t get me started on KIND Bars, Jamba Juices, or the now-popular in Singapore Unicorn Tears)
  • powders, pills, and shakes, even if made with the good stuff, disguise the appearance of what “real” ingredients look like – further distancing the relationship between modern humans and their food
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MIND BLOWN

That being said, what these places are doing right is this: putting healthy food into attractive formats and selling it in convenient and attractive ways, which means the average (monied) person (who may never buy, juice, and pack their own organic kale) has increased access to better food choices on the go, which in our fast-paced society is a definite plus.  One of the top questions I get from clients (especially in Singapore!) is “where can I get something fast to eat that won’t destroy my diet?” and I’d love to point them in the direction of something like a Moon Juice if we had it here (note: we do have some awesome go-to healthy spots like Kitchen by Food Rebel, Little Farms, and Mojo, but they’re not as centrally located and affordable as I’d personally prefer).

A final note on health and fitness gimmicks: be discerning, guys.  Don’t pay $6 for a sugar-packed, preservative-ridden bag of “Yo Cherry Guilt-Free Snacks” (an actual product sent to me by a client last night looking for a healthy snack choice at the movies) when you can pack your own (bigger!) bag of raw almonds, dried unsweetened cherries, and cacao nibs for a cheaper, cleaner choice.

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If you need dat granola fix, stat

Don’t let fancy-looking packaging, the word “natural,” or the popularity of a product be your reason for choosing it.  Read the label (pro tip: if food doesn’t HAVE a label, like a fresh apple, it’s probably the healthier choice) carefully, watch for hidden sugar and high sodium, and get the majority of your daily calories from clean, unprocessed, unpackaged, as-close-looking-to-the-original-state-of-the-food (think celery sticks rather than celery “juice”) foods as possible.

Have you come across a “gimmicky” food or product you just KNOW isn’t healthy?  Let TFB be your soapbox – and warn the others! 😉