Ask Amanda: Gimme a Gimmick

I ranted on the frustration of misinformation in the fitness industry a few weeks ago, and I suppose, in a way, this post is just the continuation of that.  Every day I get questions about products, workouts, foods, and supplements that purport to be “healthy” or “quick fixes” to weight loss or “the last diet you’ll ever need.”

Trust me, if any of that stuff was true and valid (for everyone/anyone/at a reasonable price point), there would be a helluva lot more healthy, fit people walking around these days.

That is NOT to say that there are not certain things that are better than others when it comes to how you spend your health and fitness dollars, and I want to highlight a few of the most common ones I get asked about along with my convenient rating system.

Here’s the deal, folks – for each product/service, I am going to rate both the level of GIMMICK and the level of actual UTILITY.  The reason I want to separate these two things is because sometimes, the two can come together in glorious harmony, as in my beloved Orangetheory Fitness, while in other cases, they are completely in opposition, such as the over-hyped (and IMO, unsafe) SoulCycle.

Let’s get started, shall we?

GREEN (AND OTHER MAGIC) POWDERSGIMMICK SCORE: 8/10; UTILITY SCORE 8/10

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I wrote an entire entry on the “magic dusts” that are the lifeblood of L.A.’s Moon Juice Cafe; recently a reader asked me a similar question about green powders (like the one above).  The basic concept is this – you take all the good things out of vegetables, you put them into a powder, you drink the powder and BOOM – it’s like you ate the vegetables.

Sort of.

Higher-quality green powders do in fact provide some nutrient value –  much like high-quality protein powders do in fact provide dietary protein.  The key thing to remember here is that green powders are better at providing micronutrients – think things like certain vitamins (be careful not to get TOO much of certain ones, like vitamin A), and some minerals – rather than all the great things a rainbow of fruits and veggies provide, such as water content, fiber, and non-green benefits (like beta-carotene).

I will always – always! – reiterate the mantra of REAL FOOD FIRST, meaning you absolutely do not need pills, powders, or anything that didn’t grow out of the ground to stay perfectly healthy and fit.

WAIST TRAINERSGIMMICK SCORE: 10/10; UTILITY SCORE 3/10

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Or should I say “waste (of time)” trainers?  Eh?  Eh?  

Ok, seriously though.  Let’s take an honest gander at the image above and what do you see?  A medieval-era throwback to a corset, except these bad boys are rubberized (to maximise sweat-related water loss, and no I’m not kidding) and close shut with metal.

If you’re wondering why I didn’t just skip over the whole explanation and give this one a utility score of 0, get ready to be aghast – I actually used one to shrink my own waist once, and it actually sort of worked (!).

In terms of short-term squeezing and sweating your skin into a particular shape for a particular dress, it works.  In terms of trying to permanently reduce the size or change the shape of your midsection for anything longer than a couple weeks, it doesn’t.  And there’s a ton of evidence that these things are dangerous, pointless, and ineffective.

SHAPE-UPS & “FITNESS” SHOESGIMMICK SCORE 9/10; UTILITY SCORE 1/10

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Look at that shoe.  Just LOOK at it.  I don’t care if the godawful thing gave you Blake Lively legs; I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing this monstrosity of a wedge with any public audience.

The concept here, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is that you walk in these “Shape Up” shoes all day and they rock your foot back and forth as you do, forcing your body to “use more energy” (the industry jargon for BURN CALORIES! LOSE WEIGHT! GET SKINNY!) and thus become fit.

If only.

Not only is there less-than-zero evidence for the “toning” effects of these rockin’ shoes, the unstable nature of the soles mean they’re not even fit for actual running or any sort of vigorous exercise, simply as a safety concern.  If a client of mine walked into my gym with these on their feet, I’d rather they work out barefoot.

AB-TONING BELTSGIMMICK SCORE 9/10; UTILITY SCORE 2/10

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My dear brother sent over an inquiry about this one after having watched a (very convincing, I must say) infomercial on the product.  Do ZERO exercise?  ZERO crunches?And STILL get abs?  LET’S ALL GET ONE!

Oh wait, no.  Because the caveat still remains: you can contract your abs a thousand times a day and STILL not have tight, visible muscles there.  Great abs don’t come from contracting the muscle (although of course, you have to do some of that, too).  They come from decreasing overall body fat to a point where it is low enough that the central muscles are visible – and this takes a very clean, lean diet and lots of (general) exercise.

The reason I gave this one a slightly lower gimmick score than the waist trainer is simply because it AT LEAST has some science behind it – there is ONE credible study of these machines that shows some moderate self-reported results.  But the fact remains: a belt like this does not deliver what it promises, and it sure won’t outweigh a bad diet.

MORINGA PILLSGIMMICK SCORE 5/10; UTILITY SCORE 7/10

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Finally, a quick note on supplements in general: I distrust them.  Even though I use a few myself (protein powder to hit my macros; BCAAs for better recovery; fish oil for Omega-3 support), I don’t recommend them to clients unless they are absolutely necessary (for example, a vegetarian anemic that might truly need an iron pill).

I want to separate “moringa” as a general supplement (which is what I assess here) from the brand-named Zija Moringa, which is a weight loss diet built on small doses of the actual supplement alongside larger doses of things like protein powder, caffeine, and a whole host of other fillers and crap to make it seem like it’s a legit thing (it’s not).

Moringa itself has some compelling scientific research backing marketers’ claims about its use as a “superfood” and “miracle cure.”  It has some proven antioxidant value and is more nutritious than kale when eaten raw (but um….maybe isn’t QUITE as tasty, to say the least).  More interestingly, there is some preliminary research suggesting it can slow or reverse the onset of Type 2 Diabetes and certain cancers (such as liver and kidney), meaning this so-called “gimmick” could actually become a valid medicine with a few more decades of well-funded study and double-blind research – I’ll sure be staying tuned.

Do you use/swear by something for your health that others consider a “gimmick” – and if so, why?  Have you ever been “underwhelmed” by a health & fitness product you tried?

TAF: The Tough(est) Club in Singapore

I interrupt this regularly scheduled blog for a shocking expat revelation I just found out about yesterday: the TAF Club.

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The unofficial mascot of the most offensive club ever

To Singaporeans, this term is no big deal – commonplace, even – if you went to local school.  To expats (at least Americans, where this sort of thing would be so inflammatory that it would incite several lawsuits, no doubt), it’s appalling – and I almost can’t believe it still exists (to some degree, which I’ll explain below).

TAF stands for “Trim and Fit,” which is the name of a Singaporean government-mandated weight management program that existed from 1992-2007.  It was targeted at school-age children – and by “targeted at,” I mean “required of those students with a BMI of 23 or higher.”  

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Asian BMI – yep, it’s a thing,

Yep, you read that right.  23.  Not even considered “overweight” by American standards.

TAF Club students would be required to complete intensive (often just outdoor running-based) extra exercise hours at school, typically arriving up to an hour before an already-early 7:20am morning start – and that’s not all.

TAF students were also required to do exercise instead of eating lunch (exercising, by the way, in full view of their peers and classmates happily eating their lunches), or would be forced to eat lunch at segregated tables where they could buy certain controlled food with “calorie cash,” a special currency that allowed only meals with a predetermined number of calories to be purchased.

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Can I buy half an apple with that 50-cal cash?

Shocked yet?  Yeah, there’s more.

The TAF Club students – and by the way, the irony of TAF being the word FAT spelled backward is not lost on me – would have their individual names called over the loudspeaker during school, meaning each and every student forced to join the club could not even quietly attend their exercise hours; they’d instead be announced to the entire school.

Add to this the fact that the exercise sessions were (often) led by less-than-sympathetic physical educators – people who should be modelling good health, not calling out students’ abilities (and in some cases, their “unfit” body parts) in a negative way.

A simple Google search for “TAF Club stories” yielded paragraph after paragraph of the obviously damaging effects of this type of weight-based differentiation on young kids. Showing up to class sweaty and stinky from a bout of morning exercise in 90-degree weather, being stuck in (and I would argue, condemned to) the TAF Club year after year if you weren’t demonstrably losing enough weight, and even developing lifelong eating disorders were just a a few of the known effects of this type of program.

Let it be known that childhood obesity rates in Singapore did decrease from 14.9% to 9.8% during the first decade of the program – by some measures, a definite success.  But a study done just after that same decade – surveying 4,400 Singaporean schoolgirls in 2002 – found a six-fold increase in anorexia and bulimia among the school-aged population during the very same window of time – coincidental, eh?

Since 2007, the program has been revamped to “shift the focus” away from weight and toward a more comprehensive picture of health and wellness.  The new Holistic Health Framework (HHF) has as its core values “total well-being, inclusion, and quality delivery,” which sounds like a great start to a better-organized program.

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Concepts in holistic health

But if you scroll down the page, you’ll see the carelessly worded admonition that “schools are encouraged to change the name of their weight management programmes from TAF to something more interesting” – meaning that not only do the schools not have to change anything about existing TAF programs, but they can also simply modify the name of the program to fit the new “holistic” guidelines.

Hmph.

I’m not saying I have all the answers when it comes to childhood obesity, a topic that in my opinion is much more complicated, sensitive, and multilayered than adult obesity. What I do know is that peer shaming, public ridicule, segregation, and punishment-based systems do not belong anywhere in public education – especially here in Singapore, where citizen harmony is considered a top priority by the government.

I also argue that putting all of the blame, shame, and responsibility for weight management onto the back of a child – rather than involving and educating the parents – is an absolutely abhorrent way of encouraging behavioural change.

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THIS is what we should be teaching kids about health and their bodies.

I have yet to meet someone who can give me a personal perspective on their experience in TAF – and believe me, I’d be open to hearing from a variety of men and women that have been through it – but I cannot imagine that the experience was anything less than degrading, emotionally damaging, and in the end, ineffective in developing long term weight management skills.

What do you think about forced weight management sessions for overweight school-age kids – and should the government be at their helm?

Ask Amanda: Wellness WHUT?

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

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

God, I hope not.

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

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

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

Whew.  It’s a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody Likes You When You’re 33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Look Ma – no wrinkles!

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

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Mah teefs, before and after

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

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NOT happening.  Not again; not ever.

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: Sleep Goals

Before you read this, ask yourself: did I sleep enough last night?  Most of us busy people would almost immediately say no, and those of us who didn’t are probably lying.

What counts as “enough” anyway?  Who cares if I don’t sleep?  And what’s the long-term effect of sleeplessness on health, body, mind – all of it?  #AskAmanda has you covered this week.

In our go-go-go society, especially where the pressure for us to achieve, demonstrate, and act is so high, successful people have somehow become martyrs for sleeplessness.  As a trainer, I see firsthand the effects of this lack-of-sleep mentality in the gym.  My clients that come in exhausted aren’t able to push as hard, they forget or misunderstand instructions more often, they get frustrated with simple tasks or deviations in their programs, and their heart rates soar through the roof even at lower intensities.

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I have been known to actually turn away clients that come to me on fewer than five hours’ sleep since what they really need is a nap – not an hour of a*s-kicking.

Sleep is an absolutely crucial part of a full fitness regimen, and not one to be taken lightly.  The adult human body functions best on about seven hours of sleep, but these must be quality (read: not up-and-down, mind-reeling, restless) hours.  One of the best moves you can make for your “sleep hygiene” is to set a bedtime and a wake-up time, and stick to it – or within 30 minutes of it – all week (yep, that includes weekends).  I absolutely love the iPhone’s new Bedtime mode for helping you do this – set one alarm all week and get reminders on when you should be in bed (that pop up most often while you’re up checking your phone, ahem).

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Once you’ve got the consistency thing down with your sleeping hours, you can focus on making your sleep quality top-notch.  Invest in a real, adult mattress and luxurious, soft sheets – your bed is the one thing in your house (besides your toilet, ha) that you rely on every single day – so it’s worth every bit of money you put into it.  Spray your sheets with relaxing essential oils, get a dimmer on your bedroom light switch, cut the alcohol and caffeine at least two hours before you crawl into your cocoon, and remove any unnecessary electronics from your reach so you’re not tempted to check your phone, watch one last episode of Suits, or do anything other than sleep in your bed (I have been known to put my iPhone on a very short charging cord so I literally cannot get to it from my bed once it’s plugged in, and I also have to get OUT of bed to turn my alarm off in the AM, which helps me wake up).

If you’ve mastered sleeping regularly and sleeping well (which, let’s be honest, from a health perspective is about as easy as saying you’ve “mastered” eating clean and cooking nightly), you’re ready to reap the myriad benefits of healthy sleep patterns, which include:

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The more you have on your plate, the harder it is to settle your mind and “wind down” for a good night’s sleep – as a trainer, wellness coach, and small business owner I absolutely understand that.  This is where some mindfulness training – whether it’s formal “meditation” or not – can help.  I’m a big fan of apps for this – helpful for me since I spend a lot of time commuting on public transit with my headphones on – but going to a meditation center, reading a mindfulness book, or even just sitting for 5 minutes in a quiet room with your eyes closed can get the job done – and set you up for better, more peaceful sleep at night.

I don’t know about you, readers, but all this sleep talk has me ready for a nap (check out a past #AskAmanda for even more specific nap-related tips) – who’s with me?

Are you a religiously good or chronically poor sleeper?  What are your best tricks for a good night’s rest?

Ask Amanda: Total Recall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: Stretching, The Truth

I talk a lot about fitness on this blog, and truth be told, I talk a lot about the “hardcore” type of fitness.  I tell you to lift (heavy) weights, do HIIT, check out a killer interval class, try some circuit training, and attempt all sorts of other sporty stuff – some of which, admittedly, I know may be intimidating for a lot of you lovely readers out there.

So today, let’s shift gears.  Downshift, more specifically.

I want to talk about one of the most ignored components of a holistically fit lifestyle – flexibility.  So many of us (*pointing finger directly at self*) eschew stretching almost entirely in favor of strength, speed, power, agility, endurance – basically any other type of training besides the kind that actually does the most long-term good (d’oh).

Flexibility training is like boiled brussels sprouts for serious fitness freaks.  We all acknowledge that we need to keep it in the regular rotation, and we’ll even tell other people they should include it, but truth be told, we rarely commit to it ourselves.  Do as I say, not as I do – and I am one of the guiltiest of all when it comes to this fitness sin.

There was a time – granted, it seems like a lifetime ago – when I was doing yoga religiously, 2-3 times per week.  I had a Bikram phase (ended abruptly by the fact that Bikram himself is a giant a*shole who deserves zero dollars from any thinking person), a Kundalini phase (summary: lots of chanting), a restorative phase (aka “assisted sleep”), a basic bitch power yoga phase, and even a wonderful (if far too short-lived) running-plus-yoga phase called Detox/Retox wherein you ran two miles, did 90 minutes of Vinyasa flow, and got a free beer afterwards.

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Long story short, I am no stranger to the concept of stretching.  I simply don’t do it anymore.  And at age 33, I am quickly losing the luxury of being able to do such a thing.

A loyal reader asked me what the most “important” types of stretches are, and I figured I’d use our little space this week to not only answer that question, but also give you an insight into what types of stretches I utilize with my own personal training clients and why I really do believe – despite my own shortcomings – that stretching matters.

Stretching can relieve stress, decrease the risk of injury, improve energy flow, increase range of motion and athletic performance, encourage better circulation, reduce chronic pain, and even help to manage cholesterol levels.  Stretching after workouts reduces inflammation and soreness and makes it easier to continue being active the next day – important stuff for those of us who don’t like to take a “DOMS day” off.

But let’s be real – all of that is well and good, but when you only have 5 minutes to soak in all those amazing benefits, how should you spend your sacred stretch time?

First of all, attack them hammies.  If you sit a lot, your hamstrings are probably tight.  If you run a lot, your hamstrings are probably tight.  If you lift a lot, your hamstrings are probably tight.  Sense a theme?  I like to get my clients into a supine position, have them hold a towel or band, and lift one leg, knee straight, through their reasonable range of motion, as shown below:

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This is a reasonable range of motion for her – but like, not me.

Next, loosen those glutes.  Your backside is the biggest muscle group in the body, which means it holds the key to a lot of lower body tightness and imbalance.  When I’m with a client, I’ll assist their supine stretch (pic below), but if you’re on your own, why not take the glorious opportunity to drop into a pigeon pose and completely bliss out for a minute?  Yasssss.

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Third on the docket is a nice juicy hip stretch.  Women especially hold a lot of stress and pain in our hips, and the mere structure of men’s narrow hips means they are typically tight – good reasons both to ease yourself into the aggressive-but-effective lizard lunge:

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Fourth, if you’ve been squatting, kicking, or just doing a lot of anterior-chain work, it’s worth a quick run through the quads.  Side lying stretches can be really effective here (right pic below), as can assisted prone stretching with a trainer (left pic below), and both types give a little extra bonus length to your lower back, which no one is mad at.

Speaking of that lower back, if you’re already down on the ground, you may as well roll your spine into some gentle twists.  Twisting in yoga is considered detoxifying in and of itself (think of the concept of wringing out a rag in relation to getting rid of pain and waste) and damn it, it feels amazing:

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Finally, don’t forget that upper bod – the back and shoulders are the two areas most likely to be carrying most of your tension up there, and they’re easily and effectively stretched with an arm-linked forward fold (just hold opposite elbows if you can’t link your hands):

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Knees slightly bent, please.

 

 

There are, of course, a million more muscle groups to stretch and even more ways to stretch them – but the point of this little piece was to highlight the most important ones, give you some guidelines for stretching alone or with your trainer, and remind you that yes, flexibility is just as vital and important a marker of fitness as all that other fancy jazz I talk about here on the ol’ blog – so stay well, TFB-ers, and let’s get bendy in 2017!

What are your favorite feel-good stretches?  Do you make time for flexibility in your routine?

Ask Amanda: Bulletproofing Your Bod

First of all, welcome to 2017, loyal readers!  Some of us (cough, nearly all of us, especially if you live in the United States) had a rough n’ tumble 2016, and it’s time to forget all that jazz and look ahead, hopefully and with determination, to absolutely KILLING IT this year.

Problem is, it’s tough to get out there and kill it if you’re kicking off 2017 sneezing and wheezing like a used pair of bagpipes.

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January brings us many things in the fitness industry.  On the good side, packed-out gyms are full of eager beginners looking to make a lasting lifestyle change.  On the bad side, overcrowded facilities are stuffed full of sniffling half-sick lumps of humanity spreading their germs all over the place.

Ick.

It’s the perfect storm of a lot of people coming together in a naturally fluid-filled (think lots of dirt, sweat and maybe even a few tears) environment during a particularly virus-friendly time of year, and contagious illnesses do tend to abound during these early winter months.

So what can you do to boost your immune system and, as I like to say, bulletproof yourself against the common viruses that seem to take out half your office this time of year?

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First and perhaps most obvious of all, commit to an almost-OCD level of hand washing.  If you touch something that anyone else has touched (an elevator button, a dumbbell, a computer key, a phone), don’t you dare touch your mouth, nose or eyes until you wash those filthy hands.  After I’m done working with a client, I scrub like a doctor going into the OR before I even think about handling my phone, computer, or god forbid, FOOD.

Second, and easier said than done, get regular and ample sleep.  7-9 hours is the recommended amount for active adults; you may need slightly more or less based on your individual lifestyle.  Studies show that people who don’t sleep normally or adequately get sick, and people who get enough sleep have stronger immune systems overall (and are less likely to be obese, which is a story for another time).

Third, as the wise Hippocrates famously said, “let food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food.”  What he meant is that you can actually protect your physical health simply by eating a nutritious, balanced diet (some of the top choices to include in your everyday diet include citrus fruit, broccoli, ginger, garlic, almonds, and papaya).  As for the more “advanced” immunity-boosting foods, consider:

  • Fermented foods (think sauerkraut, kombucha, pickles, miso, and kefir) go a long way in providing healthy probiotic bacteria
  • Coconut oil contains lauric acid, a compound that converts in the body to a compound similar to breast milk (and we know how good THAT stuff is!)
  • Berries have super-high antioxidant capacities (bonus for wild blueberries, top notch) and powerful phytochemicals, without the sugar of comparable fruits
  • Green tea (especially when made from quality matcha) has nearly 17 times the antioxidants of the aforementioned berries and 7 times more than dark chocolate, plus a nice hot cup can feel great on a sore throat and give you a little energy boost, too

And finally – what kind of trainer would ThisFitBlonde be without a summary mention of exercise as an immunity-boosting tool?  Getting your heart rate up and breathing more heavily can literally help flush bacteria out of your lungs and airways, and some studies show that exercise causes certain beneficial changes to your white blood cells (the body’s disease-fighting cells).  It can also relieve stress (a major factor in propensity for common colds, flus, and illnesses) and make you feel better overall, even if battling a little sniffle.

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Whenever I have a new client that tells me they’re the type to “always get sick,” I have to have a little chuckle, because I know that we can start them on a positive chain of wellness responses – regular exercise leads to better sleep quality, better sleep leads to a stronger immune system, a stronger immune system leads to less fatigue and days off due to illness – the benefit list goes on, and it all starts with just a few dietary additions and strong sessions in the gym.

What are your best at-home or natural remedies for the winter sniffs and sneezes?

Ask Amanda: Where To Start Again

Oh hello, last Wednesday of the year – didn’t see you coming so fast.  Next week will be January 2017 (thank GOD), and with that date comes the inevitable deluge of brand-new gym goers, resolution-makers, and diet-followers determined to “get fit” in the new year.

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As a trainer, nutritionist, and wellness coach, nothing makes me happier than people realizing it’s time to make a health-related change – and for many people, a new year actually is an effective time to do so.  Unlike lots of us in the fitness industry, I actually don’t dread or lament the wave of newcomers banging down our doors in January; in fact, I get more eager than ever to help convert that brand-new-year excitement into lasting and meaningful lifestyle changes.

But THAT, my friends, is easier said than done.

I was lecturing chatting with my dad the other day about his own fitness goal for the first half of the new year – to lose 20 pounds and regain some muscle tone with weight training**.  I asked him why he wanted to do it, and he said, “so I’m not such a slob.”  Of course, we had a laugh, but honestly, I challenged him to unpack that goal a bit further.

  • What is “being a slob” to you? (feeling heavy and sluggish; not fitting into certain clothes)
  • Why does “being a slob” bother you? (makes him feel older, slower and out of shape)
  • What would “not being a slob” look like? (getting to his gym-machine circuit at least twice a week, stopping nighttime snacking, and  watching portion sizes at meals)

And from that probing, we were able to put together some guidelines on what he’d need to do to reach his goal by May 2017.  I encourage all my clients to do some thinking along these lines, whether you consider them “resolutions” or not, around the new year.  All of us (yes, even us trainers!) benefit from revisiting our short and long-term goals regularly, and doing a reevaluation of where we are versus where we want to be.

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All that said, what if you have a massive and complicated fitness goal (such as lose 50 pounds, reduce body fat by 15%, eat healthier, develop enough running fitness to run a 5K, and get off blood pressure medication) – where do you even consider starting?

In my honest opinion, the single most important thing you can do for your overall health (after quitting smoking, if that’s also on your plate) is get your damn diet in order.  This will result in the most rapid weight loss, address your most urgent health concerns (one of my favorite quotes from Hippocrates applies here – “let food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food”), and improve your sleep, energy levels, and mood more than any other single thing (and yep, that includes exercise – sorry, pizza-binging gym rats).

I am always reminding my clients about the 80/10/10 rule (full blog post here), which in shorthand simply means that 80% of your body composition is a result of your diet, 10% a result of your workout program, and 10% a result of your genetics.  The single biggest thing you can do to get a six pack, lean out your upper arms, thin out your waistline, or shrink your hips is clean up your diet – and I promise, I’ll dedicate a whole separate post on my ideas on how you can do that another time, but here’s a great place to start.

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Once you’ve committed to cleaning up your eating, getting a consistent and effective workout routine is your next order of business.  Consistent means 3-5 times per week (and yes, I mean every week, even the week with your birthday in it; the week you’re on vacation; the week between Christmas and New Year’s – all the weeks); effective means not wasting your time with 55 minutes on the elliptical machine.  

Are you a group exercise devotee?  Need a personal trainer to keep you accountable?  Love to get out on the open road for a long, peaceful run?  Figure out what you’ll actually do, and do it – there’s no single right or wrong path, as long you a) incorporate some cardio and some weight training into your weeks, b) remember to mix up your workouts for functional fitness, and c) maintain “backup plans” for when your workout of choice isn’t available.  As I love to remind my clients, excuses are for those who need them – and if you’re serious, you won’t.

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My third and final piece of advice for starting an overall wellness renovation in your own life is to consider exactly that – the overall, big picture of what wellness looks like for you.  Diet and exercise are great, and of course important, but don’t undermine the importance of things like proper sleep, stress management, stretching and massage, meditation, positive thinking, and supportive relationships.  You will never be your best self if you’re constantly berating yourself, belittling your progress, feeling exhausted, feeling alone, and dragging through your day with negative self-talk.  When you’re thinking through your goals for 2017, make sure to pencil in some self-love – the most successful of my clients always do.

How do you get motivated to kick off your goals in the new year?  What are yours for 2017?

**my dad runs a 5K course every other day, religiously, and is FAR from a slob, btw.

Ask Amanda: The Deal With Dairy

A lovely friend and avid TFB reader asked me if, within my intermittent fasting lifestyle and general love of indulgent and diverse foods, there was anything I NEVER ate.  Well, readers, while I can’t say there’s anything that I “never” eat (never say never, and I’m not a damn quitter) – there IS something specific I actively try to avoid.

About two years ago, I stopped eating (most, cow) dairy.  I hadn’t realized how much dairy I was actually eating until I mindfully tried to eliminate it as part of The Plan (an eating program you can read all about here, should it interest you) – and once it was out of my life, I noticed some real changes.

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What kind of changes?  Glad you asked, peeps.

When I stopped putting cream in my coffee, getting cheese on my burgers, popping feta in my salads, ordering extra cheese on pizzas, pouring milk in my lattes, ordering the cheese plate at fancy restaurants, treating myself with ice cream and fro-yo, and considering plain yogurt my “healthy” snack, some amazing things happened:

  • I lost actual, measurable weight
  • My skin basically became breakout-proof (save an errant zit here and there)
  • I stopped bloating after meals
  • I pretty much eliminated any gas issues (much to the relief of my crop-dusted husband)
  • I had more energy
  • I discovered my long-dormant love for soy and nut milks (bonus!)

My cousin summarizes the non-dairy movement in one simple phrase: “not your mom, not your milk.”  By that he means that if it’s not your “native” species’ developmental food (I’m definitely not about to hate on the magic of breastfeeding!), and if you’re already a fully grown adult, your need for any other animal’s milk is pretty much nonexistent.

The old wives’ tale about milk being the best source of protein and calcium has also been busted by – you guessed it – SCIENCE (eggs have far more protein without sugar per serving; sesame seeds, almonds, and spinach have more calcium by weight by far), and for most of us, we can absolutely do without the lactose sugars most dairy products have in spades (a single cup of skim milk, for example, has almost as much sugar as a 3/4 cup serving of Lucky Charms cereal – and if you combine both for your breakfast meal, you may as well be eating a McDonald’s McFlurry to kick off your day – it’d have less sugar).

There are studies that show that sheep and goat milk dairy have less of an impact on human digestion than does cow’s milk, and of course soy and nut milks are even more neutral (though they vary widely in quality, so make sure to do your research on these).  There are enough coconut, almond, hemp, and soy products on the market to fill nearly any gap that taking dairy out of your diet may leave – and I for one have rarely had trouble finding nondairy alternatives unless I was way out in the boonies (damn it, Cambodia!).

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If you are determined to maintain cow’s milk dairy in your diet by persistence or preference, cool – I’m not here to take your Taleggio or be libellous to your  Limburger.  What I would recommend is making the switch (for many of us, the switch BACK, after the non-fat craze of the 1990s) to full-fat dairy, limiting your cow’s milk dairy to special occasions (like a trip to Paris, for example), and making sure plain Greek yogurt is one of the dairy products you keep in your rotation (can’t beat the probiotic and protein double hitter).

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Whether or not you choose to continue eating cow’s milk and other dairy products is of course a case of personal preference – but if you’re mystified about why you feel sluggish, bloated, fat, or are breaking out – it may be time to rethink the white stuff n your diet.

Are you a true-blue milk drinker or a nondairy convert?  What’s your fave dairy alternative?