Ask Amanda: The Myth of Discipline

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

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

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

healthy

Spoiler alert: it’s not a huge deal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cheat sheet – print it out and rock on!

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

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

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

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

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Ask Amanda: Hatching Healthy Habits

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

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

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

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

goals

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: Mommy Tummy

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

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

The most common postpartum body complaint?  Mommy tummy.

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

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Mommy.  Tummy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    russian

    Add weight if you’re feeling like a baws mama

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

    crossover

    Really aim for the triceps, not just the elbow

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

    Move slowly and tap the heel lightly on the floor

     

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

    double

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Amanda: Fake Food

My lovely cousin (who is undergoing his very own wellness transformation as we speak) asked me about nootropics, a nutrition term that I’d heard but admittedly had to look up to completely understand.

Nootropics (also called smart drugs or cognitive enhancers) are drugs, supplements, or other substances that improve cognitive function in otherwise healthy individuals.  These can range from the completely innocent (caffeine) to the very controversial and in some cases illegal (amphetamines, like the commonly-prescribed Adderall which is outlawed here in Singapore even for those prescribed it in other countries).

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Insane in the brain

Some common nootropics on the market include gingko biloba, fish oil, vitamin B12 shots, none of which have any truly convincing medical evidence for their efficacy.  But what I think my cousin, and most of you fine and fit readers out there were really asking about was this:

What supplements, if any, are actually safe and useful for losing weight / gettin’ swole / enhancing sports performance?

Ah, now here’s something I get asked about all the time.  I have some clients that take so many pills and powders their grocery list looks like a homeopath’s prescription pad, while I have others that wouldn’t touch a protein powder if I told them it was laced with gold.  I have certain trainer friends that rely on a steady diet of bars, supplements and drinks to maintain their physiques while I have others that swear by clean eating and water.

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The swole juice

The short answer is this: can supplements help?  Yes.  Are they essential?  No.

Let’s start with the basics.  If you are trying to lean out, get stronger, or perform better in sports, you’ll need to take in adequate protein – and doing so from whole food is not always easy.  Protein in the form of meat, fish and eggs is sometimes hard to eat and prepare, and if you’re vegetarian or vegan, it may not even be an option for you.  There is a great deal of scientific evidence supporting the centrality of protein for everything from muscle repair to sports recovery to body fat loss, and it’s one of the first nutritional changes I work on with many (primarily female, but also males looking to build mass) of my clients who currently overeat carbs and undereat protein and fat.

All that being said, my first honest recommendation is to supplement a whole-foods diet with a high-quality protein powder.  I am a big fan of IsoPure Zero Carb Creamy Vanilla, not because I think it’s the greatest thing ever to hit the market; more because I like the taste, it has no sugar, and it’s easily found all over my lovely island.  If you need a non-whey or a complete vegan or an organic protein powder, I highly recommend checking out this list.  And on a quick summary note – here’s an easy chart to help you figure out your protein needs:

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Moving on from the obvious, let’s get a bit more niche.  If you work out hard, or are starting to work out harder than you ever have in the past, or if you are determined to put on a heckuva lot more muscle, or if you are training for an ultra endurance event, or if you are looking to get significantly leaner than you are now – these are all good reasons to consider taking 10 grams or more of BCAA each and every day.  You can take your pick of how you down your dose (and please note that if you do choose a BCAA powder, it tastes and smells like fresh hell, and you will need SOMETHING to mix it down) and as always, check with your doc first – but I’ve seen a lot of clients get great results from just adding this one simple supplement.

Speaking of results – the types of nootropics you choose to take can vary greatly depending on your goals (gain muscle? lose fat? age better? move without pain?), how you prefer to feel during exercise (supercharged? zen? powerful?  in the zone?), and what the rest of your diet looks like (short in salad?  grab a green powder.  no beef?  yes iron.). I am not a huge supplements pusher myself, so for more details on a few of these, you’ll need a more detailed article than what I’m covering here, but one of the most natural supplements that I use and recommend is good ol’ fashioned coffee – the most scientifically-backed way to enhance performance and endurance for most sports.

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Me after my first cup

A final note on any supplements, vitamins, and/or enhancers – be smart and scientific whenever you’re choosing to put a synthetic product into your body.  Look at the consumer reports for both the supplement AND its active ingredients, and if it’s something well-covered in scientific literature (such as creatine), weigh the pros and cons accordingly, and consider the difference between short and long-term use.

At the end of the day, there is no supplement that works as well, as safely, and as consistently as regular resistance and cardio training combined with a diverse whole foods plant-and-protein-based diet.  End of story.

Ask Amanda: It Ain’t Over ‘Til…

I train a lot of clients from all different backgrounds, body types, and ability levels.  One day, a client of mine saw another (extremely lean, extremely fit) client and commented:

“Why is she still doing personal training?  She already looks amazing!”

A few weeks later, I mentioned to a different client that I had started training a trainer – meaning one of my personal training clients is also a reputable and successful personal trainer in her own right.  She was astonished, asking:

“Why would someone like that even need a trainer?”

KB Bod

This is not the ONLY reason people hire trainers.

These two questions are representative of two of my main pet-peeve misunderstandings about health and fitness in general, which are:

  • (1) that once you “look” fit (or in most cases, skinny) enough, you’re done
  • (2) that people who already “look” fit (or again, sigh, skinny) don’t need training

Most of the health and fitness professionals I interact with accepted long ago the idea that wellness (and weight loss, and endurance event training, and dietary changes, and whatever other process of self-betterment we specialise in helping people with) is a journey, not a destination.  

So why do so many clients get hung up on the latter?

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Wellness as a journey.

When it comes to taking care of your health, there is no “done.”  You don’t get fit by sitting on your hump, so why would it  make sense that to stay fit you’d get to do that?

The dirty little not-so-secret is this – not only do you never get to be done; some things actually get harder.  More muscle is harder to maintain than less.  Faster runners have to push harder to elevate their heart rates than slower ones.  Getting smaller means you burn fewer calories and thus have to eat less.   Womp womp (cue the sad violin).

Furthermore, the idea that the fitter you are, the less you need a trainer is just infuriating.  Why do Olympic athletes have coaches?  Why do Hollywood celebrities hire an entire team of nutritionists, trainers, and wellness coaches to keep them tip-top and red-carpet ready?  In fact, the fittest, strongest, and healthiest people in the world have one thing in common: they all have coaches (or at least had a coach at the crucial tipping/development point of their personal fitness journeys).

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This phenomenal athlete STILL needs this amazing coach to be her best.

So why in the fresh hell would you think the average Joe/Jane doesn’t “need” some help?

Granted, we all feel very passionate about the necessity of our own professions, and I’m sure there are tailors out there who would be shocked to know I always buy off the rack or hairdressers that would die to know I haven’t cut my hair in over a year.  That said, I’m not talking about clothes or haircuts – I am legitimately talking about the one thing that can make or break every single day of your life, from how you feel when you wake up to how you function throughout your day to how well you sleep – your health.

And what could possibly be more priceless than taking care of THAT?

I suppose my point in all of this (as I realise I am about to go full soapbox on this entry) would be to advise all the folks working hard out there in the #fitfam to reevaluate the way you think, speak, and judge about fitness.

Refrain from entertaining the idea that fitness goals have a specific beginning and ending, and refrain even more from thinking that the only way to get between these two arbitrary points is X (whether X is Paleo, marathon running, Keto, barre method, or whatever flavour of the day is popular right now).

Try not to compliment fellow fit friends on their bodies as much as their accomplishments, and try to encourage each other to keep reaching goals (rather than saying things like, “Wow, you did a marathon – time to hit the couch for a while, huh?”).

race

Every.  Single.  Time.

And finally – for the sake of my profession, my clients’ investments, and the health and fitness industry at large – consider that anyone and everyone can benefit from the counsel, guidance, and programming that a licensed and certified professional can offer.

Think you eat “pretty well”?  Have your food log reviewed by a registered dietitian.  Got a decent workout routine but not seeing the results you want?  Book a few sessions with a personal trainer to see where you can spice up your program.  Been stuck in a career rut for a while but can’t figure out your next steps?  A sit-down with a wellness coach may be just what you need.  Seeking out help and building a network of wellness professionals is not an admission of weakness; rather, it is a commitment to building strength in the areas of your life that matter the most to your long-term success.

Mic drop.

Ask Amanda: How Healthy is TOO Healthy?

In the course of my Precision Nutrition coaching homework, I’ve read a lot about overcoming the “introductory” type of of challenges you get when coaching folks that are new to health and fitness (things like, “I don’t like vegetables” or “do I really have to eat protein with every meal?” or “why are five Diet Cokes a day a problem if they have zero calories?”).

However, it’s not the newbie clients that are the most challenging.  Not by a long shot.

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My clients are too savvy for me to sneak this by them 😉

I am currently reading the chapter about “special scenarios” in nutrition, and it is here that we delve deep into the many, MANY types of disordered eating (DE).  Mind you, this is not the psychiatric/clinical type of “eating disorder” we associate with diagnosed anorexia or bulimia (although those are definitely disordered).  DE habits can include:

  • constantly obsessing over food / eating / not eating
  • eating behaviors that both cause and are trying to relieve distress simultaneously
  • eating in a way that doesn’t match physiological need (i.e., eating way more or less than you actually need for optimal health)
  • eating behaviors that harm yourself or others
  • orthorexia
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One lonely tomato does not make a healthy meal…for anyone

If you haven’t heard of that last one, you might want to read up on it, as orthorexia is one of the fastest growing DE tendencies around the world.  It means an obsession with “clean eating” – not just healthy eating to lose weight, but an all-consuming focus on the relationship between food choices and health (alongside an increasing inabilty to enjoy food socially, or feel satisfied by food that isn’t stringently prepared/”approved”).

But is that such a bad thing, you might ask?  Don’t all us high-falutin’ nutrition folks wish the world were more like us, with our macros and our tracking apps and proper portions and our real-food-focused organic gluten-free sugar-free dairy-free spelt grains?

Sort of…well, actually probably no.

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Mmm, salad.

Here’s the thing I always try to hit home with my clients: human nutrition is, and will always be, a balancing act.  You have to balance the food you want to eat (fries!) with the body you want to have (abs!) with a lifestyle you truly enjoy (fun!) and the best possible health you can achieve (fit!).  Examples:

  • If you have the fries sometimes, you will probably have the fun, you likely won’t have all six of the abs, but you just as likely won’t probably do any long-term damage to your health.
  • If you never have the fries, you probably have no fun (though perhaps also no guilt?), you might just find your abs, and your general health can still go either way.
  • If you have all the fries all the time, it probably gets less and less fun, you can forget about the abs, and you are probably not living in your healthiest body.

You see how this works?  There are mandatory tradeoffs between lifestyle and nutrition, and they’re not all either damning or rewarding – they just are (one of my favorite-ever infographics about this very topic can be found here).

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Why is time always wayyyyy in the other direction?

As a trainer, I feel a dutiful responsibility to demonstrate a strong, fit body, balanced nutrition, and a healthy life-work balance to my clients – but I have long given up on the pursuit of perfection.  As a wellness and health coach, I make my own tradeoffs too, and those of you know who me know that I will always choose an ice cold beer over uncovering those 3rd-6th abs (I’m ok with a two-pack at age 34, aight?).

So how do you know if you have a disordered relationship with food?  A wise man once said, check yourself before you wreck yourself:

  • Are you terrified of becoming overweight (especially if you have never been overweight)?
  • Do you feel guilt after eating?
  • Do you avoid eating, even when you are physically hungry?
  • Have others expressed concern over how much you eat, whether too little or too much?
  • Do you exercise with the sole purpose of burning the caloric content of your food?
  • Do you feel controlled by the food that you choose to eat (or not eat)?
  • Do you feel like others pressure you to eat more/less?
  • Do you claim to feel better when your stomach is empty?
  • Are you constantly preoccupied with thoughts about being fat or being thin?
  • Do you avoid trying new foods, going to social events with food present, or celebrating with food because you are afraid of eating “bad” food?

There’s no “grade” for the above test, but it is loosely based on the Eating Attitudes Test from Psychcentral.com, a screening tool used to pre-diagnose common disordered eating patterns before they become full-blown disorders – and I find it helpful to start some necessary – if often uncomfortable – discussions with clients that I sense may be heading down the DE path (or recovering from former DE patterns).

If you think you might have some of the warning signs of DE, definitely get an appointment with a nutritionist or dietitian to get your habits back on track and make sure you’re eating a balanced, satisfying, and nutritionally sound diet for your body. Healthy eating is a major part of a wellness lifestyle, but it’s not the only part – and when eating (or not eating) takes away the joy from other parts of your life, you know it’s time to reevaluate.

What tradeoffs do you make in balancing your body, health, diet – and sanity?

Ask Amanda: 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?