Monthly Archives: September 2014

Celebrate! Just celebrate!

I enjoy a lot of my workouts. Not all of them. But enough of them. Still, when it’s 5 am and I’m getting started or it feels like I’m running through a sauna and my shirt weighs 600 pounds, I don’t dig the experience.

A lot of the time, it’s just hard work.

And eating right can feel like a prison sentence. Seriously, when you’re sitting at the table with fruit, sometimes it doesn’t matter how sweet and glorious pineapple is–not when everyone’s having a big old slab of cheesecake with fluffy whipped cream on top.

That’s why it’s important to look for and celebrate your gains (or losses), even if they’re just small.

  • Do those pants fit differently? Is that shirt hanging a little differently?
  • When you went out for a walk, did you run a little bit? If you ran a little before, did you run a little more?
  • Was that thing that always totally kicked your butt a little easier this time?
  • Did someone say you look really good?
  • Do you notice a difference when you look in the mirror?
  • Did you say no to that sugary or fatty thing everyone else was eating?
  • Did you eat a good breakfast every day this week?
  • Did you substitute better items at snack team (even if they aren’t perfect)?
  • Did you make or try something good for you that tasted better than you ever expected?
  • Did you have a day from hell and forego the comfort food (even if it just happened once)?

If so…

Nice work!

And if you didn’t, that’s okay, too. There’s always tomorrow!

Getting started with strength training

Last time out, we talked about the benefits of resistance, or strength training. This time we’ll talk about how to get started. First, there’s a huuuuuuuuuuuuge difference between the strength training that made Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Ah-nold and what the rest of us do to stay healthy. No one’s talking about lifting Volkswagens over your head. You’ll probably start with pretty light weights. I’m doing complete pull-ups and I still top off at around 35 pound dumb bells for most of my exercises and that’s after almost four years.

Here are some tips for easing into strength training. Do not, do not, do not ignore tip number one.

Tip 1. Consult with your physician. This is the most important tip there is. It’s not just boilerplate or something included to scare away the lawyers. If your body is damaged, you do anything from straining a back muscle (been there, done that) to any number of more serious injuries. This is especially important if you have a history of back, neck, or knee problems. 

Tip 2. Find someone who knows what they’re doing. I started with P90X and I watched the videos first to get the form down. Even so, I didn’t nail it completely and I strained some back muscles.  You can book a session with a personal trainer at most gyms. Costs vary–and they aren’t cheap sometimes–but it’s worth the extra. You want to get fit, not get hurt.

Tip 3. Don’t overdo it. When I started, I did push-ups from my knees. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with doing an exercise with an eight or ten-pound dumb bell, even if other people are using more. Worry about technique more than numbers. You’re working out to build some muscle, build your metabolism, and help with your bone density, not to be Mr. or Mrs. Universe. As a guy, I understand the pressure of not wanting to do knee push-ups and look like you’re lifting Q-Tips. Get over that now. The numbers will come.

Tip 4. Consider exercise bands. Exercise bands are a great way to start. They don’t cost a ton (I got mine at Play it Again Sports and started with about a $50 outlay–not bad to begin). Although they’re less likely to hurt you, good form is still paramount. Bands are also easy if you’re traveling. (Personal note: I started with bands.)

Tip 5. Make sure your equipment is in shape. If you’re at a gym, this isn’t a problem–they should keep track. If you’re home, it’s a must. Are the weights you’re using staying securely on the dumb bell? If you have a chin-up bar, does it stay secure where you mounted it? Will it take your weight? Are your bands in good shape (especially if you bought them used)?

Tip 6. Accept you might be sore. Even if your form is right, there’s a good chance you’ll be sore after the first few times. You should be able to take weight and use your limbs the day after a workout, even if you’re stiff and achy. As long as you can do those things, you’re okay and the soreness will go away over time. The first week I start a new set of resistance routines, I’m typically sore. Sometimes, I’m really sore. It’s worth working through it.

Tip 7. Be patient. You aren’t going to be pumped after the first couple weeks. It takes time to build muscle. The goal is doing the exercise with good form and working hard. Again, the goal is building a little muscle, increasing your metabolism to burn fat, and protecting bone density. Anything else is bonus.

With that in mind, here are some links to simple beginner routines that can help you (see :

And here are some gym membership options:

  • Crunch gym — Low frills, relatively low cost. It says No Judgements on its website, which is important if you’re just starting. In Tampa, I can join for an initial fee of $53.13, then a monthly fee of less than $20, which includes monthly dues and a pro-rated annual fee.
  • Youfit — Similar to Crunch. In Tampa, I can join for an initial fee of $22, which includes first and last month’s fee, but there’s a $43 annual fee I’ll be charged for later.
  • Planet Fitness — Caters to beginners. Their gyms typically have no free weights (machines instead) and “No lunks” (which is to say, they don’t like gymrats). You can join for a minimal startup fee and $10 a month.
  • YMCA — Google your local branch. Options and costs can vary.
  • LA Fitness — More options and more frills. $99 to join and $30 a month.

If I didn’t list a gym in your area, Google is your friend. Take the tour, use the free guest pass most gyms offer and run if they sell too hard.

Good luck!

For best results, include some resistance training in your workouts

When I started working out, there was no resistance training. I walked. Then I graduated to harder-core cardio. I didn’t do any resistance training until I bought P90X and followed the plan.

And I hated it. Even now, when I do the resistance routines* at least twice a week, I’d much rather plug in a cardio DVD or go for a run or a bike ride. And that’s knowing I’ll do much better at Tough Mudder and that my arms and chest are starting to appeal to the vanity in me.

*Resistance training is training that offers resistance to your muscles, forcing them to work harder than they normally would. It can include weight training, training with resistance bands, push-ups, and pull-ups or chin-ups.

The simple fact is, if you only do cardio, you aren’t reaping the full advantage of your workout time.

Resistance training builds muscle and muscle burns fat. According to this WebMD article, ten pounds of muscle burns 50 calories a day at rest–two and a half times what ten pounds of fat burns. Mixing your aerobic training with some resistance training will increase your metabolism and burn more calories. It’s particularly effective in reducing the decline in metabolism that comes with aging.

Speaking of aging, resistance training can build bone mass. More women die each year from hip fractures, which can stem from osteoporosis, than from breast cancer. Each year after a woman turns 30, she loses 1 percent of her bone mass, a rate that doubles after she reaches menopause. Although men are less likely to be affected, two million men in the US suffer from osteoporosis. Weight training in women can increase bone mass in the spine and hips–the hips being one of the primary places for fractures among older women. According to a study in New Zealand, women over 80 showed a 40% reduction in falls because of simple strength and balance training.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), resistance training can help fight the effects of a number of age-related diseases, including arthritis, diabetes, back pain, and even depression.

In addition, resistance training can sharpen your focus. There’s a growing body of scientific evidence that exercise overall does miraculous things with the brain. Although resistance training has had little demonstrable impact on cognitive thought, it has shown reductions in anxiety and increases in confidence.

Overall, any regular movement is good, but the best benefits come from a combination of training techniques. We’ll talk about some tips for getting started next time.

(Much of this material is based on content from Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman, an outstanding read if you want to know how exercise can help you in ways you never considered.)

We. Are going. To DIE! (So we might as well live for all we’re worth.)

Before today’s post, a word from the great Indiana Jones.

It’s true. Never in the course of humanity has there been a greater array of threats to humanity. Ebola. That mysterious flu-like thing going around. ISIS. ISIL. Global warming. Global climate change. Cancer. Heart disease. Income inequality. The Russians. The Chinese. The economy. That asteroid that’s going to certainly hit us someday. It hasn’t been like this since…well, since yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that. It’s enough to cause insanity!

Okay, this kind of insanity really is scary. But other than that…

Nuclear war was going to be the end of us. Before that was machine guns. Before that was something else. Tomorrow, it’ll be something else (sentient computers maybe?). And the day after that, we’ll all be here worried about today’s immediate threat that will wipe out life as we know it.

Duck and cover. Because a nuclear warhead can kill everything–except your desk and what’s under it.

Indy’s right. We are going to die. Everyone dies sometime, kiddo.

That means life is short and valuable. And rather than worry about the threat of the day–something I typically can’t do anything about anyway, I think I’ll live.

I think I’ll run or lift some weights. I think I’ll be happy to see people I haven’t seen in a while. I think I’ll do something to help someone around me. I think I’ll try to smile more than I did yesterday. I think I’ll try to say or do something to pick someone up.

The people trying to push all those causes of imminent demise don’t care about you. Not personally. They care about their cause, or their product. They care about trying to get you to see things their way. Or about convincing you to buy their book or vote for their candidate.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t care about things. The world is a better place when people care about things. But it’s also a better place when you’re not scared to death of it.

There’s something amazing you can see within 100 feet of you right now. And it’s not the latest headline blaring infinite doom.

My $22 standing desk

The science has been out there for a few years now: sitting down for long stretches of time is bad for you. How bad? The conventional saying is that sitting is the new smoking. The health hazards of sitting down have been chronicled in just about everywhere, from mainstream news sources to periodicals aimed at fit people.

If you sit for large periods of time, you’re at increased risk for a number of health issues–not to mention keeping some of that girth around the middle you might be trying to lose.

You can do a number of things to reduce your risk, such as getting up once an hour, stretching, walking down to the person you were about to send an email. You can also get a standing desk–which is exactly what it says: a desk at which you stand up.

The desk itself isn’t cheap. It could set you back $200-$300. You can pick up a laptop stand to put on your desk for less than $50. The one I selected allowed me to create a standing desk for $22.

First, I bought a laptop stand at IKEA. My original was a Dave stand, which I accidentally broke when I punched it doing P90X3 MMX. (D’oh!)

I replaced it with a Svartasen laptop stand ($22). We have an IKEA store in Tampa, so it was easy to drive over an pick one up. It’s adjustable, so I make sure it’s the perfect height. I use a second monitor, so I grabbed a folding tray for that. Most days, when I work at home, I stand all day.

2014-08-31 15.09.09

Sometimes I have a lot of calls and might want to sit a little, so I bought a $45 stool from Wal-Mart. If I need to sit all day, I can simply remove the tray and the laptop stand.

Is it stable?

Yes. If I’m working at home for several days at a time, I keep my laptop on the stand all the time. It has never given way–that is, when I don’t accidentally punch it.

What’s it like to stand all day?

The first day you try it, you’ll probably hate it. It was a distraction at first, but once I got used to it, I don’t mind at all. In fact, I like moving around. One benefit is the ability to play music from Spotify and move a little while I’m working. And there’s the stool for long calls. Overall, it’s better for my health than sitting, breaks down easily, and it’s easily affordable.


Yeah, you can. Here’s how…

In 2004, when P90X first came out, I watched the infomercials and was immediately smitten. My second reaction, though, was that I could never do that–would never do that. The DVDs would wind up in a drawer collecting dust. Once I found a reason not to commit, it was done. I found what I was looking for.

As things worked out, that was nonsense. I was several years older and in worse shape when I actually started P90X. But there were some key differences this time around that helped me succeed where before, I might have failed.

  • I tested my commitment. By the time I placed the order, I knew I could stick with a workout. I spent the whole summer walking. I started with five miles on a Sunday. Some nights after work, I’d walk as much as six miles. One Saturday, I walked 17 miles. By the end of the summer, I’d proven to myself that I’d do the work. And that reduced my risk. Whatever your situation, find something to prove to yourself that you can make the commitment.
  • I tried the program. A friend of mine had the workouts and let me try them. School started and I needed something I could do in less time. She suggested trying this P90X thing, so I did. I wasn’t awesome, but I could do the work. So try what you want to do and don’t expect perfection.
  • I got a plan. P90X is all laid out. The sequence of the workouts, the time it takes, your equipment requirements. There are even modifications if you can’t do the full workout. I just worked the plan. If I was particularly sore, or sick, or too tired, I adjusted the plan, but I stuck with it. Have a plan for how you’re going to get there and adjust when necessary.
  • I committed to it–and I don’t just mean verbally. I spent the money on the program. I made an investment. I had skin in the game now–something to lose. And I followed the program, which meant workouts six days a week. I did all six. I was all in. Once you start to think you can do it, invest in it and make a full commitment.
  • I had support. The guy I bought the program from was incredibly supportive. He let me come to him with questions and he helped me. He offered to work out with me. Find someone who can encourage you, but also someone who can help you.
  • I believed in the goal and give it time to work. To fit my schedule, I had to work out really early in the morning. I knew I could do most of the work, at least if I modified the moves. And I actively looked for improvements, not at the places where I struggled. Those improvements built my motivation. Believe in where you’re going and actively look for improvement.
  • I accepted that it wasn’t a straight line to success. There were mornings when I’d be working out and say to myself, “This is stupid. The DVD people are in shape–they can do this. You’re a fat slug who can’t do a pull-up.” I worked through that negativity. I accepted that not every workout is a home run. But because I was looking for success, I could see the improvements over time and knew a setback was only temporary. Accept setbacks as part of the overall process.

Looking back, I had a lot of things going for me. I believed, more strongly every day, that I would get to the goal.

This approach isn’t just for workouts. It can work for you for non-fitness goals, as well.

If you completely believed you could achieve it, it would probably be done. So give yourself a multi-pronged approach to fan that little tinder of belief into a raging inferno.

You’re worth it.

Six strategies for eating out

Eating out is a wonderful experience. Whether you’re sitting with friends or family enjoying the communal meal or hanging at the bar watching sports, it’s one of the great things about being alive where and when we are.

It can also be a killer for your nutritional goals, unless you think ahead and strategize before you arrive. Here are six tips to help you out:

Check out the nutritional information available online before you leave. A while back, we went to Chili’s, and while I wasn’t looking to be super healthy, I wanted to eat something reasonable and not spend a ton. A quick review of the menu brought me to the Margherita flat bread. How bad could it be? It’s flat bread with some pizza-like stuff on it, but no sausage or pepperoni. When I got home, I looked up the nutritional information and found my more-or-less healthy choice had 1400 calories. To put that in context, I could have had all but one of the dessert options and come away with fewer calories.

If you forget beforehand, you can use your smart phone to check the information once you get there. That didn’t work at Chili’s (and they didn’t have the nutritional information available at the restaurant; I checked). I couldn’t get past their mobile site, which didn’t have the nutrition information. (It’s available at their regular site.) When we went to Smokey Bones, their nutritional information was available in a mobile-friendly format. Boom, veggie burger selection (though I should’ve asked to skip the ketchup) with a side of broccoli. Mission accomplished.

Eat something before you leave. A while before we left, I had a serving of vanilla Shakeology (a meal-replacement shake), with the intent of just getting a relatively healthy appetizer. It turned out the appetizers weren’t all that healthy, but the veggie burger and broccoli met my dietary and budget needs.

If the nutrition information isn’t available and you want to make a good choice, make the best choice available that suits your taste. If you don’t want a side salad with dressing on the side, don’t get it. But most places will allow you to substitute a vegetable for fries. You can also forego dessert and skip the endless supply of chips and salsa.

Finally, periodically go out and get what you want, without worrying. Right now, I’m in a zone where I don’t feel deprived if I eat healthy. The veggie burger was fine. The broccoli was outstanding. I didn’t miss a big old juicy beef burger and the fries. The time will come, when I really want that stuff. You, too, probably. Give yourself the treat periodically, but make sure it’s a treat and not a habit.

Finally, work from where you are. I had the veggie burger and broccoli. Maybe that’s not you right now. Maybe you can skip dessert and the appetizer and feel like it’s a big gain. Scale your expectations to where you are. That said, over time, try to do better with your choices.

It would be great if every restaurant made it easy to eat yummy, healthful food. But that doesn’t happen. So do your best. And if you forget or slip, it’s not the end of the world. Just try to get better over time.

Four easy food substitutions to help with your nutritional goals

Fitness is only part of the battle. There’s a saying, almost a cliche, that says great abs aren’t made in the gym; they’re made in the kitchen. But trying to change everything about your diet in one shot isn’t likely to be sustainable.

It’s taken me years and I’m only now getting to where I want to be.

But if you want to take a gradual approach, here are some substitutions you can try to nudge the meter a little bit.

  • Substitute real peanut butter for typical commercially available peanut butter. When you see the stirrable peanut butter and check the label, you know what’s in there? Peanuts and (in some cases) salt. When you look at a jar of Peter Pan, you know what’s in that? Peanuts, to be sure, but also sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oil, salt, and partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil. Hydrogenated oils are trans fats. Publix has Smucker’s Natural Peanut Butter, which consists of peanuts and a little salt. I’ve found the Smucker’s is often difficult to stir, though. The best pick for me is Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter. It’s relatively easy to stir and it’s a little cheaper than the Smucker’s (about $3.50 a jar).
  • Substitute brown rice pasta for regular. Regular pasta is super-refined. Most of the nutritional benefits have been stripped away. Whole grain pasta is better for you, but its texture isn’t what most people are used to. (Also, packaging can be misleading. Some of the whole-grain pasta isn’t completely whole-grain.) Brown rice pasta, in my experience, has the same texture you’re used to and is nutritionally superior. It’s more expensive at a regular grocery store (about $4 a pound at Publix), but you can get brown rice corkscrews and penne for $2 a pound a Trader Joe’s.
  • Substitute brown rice for white rice. White rice looks pretty, but it’s had a lot of nutritional value stripped away in the processing required for that prettiness. The bran layer is removed, which means it digests faster, which means your blood sugar is more likely to spike. Brown rice has more the 4 times that magnesium of white rice. Magnesium helps fight inflammation, which reduces chances of a host of maladies, including heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer. White rice also has a higher glycemic index than brown rice (that is, it has more effect on your blood sugar level). And for me, it tastes pretty much the same, especially if you’re using it with other foods, such as in a burrito. And brown rice isn’t expensive at all.
  • Substitute almond milk for regular milk. Almond milk’s a nutritional gold mine with lots of antioxidants and vitamins. It’s also lower in calories. Although cow’s milk is higher in protein, almond milk is (surprisingly) higher in calcium. Almond milk is also great if you’re lactose intolerant. I’ve been using almond milk for a long time in nutritional shakes and I’ve started using it in cereal. For me, it’s fine, a little richer than skim and the taste doesn’t distract me from the cereal. (Note: If you have nut allergies, you might want to avoid almond milk.) Almond milk is available at Publix for about $3.35 for a half gallon, but is frequently a sale item.

As with all things involving food, your mileage may vary. These things worked for me without any downgrade in taste or the overall experience.

Have you made any healthy food substitutions?

Fun is good (in fitness, too)!

Yesterday (as I write this), I went to work out with a bunch of people from my church.

Everyone is on a different spot in their fitness journey. Most of them are where I was four years ago. Walking a couple miles and doing some squats and dips and inclined push-ups along the way would have been a major outing for me. And because I’m training for Tough Mudder, I had to do more than walk, so I ran up ahead a little then back behind them a little, then up ahead a little…I literally ran circles around them.

There would have been a time when I’d have said that was boring and I want to be hard core and would have sought out more hard-core people.

There’s a word for that approach, brought to you by the great Kevin Spacey…

Here’s what the walking people brought to the workout:

  • They worked hard. You don’t have to look like Tony Horton or Jillian Michaels to bring it. We stopped and did some incline push-ups on the guard rail at one point. One of the women has issues with one of her arms so she did hers one-armed. “One armed push-ups,” I said. “That’s hard core.” “Not really,” she said. “I hurt my other arm.” Number one, she told me she felt it, so that’s hard core in itself. Number, two, she had a limitation and she adapted to get the work done. Hard. Core.
  • More important, they had fun. I can’t remember the last time I laughed during a workout. Or was intentionally goofy (the unintentional hilarity of me doing yoga doesn’t count). And yet, here were these people on a hot, nasty morning in Florida, doing things they didn’t like–and they were laughing. They even got me to run a little making some funky show-girl motion with my arms. (Unfortunately, the video of that didn’t turn out. Too bad. I would have shared it otherwise. Really.)

Exercise is work. If you want a gain, you have to put the effort in. But it’s not a solemn obligation or a gift from the heavens that has to be treated with serious decorum.

I tend to work out alone–most sane people are enjoying slumber when I pop in my DVDs in the morning. Lots of mornings, I don’t want to work out until I’m about two minutes in. I forget to have fun.

Don’t forget.

And the food thing, too

Working out is easy for me. I mean, I want a hard work out, but I’ve been doing it long enough that it just happens. Food, on the other hand, is a different thing. I’m moving it the right direction, but with mixed results. The banana-egg pancakes came out pretty good, but I still haven’t mastered the cauliflower crust pizza.

When there’s something I’m not great at–something that requires a lot work and isn’t necessarily successful–I tend to avoid that thing. (Like, you know, almost everyone.)

I’m not making horrible decisions, mind you. No Quarter Pounders with Cheese. No pepperoni pizzas (and yes, I have finished off an entire thin-crust pepperoni pizza in one sitting, but not in a long time). I’ve been falling back on cereal–mostly the organic granola. But it’s got a lot of sugar in it.

This is an area where go in spurts. I went nuts earlier this year on roasted vegetables, until that played itself out. Just this past week, I did stir-fried veggies from a bag I got at Publix. Added some carrots and ate it over brown rice with Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (yum). Today, I got ambitious and made quinoa and brown rice pasta salad with home made dressing and a mess of different veggies and some parmesan cheese. It turned out pretty good. (Then I roasted the leftovers.)

Yum. I hope.

By Monday, though, I’ll probably be back to the granola for dinner. (No green veggies in that.)

A couple of things of value here:

  1. Everyone has weaknesses. Everyone has places where they’d like to do better, but the passion’s not really there at the moment.
  2. If you got it, own it. I know I need to do better, but I also know it’s not happening all at once. The workouts didn’t happen all at once and the food won’t either.
  3. Take a chance and do something a little risky anyway. The salad could have been horrible. (I didn’t think so, but I’ve been wrong on food-related things before…) So what? It turned out good and I’ll eat it for a while.
  4. I may not make anything again for two weeks. That’s how it is. I’m better now than six months ago. Probably not as good as I’ll be six months from now.

The point is, I’m not getting all hyper intense about it. I’ll keep moving in the right direction, but I’ll probably never be that guy who spends hours throwing together an amazing meal. I’d much rather write, work out, or even take a nap.

But I will do better and move in the right direction. I have a pair of shorts I want to get into and I’m not quite there yet. My goal is for them to be too big for me.

Not overnight, though.

How about you? What do you struggle with? How are you changing it?