Sunday, March 29, 2009

Link--Basic Exercise Principles

I've listed "Strength Basics" in my list of recommended sites. Here is one of Peter's recent posts that I think many of you may find helpful.

Basic Exercise Principles

See you on the road!



Eat Lots of Fruit and Vegetables (Rule #2)

It seems simple, and it really is. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables. That's it. However much fruit and how many veggies you currently eat, if you are trying to lose weight, eat more of them.

Some of you may argue that some fruits are very high in certain sugars, and you are right, they are. If you're worried about that, then mostly increase the veggies.

Since I'm advocating relatively low-carb eating it may seem contradictory for me to tell you to eat more of these two groups. But the principle is to get most of your carbs this way. Fruit and vegetables have a lot of fiber and vitamins that you need, so I don't think they should be cut out. So leave them in, and cut the carbs that don't have as much good stuff in them.

Increasing fruit and veggies will help you to feel more filled and satisfied from your meals. And a lot of them are just plain delicious. I pity those of you who don't live in Papua New Guinea like I do, where you can have access to the best bananas and pineapples that we do. But in North America you have better access to apples, pears, peaches, plums and grapes than we do. I'm currently in the US, and I'm trying to enjoy these as much as I can while I'm here.

I know that there are lots of people who don't care for veggies. If there are a few that are not too replusive for you, concentrate on those. For the others, experiment with new ways to prepare them. We have recently started roasting a lot of ours vegetables. Just lay them in a baking dish, slightly separated, and put them in a medium oven for about 10 minutes. This really brings out different flavors than other cooking methods, and it's quick and easy.

Also, there are probably veggies that you have never tried. Experiment a little. You never know what great new favorites you'll discover!

See you on the road!



Saturday, February 28, 2009

Eat Often, Eat Well (Rule #1)

We've had some posts about exercise, so it's time to get back to the subject of diet.

Again, I want to emphasize, this is about diet, not about "a diet". It's about how you eat, ordinarily, routinely, day-to-day, for a lifetime. Not about a special eating plan that you try to diligently stick with for a few weeks, and then go back to old bad habits, because you just can't stand "the diet" any more!

A few weeks ago I listed 7 "Rules for Eating." Now, I want to say that I'm not much of a rules guy. I hate being dictated to, and I don't like trying to dictate a list of rigid laws to others. I'd rather call these the "7 Principles" or something, but that just doesn't sound as good.

The first "rule" is "Eat Often, Eat Well." Ok, maybe that's really 2 principles, but having 7 total seemed good, so I didn't want to separate them.

Many people have found through experience that eating more small meals works better for them than fewer large meals. There is research that shows clearly that 3 meals is much better than 1. As I recall, the research isn't as clear on 5 or 6 versus 3, but many people have found that this works better for them, especially while they are trying to lose weight. The point is to avoid hunger that may drive you to eating something that you will wish you hadn't!

If you eat 5 or 6 meals per day, that means eating about every 3 hours. That doesn't fit well with many people's (including mine) work patterns. But if you work an 8-hour day, you may already have a habit of a "coffee break" mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Those are great times for the in-between small meals.

Eating late at night is controversial. Some people have found that it is easier for them to lose weight if they don't eat after a certain hour. I haven't fount that to be the case for me. I'd suggest trying it both ways, and do what works for you.

What should you eat for all of those meals? Ideally, every one of the meals should contain some protein, some fat and some carbs. Specifically, they should not be just carbs. (Get it? Don't even ask if a doughnut would be an adequate mid-morning meal!) I don't have space here to suggest specific menus, and besides if you only ate menus that I suggested here, it would get boring before long.

However, I'll mention a few things I like to eat for the in-between meals. Peanuts or other nuts provide all three macronutrients. Bananas are almost pure carb, so you shoud eat them with some fat and protein, but they are a nice, compact, easily stored, pre-wrapped snack food. Apples are great. A piece of meat is really good, but storage might be a problem. Coming from your fridge at 7 AM and being in a warm lunch bag until 9:30 shouldn't be a problem. Being there until 2:30 or 3:00 PM might be. But if you can keep you lunch bag in a fridge, or if you get one of those insulated bags, and keep an ice pack in it, it should be fine. Boiled eggs are handy, pre-wrapped, and full of protein and good fat.

Most of all, what you eat should be things you like, or at least don't hate! That's the "eat well" part. Your food should be fresh, appetizing, and tasty. Don't force yourself to eat something just because someone said that it's good diet food, or good for you in some other way. Don't bother.

See you on the road!



Monday, February 16, 2009

Starting Resistance Exercise, Part 2

Let's add two more exercises to our list of low-equipment resistance exercises.

These are the two that us un-fit kids hated so much in PE as kids: the pull-up and the push-up. I remember struggling with pull-ups, and not being able to do even one, despite the yelling and abuse of the teacher. By the way, I've tried hard to forgive all my old PE teachers, and not to hold what they did against all PE teachers in the world. I also remember not being able to do a single push-up, despite the somewhat friendlier urging of the coach of the youth football team that I stumbled into for one year.

They are both actually great exercises. Together they make a pretty balanced upper-body work-out. One is a pulling movement, exercising the biceps and the muscles at the back of the shoulders. The other is a pushing movement, exercising the triceps and the chest muscles.

The pull-ups do require a bit of equipment, a bar. You can get comercially-made bars that mount in a variety of ways, but this one ( is handy, since it can be placed in almost any doorway, and removed easily, without tools or modification to the structure. If you have a room with exposed rafters, you can suspend a bar made from a piece of pipe, broomstick or closet rod from a couple of lengths of rope. Or place the bar across a couple of rafters, and secure it in place with two nails on each side.

Ideal height for the bar is at the very extent of your reach, so that you can just grasp the bar firmly standing on tip-toes. If it is slightly higher but you can grasp it with a jump, it's OK. If it's lower that's alright, too. You just grasp the bar, then lower your body until your arms are fully extended, then bend your knees to bring your lower legs up behind.

For the technique, I'm going to take an easy way out, and give you a couple of links to blog posts by my friend Peter on his Strength Basics blog. The first one covers the basics, particularly how to get started if you cannot do a single pull-up. The second goes into different ways to vary the exercise to change the effect, make them more challenging or just for variety.

When you can do 5 chin-ups (with palms facing you) with a couple of minutes rest between each one, start to work up to 5 sets of 2 reps, then 5x3, 5x4, 5x5, etc. Someday I'll tell you what to do if you can do more than that.

By the way, I'll bet that I can do more chins now than the 9th-grade PE teacher could ever do in his life!

Push-ups are the other half of our upper-body equation. Most people have the basic idea of how to do a push-up. You get down on the floor with your hands on the floor a bit more than shoulder-width apart and the arms extended. The legs are stretched out behind so that the knees and hips are straight. Then keeping the knees and hips straight you lower your body to the floor, then push yourself back up. Simple, right? Well, maybe.

First of all, what do you do if you can't even hold your body straight? First, forget the knees. Lower them until they are resting on the floor and concentrate on getting your hips straight. Either have someone look and tell you if they are straight, or have your 7 year-old take a photo with your digital camera and look at it yourself. Of course, all the time you are working on this, your arms are tiring out, but that's OK. By the time you can't hold yourself up anymore, you've done enough for today. Try again tomorrow.

Once you can hold yourself straight for 30 seconds or so (remember this is with your knees on the floor), try doing a push-up from this position. If you can't make it, just do as much as you can. When your arms are too rubbery to go on, the exercise is over. Eventually you will be able to do several push-ups from this position.

By the way, we don't call these “girl push-ups,” no. They are “knee push-ups.” They are OK for men to do. Also, when ladies get stronger, they should do pushups on the toes.

Another easier version of the push-up is to do them with your hands higher than your feet. You can put your hands on a low step, on a chair, or even on a table. Find the level that allows you to be just tiring out after 8 to 10 reps.

Once you find the technique that you can do for 8 to 10 reps (whether hands-elevated or knee push-ups) do about 5 sets of 8 to 10 reps, and gradually increase it to 12 reps. Then graduate to a harder version, either moving your hands to a lower level, or changing from knee push-ups to toe push-ups.

Be sure, whatever form of push-up you do, to keep your hips straight and ridgid throughout the movement. Don't allow your bottom to “tent up”, or your hips to be flopping up and down during the exercise.

For now your goal is to do push-ups with your hands level with your toes. When you can do 5 sets of 12 reps that way, I'll tell you how to make them even harder!

See you on the road.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Starting Resistance Exercise, Part 1

“I can't work out—I don't have any equipment, and I can't afford a gym membership.”

A common excuse. Here's another: “I don't want to work out at a gym—I'd be too self-conscious.”

Of course, that's all they are, excuses. Sometime I'll write a blog on excuses, rationalization, procrastination and other faults that most of us are victims of. But for now, just recognize the above as excuses, and let's talk about what you CAN do to exercise.

If you do have barbells and dumb bells and related equipment, there's a lot you can do with them. If you can afford a gym membership, and aren't too shy to exercise in public, there are a lot of advantages to that, too. But for many of you, you just need to get started, and doing exercise at home with a minimum of equipment will allow you to do just that. Later I'll write about beginners exercises with free weights, but for now it's low-equipment, low-budget.

First, one detail—the medical disclaimer. You are responsible, not me, for finding out if you are able to exercise safely, so figure it out with your own doctor before you start. You don't have a doctor? Well, get one. Hopefully you've had a general health check in the last year or so. If you have a particular health problem, you need to discuss the implications of exercise on your condition. Most of the time your doctor will be delighted to know that you are at least thinking about exercise.

Now, some basic principles.

Reps and Sets:
You will do each exercise a number of times. Each time you do one exercise, we call that a repetition, or “rep” for short. You will do the reps in groups, called “sets.” So you may decide to do 3 sets of 5 reps. That means that you will do the exercise 5 times, rest for a little while, do it 5 more times, rest and then do it 5 more times. For shorthand, we refer to this as “3x5.”

There are several types of failure. “Absolute failure” means that you have done the exercise so many times that you can't possibly do it again. You shouldn't do that very often. "Technical failure"* or “Form failure” means that you have done it so many times that the only way you can do it again is with incorrect form, by throwing your body around, kicking, twisting or otherwise cheating. You shouldn't do this either. Most of the exercises I recommend should be done to just short of failure.

This is essential to progress. When you exercise, your muscles tire, and your whole system (particularly your central nervous system, or CNS) tires. Strength increases while you are recovering from the exercise, not while you are doing it. So having adequate rest between workouts is important. The harder you work a particular muscle, the longer it takes it to recover. Most muscles can recover fully within about 48 hours. The more total muscle mass you exercise, the longer it takes your CNS to recover. For most of us, doing ordinary workouts, the CNS can recover adequately within 48 hours as well. If you start going at it heavily, that may not always be true. Sleep and nutrition contribute to recovery as well. If you are not getting adequate sleep, recovery will take longer.

I'm not going to suggest any exercises that are particularly dangerous. These are all exercises that you can do alone. If you do them as suggested they are not likely to result in severe injury. However, any exercise can lead to over use, to strains and sprains or muscle tears. If an exercise hurts, stop doing it. If you get over the pain quickly, it's OK to try the exercise again a few days later, being more cautious, using lighter weight or fewer reps than before. If the pain persists, get it checked out by your doctor.

The Exercises:
In each case I'll describe how you will eventually do the exercise, followed by some modified forms if the exercise that make it easier for beginners. If you can do the regular form now, great! Go for it. But if you can't, then use the modified forms until you can. I'll also add some ways to make it harder for later.

This has been called “The King of Exercises” and it's a great one. It works many muscles at once.

Basic form:
Stand with your feet at about shoulder width or slightly wider, and your toes angled out comfortably. Hold your head and your chest high, your shoulders back, and your low back curved in slightly. You can hang your hands at your side, or cross your arms with each hand on the opposite shoulder. Take a deep breath, then tighten your abdominal and low back muscles. Push your hips back, then start squatting down. Your hips should move back before your knees bend. Squat down, keeping your weight on your heels. Keep going down until your hips are at least a little lower than your knees, then push back up to the starting position. You can let your breath out slowly as you go up, but keep your abdominal muscles and low back tight. Sounds a bit complicated, right? Well, it will quickly become second nature with a little practice.

At first try for 3 sets of 3 to 5 reps. If you can do that without undue fatigue, gradually increase to 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps.

The most important points are:
*Low back slightly curved in—it's much less likely to hurt your back if you keep it in a natural position.
*Tight “core”, or abdominal and low back muscles--this is what protects your back from injury.
*Weight over heels—don't go up on your toes!
*Hips lower than knees—if you don't go this low, you won't get all the benefits from this exercise that you can and should get.
*Breathing—the deep breath at the start of the motion helps you keep your core tight and protects your back. This is controversial for people who lift heavy weight while doing squats, but for body-weight squats, it's safe. If you let your breath out on the up phase of this exercise, be careful not to let your abdominal muscles and low back to go slack.

Other points to consider as you get better at this:
*Knees pointing same direction as toes—there's a tendency to let them come in, but try to keep them directly in line with your toes.
*“Sitting back”--think of reaching back with your hips, like sitting down on a chair. If you do this adequately, your knees will go no further forward than your toes.

Modifications for beginners:

Chair squats. Use a sturdy, solid chair with no arm rests. Sit down somewhat forward on the chair. Put your feet on the floor about shoulder width or slightly wider, and your toes pointing out at a comfortable angle. Your feet should be under your knees. Hold your chest up, and your low back curved in slightly. Cross your arms over your chest so that each hand rests on the opposite shoulder. Lean forward slightly so that you feel that your weight is balanced over your heels. Take a deep breath and tighten your abdominal and low back muscles. Stand up, keeping your weight on your heels. When you are fully erect, push your hips back before starting to bend your knees, and sit back down.

If when sitting on the chair, your hips are higher than your knees, it's OK at first, but you should try to find gradually lower chairs, until you are doing this from one that has your hips at least slightly lower than your knees.

Advanced Variations:

Added Weight. Find something around the house that weighs 3 to 5 pounds (a big book, a small box with heavy stuff in it, a large can of vegetables, a milk carton with a half-gallon of water in it, etc.) and hold it to your chest while doing the squats. When you can do your target sets and reps (5x8-12) find something heavier. If you have real weight-lifting equipment around the house (you bought it for your son in 1987, and now he's left home and it's gathering dust in the basement) weight plates from that set are handy things to use. Some sets have weights up to 45 pounds. You can use combinations of plates to get gradual increases, but if you use more than one plate at a time, run a piece of string through the holes and tie it around the edge.

As you advance you can use the short dumb bell handles from a weight set, and hold one in each hand while you squat. You can also use fixed dumb bells, but it gets harder and more expensive to increase the load.

Well, I think that's enough for this week. If you just learn the squat this week, that will be a great step forward.

If you have read this, please leave a comment and let me know!

See you on the road!


*"Technical failure", as my friend Peter pointed out, is the more commonly-used term.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What Kind of Exercise?

Believe it or not, we were designed to work hard. We come into the world with the potential to be incredibly strong, fast, agile and adaptable, but with modern civilization have come many influences that prevent us from ever reaching that potential. When humans are allowed to be physically active, to do manual labor, to walk long distances and to lift heavy objects, they are less likely to develop many diseases, and are likely to live longer. We were made to exercise.

Two weeks ago I wrote about getting started with fitness. I suggested that people who are just starting out begin with walking, that they increase the pace and distance walked to the point that walking for a half-hour makes them moderately tired. What's next?

Well, you could keep walking. It has a lot to offer. But at some point, you get used to a certain level of walking, and it becomes hard to get any additional benefit from it. If you enjoy walking, certainly keep doing it, but consider adding something more.

How about running? Well, that's a popular option. It's a lot more strenuous than walking, and can take you to a new level of fitness, especially as you lose weight. Some people come to love running passionately. Running, of course, develops endurance, the ability to continue an activity for a long time. It burns calories, helping with weight loss. Although it develops cardiovascular health, it probably doesn't add too much beyond what walking does.

And it has some disadvantages. It can be hard on joints, especially for the older person, particularly if there is some excess weight on board. It can be very uncomfortable. It doesn't really increase strength much, and it doesn't "increase your metabolism." Unlike resistance exercise, the increase in calorie burning doesn't continue much beyond the exercise time itself.

So what about swimming? Great suggestion for lots of people. It also helps cardiovascular health and endurance. It is a lot easier on the joints, since the buoyant body is supported by the water. The same objections regarding strength and metabolism apply here.

How about aerobics (a.k.a. aerobic dance), spinning, Latin dance, or other forms of "aerobic exercise"? Well, they are all great. If there is one of these things that you enjoy, do it regularly. They will increase your calorie consumption, improve your cardiovascular health and build endurance, but none will add much to your strength or improve your metabolic activity after the exercise is over.

All of which leads us to resistance exercise. This is any activity in which there is "resistance" to movement. This resistance can come from gravity either through moving weights, or moving your own body, allowing it's weight to provide the resistance. It can also be provided by various kinds of springs, elastic bands or even other parts of your body.

I believe that this is the most valuable type of exercise for most people. Next week I'll outline a simple program that uses a minimum of equipment, and helps you get started building strength, "fires up your metabolism" to help burn calories even after the work out is over, helps correct posture problems, can correct painful conditions and cures male-pattern baldness.

No, I lied about the baldness part, but the other stuff is true.

See you on the road!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Changing the Way You Eat

So you've decided to take some action and start getting fitter. You've taken the basic steps in last week's blog. You've started increasing your activity, and have cut out the obvious abuses. You're walking some on most days, increasing the distance and intensity. No more marathon Oreo-eating sessions for you. What's next?

The most important thing you can do for your fitness is to change what and how you eat.

Before I go any further, let's talk about diets. "Your diet" is whatever you habitually eat. It's what you eat most of the time. It's not some special eating plan. The concept of "going on a diet" implies that you are doing something unusual, artificial and temporary. I'm talking about changing your diet, not "going on a diet." Changes can be rapid, but gradual changes are more likely to be sustained.

One bit of background information, in case you this is new to you: all food can be divided into 3 categories, called "macronutrients"; protein, carbohydrate and fat. Proteins come from meat, eggs, dairy. Some veggies have some protein, but for various reasons (that will be the subject of a future blog) aren't as good a source. Carbs come mostly from plant products, grains, fruit, veggies, and in the form of "refined sugars". Fats come from animal foods and from grains.

Here are my "Rules to Eat By." I like rules to be short and simple, easy to remember. They shouldn't be technical. If anyone can suggest a better way to state #3, I'd be happy to change it.
  1. Eat often, eat well
  2. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables
  3. Minimize other carbs, shift toward low-GI/GL carbs and don't eat carbs without fat or protein.
  4. Don't fear eating fat, fear being fat
  5. Eat plenty of protein
  6. Occasional slip-ups aren't the end of the world
  7. Don't drink calories
1. Eat often, eat well. Many people find that they lose weight better if they divide their food intake over 5 or 6 meals per day. Each meal should contain a mix of protein, carbohydrate and fat. Don't worry (at least for now) about exactly how much of each. Eat things you like. Please note that I didn't say "eat anything you like." But what you eat should be things that you like. Don't bother with food that you don't enjoy. I mean, isn't this obvious? Forcing yourself to eat something that you find disgusting just won't last long, no matter how "good for you" you may think it is. Try not to let yourself get hungry.

2. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables. This gives you your vitamins, fiber, flavor, refreshment and all the carbohydrate you really need. You don't like veggies, you say? Don't write them off without giving them a fair chance. Eat them fresh or cooked, whichever you like. Eat them in salads or singly. Adding fruit to salads can make them really good. Don't cover them up with creamy dips or dressings--that'll pile on the calories in a hurry.

3. Minimize carbs, favor low GI/GL and never alone. This one just sounds too technical, but I'm working on it. This means to cut way down on bread, rice, pasta, pancakes, waffles, biscuits, cookies, cake, pie, candy, jams and jellies, etc., etc. What carbohydrates you don't get from fruits and veggies should come in forms that don't cause a rapid rise in blood sugar. Glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) are ways of rating foods according to their tendency to raise the blood sugar. There are simple tables on line to help with this. Here's a link. And another. It's not nearly as complicated as looking up the nutrient content of foods. So another way of stating Rule Number Three is "favor low-GI/GL carbs." That's going to steer you to whole-grain bread rather than white, brown rice rather than white, etc. Eating carbs with protein or fat slows their digestion and absorption, thus lowering their effective GL.

4. Don't fear eating fats, fear being fat. The fat in your diet has much less impact on the fat on your belly than do the carbohydrates you eat. This is probably different than what you've been told, but some fats are actually good for you.

5. Eat plenty of protein. That's mostly meat and eggs.

6. Occasional slip-ups. This is inevitable. You have long-standing habits and preferences, and you probably aren't going to change those over night. And you live in a world filled with people, most of whom have never seen Jungledoc's Seven Rules for Eating. What do you do if you are invited to a friend's home for dinner, and the food that is served doesn't conform to the rules? Eat it, compliment your host/hostess on it, enjoy it. Try not to eat too much of it. Eat lots of the best of what's on the table. If there's a salad, take a large amount, ask for seconds, minimize the dressing. If there are veggies, take lots, ask for seconds. If there is meat, take a good helping. If there is rice, pasta, potatoes, take small helpings, but don't fuss about it. If there's desert, ask for a small portion, eat it slowly, savor every mouthful, and then call it quits.

But what if you really "blow it" and binge out? This should be the subject for a whole blog. Basically, forget it, forgive yourself, and go on doing things right. The only real serious problem is if you find yourself binging often. If it's happening more than once or twice a month you need to ask yourself serious questions about why you do it.

7. Don't drink calories. I decided a long time ago that sugary beverages were something that I could get along without. I drink water, black coffee and Crystal Light. A Coke is a very rare treat if I'm very hot, thirsty and tired. I haven't had one for a couple of months. When eating at friends' homes they usually offer a choice of beverage, and it's easy to ask for water. Ice and a twist of lemon can dress it up a little. Water also helps to fill you up, so drinking plenty of water with the first part of a meal will help you not keep going after you've eaten enough.

Ok! I think that's enough to digest (yeah, pun intended) for this week.

See you on the road!