Friday, December 31, 2010

Making Plans

Whew, just in time for the new year. I can't think of any other time of year that this might be more appropriate than just before everyone is making their New Year Resolutions. Before you scoff and tell me you think it's cliche or that resolutions are just good intentions without anything to back them up think about it for just a moment.

While there is nothing special about the New Year as far as a health or fitness perspective it's not a bad thing to take the chance to make some goals for the upcoming 12 months. The important thing is to distinguish between goals and dreams.

Goals are specific. They have a plan of action to bring them to fruition and a way to measure if they have actually been attained. Dreams on the other hand are unattainable, unrealistic and if you really take the time to think about it are not something that you would ever even expect to happen.

Let's give an example. One of my goals two years ago was to run a 45 min 10k race. To do this I prepared for several months. I planned my weekly runs and set up a schedule to follow so that I would be ready for my big run. On the day of the race I knew how to measure my success. If the clock was over 45 minutes when I crossed the line I had failed and if it was under 45 minutes then I had succeeded. My plan was specific and my goal was measurable. I had some experience running prior to this. It wasn't like I was just trying to start as someone who never ran or only jogged a 12 min/mile pace before this, so I knew that this was within my reach. Thankfully, I attained my goal. I made it to the finish with less than 5 seconds to spare.

Now a dream of mine has always been to be in the Tour de France. This obviously is not going to happen. No matter how much I train, it's just not a possibility. I'm in my mid 20's, I have raced my bike for one year so far and am only a Cat 4 racer. Riding in Le Tour just is not an option for me. But I can dream, can't I?

Another important part of setting reasonable goals is using the right scale to measure them. You would never measure the growth of a tree in seconds. It would be absurd. The same is true for fitness or nutrition goals, you need to measure with a calendar, not a clock.

So even if you are adverse to making a New Year's Resolution, think about all this the next time you make plans for life whether they are in your work or play. Aim high, but have a plan for how to achieve it and measure it when you get there so that you don't spend all of your energy towards something you discover to be just a dream.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


About a year ago while doing some research about kettlebells I stumbled across an ingenious invention. The shovelglove. If you want to talk about functional fitness this is functional fitness meets MacGyver.

It all started with a fella who was a bit out of shape, but lacking the motivation to leave the house and go somewhere to exercise. Nevertheless his desire to get his butt back in gear overcame the exercise inertia that had him sitting around and he devised shovelglove. Here's a little excerpt of his story...

"I wanted an exercise I could do right there, in my bedroom, without any fancy equipment.

But I didn't want to do sit-ups or pushups. I didn't want to grovel on my stomach on the floor, like some degraded beast. "There must be some kind of movement I can do standing up, with the dignity of a human being," I thought, "some kind of movement that is natural and interesting, that my body would like to do."

I started making all kinds of spastic movements, hoping to come across something that resonated. I remembered reading something in some French novel about coal shovelers having the best abdominal muscles of anyone the author had ever seen. I started making shoveling motions.

Now there are a few problems with shoveling, from an exercise perspective. For one, if I actually went outside and started shoveling, I'd get all wet (remember, it's raining). The neighbors would think I was crazy, and if I did it at the wrong time I'd actually annoy them. I'd also have to have something to shovel, a waste of space, at least (our backyard is more of back alley). So outdoors is out. But I couldn't really shovel indoors, either. Even if I just did a pantomime with a shovel, I'd need some kind of weight to move, and I'd need some way of keeping it from scratching the floors or killing the cats."

And out of such turmoil and chaos came the shovelglove. Of course if you want to learn more you'll have to visit the website. (By the way, his website is considerably more enjoyable reading than just about anything else you'll waste 5 minutes on today so it's worth a peek.)

A shovelglove then, is just a sledgehammer with the head wrapped in a sweater or towel so that you don't brain yourself or scratch up the floors. The idea behind it is to mimic movements you might otherwise do in "real life" like shoveling, chopping wood, lifting luggage etc. It's really not unlike the new clubbells that are out and being used by the kettlebell types. By doing swinging motions with a free weight that has a center of gravity away from your body it engages several muscles involved in range of motion and works more than just a single muscle group at a time; the same concept that has made kettlebells so popular and effective.

I have yet to try it. My beautiful wife is a little skeptical that I won't wind up putting a whole in the wall...or ceiling...or my face. However, the idea sounds great and I'm confident that my powers of persuasion will win out sooner or later.

While you may not be signing up for a shovelglove class at the local gym anytime soon this shovelglove fella may just be on to something. He even has his own YouTube Channel.

Dare I say, "try it?"

Monday, December 27, 2010

Another good reason to train your core

Ever heard of "Dead Butt Syndrome?" Yeah, neither had I, but it's legit. NYTimes author Jen Miller just wrote an interesting little blurb about her problems with her gluteus medius and I have to say that recently, I can relate a little. Quite conveniently, during the week of a lecture on the lower extremity I noticed some funny pain in my right hip. It turns out my gluteus medius was a bit unprepared for my cross training season.

The problem boils down to this: As an athlete works their legs, they frequently neglect their core which includes the butt muscles. The butt muscles or gluteal muscles are some of the most important, though, especially for runners because they stabilize the pelvis which is the platform for everything that you do. The most important muscles to do this for running are the gluteus medius and minimus (but mostly the medius). When you have a weak gluteus medius your pelvis tilts instead of remaining level.

A quick way to test is to try and balance on one leg. This may be enough to make your pelvis tilt (although it may not be as dramatic as the diagram). If that's not enough, try doing a one leg squat, if your knee turns or bends in towards your midline ("valgus knee") then the odds are good that your hips could use some strengthening. If you still aren't convinced lay on your side and open your legs like a scissors. Have someone push down steadily and firmly but not violently on your leg while you try to keep them open. I was shocked to learn how much weaker my right side really was compared to my left.

Here are a few suggestions.

1) The clamshell
For this exercise you should lay on your side with your knees bent and open your knees like a clamshell.
As you can see by the thrilled look on this guy's face it's not the coolest exercise, but it's practical.

2) Glut Bridge
You can call this whatever you want, a bridge, a butt lift, all the same it's good work for your backside. Lay on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Tensing your butt muscles lift your body so that you make a triangle (your feet/shins and the floor should make a right angle and your body is the hypotenuse).

3)Tight rope walk/Dumbbell walkouts
Don't worry you don't have to have access to a sky scraper to do this one, just a couple dumbbells. Take two dumbbells between 8 and 20 pounds each (start light) and walk around heel to toe like your are balancing on a tightrope. This may not seem like a lot, but because your toes are in line you must stabilize your pelvis with every step. You can see a video here.

Doing 2-3 sets of these exercises with 8-20 reps per set 3-5 times a week will work wonders. Another important aspect of taking care of your hips is to be sure and stretch. Just a little bit of extra time each day doing these exercises and stretching could mean the difference between playing and sitting on the sidelines.

For more core workouts and butt rehab try here and if you specifically are looking for a runner's core workout check out this workout at the Runner's World website.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Simple Garlic Hummus

A tasty snack with good fat and a good price too.

1 can of chick peas (14 oz)
1/4 cup of yogurt
2 Tbsp Lemon Juice
2 Tsp minced garlic
1.5 Tbsp olive oil
Salt- to taste
1 Tbsp Tahini (optional)

Combine all ingredients in your blender or food processor and mix until smooth. Mix less if you like your hummus a little coarser.

Serve with Pita bread, fresh vegetables, pretzels or any of your other favorite dipping delicacies.

Monday, December 20, 2010

You need fat too!

I realize this is something that is hard to swallow, but it's true. You need fat too. Before you blow me off and keep "fat" on your black list read a little further.

You're body is made up of cells. A couple hundred years ago you might have looked at me and just said, "huh?" But thanks to the microscope and some advances in science (as well as public education) I feel pretty confident you can track with me here. Now where were we...ah yes, cells. You're body is made up of cells. Skin cells, stomach cells, hair cells, muscle cells, fat cells and more. Despite the fact that these cells all are part of different organs and systems, they have more in common than you may think. One of the things that all these cells have in common is their outer layer.

Cells have what is called a membrane which is composed of a lipid bilayer. What that basically means is that each cell is encased in a double layer of fat molecules. That's right fat molecules (aka lipids). And an important source for those cell walls is the fat that you eat. The fat you eat and cholesterol that you eat and that your body makes are mostly responsible for making the walls of your cells. The combination of those two components helps to determine how hard or soft those walls are. In the ideal world it would be the perfect combination of not too soft and not too hard, but every person is a little different based on their diet and their genetics.

This is part of the reason that trans fats are such a big deal. Initially when trans fats were invented we thought they were a great cheap solution to always needing plant or animal products, but as we quickly found out it's hard to beat nature at it's own game. By now it is impossible to go into a store without seeing bags of anything and everything labeled "0 Grams of Trans Fat" or "Trans Fat Free." That's because we learned that when trans fat gets included into our cell walls it tends to pack very tightly together. This means rigid cell walls (among other problems). Fats made by people and animals are almost exclusively cis-fats. While trans fats generally make straight linear molecules, cis-fats have some twists and bends in them. They create little extra spaces for molecules to move around and your cell membrane stays "softer" so to speak. Because of all of these problems trans fats are one item I would say are okay to put on the official "bad" list.

Another fat to avoid in excess is saturated fat. Saturated fats have similar properties in your cell to trans fats, but are naturally occuring in animal products and still not as bad as trans fats. This makes intuitive sense because we all are aware that eating a stick of butter or having bacon with every meal (both of which have a large amount of saturated fat) is not a good idea. Saturated fat, though, is not necessarily something to completely eliminate from your diet. For one, it would mean eating almost no animal products which is not a truly healthy or realistic option. In addition, your body can handle saturated fat and deal with it without too much difficulty, but just like any other nutrient if you eat too much of it you will not be happy with the outcome.

Now there are a couple of fats that are good for you. Namely unsaturated fats as well as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Unsaturated fats are found in nuts, seeds and other plant products and they are generally liquid at room temperature when they are isolated (as compared to saturated fats which are typically solid at room temperature-this is another good indicator of the quality of fat you are eating. Have the solids sparingly and enjoy the liquids). These unsaturated fats are the kinds that will leave your cells' walls soft and happy instead of rigid. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important for multiple uses in the body, but they can't be made by humans, so they need to be eaten instead to be included in our bodies.

But now I've been babbling long enough, let's get to the payoff.

If you had to distill all of this information into a quick application it would be this. Don't avoid fat because you think "fat is bad." Fat has twice as many calories/gram as carbohydrate or protein so it's important to eat less of it if you want to avoid packing extra supplies of it on your body. However, it's not necessary to avoid it altogether and isn't good for you to do so either. Try enjoying some almonds instead of potato chips or using olive oil in place of butter. These are good ways to make sure that you get the fat you need without overdosing on the fat you don't need.

I know it's complicated, but you can do it. If you are just tuning in, check out more of this series on the three main nutrients under the Nutrition tags.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Exercise as an appetizer for breakfast

I read last week in the NYTimes about a recent study in the Journal of Physiology did an interesting experiment involving athletes and timing of exercise compared to when they ate breakfast. During the experiment they fed three groups of athletes a diet with an excess of calories which means that each group was expected to gain weight.

The first group did no exercise for the six weeks of the experiment and ate 30% more calories than would be appropriate for their need. In the end they gained an average of 6+ pounds (big surprise, huh?). Moreover, they saw in just those six weeks a decrease in insulin sensitivity, which is considered main causal problem in Type 2 diabetes.

The second group ate their excess calories in carbohydrate and ate carbs during exercise. Not terribly dissimilar from what a normal athlete would do other than eating excess calories. The results for this group were kind of boring. They gained a little weight because of the excess calories, but the rest of the findings were just kind of blah.

The third group, though, that exercise before breakfast and didn't eat anything during exercise was really interesting. They found that this group not only didn't gain a significant amount of weight, but the group also had increased insulin sensitivity and increased fatty acid oxidation (they used fat better for fuel). Their conclusion was somewhat novel (and a little cocky): "This study for the first time shows that fasted training is more potent than fed training to facilitate adaptations in muscle and to improve whole-body glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity during hyper-caloric fat-rich diet."

Really it is a pretty cool thing to find out. Lots of athletes know that when they need to drop a little weight, they do a little extra exercise in the morning before breakfast. Bradley Wiggins for instance talked about this being a normal thing for him when he's getting ready to drop a pound or two in preparation for a big race. This study had subjects doing 60-90 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise which is no small thing. However, the results are also no small thing. If they really hold true, this could be a nice prophylaxis for the holiday season when we are all a little prone to eating more than normal.

One caveat, don't expect your all time greatest results when you exercise before eating or without eating. You can only last so long without fuel and this method essentially has you running on E. If you decide to try it, start easier and work up to your limit instead of just blowing up on your first try.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Swiss Ball Stunts

Apparently there is this whole world of swiss ball stunts...and even acrobatics.

Needless to say, given my level of amateurity, I'm not quite there yet.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Swiss Ball: Not even remotely related to Swiss Cake Rolls.

It's still cross training season.

Which means I'm looking for ways to build some strength, maintain at least a minimal amount of aerobic fitness and try not to cry when I think about how long it could be before I get back on the open road with my bike.

One special area of interest during this time of year is core strength. My new secret weapon, the Swiss Ball (aka Fitball, exercise ball etc.). Please see below:

Core strength is especially important for a guy like me who spends long hours on a bike saddle or long hours hunched over study materials because it creates a platform for power when I'm bike riding and helps prevent back pain when I'm just sitting. I once heard the best way to eliminate low back pain is to eliminate your lower front. Now good posture, appropriate shoes and an expensive desk chair don't hurt; but when you're looking for the most bang for your buck you can't beat increased core fitness.

The Swiss exercise ball is one trick that I'm sure I can count on. Not only because of the good shape that regular ball users get into with these exercises but also because these exercises are difficult. Really difficult. If you don't believe me, try it. What have you got to lose? (besides maybe your lower front...)

For more face-breakingly difficult exercises check out these killer core exercises.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

BMI is a baseline measure, but also a helpful one

Lots of people put tons of emphasis on BMI. It's a good baseline test for figuring out what kind of shape your body is in. The US Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes for Health (NIH) have composed guidelines for healthy BMI and are what physicians use in the initial assessment of whether or not a person is underweight, healthy weight, overweight or obese. BMI is somewhat limited in that it does not take into account a person's body composition, but the majority of the population (not elite athletes) this isn't too big of a problem. When you consider athletes BMI hits a little bit of a wall because athletes tend to have less body fat which means more of their weight is from muscle. This does not mean that BMI is invaluable, it simply needs to be used carefully. For this reason I have often given BMI less credence than perhaps it deserves.

The NIH recently released information regarding a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on BMI and it's predictive power concerning longevity. It turns out that your BMI is a little bit bigger deal than I have thought in the past. The study pooled 19 other investigations that examined BMI and the probability of mortality (dying). This study actually allowed them to look at data concerning 1.5 million people which is 0.5% of the total population in the US (not bad considering the number of people in the US). What it found was that overweight people had significantly increased mortality rates and that obese people were even more at risk. This was also examined with other possible concurrent risk factors for death and found that an increased BMI by itself increases the likelihood of death within 10 years compared to an individual with a health BMI (defined as between 20 and 25).

Interestingly, a BMI that is too low is also bad for you (there is such a thing as being too skinny). But before you go pounding down twinkies to try and protect yourself from a low BMI, consider this. The increased risk to your health begins around a BMI of 18 which would be a 5' 6" tall person who weighed less than 118 lbs or a 6' tall person under 140 lbs.

If you're curious you can go to the NIH's BMI Caculator and see for yourself what your BMI is. If that's not enough for you, the next step to finding out more about what kind of shape you're in would be to find out your body composition or % body fat, but that's a conversation for another time.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What's the big deal about protein?

Having just finished the Thanksgiving week and heading into the Christmas season, I thought it might be an appropriate time to return to some of my previous nutrition topics. After downing more bird than I care to admit during the last several days , protein seems like the best place to start.

If Zubaz were a definitive mark of 90's fashion, high protein diets are a definitive mark of our current decade's attempt to trim the fat. Most of these are fads aimed at dropping weight quickly without much care for the other associated health risks (i.e. Atkin's). I recently reviewed an article during my evidence based medicine class that especially highlighted the increased risks of heart disease in middle aged women who ate a high protein-low carbohydrate diet.

This isn't to say that protein is bad for you. An appropriate view of nutrition means that you need to make your eating choices based on balance and your personal circumstances will dictate your need for different nutrients. Lean protein, for instance, has been shown to help with muscle building and recovery from strenuous exercise. Another perk and perhaps more important to those who care to lose weight is that it helps with satiety. However, like all good things, there is a limit to it's effectiveness and benefits. As I talked about before, if you eat too much of anything your body will store it as fat for later.

So how much protein is enough and how much is too much. Let's take a look at what the experts have to say. In 2007 the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition wrote an article regarding their stand on "protein and exercise." If you'd like to view the entire article for yourself, just follow the hyperlink. I'll highlight some of the most important parts:

1) "Vast amounts of research" have been done that support the increased protein needs of exercising individuals. This means that, yes, you do need more protein when you work your body more. (warning: sciencey language ahead) This is because proteins are made up of amino acids which are used to build other proteins in your body including enzymes that perform metabolic processes. An athlete's increased metabolism and stresses therefore dictate the need for increased protein intake.

2) Protein intake levels ranging from 1.4-2.0 g/kg/day in exercising individuals are not only safe but may also help improve adaptations to exercise training. That's pretty self explanatory. It means that for a guy like me who weighs ~79 kg, I can eat between 110 and 158 g of protein each day in hopes of improving my athletic performance. That comes out to between 400 and 600 calories a day from protein which would be only 13-20% of my caloric intake on a day that I eat 3000 calories (which is normal or less than normal when I am in full swing with bike racing).

3) Eating protein after exercise can aid in recovery, specifically it aids in maintenance of lean muscle mass and muscular hypertrophy when consumed following resistance exercise . This is a complicated topic, and one that I think I will highlight again another time, so for more info you'll have to tune in later.

Another interesting topic on protein is how much is too much? Generally your body breaks down and reuses a set amount of its own proteins each day. This means that there is a plateau effect in supplementing protein. Amounts higher than 2.0 g/kg/day generally offer only limited increase in benefit if any increase at all. It also just so happens that eating 2.0 g/kg/day is actually rather difficult if you aren't intentional about it. A whole egg only has about 7 g of protein (I would need to eat 22 eggs to eat my 158 g of protein) or 600+ g of lean chicken...that's about 1.32 pounds.

The bottom line is that protein is an essential part of your diet whether you are an athlete or not. If you aspire to live an active lifestyle, protein becomes a more important part of your diet. Nevertheless, all things must be taken in moderation and balance must be your guiding principle. I'll leave you with the following from

"Remember, the healthiest diet is based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean sources of protein — not rigid lists of 'good' and 'bad' foods. "