Category: Exercise

Arm Yourself With Information

As a trainer and health coach, I’m always surprised at the prevalence of certain fitness myths. While some erroneous beliefs are rooted in old science that has simply been improved upon, others have been dead wrong from the start.

Take the belly fat myth, for example – the belief that the best (or only) way to lose belly fat is by doing sit-ups or other abdominal exercises. In fact, there could be nothing further from the truth. Abdominal exercises, like all strength training, can build or tone muscle, but they will do nothing at all to shed the fat necessary to glimpse those toned muscles. For that, you’re much better off focusing on exercises that burn a lot of calories, like running, kettle bell training, or Tabata classes. Even more effective is cutting calories through diet. Saying no to that second glass of wine, or skipping dessert is the calorie equivalent of all the crunches or planks you might do in a whole week.

Still, the belly fat myth and others persist, and they do so to our detriment. Believing certain “false positive” myths can cause you to waste your time doing things that don’t yield results. That leads to frustration and the false belief that exercise is pointless. There are other types of myths – the “false negatives” – that warn you away from activities that are actually beneficial. These myths are just as harmful as the false positives.

Fitness myths are a little bit like stereotypes – they exist because people apply broad assumptions to something based on limited occurrences. You’ve tried losing belly fat by doing hours of ab exercises, which haven’t worked, and so you assume that exercise won’t help. Or, you know a friend who started running in her late 40s and a few months later, she developed serious knee pain. Or, your sister wanted to get in shape, so she joined a local CrossFit gym, and promptly hurt her shoulder. These kinds of experiences help perpetuate our most popular fitness myths, but if we drill down and look at the real causes, we see a common theme: It’s not that exercise is ineffective or dangerous, it’s that we’re doing it wrong. You didn’t realize that you should have been focusing on diet and cardio to lose your belly fat; your neighbor didn’t know that she was running too many miles too soon in her training program; your sister failed to tell her CrossFit coach about that shoulder injury she sustained in college that still gives her trouble from time to time today.

Your best defense against wasted hours in the gym, frustration and injury is good, solid information. And when it comes to exercise, your best source of information is an experienced fitness professional. Read my NextAvenue article for tips on how to find the right trainer for you. Then head to the gym, and check your fitness misconceptions at the door.

What I Learned From a January Run Streak

Longtime readers of my various blogs know that I frequently throw myself into physical challenges without much forethought. I’ll sign up for a marathon or commit to a year-long workout challenge on a whim, without batting an eye. So it was no surprise that, after reading a blogpost about running challenges on December 31st, I decided I’d start the new year with a month-long run streak challenge: Run at least 10 minutes or 1 mile every single day in January. The fact that I hadn’t run a single mile in months and had been experiencing mysterious knee pain for over a year didn’t deter me, but there were some other factors at play that made me wonder whether I would complete the challenge.

First, I’m an on-again/off-again runner, able to stay motivated for months at a time when I have a race coming up, and then stopping running for months beginning the day after said race. I wasn’t sure if this challenge would be sufficiently important to keep me motivated. Second, previous to this, I’d been a fair weather runner, never ever venturing outside to run if the temperature fell below 20 degrees. Third, and the weakest of my excuses, I don’t own any cold weather running gear (because I don’t run outside in the cold). Finally, I’d consciously avoided run streaks in the past because I’m a firm believer in well-timed rest days. I just didn’t think that running every single day could be healthy.

But since a month wasn’t too long a time period, and since we’d been enjoying the warmest winter in many years here in Minnesota, I put my misgivings aside and the next day I pulled on my $20 Target sweatpants and threw a shell jacket over an old race shirt and headed out the door.

I left my GPS watch at home and did the bare minimum that day – a 10 minute, very slow jog. I was cold and happy to get back inside right away, but the next day I headed out and did 11 minutes. I continued in this fashion for about five or six days, and then gave myself a “rest” day by dropping back down to 10 minutes. To keep myself motivated and provide some measure of accountability, I tweeted my run streak number (which day I was on) and how many minutes I’d run every other day or so. Probably no one read those tweets or cared about them if they did, but it was a way for me to check in, and enough to keep me going. By the end of the challenge, I realized a few things that struck me as profound:

Consistency is More Powerful Than Intensity.
At first, I sort of wondered to myself what the point of a 10-minute run was. But over the course of the month, the minutes and miles added up to many more than I would have done if I’d only been running three or four days a week, as per my usual training program. As it turned out, this was a great way for me to get back into running. Because the runs were short, I was more likely to actually do them, yet by the end of the month, I’d increased my run time enough so that I was significantly more fit than when I’d started.

When starting new efforts, the tendency is often to go “all out” but this can backfire by leading to quick burnout. Making smaller efforts consistently is a better way to build a habit and still enjoy tangible results.

When Commitment is Genuine, Excuses Simply Aren’t Entertained
I hate running in the cold, but I had committed to this challenge for one month, so rather than checking the weather and saying, “it’s too cold to run today,” I adapted. I would either bundle up in lots of layers and do a short run outside, or I’d find a place to do my run indoors. Many of my 31 days of running consisted of slowly jogging up and down the stairwell in my condo building. I’m sure I didn’t cover many miles that way, but my legs got much stronger than if I had spent the same amount of time running over flat terrain.

When we’re motivated, we use creative thinking to find a way around obstacles, and sometimes that way around benefits us more than if there had been no obstacle in the first place.

Timeframe is Key to Habit Formation
Setting a challenge for yourself is one of the best ways to form a new habit, but the timeframe of that challenge has to be just right. If this challenge had been to run every day for six months, or even three months, that would have been too long for me to commit to. On the other hand, a week wouldn’t have been long enough to feel significant.

A good timeline for a challenge is one that is attainable, yet still stretches you a bit.

By the end of the month, I had logged 10 1/2 total hours of running, or the equivalent of nearly two marathons (at a very slow pace). While there were days that my body told me I needed to take it easy, not taking a day off never caused an injury. In fact, my knee bothered me less at the end of the month than it did at the beginning. The challenge was a positive experience for me. It toughened me up to the cold a bit, and taught me some important lessons about habit formation. I’ll likely repeat it again, but I might wait until it’s warm enough to run outside in shorts.

Walking, Running, Calories and Math

Warning: This post is for nerds.

In a recent assignment for, I was tasked with simply laying out how many calories a person could expect to burn doing various types of running workouts. As I did the research for the article, it quickly became clear that there was nothing simple about it at all.

First I examined the variables that can determine the rate of calorie burn for a particular individual, given a particular running workout. Contained within that problem, there are actually two sets of variables – one set relating to the individual’s physical characteristics, and the other set relating to the workout itself. Where the individual is concerned, age, total body weight and body composition are all significant factors, while hormonal influences on metabolism play a smaller, and largely indefinable role. When it comes to the workout itself, pace and incline are the two primary factors, with running surface and wind having much smaller influence.

Since I didn’t want to set up a performance testing lab in my loft, I looked for the best online calculators that could give me a decent average for number of calories burned while running. It turned out that in looking for the best, I had to settle for the least bad. While most web-based activity calculators take bodyweight and running pace into account, it pretty much ends there. I was surprised that none of them used age, which has been shown to be pretty reliably correlated with relative metabolism, and I was disappointed to see that the few that used body composition did so as a function of gender (as a group, women tend to have less muscle and more fat per pound of body weight than men, but individual statistics vary widely). In other words, any online calorie calculator you use is bound to be pretty inaccurate. Using a wearable device or app-based calculator that accounts for more of your personal data, and especially one that uses GPS to track elevation gains during a run, will be much more accurate (but still not perfect).

I couldn’t just write that in the article, though, so I ended up using my favorite online calorie calculator at ExRx.Net to get ballpark calorie burn estimates for a number of different workouts. While that was fun and exciting for me (I’m a numbers nerd, especially where exercise is involved), I was blown away when I clicked on a link below the walk/run calculator that took me to this Walking and Running Energy Efficiency Page. If you hate charts and graphs with statistical dots, you don’t have to look at that page. What it says is simple to understand and hugely gratifying for me, since I have been telling it to my clients for years: Running burns way more calories than walking does.

“Duh!” you’re thinking. But that’s because you didn’t look at the chart/graph. Running at the same speed as walking burns up to 70% more calories. If a person walks at 3 miles per hour, he or she burns roughly 52 calories per mile. However, if he or she jogs at that blindingly slow pace, the calorie burn increases to 89 calories per mile.

And here’s something I was really shocked to learn: Although walking faster increases the number of calories burned per mile, running faster has the opposite effect. Yes, the slower you run, the more calories you burn per mile. The reason why is that it’s so inefficient for your body to jog at a slow pace, but that efficiency improves as you run faster and faster. For those who want to lose weight, this adds new fuel to my argument about Why You Should Run Really Slow.

Note that the “per mile” bit is important, though. If you only have twenty or thirty minutes to get in a workout and you want to maximize calorie burn, then running as fast as you can during that time will burn the most calories (because you’ll be covering much more distance than if you run slow). However, if you’re going to log two or three miles on a Sunday afternoon, you’ll actually be doing yourself a favor (calorically speaking) by throttling back to the slowest possible pace you can keep and still be jogging but not walking. Here’s a little math to illustrate the different options you have:

You weigh 200 pounds (keeping it simple for math purposes)
You walk at 3 miles per hour for one hour = 3 miles
3 miles X 52 calories/mile X 2 (this is the weight factor) = 312 calories burned

You jog at 3 miles per hour for one hour = 3 miles
3 miles X 89 calories/mile X 2 = 534 calories burned

You run at 6 miles per hour for 1/2 hour = 3 miles
3 miles X 81 calories/mile X 2 = 486 calories burned

You run at 6 miles per hour for one hour = 6 miles
6 miles X 81 calories/mile X 2 = 972 calories burned

So, you can see that you burn many more calories per minute by running faster, but not per mile. It really just depends how fast you are willing/able to go and for how long.

If you hate jogging, no matter how slow, or you have some physical limitation that doesn’t allow it, then you can still get a really good calorie burn by walking, as long as you push the pace. Adding an incline will also increase calorie burn a significant amount, but if there’s a choice between going faster or going uphill, you can probably squeeze out a few more calories by maxing out your pace over flat terrain than walking or jogging more slowly uphill.

The Most Important Book I’ve Ever Read

HowNotToDie This is one of those days when I wish my blog had a lot more followers, because I have something important to share. Important isn’t really even the right word. Given the health crises our world is facing today, terms like “critical,” “crucial,” “essential,” and “absolutely necessary” might be more appropriate.

Dr. Michael Greger is the creator and producer of the indispensable website, where he has posted thousands of short, informative articles and videos on all topics relating to health and nutrition. He works tirelessly day after day reviewing the latest medical and scientific research, then he expertly turns those long, boring, technical papers into easy-to-understand information that anyone can access anytime for free. Whenever I have a question about nutrition and health, is the first place I go to find answers.

Now Dr. Greger has summarized much of that research into a book, How Not to Die. After a flabbergasting introduction where he recounts the story of his grandmother’s struggle with heart disease, he goes on to talk about the 15 leading causes of death in the US and exactly what you can do to avoid them. Then it gets even better: in Part 2, he lays out specific and simple diet and exercise guidelines for everyone.

Shortly after the release of the book, Dr. Greger’s team developed an app designed to help you follow those diet and exercise guidelines. I’ve been using the app for about two weeks, and I can honestly say they have been the healthiest two weeks of my life. The app is free and available for both Android and iPhone.

If you care at all about your health, if you want to learn how to stop and reverse disease, if you want to live a long, healthy, productive life, then buy this book and do what it says.


12 Days of Wellness, Day 11: Get Smart!

Stopwatch It’s Day 11 of the 12 Days of Wellness Challenge and today’s challenge is an easy one. When facing a goal of any kind, one of your most important tools is knowledge. Without it, you can throw all the action in the world behind your effort, but you aren’t likely to get far. Today I ask you to spend just 10 minutes educating yourself on any topic related to wellness that you are interested in. The more specific you can be, the easier it will be for you to find good information. To get you started here are a couple of resources:

For exercise-related topics, I often turn to the American Council on Exercise’s Exercise Library. From there you can search individual exercises, or use the tabs along the lefthand sidebar to create an entire workout program for yourself.

If you have questions about nutrition and healthy eating, then you should definitely check out, the nonprofit website of Dr. Michael Greger. His short videos and blogposts draw on the very best scientific research to explain nutritional concepts in terms anyone can understand. Just plug your topic into the search bar at the top of his site and you’ll get dozens of videos or blogs to choose from. I use this resource nearly every day and I recommend that you do, too.

If weight loss is one of your top wellness goals and you want a more in-depth, step-by-step guide to smart exercise and diet for weight loss, then pick up a copy of my book, Reboot Your Body: Unlocking the Genetic Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss. It’s full of scientifically-backed information that can not only help you lose weight, but keep it off for good.


12 Days of Wellness, Day 6: Take the Stairs

Photo by Juan Barahona, Flickr
Photo by Juan Barahona, Flickr

It’s only a week until Christmas!! I hope you’ve been following along and keeping up with the 12 Days of Wellness Challenge so far.

Today’s challenge asks you to work more NEAT into your day. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis is any activity you do throughout the day that doesn’t come in the form of a structured, formal workout.

In Chapter 10 of my book, Reboot Your Body, I go into great detail about how you can use exercise to lose weight and keep it off. But near the end of that chapter, I also touch upon the fact that even if you exercised for 30 minutes every day, that still leaves around 930 waking minutes of not exercising every day, and many of us spend most of those minutes being fairly sedentary.

By incorporating more NEAT into each day, you can take advantage of those 930 minutes and boost your overall health while burning more calories. So today, take the stairs, park far away from your destination (or walk instead of driving, if possible), work standing up, pace while talking on the phone – generally look for any opportunity to get in a few seconds of activity here and there. Do this every day, and the cumulative effects can really add up!