Tag Archives: starting an exercise program

Stretch it out.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about stretching and flexibility. This is one aspect of  a comprehensive exercise program that you might be missing. Here’s why that is a problem and what you can do to start improving your flexibility.


The benefits of regular exercise include increased endurance, strength, and flexibility along with increased energy expenditure for weight loss and weight maintenance. These benefits will vary depending on the type of exercise you perform.

Endurance (aerobic) exercise will improve your cardiorespiratory fitness and endurance. These improvements allow you to exercise at a higher intensity or for a longer duration. Aerobic exercise like walking or jogging is also the most effective at burning calories.

Resistance training (weight lifting) will improve your muscular strength. The practical benefit is that you will have an easier time completing physical tasks at work or at home, something that is increasingly important as you get older.

Ideally, your exercise program will include a combination of endurance and resistance training. But there is another type of exercise that you should also include—stretching.

Stretching is an important and often overlooked part of an exercise program. Stretching exercises improve your flexibility and range of motion. This can help reduce back pain and muscle stiffness, improve your posture, and may reduce your risk of injury when you are active.

Here are some key points to keep in mind as you add stretching to your exercise routine:

  • Target major muscle groups. When you’re stretching, focus on your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Also stretch muscles and joints that you routinely use at work or play.
  • Warm up first. The idea that stretching is a good warm-up before exercise is outdated. Stretching muscles when they’re cold increases your risk of injury, including pulled muscles. Warm up first by exercising at low intensity for five minutes or, better yet, stretch after you work out.
  • Hold each stretch for at least 15 seconds. It takes time for the muscles to stretch and lengthen. That can seem like a long time, so keep an eye on the clock or your watch. Then repeat the stretch on the other side. For most muscle groups, a single stretch is often sufficient if you hold it long enough.
  • Don’t bounce. While it might seem that bouncing would give you a better stretch, the opposite can be true. In extreme cases you could even damage the muscle making you less flexible and more prone to pain.
  • Focus on a pain-free stretch. You should expect to feel the stretch, but it shouldn’t cause pain. If it hurts, you’ve gone too far. Back off to the point where you don’t feel any pain, then hold the stretch.
  • Relax and breathe freely. Don’t hold your breath while you’re stretching. This is especially important if you are doing a workout that emphasizes stretching, like yoga.

Yoga is one example of an exercise that results in improved flexibility as well as promoting stress relief. There are different types of yoga, some of which improve strength and endurance along with flexibility. Yoga classes can be modified to accommodate even the least flexible participants, so don’t be afraid to try it.

You may want to start by stretching at two to three times a week to improve and maintain flexibility. Exercises that target the major muscle groups should take less that 10 minutes to complete, so this can easily fit into other activities.

As with any exercise, doing more can yield better results. If you have a problem area, such as tightness in the back of your leg, you might want to stretch more often. And keep in mind that you can stretch anytime, anywhere — in your home, at work, or when you’re traveling.



How to win at losing: What to do when your diet ends.

In the past few weeks several community and fitness center-based weight loss programs have ended. Since many diets and exercise programs last 12–15 weeks, this time of year marks the end of many programs. During this time many people have met personal weight loss goals through individual diets and “biggest loser” type programs. (I have written about competition-type weight loss programs in the past here and elsewhere.)

One of these is the Team Lean program at the Y. This year over 1,600 people from the Aiken and Augusta area participated in this 12-week program that included weekly education sessions and weigh-ins, a strong group dynamic, and monitoring to prevent rapid, unhealthy weight loss. The average participant lost almost 10% of their body weight, which is sufficient to promote improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes.

This level of weight loss is common among people who participate in individual or group programs. But the real challenge is to maintain that weight loss after the program ends. Many people have successfully met their weight loss goal only to gain the weight back later. In fact, some people do it every year, losing and regaining the same 10 (or 20 or 30) pounds over and over.

Losing weight is challenging, to be sure. But maintaining weight loss can be even more challenging. Many people think that they are finished once their diet or weight loss program ends. The truth is that the end of the diet marks the beginning of the next phase: keeping the weight off. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

There is a practical reason why this happens. In order to lose weight and keep it off people need to learn a whole new lifestyle involving what, when, why, and how they eat as well as daily exercise. These lifestyle changes are difficult to make and can take months or years to fully adopt. In many cases, the weight loss program ends before people make lasting behavior changes and revert to their old habits.

While there are literally hundreds of diets and weight loss programs to choose from, “weight maintenance” programs are far less common. The good news is that following the advice of people who are successful at losing weight and keeping it off can help you maintain your weight loss.

The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) is a collection of information submitted by individuals who have succeeded at long-term weight loss. These “successful losers” have lost an average of 66 pounds and kept it off for over five years, with some losing as much as 300 pounds! Best of all, they share the secrets of their success.

It turns out that they lost weight through a variety of diets and programs. Nearly half lost weight on their own and the other the other half followed of some type of program. Regardless, almost all of them increased their physical activity and modified their diet, suggesting that diet and exercise together are important for successful weight loss.

There is also variety in how NWCR members keep the weight off. Most report continuing to maintain a low-calorie, low-fat diet and doing high levels of activity. Almost 80% eat breakfast every day, 75% weigh themselves at least once a week, over 60% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week, and 90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day.

Many people worry whether they are following the “best” diet or weight loss program. The specific diet may not be as important as what you do when it ends. Notice that the majority of successful losers still control what they eat and nearly all exercise each day. This suggests that going back to the way you ate before you lost weight is unrealistic. And if you aren’t exercising, at least walking, every day already, now is a good time to start.

Go outside and play!

If you are like most people, you have probably spent much of the day indoors, probably sitting. In fact, this is likely how you spend most days. According to one survey, the average American may spend up to 15 hours per day sitting at work or at home. If you subtract sleeping, this accounts for nearly the entire day!

Prolonged sitting has been linked to negative health effects that are similar to those of not exercising. Even among people who do exercise, those who spend more time sitting tend to have more health problems than those who are more active during the day. Consider yourself lucky if you have a job that keeps you active.

The good news is that you can offset the health effects of sitting too much. Taking short breaks at work can improve attention and productivity. In fact, many time management and productivity techniques include periods of focused work separated by breaks. Using these breaks to get up and move is good for your body and your mind. The same is true at home—getting off the couch during TV commercials can have the same benefits.

Even greater benefits can be gained from dedicating more time to be active, especially regular exercise. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of physical activity. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of wellbeing.

Being active in a natural environment seems to have an even bigger impact on mental health. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Indeed, activity outdoors leads to enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger, and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity may improve attention in adults and children.

Another advantage of exercising outdoors is that you might get a better workout. This is mostly due to the fact that you will likely walk or run faster outdoors, but other factors like wind resistance add to your effort. Research shows that even though people tend to exercise at a higher intensity outside, they don’t necessarily feel it. In fact, ratings of effort are lower outdoors for the same exercise.

This because the pleasant visual stimuli outdoors distracts you from unpleasant sensations of effort during exercise. This is the same reason that listening to music makes exercise more enjoyable and why fitness centers have televisions on the walls or built into exercise equipment. Think of the outdoors as a really big TV screen!

Almost any indoor exercise can be moved outdoors. While walking, running, and cycling are most obvious, resistance training exercises using body weight and many high-intensity interval training workouts can be modified for outdoors. Yoga and aerobics classes in the park are also great ways to promote both the physical and psychological benefits of exercise.

Much of the psychological benefit of outdoor exercise occurs in the first five minutes, so even short bouts of activity are meaningful. It also means that going for a short walk outside when you have a break at work or walking instead of driving short distances can have positive effects. At home, taking the dog for a walk, playing outside with the kids, or doing yard work are good ways to be active and reap the benefits of being outdoors.

Every little bit of activity you do outdoors will have both physical and psychological benefits to help you become and feel healthier. So, go outside and play!

HIIT me, again!

The next time you are at the gym sweating through an hour on the elliptical machine or going for a long run to improve your fitness, think about this: you may be able to get the same benefits with just a few minutes of exercise. It’s not as easy as it sounds, though. The exercise has to done at a very high intensity, often in short intervals.

This type of exercise is called high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves multiple bouts of very intense exercise separated by periods of rest or light exercise. I have written about this type of training previously, but new research and the popularity of HIIT training programs warrant revisiting this topic in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week. And although high-intensity training is effective for improving fitness and burning calories, it may not be right for you.

Exercise to improve cardiorespiratory fitness typically involves 20–60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise done 3–5 days per week. This type of exercise is common for people who are training for an event like a 10k run since it leads to improvements in maximal exercise capacity (called VO2max) and endurance by increasing heart function and promoting changes in the muscle. This type of training is also followed by most people who are interested in losing weight or getting in shape, even if they don’t plan to compete in a race.

Research and practical experience have shown that shorter HIIT sessions can be effective, too. The length and intensity of the intervals vary both in the research and in practice. For example, in one study these intervals were as short as 30 seconds of all-out, maximal exercise separated by rest periods, for a total of just six minutes of exercise per day. Other studies employ slightly less intense (still 90% of maximal heart rate) intervals for a total of 20 minutes of exercise per session. The results show that HIIT leads to adaptations in the muscle and improvements in VO2max that are greater than that of more traditional, lower intensity exercise.

A study published last month showed that even one bout of high-intensity exercise can promote changes in the muscle that lead to improved endurance. This study compared the effect of four 30-second bursts of very intense exercise separated by four minutes of recovery with a single 4-minute bout of vigorous exercise. Both promoted a similar effect on blood and muscle markers that lead to improvements in fitness. This suggests that both sustained and interval exercise can be effective, as long as the intensity is high enough.

Does this mean that high-intensity training is right for you? It depends on several factors. First, the risk of injury during intense exercise is greater than during more moderate exercise. At the very least, exercise of this intensity is likely to be uncomfortable. Second, exercising at a high intensity may not be a good idea if you are not already in good shape or have other health problems like diabetes or high blood pressure. Third, HIIT may not be the best way for you to meet your exercise goals. If you exercise to lose weight your emphasis should be on duration, not intensity, to burn calories. If you are trying to build endurance for a marathon or long distance bike ride, you really do need to focus on longer duration exercise.

For most people, there is little harm in trying some higher-intensity exercise, even just one day per week. In fact, many group exercise classes are designed to be a high-intensity workout, so this might be a good way to add more intense training sessions to your exercise routine.


Honesty is the best policy

Being honest about your health is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Have you ever justified your weight by saying you are “big-boned?” What about your eating and exercise habits? How often do you really eat out? How many days did you actually get to the gym last month? Are you being honest with yourself when it comes to your health? And are you asking others to be honest with you?

Being honest with yourself is essential for initiating health behavior changes and setting good goals. For example, someone who tells themselves they need to lose “a few pounds” may really need to lose much more and may not take their weight loss as seriously as they should. Convincing yourself that you are doing more exercise than you really are may mean that you won’t see the fitness or weight loss results you were expecting.

This type of self-deception is easy to do. Take body weight for example. The current standard for determining if you are at a healthy weight is body mass index (BMI), calculated from your weight and height (kg/m2). It requires a bit of math, so using a mobile app or online calculator is a good idea. A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered normal, 25-29.9 is overweight, and if your BMI is 30 and higher you are classified as obese. To put this in perspective, a BMI of 30 is equivalent to about 25–30 pounds of excess fat.

Let’s say your BMI puts you in the obese category, suggesting you should lose weight. But then you think about an article you read about how BMI isn’t accurate because you can be considered obese if you have excess muscle, not fat. And then there was the story on the news suggesting that it is okay to be obese as long as you are physically fit. So, maybe you don’t need to worry about your weight!

See how easy it is to tell yourself that you don’t really need to lose weight. In reality, BMI is an accurate method of assessing your body fatness; the inaccuracies reported in the news almost always involve athletes or people with lots of muscle mass developed through physical labor. Be honest…is that really you? It’s also true that people who are fit and fat can be healthier than people who are thin and sedentary, but it requires a lot of exercise to reach that level of fitness. Again, are you really that fit?

Probably the best test is to take a good look in the mirror and be honest about what you see. Try to “pinch an inch” of fat around your belly. One inch isn’t necessarily a problem, but take notice if you can pinch a handful of fat. Measuring your waist circumference (or looking at your pants size) can give you the same information. People who have a high BMI because of extra muscle, like athletes, have thin waists. If your waist circumference is greater than 35 inches (for women) or 40 inches (men), you have excess fat.

This honesty also applies to others, including your doctor. Many physicians are reluctant to discuss weight and weight loss with their patients, and many patients don’t want to hear what they interpret as a personal attack. Don’t be one of those patients! Ask your doctor for an honest assessment about your weight and the impact it might have on your health.

This is a real problem. According to one report, only 39 percent of obese people surveyed had ever been told by a health care provider that they were obese.     To help combat this problem, the American Medical Association has developed resources to help physicians better communicate with patients about their weight.

Making changes to diet and activity habits is a difficult process, to be sure. Telling yourself that you don’t need to make them only delays getting started and can lead to poor health in the meantime. When it comes to your health, honesty is the best policy!

Eat smart, move more, chill out

The goal of being “more healthy” is a good one, but can include an almost endless list dietary, activity, and other behavioral changes. Some people may feel overwhelmed and unsure of where to begin. Furthermore, there is a perception that you have to implement all of the changes simultaneously or follow a complicated diet or exercise program in order to see results.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week outlines a few simple guidelines that have the potential to lead to significant improvements in health, fitness, and wellbeing. Not only are these things you can implement right now, but they are scalable, so the more you do, the bigger the benefits.

1. Eat smart.Healthy eating isn’t necessarily about eating less or avoiding certain foods, it’s about making smart choices when you shop, cook, or eat out. Many problems with the typical American diet probably have to do with the fact that we tend to eat heavily processed, calorie-dense foods. The major difference between what we eat now and what most people ate before the current obesity epidemic is the processing our food undergoes.

You can eat smart by focusing on eating real food—fresh and minimally processed plants and animals—instead of the processed and pre-packaged food that is so common in restaurants and in meals we eat at home. That isn’t to say that all processed food is necessarily unhealthy, but it would be wise to shift the balance toward more real food.

This isn’t necessarily new advice…it was featured on the cover of a popular book in 2009, after all. But this message seems to have gotten lost in the chaos of health claims made by manufacturers in advertisements and on food labels.

You can do this right now by having a piece of fresh fruit, some nuts, or vegetables for a snack. Later, you can make most of your food purchases from the perimeter of the grocery store, and less from the aisles in the middle.

2. Move more. Most people spend too much time sitting and not enough time moving. In fact, the amount of time someone sits during the day has nearly as much impact on their health as their exercise habits. So, step one is to sit less.

Next, move more, which means just that—finding ways to be active during the day. This includes simple things like standing rather than sitting when you talk on the phone, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and getting up off the couch during commercials. It also includes dedicating time every day for structured exercise or other activity like yard work, house work, or taking the dog for a walk. Every little bit helps, but aim for a minimum of 30 minutes per day.

Right now you are probably sitting, so stand up and stretch or move around a little. Later, go for a walk or do something active around your house.

3. Chill Out. With so much emphasis placed on diet and exercise, the health effects of stress are often overlooked. Chronic stress can have serious emotional, psychological, and physiological effects that lead to or exacerbate many health problems. While it is impossible to avoid all stress in life, minimizing stressors and managing the way you respond to stress can have important benefits.

Exercise is one good way to manage your feelings of stress as well as the effects it has on your body. Yoga has long been recommended to help reduce and control stress, but all types of exercise can help. Managing time better, including getting enough sleep, is helpful for many people.

Right now you can close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to relax. Later, spend some time doing something you enjoy.

So, if you are feeling overwhelmed by complicated and confusing health recommendations, keep it simple: eat smart, move more, and chill out!

The Health & Fitness holiday gift guide.

If you haven’t finished your holiday shopping yet, you are not alone. As of last week, the average shopper still has half of their gift buying left to do. The good news is that there is still time to pick out perfect gifts for your friends and family, including gifts that will help them meet their health and fitness New Year’s resolutions.

There are many good gifts that can help people get started on their exercise or weight loss programs. Gift guides including gadgets, apps, clothing, and other gear, like this one from Greatist.com. Many of these tools would no doubt be useful for getting people motivated, providing feedback, and even some healthy competition through social networking.

But these are not the things that people really need to begin and be successful making diet and activity changes. After all, no one ever quit an exercise program or failed at losing weight because they didn’t have the right nutrition app or the latest activity tracker. The real reason people struggle is because of factors like time and support from family and friends in the real, not virtual, world.

In my Health & Fitness column this week in the Aiken Standard  I provide a practical gift guide. These are the things you can give your friends or family members to really help them make their healthy lifestyle changes:

1. Time. The most common reason that people quit an exercise program or struggle with weight loss is because of time. That includes time to exercise, obviously. But it also includes time to plan, shop for, and prepare healthy meals and snacks. This year, give the gift of time. Commit to helping your friend or family member plan time to focus on their program and dedicate yourself to taking on some responsibilities to help them do that.

2. Help. In addition to helping find time, you should commit to actually doing things to facilitate your friend or family member’s health improvement program. Taking on chores and projects around the house, picking up the kids after school, and helping with shopping and cooking are examples of things you can do.

3. Support. Anyone who makes a major lifestyle change needs the support of others to be successful. Your role can be to provide encouragement, ask about progress, and take your friend’s program into account when planning meals and other activities together. You should also be ready to provide a gentle (or not-so-gentle) nudge when you see them getting off track.

4. A buddy. People who take on an exercise program with others are more likely to stick with it and be successful. So get involved with your friend or family member. Going for a walk together during a break at work or developing a healthy eating plan as a family is an excellent way to play along. Chances are, these healthy changes will benefit you, too.

So, if you really want to help someone in your life make lasting healthy changes, use the remaining shopping days to come up with a plan. Leave the stress of shopping to everyone else!

Weight loss and exercise project management

Almost everyone who starts a weight loss of exercise program does so with good intentions. Many get off to a good start and see beneficial results, at least initially. Unfortunately, long-term success is uncommon.

There are myriad reasons for this, but the way people manage their weight loss and exercise efforts is certainly among them. Think about it: when someone takes on a new diet or exercise program it is usually added to their typical routine. The problem with this approach  is that most people are busy, and there is little extra time in their day. As a consequence, the diet and exercise doesn’t get the time or attention is needs in order for people to be successful.

This is where the lessons of good project management can be helpful. In the workplace a major project is usually accomplished though defining the scope to the project, appropriate goal setting, allocation of resources (including time), and a mechanism to assess progress.

But many people who approach projects this way at work tend not to apply this process to health improvement projects at home. The result is poor planning, setting unrealistic goals, and failure to allocate appropriate resources, including time.

Especially time. Time to set goals, time to plan and prepare meals,  time to exercise, and, perhaps most important, time to assess and adjust the plan along the way.

Many of these problems could be avoided through the same good project management techniques that would be used at work. The idea of treating weight loss, exercise, and other health improvements as a project is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

My Friend Shannon is in the newspaper!

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about my friend Shannon and her remodeling project. I have been writing about Shannon on this blog for some time, but I thought her story was worth sharing elsewhere.

Shannon has been trying to do what I call remodeling–losing a little weight and adding some muscle. To do this she started an exercise program and is now exercising nearly every day. She has also changed her diet, focusing mostly on eating out less, reducing portion sizes, and eating more fruits and vegetables.

It has been working!

What is interesting about Shannon is that the specifics of her diet and exercise program aren’t the reason for her success. Yes, that is how she lost fat and added muscle, but she could have done that following almost any diet and exercise program.

What helped Shannon the most is that she changed her habits. For years she didn’t exercise much and ate a diet that consisted largely of unhealthy foods. This was mostly due to convenience–it was easier to eat out and not exercise.

Changing these behaviors was the real challenge. Shannon’s lifestyle and interactions with others supported her former habits. And changing these habits isn’t easy. It means saying “no, thank you” a lot and making difficult choices about what to eat and when to exercise.

But she has done it and learned along the way that she really can make those tough decisions. And so can everyone else. The key is to focus on WHY we eat what we eat and WHY we don’t exercise rather than obsess about exactly WHAT to eat and WHAT to do for exercise.

Too much of a good thing–can you do too much exercise?

Given that most people aren’t active enough, the message “move more” seems like a good one. But it is possible to do too much. my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week discusses the potential hazards of doing too much exercise as well as how to avoid this situation.

For most people, the biggest risk for doing too much comes when they begin an exercise program. Progressing too quickly to longer time and/or higher intensity exercise can lead to muscle soreness or injury. A common guideline is the 10% rule: don’t increase your time or intensity more than 10% at a time. Although increases of 10% may not always be practical—a 10% increase from a 30 minute jog is 33 minutes—the message to increase slowly is a good one. Incidentally, this New York Times article suggests that there isn’t any good evidence that following the 10% rule reduces injury risk. That said, going from a 30 minute run to 60 minutes is too much, too soon.

One way to get guidance on how to progress in an exercise program is to consult a fitness professional, like a personal trainer. Sadly, many people get injured, or at least have a bad exercise experience, because of an overly ambitious personal trainer. Make sure you find someone who has experience with novice exercisers to help reduce this risk.

Despite the potential hazards of doing too much exercise, most people should worry about not doing enough. So, get moving!