Category Archives: Nutrition

Dear Trainers, Please Stop

jen-sinkler-lwf
Jen Sinkler prefers actively planning her lifting routines to incorporate cardio conditioning, rather than splitting out cardio and lifting, and she has developed a host of circuits to help others get this all-around benefit, too. Similarly, cardio athletes (like me!) who choose heavily resistance-oriented sports like rowing and swimming combine our enjoyment of cardio with a great full-body strength workout.

Please stop saying “No cardio, just lifting!”

Trainers who focus on resistance training like to use this as a sales pitch. Sometimes they even claim that cardio is harmful, but the more honest among them simply say, hey, cardio is not for everyone (and I’ll get to that later), so we’re just going to lift, because it’s just as good.

Here is the reality: when lifting is just as good as “cardio” for overall health, it’s because it includes cardio.

A good cardio (aerobic) base is, like a good strength base, essential to good human health. Both contribute to various aspects of health: respiratory health, hormonal balance, blood sugar stability, sleep regulation, bone density, mood regulation, and of course heart health — because who cares how good your nutrition is if your heart can’t pump the nutrients through your body?

How do you know you’re doing cardio? Listen to your heart. The aerobic exercise “zone” is estimated to be about 75% of your maximum heart rate, so roughly 140ish for many people. That’s a good place to be for healthful exercise, and roughly the level of effort where you can pass “the talk test” — have a conversation while exercising. You also get health benefit from any level of exercise around 100 heartbeats per minute or more. So wear a heart rate monitor and see what your average heart rate is during an activity you like to do for a half hour or so — like walking or a weights session at the gym. If it averages over 100, you’re doing cardio.

Some trainers will say, “I’m not talking about that! I’m talking about endless hours on the treadmill or elliptical! That’s cardio!” Look, I get it — you don’t enjoy that. I don’t either, for what it’s worth. But you don’t get to make a pile of things you don’t enjoy and call it “cardio.” Because cardio already means something. And not what its detractors say it means — which generally boils down to ineffective training combined with poor nutrition.

Triathletes and ultra-distance athletes, the ultimate cardio athletes, don’t just lean on treadmill rails for a half hour, read the machine’s calories-burned count, and go to Starbucks. And, no matter how much (or little) time you spend on exercise, neither should you. Mix it up — alternate a little faster and a little slower — and use your balance. Try different machines, if you like machines, or walk more during the day. Take a strength-training class. Heck, do a little bit of all of it. If you’re not a competitive athlete, the exact workout you do is much less important than being active — regularly — and being attentive to what you’re doing while you’re exercising. And eat right — that means protein, vitamin-rich foods, and enough. Undereating just leaves you run down, and tears down the important tissues you need for health.

Here are some examples of cardio:

  • Running
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Rowing (sport or just in a rowboat)
  • Dancing
  • Walking
  • Climbing stairs
  • Flipping tires
  • Martial arts, from fencing to MMA
  • Gardening
  • A brisk lifting session in any strength disclipine
  • Yoga
  • Scrubbing floors
  • Shoveling snow
  • Calisthenics
  • Sled drags and sled pushes
  • Hiking
  • Canoeing
  • Skate-, surf-, snow-, or wakeboarding
  • Table tennis
  • Volleyball
  • Badminton

Don’t like running? Don’t run. Hate the elliptical? Don’t even look at it. Hate cardio? I doubt it. Almost every person I’ve heard say they “hate cardio” has also said — sometimes in the very same breath — that they love a good hard workout. And that’s cardio.

There is one thing that the more traditional cardio activities will do much better than just lifting weights faster (or with better management of rests), and that’s make you good at cardio activities. You won’t come away with from a brisk, athletic lifting-only program being able to run a fast mile or run for a half an hour straight. (Same way doing some basic strength training won’t turn you into a powerlifter.) This seems like a non-issue to me, but you will hear a lot of people list benchmarks like that as “what it means to be fit.” They’re wrong, too. That’s a particular form of performance, but basic fitness is really basic, and is not really defined by numbers of pushups, percent of bodyweight lifted on a barbell, or 3-mi run time. Advanced fitness is like any other kind of advanced example of something that fits well or is fitting: dependent on the context.

Basic strength and basic cardio conditioning are a foundation for health and for training performance, and it’s OK to prefer one and be “just OK” at the other. I sometimes wonder if that’s part of the sticking point for “no cardio, just lifting!” advocates — so many of them act as if every exercise has to count and has to be focused on a goal of excellence or at least progress, and they can’t tolerate the idea of doing something they aren’t good at and don’t want to take the time to be good at. So I’d like to offer another piece of advice that has been helpful to people training athletics for ages: leave your ego at the door.

It’s OK to have fun. It’s OK to do stuff you’re not great at. It’s important to eat your vegetables, and it’s even better if you can find vegetables — or recipes for them — that you really, deeply enjoy.

So how about a new pitch? One that has the advantage of reassuring people interested in strength training, that is not actually insulting to perfectly enjoyable other sports, and that, you know, describes what you’re offering? Get a great full-body workout with barbells! Or kettlebells, or whatever. It’s not that hard to just sell what you’re selling — instead of going out of your way to tear down something else.

More Starter Steps

I’ve been having a good time working on my health blog, Starter Steps. I started it at Tumblr, because I already had a blog there about overlapping issues, and I am mirroring the posts using WordPress, because it can be easier to use for the reader.

As I’ve talked to people about exercise and eating, I’ve heard about a lot of different struggles — getting good information, fitting better habits into their schedules, trying to do the right things without doing the wrong things. “Eat less,” “move more,” and “just do it” are fine as guiding principles, but people need more specific details to put them in practice, and what works well for one person can be a total disaster for someone else.

This is my philosophy:

  • The best way to make a positive change in habit is to make adjustments in your environment that make it easier to do the desired behavior.
  • Willpower is great but can be exhausted; it’s best reserved for unpleasant stuff.
  • Exercise and good basic nutrition are too important to make them unpleasant.

Posts on Starter Steps appear in the following categories:

  • Eating: Strategies and tips around eating patterns, information about diets, nutrition
  • Exercise: Strategies and tips around getting and staying active, what to expect in a gym, some skills information about particular exercises
  • Food: Information about foods, strategies for handling food, cooking tips
  • Fun: Comics and other fun approaches to food and exercise
  • Habits: Getting them, keeping them, information about how the brain helps (or not)
  • Mindset: Why are we doing any of this, whatever “this” is — getting beyond “inspiration” soundbites
  • Skills: Information about accounting for what you eat and about exercise burn, ideas and frameworks for incorporating new habits, how-to info

If you like Starter Steps or know someone who might, I’d love it if you shared the link!

I wish I could, but …

What’s your excuse?

I have a love/hate relationship with this question. How does it help people to act like not “eating clean and training dirty” – or whatever someone is evangelizing right now – means they must be lazy whiners? Whenever we fail to do something we know we should do, but can’t seem to manage, there is a reason. Yes, there are some excuses, and some reasons are worse than others, but people who fail to act usually do detect a genuine obstacle of some kind. Here are some examples:

  • “Nothing works – I know, because I’ve tried a bunch of stuff.”
  • “Honestly I’m not sure how to start – everything I read says that I could get injured doing X or ‘ruin my metabolism’ doing Y. What to believe?”
  • “It’s truly a struggle to get up earlier, and by the end of the day I’m totally run down.”
  • “I have to work around an injury, and it’s frustrating on top of hard.”
  • “If I’m serious about getting in shape, I have to go to the gym 3 or 4 times a week, and I can’t make that commitment.”

None of these are very good reasons, but they are real. The fitness industry is chock full of bizarre claims and crazy promises, and high-circulation magazines are under pressure to offer simplistic answers with lots of variety – not harping on the tried and true every month. And there’s no money in the boring, yet effective, messages of better health, so even when health agencies and other groups try to get the information out, their efforts are underfunded.

Another complication: because people have such a wide variety of preferences and obstacles, it can be hard to know how to match them up with the information that will help them most. “I can’t seem to lose this pudge” could be down to very different needs:

  • How to tell the difference between snake oil and evidence-based recommendations – or even get just a base of good health information
  • How to start small, as with simple home exercises that will put them on the right track – and help give them the energy to try more
  • How to find a gym that is convenient to home or work – or even how to choose a gym in the first place
  • How to keep good track of what they are eating – enough information to make good decisions and easy enough to stick with
  • How to exercise in a way that supports their goals without making them feel like they are being punished

If those high-circulation magazines thought deeply about all the different details that go into the millions of ways to combine healthy food and different forms of exercise, they’d never run out of truly useful information to share. But it still couldn’t be teased as well on the cover as “DROP A DRESS SIZE IN 7 DAYS,” “KILLER ABS,” or “BUILD A BUTT THAT DEFIES GRAVITY.”

The next time you catch yourself thinking, “Ugh, this person should just get out of a chair once in a while,” try asking something simple, like, “Well, what’s the toughest hurdle to getting started?” You may be able to help them figure out something that now seems so second-nature to you that you’ve forgotten that you had to learn it somewhere, too.

Starter (and Stayer) Steps

A couple of years ago I attended Mobile Health 2012 and started thinking concretely about how I wanted to share information about exercise and nutrition. I was excited by BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits approach, a good general framework for doing something that I’d always done naturally when I’d needed to tune up my lifestyle: start small — real small.

I toyed with micro-blogging at Tumblr about “30-second commitment” activities, and then got more heavily involved in a fitness community and in specific goals that don’t fit the 30-seconds-or-less model at all. I shifted my micro-blogging to mlkshk.com, a wonderful image-sharing service that will, unfortunately, be shuttering in September. So now I have a collection of posts that need a new home, and I’ll be adding them over time to Starter Steps, along with more comments on those posts and the bits and pieces I’m continuing to collect.

Please take a look!

July Update: Mlkshk is staying alive! I am keeping my stream of fitness items there, too, at Ad Hoc Magazine. Please visit for funny or thought-provoking pictures, some with comments and conversation. And consider joining Mlkshk! It’s a wonderful place to store and share images.

Thing-a-day 19: “What’s my problem?”

I’ve been collecting little bits and pieces I’ve written over and over again as people have asked me questions about food and exercise. One frustration I have with the fitness industry is that its sales focus tends to reduce solutions to THIS ONE WEIRD TRICK and other foolish formulas, single sizes that fit pretty much none, and that’s just when they’re not frankly bunk. What interests me more is teaching a person how to find the path that will work for them. Have a question? Ask me! I don’t expect to make any money from this, so I can just talk about it here on my blog, and see where it goes. Feel free to comment here or Twitter @caitlinburke.

There are lots of ways to gain and lose weight, but a single dominant feeling about all of them: that ultimately individuals just can’t control it for long.

It’s not true, of course – lots of people successfully adjust their weight and maintain it at a level they like, and there’s lots of interest in what makes them different. It probably boils down to the brain, and more specifically to beliefs, like “I believe I can accomplish this and stick with it” combined with “I know what I need to do to make it work.”

It can be hard to believe we can accomplish something even if we know what to do. Part of that comes from the wide variety of ways there are to get things done, so general principles often don’t help. Nobody seriously tells people how to make cookies by saying “Mix sugar, butter, and flour, and bake – easy,” but they don’t hesitate to say, “Eat less and move more – easy!” I believe both those things, but I’ve made a LOT of different kinds of cookies over the years, and I’ve also experimented a lot with food and exercise. And you can, too.

What does it mean to eat less?

Eating less means fewer calories in, overall. Thanks, Captain Obvious! We want to come up with something we can do – happily, every day, so we’ll have to come up with some specifics … that we can live with.

Eating is sometimes compared to fueling a car, but it’s more like budgeting. To support yourself, you need to match your means and your spending, and most of us have a basic complement of things we need to spend money on routinely – rent, food, keeping the lights on. Let’s assume we have a decent income, enough for bills + a little extra. Subtract what we absolutely have to pay out, and we are left with some money we can spend on fun stuff if we want.

Your daily intake is a budget that has to have basic components in it so your body doesn’t fall apart — so you have a place to live and can keep the lights on. Those components are a mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, plus micronutrients like vitamins (and, of course, water). Most people can meet those basic requirements in fewer calories than they need to keep their weight the same – eating mindfully still lets you have some fun. Where most people have trouble is in the quantities and the proportions, both figuring out what they should be and knowing when – and how – to say “when.”

What does it mean to move more?

This is both the easy part and the hard part: “move more” means almost anything. It’s walking to and from a bus stop instead of driving door to door – or at least parking at the far end of the lot. It’s taking the stairs instead of the elevator. It’s getting up from your desk once an hour to take a walk around the office, or doing a bit of calisthenics when your brush your teeth. The hardest part about this is narrowing down what will work best for you. The good news is you don’t have to have a perfect plan from the get-go, and you don’t have to stick to the plan perfectly even after you have it.

There’s a single dominant feeling out there about exercise, too – that it’s a punishment or, if not actively painful, a distasteful medicine. No wonder people are so sedentary! Your body actually likes moving around, and regular activity has good effects on almost every health and well-being measure you can look at. Most people adapt quickly to exercise if they are consistent and a little bit organized about their approach – there is certainly no one way to make progress, and if you’re just starting out, it’s even easier to get going in the right direction. There’s a million ways to get your heart rate up and get your muscles working, so you can find a few that you enjoy.

What Do I Want to Accomplish?

Occasionally I do something unusual, like an Olympic-distance triathlon just because I have the the day off, or 46,000 meters on the rowing machine because it’s my 46th birthday. And people say “How do you do that? I wish I could do that.” Maybe, but probably not – there’s no particularly great reason to do stuff like that. I think the best way I can help other people is with my complete understanding that you almost certainly don’t want to do things the way I do them. At least not in a direct step-wise fashion. But I know how I came to understand what works for me, and I want to help others start that process, too.

Here are some questions I like to help with:

  • “How do I know what I should be eating?”
  • “Is [some particular food] harmful?”
  • “I have to eat less! How?”
  • “I have to exercise more! How!”
  • “I though this [diet|exercise] would solve my problem, but I hate it. Now what?”
  • “What does that knob on the side of the Concept2 rowing machine do?”

I’ll visit and explore those questions during the rest of the month (and, I hope, keep going).

Thing-a-day 5: Food Geometry

 

The weight-loss trapezoid is pretty similar to MyPlate, the US replacement for the Food Pyramid, except without the grains. (You can keep the grains and still lose weight, but the combo above tends to leave people sated with fewer calories, and grain-based foods tend to require more vigilance to stay within a calories limit.)

But, wow, that Happiness Paper Hat. I want to go there. Second star to the right and straight on till morning, right?