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Kirsten Gallagher

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It’s getting old

Aches and pains. They’re a part of life. I train an older demographic: ladies of “a certain age,” as I like to say. When people are first starting out in the gym, I often hear things like, “Well, I have back pain. But that’s to be expected. It’s just old age.” Is it?

Many of us seem to think that putting up with a growing assortment of aches and pains is part and parcel of getting older. But other cultures throughout the world demonstrate better aging than ours. (I’m thinking of Japanese centenarians who can still pop a squat, for example.) I won’t presume that these folks feel just as sprightly as they ever did but it’s fair to say that they feel good enough to keep (surprisingly) active.

There are a couple of problems with using “getting older” to account for feeling crummy. The first is that it can obscure the real reason why you feel that way. If I’ve got one bad hip, let’s say, then why doesn’t the other one feel just as bad? If it were all about aging then both hips would have gone bust because they’ve got the same number of miles on them. It’s quite possible that there’s a specific mechanical issue that can be addressed with proper exercise (and as a matter of fact, a good trainer will make it her business to look out for those issues).

[pullquote]“Well, I have back pain. But that’s to be expected. It’s just old age.”[/pullquote]

The second problem I see is that this kind of thinking winds up stopping older folks from doing stuff that will keep them healthy and well. If you think “getting older” is the only explanation for your aches and pains then you’re much less inclined to do anything about it. You do less. And the less you do, the less you can do. I’m not suggesting that age isn’t a factor in how people’s bodies feel and function but I do think that using it as a catch-all is getting old. (See what I did there?)

Keep fit and travel fit

It’s easy to let your resolve to stay fit fall by the wayside when you’re on vacation or travelling. If you don’t have access to a gym you might say to yourself, “Why bother?” But it’s not all that hard to at the very least maintain your level of fitness with only a couple of pieces of portable equipment, even in a small space. I’d like to share with you what I do while travelling. (And as a matter of fact, I’m writing this from India, where I’m spending four weeks.)

First, I pack a skipping rope and resistance band. Both of these pieces are light and can be stuffed into just about any part of my bag. They add versatility to the workouts I create, allowing me to include many exercises that are not limited to ones using my own body weight.

Second, I choose six to eight exercises. To give a few examples: planks, crunches, squats, leg lifts, biceps curls, shoulder presses, rows and push-ups are among my favourites. I move quickly between exercises and after each cycle I do one to three minutes of skipping to get my heart rate up (or if there are stairs or steps nearby, I’ll run up and down them as an option).

Third, I challenge myself to be as precise and controlled as possible. This really cranks up the intensity in a big way. I always go slowly and if I’m not fatigued by the end of the set, I’ll hold a position and focus on contracting my muscles until I am.

I’ve used these strategies to work out in spaces barely sizeable enough to swing a skipping rope. My workouts while travelling are short (20 to 25 minutes typically) but effective. I try to do something like what I’ve described two to three times per week, as well as walk a lot. I look at it as a period of time when I don’t have to work out like a maniac, I just have to maintain. After all, I’m on vacation.

Change up your cardio with interval training

I saw this on a card from a gag shop: two hamsters standing in front of wheel. One hamster is saying, “First I do one hour of cardio then I do two hours of cardio then I do one hour of cardio…”. Funny, isn’t it? There’s truth to it. So many people put in time at the gym working up a sweat, eyes glued to the calorie counter, desperately hoping that their hour of cardio is over sooner rather than later.

In the first column I wrote for Women’s Post, I put forth the idea that doing more weight training and less cardio would help women reach their typical goals (fat loss) quicker and reduce stress on their bodies comparatively. Despite favouring weight training, I still think that it’s important to train your heart. However, I think that you can do it in far less time than the typical hour of low-intensity cardio and you can do in a way that gives you a hormonal boost which will trigger fat loss.

What I’m hinting at here is interval or “burst” training. It takes no time at all to do but it sure is ugly. If you’re unfamiliar with it, interval training is alternating short bursts of intense cardio (one minute or less typically) with recovery periods of approximately equal length. Interval training is short on time and high on intensity. For example, after an adequate warm-up, you might sprint for one minute and walk for one minute (local tracks are a perfect spot for this) and repeat five times or so. An interval workout can be as short as 10 minutes. It tends to be less popular among gym-going people because the effort level is decidedly uncomfortable. Most people would rather cruise on an elliptical for an hour than endure 10 minutes of all-out effort. That’s a shame because the effects are totally different.

Firstly, interval training conditions the cardiovascular system much more effectively because it presents a legitimate challenge to the heart and lungs that requires them to adapt. When you’re cruising on the elliptical, you’re not demanding much of your body so none of your tissues are required to change for the better. Secondly, interval training prompts a cascade of hormones that give you a metabolic edge. Among them is growth hormone which is known to help the body burn fat and build muscle. Moreover, because interval workouts are so short they don’t let the body get to the point of releasing cortisol, the major stress (and fat-packing) hormone, which can happen during longer bouts of cardio.

I suggest that you give interval training a go, provided you slowly build up your intensity level so that your body can handle maximum effort. You’ll see better results in a shorter period of time. But don’t expect to look pretty doing it.

HEALTH: Counting calories out (Part 1)

I remember loving math back in high school. It was so satisfying to solve a math problem: all the numbers in agreement with nothing left to account for. It was so tidy. When I first heard “1 pound of fat equals 3,500 calories,” I had that same feeling. If I wanted to lose weight I could simply track all the calories I ate versus the calories I burned and make sure I made a 3,500 deficit over a week or so. I loved to exercise so I thought it would be a breeze. How wrong I was.

Current science is putting the final nail in the coffin of what we can now call the “3,500 calorie myth”. As it turns out, losing weight is much more complex than eating less and exercising more. I learned this the hard way during my university days when I was surviving on tofu salads and living at the gym. There is a laundry list of reasons; I’m going to briefly go over couple of major ones.

Looking only at the number of calories ignores the types of calories you’re taking in. Fat, protein and carbohydrate have very different effects on your hormones and metabolism. Fat and protein raise your insulin levels only minimally; large amounts of carbohydrate cause it to skyrocket. This is problematic because insulin is a hormone that tells your body to store fat rather than burn it. Eating a diet that’s low in calories but high in carbohydrates could lead to a conspicuous lack of weight loss… or weight gain. It’s tricky because many seemingly healthy foods are heavy in carbohydrates: breads (even whole grain), rice (even brown) and potatoes (even if they’re not in the form of french fries).

Protein also has much more of a thermogenic effect on your body. That means it requires extra energy to digest it and that energy is lost as heat. A gram of protein has about 4 calories; however, not all 4 calories “count”. Neither fat nor carbohydrate have this effect which is part of the reason why a diet that’s rich in protein is typically more successful in weight loss.

To be clear, these are only a couple of reasons – roughly sketched out – that should plant a serious seed of doubt in the minds of calorie counters. I’m not saying that calories don’t matter at all but I think that their importance is definitely secondary to the kinds of calories you eat. Next month I’ll look at how exercising more doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss.

What do you think? Is sticking to a low-calories diet necessary for weight loss? Leave your comments below!

Lift weight to lose weight

Fact: Most women want to lose fat and those who don’t say it outright say that they want to get “toned.” If you’re reading this right now, you’re probably one of them.

I’ve spent over 10 years in the fitness industry and I’ve watched women try to reach this goal doing all the wrong things in the gym, all the while avoiding the one thing that could really make it happen: lifting weights.

You might worry that lifting weights will cause you to “bulk up.” Don’t. Women’s hormones make this almost impossible without incredible effort going into planning workouts and nutrition. Lifting weights two to three times a week will help you lose that bit of flab hanging over your pants faster than an hour on the elliptical every day.

Why? There are a few reasons. I was recently at a course in which the instructor compared doing cardio in order to lose fat to “working for minimum wage.” Rather than playing a numbers game and trying to burn off more calories than you eat on a piece of cardio equipment (elliptical, bike, treadmill, etc.), why not build a body that burns more calories all of the time? Muscle is metabolically active tissue; fat just takes up space. In addition, muscle helps regulate the hormonal response to food every single time you take a bite so it’s less likely that you’ll store extra calories as fat. And don’t forget: muscle is firm and gives your body a sculpted appearance, but there’s one more piece to the puzzle.

To build muscle, you have to work with weight that is appropriately challenging. Two- and three-pound dumbbells don’t cut it for most exercises. Use weights that require a degree of exertion and concentration throughout the set and you’re on your way there.

 

It’s getting old

Aches and pains. People get them. I train an older demographic: ladies of “a certain age,” as I like to say. When first starting out in the gym, I often hear things like, “Well, I have back pain. But that’s to be expected. It’s just old age.” Is it?

Many seem to think that putting up with a growing assortment of aches and pains is part and parcel of getting older. But other cultures throughout the world demonstrate better aging than in North America. (I’m thinking of Japanese centenarians who can still pop a squat, for example.) I won’t presume that these folks feel just as sprightly as they ever did but it’s fair to say that they feel good enough to keep (surprisingly) active.

There are a couple of problems with using “getting older” to account for feeling crummy. The first is that it can obscure the real reason why people feel that way. If I’ve got one bad hip, let’s say, then why doesn’t the other one feel just as bad? If it’s all about aging then both hips should have gone bust because they’ve got the same number of miles on them. It’s quite possible that there’s a specific mechanical issue that can be addressed with proper exercise (and as a matter of fact, a good trainer *ahem* should make it her business to look out for those issues).

The second problem I see is that this kind of thinking winds up stopping older folks from doing stuff that will keep them healthy and well. If you think “getting older” is the only explanation for your aches and pains then you’re much less inclined to do anything about it. You do less. And the less you do, the less you can do. I’m not suggesting that age isn’t a factor in how our bodies feel and function but I do think that using it as a catch-all is getting old. (See what I did there?)

Honour your hunger

I hate being hungry. I think most people do. It’s a feeling that’s hard to ignore. Sometimes when I’m really, really hungry, I get angry too. (Ever heard of “hangry”?) I try to remember to pack a baggie of almonds everywhere I go so as not to cause bodily harm to others.

Anyone who’s ever been on a diet or tried to lose weight has come up against hunger. Hunger is something you might think you have to control or trick. You can try to control it by eating proper proportions of macronutrients (protein and fat will make you feel full) and by eating at regular intervals. You can try to trick it by drinking a glass of water or distracting yourself by doing chores. Do these strategies work? Maybe for a while. But it’s not easy to fight hunger day in and day out. Perhaps it’s time to step back and take a look at our relationship with hunger.

Firstly, what is hunger? It’s your body telling you something: to eat more. Is that necessarily bad? I can think of two reasons why it would do that. The more obvious one is that you haven’t eaten enough calories to meet its needs. Your body doesn’t like it when you severely under-eat, especially when the demands put on it are high. You’ve probably heard of “starvation mode.” Chronic under-eating will cause your body to lower its metabolic rate in order to hang on to the limited calories you’re putting into it. Hunger is a helpful signal that you’d better eat soon or starvation mode will kick in. It’s okay to skip a meal every now and again but relentless caloric restriction will most definitely do damage to your metabolism, damage that your body might not ever be able to repair.

The less obvious reason why hunger nags at you is that your body is looking for something that’s missing. The issue is not that you’re not getting enough calories; it’s that you’re not getting enough essential vitamins and minerals. (This often happens when people fall into “food ruts” and eat the same foods over and over again. Spinach salad with chicken breast, anyone? Eating a wide array of foods and managing stress are ways of making sure your body has adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Think of it this way: a hungry body is a seeking body. Perhaps we should listen to our bodies’ signals instead of ignoring them. We often treat our bodies like they’re stupid. But they’re always acting in our best interest to help us and doing the best with what we put into them. True hunger is not something to be pushed aside; it’s something we should honour.

 

 

Marathon running? Ever heard of Philippides?

The inspiration for the marathon was a man named Philippides.  According to Greek myth, Philippides ran from the battlefield at Marathon all the way to Athens to announce Greece’s victory over Persia. He ran roughly 26 miles as fast as his legs could carry him – an amazing athletic achievement.

No one seems to remember though what happened next to Philippides: he collapsed and died on the spot.

Training for a marathon is an increasingly popular activity these days. For a lot of folks the marathon represents the absolute pinnacle of fitness. “If I can run a marathon,” the thinking goes, “then I’ll really be in shape.” Chances are you’ll wind up in some shape, it just might not be good shape.

I think that the volume that training for a marathon requires is far too much for the majority of us and leads to unnecessary wear and tear on the joints. There’s a certain point at which the exercise that we do ceases to be beneficial and actually becomes harmful. Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize this point because exercise is promoted as being good for us; so logically more of it must be better. Not so. Exercising too much can raise levels of stress hormones causing our bodies to break down muscle and store fat. Just take a look at a marathoner. Most don’t look at all like pictures of health; they look like they’re wasting away to me.

Don’t get me wrong: I think that running can be great for fitness. But there’s a sweet spot where we can get most of the benefit while avoiding much of the harm. (It varies from individual to individual.) Perhaps running briskly for 20 minutes doesn’t gives us the same bragging rights that running a marathon does, but it might do us better at the end of the day.