Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Fit for Summer


I live in a city that is most famous for three things: coffee, grunge music and rain.  Yes, it is true, it does rain most of the year here in Seattle.  When the sun does decide to shine (usually sometime in August), the Vitamin D deprived citizens get out and celebrate like it is Christmas.  Unfortunately, as we know, celebration and overindulgence tend to go hand-in-hand.  

I have always had a tendency to gain weight in the summer. All of the sunshine, tropical cocktails, barbecues and ice cream make me feel like summer is just one big uninhibited vacation.  I mean, what would summer be without family trips to the local Dairy Queen?  Who cares that a medium cookie dough Blizzard contains almost my entire calorie allotment for the day?

I do, I care, I just don’t think about it.  I have learned to associate summer with bratwurst, baked beans and Blizzards instead of bikinis, bikinis and BIKINIS!  Luckily, I know this about myself, and every summer I work to re-train my brain to make healthier associations.

One of the things that I have done is to associate summer with fun outdoor activities.  I fill my summer calendar with things like 5K running events and hiking trips instead of food festivals and barbecues.  There are so many ways to stay active in the summer, we just need to think like kids again and learn to play!

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Water Sports- Kayaking, canoeing, rafting and stand up paddle boarding can be a lot of fun and provide a great arm workout.  If you don’t want to invest in the equipment yourself, there are often places that will rent equipment to you at a decent price. If none of the above sound good to you, just splashing around in the pool with your kids/friends can burn a lot of calories.  For a girlfriend’s birthday one year we went to a local water park.  We had a blast (even though we were at least 15 years older than everyone else), and burned a lot of calories in the process.

Running Events- From 5K walks to full marathons, there are running events all over the country in the summertime.  Running events are really gaining in popularity, and communities have really started to come up with some fun themes for different races.  I have never done one, but I have heard that Color Runs can be a fun group activity.

Outdoor Sports-  Instead of getting your friends/family together for a barbecue, try setting up a group sporting event.  A friendly game of volleyball, badminton, softball, tennis or ultimate frisbee could be a lot of fun.

Alternative Transportation-  When the weather is nice, it is a lot easier to ride your bike, walk or take the bus instead of driving.  My husband has been using my car for the past month, and I have lost two pounds just from the additional walking.

Partner Exercises-  Instead of meeting a friend for a happy hour drink, catch up on gossip by going for a walk, run, hike or bike ride together.  The summer is also a good time for creative outdoor dates.  A couples game of tennis, or a row in a canoe could be a fun bonding experience.

Outdoor Bootcamp-  I have seen a lot of advertisements recently for outdoor group fitness classes.  This is a great way to stay in shape, but these classes can get expensive.  I save money and do my own plyometric routines in the park (Self magazine has some great ideas for workout routines).

Hopefully this gives you some ideas for staying active this summer.   Next we need to think about eating well.  I think that avoiding the potato salad, hot dogs, ice cream cones and margaritas is a topic for another day :). 


Until then, get out and enjoy that sun!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Holding Yourself Accountable

I don’t normally share too much about my personal life on this blog, but I find it relevant to share with you that I am studying to become certified in both Personal Training and Lifestyle & Weight Management.  Up to this point the material has been mostly a review of muscles and physiology, but there was one interesting chapter on “Exercise Adherence and Behavior Change”.  Figuring out why some people find success, while others continually fail, is very interesting to me (perhaps because I have personally fit into both categories).  

In evaluating what I have read, and what I have experienced, it appears that one of the most important determinants of success is the belief that you can, and will, succeed.  You need to truly feel that you can lose weight, run two miles without stopping, drink water instead of soda, lower your blood pressure, stop ordering take-out five nights a week, exercise 30 minutes each day, or whatever else it is you are working to achieve.  My hope is that this blog helps you to believe in the possibility of change and success.  If I can do it, you can too.  After all, I was no high school track star (more like president of the French club who only ran when forced to in gym class), and now I can easily run a 10K and enjoy doing it.

In addition to believing in yourself, your success is also determined by how well you hold yourself accountable to your goals.  It is easy to say “I am going to lose weight” one week, and then go out for pizza the next week.  In order to increase your accountability, you should make goals that are specific and measurable.  Once you have your goal, it is important to set up a self-monitoring system.  If your goal is to exercise five days a week for at least 30 minutes, put up a calendar in your home and cross-out the days that you meet your goal.  This will give you, and your family, an honest view of how well you are adhering to your goal.  The desire to not let anyone down will serve as motivation for you to keep working towards your goal.  This is the concept that makes programs like “The Biggest Loser” so successful.  The contestants are being held accountable to their goals by frequently monitoring their progress/weight loss.

Here are some examples of self-monitoring systems that I have used:

-I use an application on my phone called “My Tracks” that records how far and fast I run.  I use this to make sure that I am continually trying to improve, and not running slower one month than I was the last.  I like it because the competitive side of me is always working to beat my last time.  The app has a lot of features that I find useful, but a simple sports watch can accomplish the same thing.  I also use this method for walking and hiking.

-I use a website called livestrong.com to log all of my exercise activity for the week.  It keeps track of what I did, how long I did it, the distance I traveled and how many calories I burned in the process.   From the website I can monitor my activity for the month of May, and then compare it to my activity from last May. It is very motivating to watch my progress, and also to see when I am slipping.  There are hundreds of websites/apps that do the same thing.  Pick one that is easy for you to use.  If you don’t like the electronic way, I’m confident a paper journal would have the same effect.

-I also use livestrong.com (it used to be called thedailyplate.com) to monitor my calorie intake.  It is easy to eat a couple of cookies throughout the day, but it is really hard to admit it to yourself by physically writing it down and looking at the numbers.  Strict calorie counting is not for everyone, but a simple food journal can help hold you accountable for that large order of fries that you ate on the way home from work.

-I keep track of my weight on a graph of weight vs. time.  It is very rewarding to see the downward trend of my weight.  The graph also keeps me aware by visually displaying spikes in the graph when I have gained weight.

There are endless possibilities for self-monitoring systems. Different systems will work better for different people. No matter what system you choose, the most important part is being honest in your records.  If you aren't, you are only hurting your chances of success.

Remember, if I can do it, so can you.  I look forward to hearing your success stories!

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Importance of Being Prepared

While working to maintain my weight loss, I have seen how my fluctuations in weight revolve around my level of preparedness. Life continually throws us challenges (long work days, chocolate cravings, happy hours, kids, indulgent vacations, late night munchies) that threaten our ability to meet our weight loss goals.  In order to be successful, we need to realize that although we may not be able to control these challenges, we can control how we respond to them and how we prepare for them.

Over the last six years, I have found that I get myself into the most trouble when I am not prepared.  It is so easy, after a long day,  to order Chinese take-out when I forget to make plans for dinner.  It sounds innocent, but the next thing I know I’ve eaten an entire combination platter, and a side of egg rolls.  

After several (hundred) similar mistakes, I finally developed a few guidelines on meal preparedness.  I always prepare a meal plan for the entire week on the weekend.  Every time I see a healthy recipe that looks good, I save it either on Pinterest.com or in a recipe file.  This makes finding healthy recipes easy, and speeds up the meal planning process.  Once my plan is in place, I do all of my grocery shopping in one trip in order to save time later in the week.  When I make a meal, I always double the recipe so that I have leftovers.  I am also a firm believer in keeping the freezer stocked with leftover meals, or pieces of meals that can be used to throw together dinner in a hurry.  I’ve been known to assemble a bunch of black bean burritos on a Sunday evening and then freeze them for a weeks worth of 300 calorie lunches.

If you read this blog regularly, you have probably figured out that I am a snacker.  I know that I am going to start searching the cupboards for snacks at around 9 o’clock every night.  I just can’t help myself, and trust me I’ve tried.  Instead of trying to fight the craving, what I have done is to prepare for these cravings by removing the common unhealthy snacks (chips, candy) from my cupboards.  Instead of grabbing a handful (or five) of chips, I fulfill my snacking needs with a bowl full of air-popped popcorn.  

Late night munchies are one thing, but chocolate cravings, those are a whole different thing altogether.  With limiting my overall sugar intake, I have found that my chocolate cravings are less common than they once were, but that doesn’t mean they are gone. I know they are going to occur, and now I am prepared for them.  First of all, I have learned that there really isn’t a substitute for chocolate.  Trying to fix a chocolate craving with something else just doesn’t work.  My solution has been to keep a bag of dark chocolate chips in the back of my cupboard.  I love the Ghiradelli 60% dark chips.  There are 80 calories in 16 chips, but the flavor is so intense it usually only takes a couple to satisfy a craving.  I like chocolate chips because I never feel at risk of overdoing it.  I’ve never had an urge to eat the entire bag.

One area where I do have a tendency to overdo it is on vacation. If I don’t prepare, I am likely to come back with a five pound souvenir on my thighs.  To avoid this, I try to plan exercise into my trips.  I always pre-book a hotel with a fitness center, and I incorporate activities like rollerblading along the beach, renting bicycles, hiking, walking, skiing and swimming into the itinerary.   I also pre-book a hotel with an in-room refrigerator so that I can store healthy items for breakfast. This way I am not eating every meal at a restaurant.  

These tricks help to keep me prepared, but they might not be the best solutions for everyone.  The key is not to do exactly what I do, but to recognize life’s challenges and find ways that help keep you prepared for battle.  

When life gives you lemons, use them as a zero calorie salad dressing, or as a nice marinade for a chicken breast.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Unhealthy "Health" Foods

The amount of time dedicated to the topic of healthy eating in the standard education system is very minimal (at least it was when I was in school).  In elementary school, I was taught that as long as I drank my milk and ate an apple a day I would be healthy, like super hero healthy.  Unfortunately, by the time I got to high school the most popular items in the cafeteria were maple bars, brownies and cheesy breadsticks.  So much for super powers.

Since we are not really being educated on healthy eating at school, and it isn’t likely we are reading nutrition textbooks in our free time, where are we learning all of the nutrition facts that we have floating around in our heads?  When I began my weight loss journey, I figured out where I was getting most of my information, and it wasn’t pretty.

I didn’t start my weight loss journey by following any particular diet plan.  I started by simply trying to make healthier decisions.   I went to the grocery store and bought items I perceived as healthy, made meals I thought were healthy and ordered healthier items off of restaurant menus.  When I didn’t lose a pound, I took a closer look at what I was eating.  After doing a little bit of research, what I found was that most of my “health knowledge” was incorrect.  I thought that banana chips were at least a reasonably healthy snack.  It turns out that they are fried in coconut oil, loaded with saturated fat and contain only a small percentage of the nutrients found in bananas. Huh.

At first I felt like a complete idiot, but then I realized that there is a clear reason why I had believed all of these nutritional falsities.  Every day there are thousands of marketing campaigns aimed at me and my desire to lose weight. Smoothie companies spend millions of dollars on campaigns trying to convince us that their 400 calorie sugar bombs are the perfect addition to a healthy diet, and it works.  We, as consumers, need to learn to be more conscious of where we get our information and who we believe.  

I have listed some of the more common unhealthy “health” foods below:


“Fat Free” Foods-  When something is labeled as “fat free” it has been my experience that the manufacturers are trying to get you to ignore something less healthy about the item (like the high calorie content).  Nobody is labeling healthy things like fruit as “fat free”, but high calorie cookies and ice cream, certainly.  

Dried-Fruit-  Ocean Spray may be one of the most successful companies when it comes to marketing an unhealthy product as healthy.  I believe that most people think of Craisins as a health food.  From salads to trail mix, people include them in foods as an added “fruit”.  The problem is that 1/3 cup of Craisins has 130 calories, 26 grams of sugar and no vitamins (according to oceanspray.com).

Granola-  From what I have seen, the average store-bought granola has about 200 calories in 1/2 cup.  Where are all of those calories coming from? Sugar and oil.  Even recipes for homemade granola contain large amounts of sugar (honey, brown sugar, maple syrup) and oil.  In a bowl of granola with milk (1 cup serving of each), you could easily end up with a 500 calorie breakfast.  

Muffins-  We all know that donuts are unhealthy, but what about muffins?  Fruit muffins are often portrayed as a healthy alternative to other breakfast pastries.  The blueberry muffin at Dunkin Donuts has 460 calories and 44 grams of sugar, while the blueberry cake donut “only” has 340 calories and 21 grams of sugar (according to dunkindonuts.com).

Energy/Granola/Protein Bars- Clif bars may be sold at health food stores, but at 240 calories and 20 grams of sugar, they seem more like a candy bar.  Most energy bars are high in calories from added sugars, and can contain lots of sodium.  The snack bar that I like the best is the Kashi Honey Almond Flax granola bar.  It tastes good and has only 140 calories, 5 grams of sugar and contains 7 grams of protein.

It is also important to remember to check the nutritional content of items labeled as organic, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and all natural, and not just assume that they are health foods. I used to work for Whole Foods Market, and it amazed me how many customers thought that if something was labeled as “organic” it meant that it was healthy.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the benefits of organic products, but I assure you that organic macaroni and cheese still contains loads of calories and fat. The same goes for Vegan products.  Vegan cookies may not contain butter, but they do contain vegetable shortening and sugar.  I am not arguing for or against any of the above listed diets, I am simply stating that just because something is labeled as “vegetarian” doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthy.  

To avoid making the same mistakes that I did, remember to always read nutrition labels.  You will be surprised, even by items with which you think you are familiar.