Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Fighting Fall Fatigue

Every October, without fail, I manage to put on a few extra pounds.  Despite the fact that it happens every year, I never realize that it’s happening, and I am never prepared for it.  I am just shocked every year by the appearance of the same couple of pounds.  Along with the shock comes a long rant about how “there is no reason why I should be gaining weight”.  I truly feel for my husband. He has to watch this whole thing play out.  I’m sure I put on quite a performance.

From what I have seen on other weight loss blogs, and overheard in line at the grocery store, I am not the only person who suffers from this “mysterious” October weight gain.  The most common rational I have heard is that the weight gain can be attributed to the increase in seasonal sweets appearing on the market.  While I understand this viewpoint, I’m just not convinced this is the only reason for the weight gain.  Every season has it’s fair share of indulgences, and I am pretty certain that Halloween candy has no more calories than the stuff that fills our Easter baskets in the Spring.

So if it isn’t the pie that is making me look like a pumpkin, what is it?  I have come to the conclusion that with October, comes a lack of drive.  The dark, cool days just do not promote the same level of activity as those long, sunny summer days. When the sun goes down and the cold sets in (which can happen as early as 5:30 pm), it is easy to slip on an oversized-sweater (which hides a belly bulge a lot better than a summertime bikini) and settle in on the couch.

In order to keep the belly bulge at bay, I have put together a list of a few things to keep you (and I) motivated this Fall:

  • Look into starting some group exercise classes.  Group fitness instructors are trained to be motivating, which can be helpful when we are lacking internal motivation. If you don’t have a gym membership, there are some great (free) classes online. I have posted a few of my favorites on my Pinterest boards.
  • Plan a few evening activities into your week to keep you moving.  Go for a walk before the sun sets, or schedule in an evening yoga practice.
  • Learn some new healthy recipes and cooking techniques. Cooking will keep you active during the evenings, and prevent you from ordering too much Chinese take-out.  
  • When it stays dark later in the morning, it is easy to stay in bed an extra half an hour.  Unfortunately, an extra 30 minutes a day in bed adds up to an extra 3.5 hours/week of complete inactivity. To help get you going in the morning: use motivating music as your alarm, turn on the light next to your bed, and/or concentrate on all of the things you want to get accomplished.
  • I have noticed that when the weather cools, I tend to choose easier workouts.  When my drive is waning, I am not as likely to create workouts that will push me.  In order to combat this, try creating your weekly workout schedule in advance.  Incorporate a few harder workouts like boot camp classes, long runs, indoor cycling and interval workouts.  Include as much detail as you can in your workout schedule (amount of time, distance, reps) to keep you from taking the easy route.
  • Resist the urge to always wear your comfy clothing. Spending as much time as possible in sweat pants may sound appealing, but it will only work to further decrease your motivation.  
  • If you really can’t seem to get moving, you may need to add a bit of extra caffeine into your diet during the cooler months.  If you are not a coffee drinker, green tea makes for a great afternoon pick-me-up.  If you can’t tolerate caffeine, I have found that peppermint gives me a little boost(try tea, mints or gum).

Once November rolls around, I usually find that I am back to my motivated self.  By this point I have recognized the upward movement of the scale, have been through my whole rant and realize that it is time to kick back into gear.  In all reality, just thinking about Christmas cookies is typically enough to light a fire under me.  If winter is tougher on you than Fall, it might help to take a look at my post on avoiding hibernation.

Happy Halloween Everyone :)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mexican Vegetable Soup with Avocado

Like so many other children, I grew up on Campbell’s soup.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps it was just due to good marketing on the part of Campbell’s.  Whatever the reason, we all seemed to learn that a grilled-cheese sandwich was not complete without an accompanying bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup.  In addition to tomato, I loved the vegetable soup. It's kind of funny, because I don’t remember liking anything else with the word “vegetable” in it.  As an adult, I have learned to love vegetables, but ironically I don’t often find a vegetable soup that satisfies me.  They are usually too bland and watery. To solve this dilemma, I created this recipe for a hearty vegetable soup with bold southwestern flavors.  I find that it is the perfect thing to warm and comfort me on a crisp evening.

Serves 4-6 people

1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 green bell peppers, diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
3 carrots, diced
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
4 large tomatoes, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
juice from half a lime
1 teaspoon chipotle chilies in adoba sauce, minced
1 29-oz can white hominy
4 cups of low-sodium chicken broth (vegetable would work too)
water (up to 2 cups)

1 avocado, peeled and sliced
nonfat plain Greek yogurt, for topping
cilantro leaves, for garnish

Warm the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat, add onion and bell pepper.  Saute until vegetables begin to brown.  Add carrots, garlic and oregano; saute for 2-3 minutes.

Add tomatoes, salt and chipotle chilies. Saute until tomatoes soften and give off their juices.
Add hominy and broth, bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. If amount of liquid is insufficient, add water (amount of liquid will vary depending on juiciness of tomatoes).

After 20 minutes, add lime and adjust seasoning with additional salt.

Top with nonfat plain Greek yogurt, avocado and cilantro.  Serve with warm corn tortillas.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Butternut Stew with Hominy

Butternut squash is my go-to vegetable for fall.  Not only is it delicious, it is packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber.  This butternut squash stew recipe was adapted from one featured in the November 1997 issue of Cooking Light Magazine. In my version, I roast the squash to increase its flavor profile and bring out the natural sugars.  Roasting the squash takes a bit of time, but this can be done in advance, or while chopping other ingredients for the stew. I like to make a double batch of this dish on Sundays. That way I have leftovers for quick dinners during the week.  It is good on its own, or served over rice. If you prefer a vegetarian version, vegetable base substitutes well for the chicken base.

Serves 4-5 people

1.5 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 small red onion, chopped
1 large red bell pepper, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon chili powder
3.5 cups water
1.5 tablespoons Better than Bouillon low sodium chicken base
1 teaspoon brown sugar (optional, depending on sweetness of squash)
2.5 lb butternut squash, roasted and cubed
1 29-ounce can hominy, drained

~1/4 teaspoon salt (depends on saltiness of hominy)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro (optional)

Toast cumin seeds in a large saucepan over medium heat for 1-2 minutes.  Remove seeds from pan.

Heat oil in saucepan over medium heat until hot. Add onion and bell pepper; sauté until onion is lightly browned. Add garlic and continue to sauté for 1 minute.  Stir in flour, cumin seeds and chili powder. Add roasted squash, water, hominy, sugar and chicken base; bring to a boil. 

Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes. Uncover and simmer an additional 30 minutes, occasionally stirring and smashing chunks of squash against pot to thicken. Once thickened, stir in cilantro.  Serve alone, or over rice.

Tips for Roasting Butternut Squash:

Pre-heat the oven to 400°F and line a cookie sheet with tin foil. Carefully cut squash in half and scrape out innards. Prick the flesh with a fork. Spray all surfaces lightly with cooking spray and place face-down on cookie sheet.  Roast for 40-50 minutes, or until tender and golden. Cool, peel off the skin, and cube.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Starting a Fitness Program

I have read a lot of articles recently on “exercise motivation”. I find it interesting to sort through the different theories as to why people do, or (mostly) don’t, get enough exercise. It is widely understood that exercise and proper eating are the key ingredients for health.  If we all know this, then why are the majority of us not getting enough exercise?  

Most of the articles I have read have a pie chart that depicts the reasons people give for not exercising. The results are always the same. The overwhelming majority of people say that they “don’t have enough time”. I think that perhaps time is not the real answer.  In my experience, not having "enough time”, is just the excuse we give ourselves so that we don’t have to face the real reason we don’t exercise. For me, and probably many others as well, that was intimidation.

There are many things that lead to exercise intimidation: having no idea where to begin, being unfamiliar with the equipment, exercise programs with crazy names like “Insanity”, and all of the beautiful bodies at the gym.  There is also the concern that you are not going to be an immediate fitness success story. As humans we seek success and praise, and we try our very hardest to avoid failure.  For a beginning exerciser, who is already critical of their body, subpar exercise performance may just seem like an additional failure.

Let me show you what I mean:

Pretend you have started a new journey towards healthy living, and you are trying to incorporate exercise into your life.  You know a lot of healthy people who run, and you decide to give it a try. You grab your running shoes from the back of the closet, find some sort of clothing that resembles gym clothes, and successfully make it out of the door.  Once outside a feeling of pride sweeps over your body, causing you to smile knowingly at what you are about to accomplish.  You take a deep breath and begin running.  You feel great at first, asking yourself,  “why don’t I do this more often?”.  Then, before you even get to the second song on your iPod, your body answers that question.  You feel a sharp pain in your side, and your lungs begin to burn. You can’t get any air. Finally you are forced to stop to prevent your heart from beating right out of your chest.  Then the real pain starts, as you walk the two blocks back to your starting place, feeling nothing short of defeated.

That is how I felt over and over again as I tried to get my feet wet in the unfamiliar world of exercise.  Thankfully, I figured out a way to stop beating myself up, and to successfully start an exercise program.  Here are some of the techniques that I used:

  • In the beginning, exercise does not necessarily need to look like exercise.  Being more active is the key.  I lost a lot of my initial weight just by walking.  I walked to the store, with friends, and even while talking on my cellphone.  I walked everywhere.
  • I went on a lot of moderate hikes with friends.  I found that having someone to converse with helped me to forget that I was going uphill.  Once I got used to it, I enjoyed going by myself as well.  The nice thing about hiking is that you can do it at any pace that feels comfortable to you.
  • I took yoga classes several times a week.  I found that yoga was a gentle way to begin strengthening my muscles.  The strength base that I gained in yoga helped to make other exercises seem easier (especially the development of a stronger core). Pilates would be great for this too, but I did not know about it at the time.
  • I fell in love with group exercise programs.  I learned a lot about fitness just from watching and listening to the instructors.  The good thing about group exercise is that there are often participants of all levels, so you never feel alone, and you have a trained instructor to tell you if you are doing things incorrectly.  I took a lot of step aerobics, toning and water aerobics classes.
  • I changed my attitude about failure, and started accepting the fact that I could only run short distances.  I knew that running fit with my busy lifestyle, I could do it anytime and anywhere, and I needed to embrace it.  I started going on 10 minutes runs (walking when I needed to), then 15, then 20, and so on.  The more weight I lost, the easier it was to run, and the easier it was to see that I was not a failure.
  • I avoided all of the commercial fitness programs.  I knew that if I had someone telling me what to do, and what level I should be at, I would get frustrated.  I needed to feel in control.
These are the things that worked for me. That doesn't mean you need to follow the exact same path.  The most important message I am trying to portray is that your dreams are possible.  

Previously, I was unable to run around the block, and now I run six miles several times per week.  My greatest suggestion is to start out with the things that you enjoy most, and that will help you stay active.  Remember, we are trying to create sustainable habits. If you push too hard at first, and set your standards too high, you may not even finish the race.  Trust me, there will be plenty of opportunities to push yourself later on!