Category Archives: Fitness

Advice For Cardio-holics

article-new-thumbnail-ehow-images-a05-at-1o-warm-up-treadmill-800x800Addiction is a powerful word.  It generally conjures up the thought of a habit that has or is consuming a person’s life.  When we think of an addiction, more times than most we assume that it is a bad habit and that there has to be some level of intervention to break it off.  After all, is it necessarily a bad thing to be addicted to something that is good for you?  The answer is an astounding yes!

Exercise in all of its forms is an absolute positive in our lives.  However, even too much of a good thing can be bad for you.  Compulsive or excessive exercise, otherwise known as “exercise addiction”, is a legitimately researched and treated behavior that can be diagnosed in anyone from the casual exerciser to the professional athlete.  But before you even begin to think that you need to drastically cut back your current exercise regime, understand that most people in our society do not exercise enough!  Exercise addiction is generally associated with those that exercise too excess; believing in the notion that more is certainly better than a little.  All too often, exercise addicts are oblivious to some of the warning signs, such as increased irritability, disrupted sleeping patterns, a depressed immune system, chronic fatigue, and muscle stiffness. Exercise in any form can be performed to the extreme; especially in a society that wants results and fast. The most common type of exercise that is most abused and common in exercise addicts is cardiovascular exercise.

Cardiovascular exercise, or “cardio”, is defined as any activity that involves consistent movement of large muscle groups at low to moderate levels of intensity for extended periods of time, such as walking, jogging, running, bicycling, stair climbing, swimming, and aerobic/group exercise classes.  Cardiovascular exercise is a necessary and important component to any well developed exercise program. These exercises while ultimately designed to improve cardiovascular health (lungs, heart), have enormous benefit to aiding in weight loss, particularly because these activities burn calories and are generally less intimidating to the population than other forms of exercise. In addition, cardiovascular exercise does not require any special equipment or complex movement.  To paraphrase a famous quote, you have to “Just Do It.  It is easy to see then why someone might buy into the “more is better” mentality in regards to doing cardio.  After all, if I want to lose weight, isn’t the idea to burn as many calories as possible?  It is exactly that thought process that drives cardio-holics (those who spend endless, tireless hours doing nothing but cardiovascular exercise) to become exercise addicts.

Burning calories is not limited to time spent sweating in the gym. Our bodies burn calories all day long through daily activities, but the majority of those calories are being burned 24/7/365.  Better known as the BMR (basal metabolic rate), our BMR is dictated by the body’s metabolically active tissues, or lean body mass, which is inclusive of organ systems, bodily processes, and most notably muscle mass.  Lean body mass is essentially where calories are burned.  Think of BMR as a measure of your body’s idle speed, the amount of energy your body requires before you step on the gas. The easiest (and only way for that matter) that an individual can naturally stoke their calorie fire, or BMR, is by increasing the muscle mass in lean body mass. Thus, the more of it we have, the more calories we can potentially burn even at rest. It is impossible to increase the size of your organs and therefore their energy requirements. The bad news for cardio-holics is that cardio exercise does not improve the BMR.  Yes, cardio does burn calories but in the long run, the only thing that guarantees that your body continues to burn calories is being able to keep the fire stoked.  This is where the importance of resistance training can not be ignored

Resistance training (free weights, machines, or bands) works to increase our BMR by stimulating muscle growth, not to be confused with bulky muscles.  Even some of the cardio activities that are weight bearing (those in which you are standing on your feet such as the treadmill, elliptical, stair climber, etc) provide little to no load stimulus to the muscles. Without a sufficient weight bearing stimulus such as you would get from resistance training, muscle growth is blunted.  Furthermore, the combination of insufficient muscle growth coupled with unnecessary amounts of cardio exercise can lead to negligible or poor results.   A vicious cycle then begins where no muscle is added so BMR (calorie demand) drops. As calorie needs drop, nutritional needs decrease (not as much lean body mass to nourish).  As nutritional needs drop, the body begins to catabolize, or breakdown, proteins stored in the body.  The most readily available proteins stored in the body are found in muscle.  As a result, muscle is lost because contrary to belief, muscle, not fat, breaks down more readily and quicker for fuel.  You then have to work harder to achieve the desired goal because you simply burn fewer calories than you did before. This phenomenon is not hard to spot in the gym either.  An example is the exercisers who spend tireless minutes pounding away on the cardio machines and never physically change.  An even better example is the group fitness instructor, despite all of the hours logged in teaching aerobic classes, looks physically exactly the same.  Perhaps even you have experienced this phenomenon yourself.  Understand that cardiovascular exercise is very good for you.  If not correctly understood however, it can be very counterproductive.

The correct amount of cardio work: how much (frequency), how long (time), and how hard (intensity) can become very confusing.  Simply put, the amount you need to do depends on your goal.  Unless you are training for an ultra endurance event (marathon, cycling century, triathlon, etc.), hours and hours of cardio will do nothing more than in essence break you down.  Most people would see far more benefit with moderate cardio work (3-5 days per week), thirty to forty minutes at a time, with varying levels of intensity (low intensity day vs. high intensity day).  Recent government recommendations have dictated that sixty minutes a day is the required amount.  However, the key point left out of that lofty recommendation is that it should be consistent and constantly changing.  The more often that you can vary the training stimulus, the better your results will be. If you repeatedly do the same thing day in and day out, the stimulus is lost and you become a machine that just blows smoke. Any one dimensional training program is doomed to failure.  What can not be lost in this shuffle though is that resistance training must be a part of the exercise program.

Exercise is time and energy well spent. Make the most of your time by varying your routine; educate yourself to train smarter; begin resistance training; don’t be afraid to change and “break” the habit; always be sure to get rest; nourish your body properly; most of all have fun.

Featured in May/June 2005 of Philly Fit Magazine

Putting Female Weight Room Fears to Rest

iStock_000020226662XSmallThe weight room of any health club today is a far cry from the early days of bodybuilding. It generally still remains a secluded room where the sounds of iron “clacking” and grunting and groaning begin and echo throughout the building. The basics are all still there: barbells, dumbbells, benches, racks, mirrors, etc., but thanks to advances in strength training technology, strength training equipment has become more streamlined and efficient making weight rooms look more like fancy jungle gyms.  The most notable change in the weight room however has been its occupants. Until about what is almost two decades now, very few women ever gave any thought to weight training, let alone actually enter the weight room.  Today, women of all ages are hitting the weights, almost as often as their male counterparts.  Unfortunately, too many women still find the weight room daunting, intimidating, and for that reason, fail to seek the benefits that a good weight training program can do for them.  Most of them still base that decision on gym lore or myth – the myth that lifting weights will make them look manly or less feminine.

The good news for females who engage or are interested in weight training is that lifting weights will NOT make them look more masculine or bulk them up despite any preconceived fears they may have.  On the flip side, the bad news is that as a regular or novice exerciser seeking to change the shape of her body (i.e. lose body fat) and does not include some type of weight training into her routine, she will find herself very disappointed and frustrated. Rest assured, weight training will do more to slim a female down and tone her up then it will to bulk her up. Understanding why this is so will go a long way to changing a female’s attitude towards weight training.

First and foremost, physiologically, female muscle has the exact same characteristics as male muscle and therefore will respond the same way to training. Increases in muscle size, or hypertrophy, are attributed to changes at the molecular level as a result of external resistance (weights).  There are numerous factors that play a role in determining the amount of change that takes place in the muscle, such as the amount of weight lifted, the number of sets, reps, etc.  However, in regards to the differences between the sexes for muscular development, the primary factor is the hormone testosterone.  Men and women both produce the hormones testosterone and estrogen.  Men have a higher ratio of testosterone to estrogen and women have a higher ratio of estrogen to testosterone. At rest, men have as much as ten times the amount of testosterone that women do.  There are some females however that have higher than normal levels of testosterone and will show signs of increased muscular girth as a result of weight training, just as there are males who produce higher levels of estrogen than normal.  The point here is that these scenarios are very rarely the case and the majority of females can lift weights their entire lives and never look like Arnold.

These preconceived fears have lead many women to shy away from weight training and those that regularly engage to sell themselves short. A perfect example of this is the woman who stands in front of the mirror spending endless hours curling three pound dumbbells or sets the leg press to fifty pounds. She is under the misguided assumption that the lighter weights accompanied by higher reps is going to tone up and tighten her muscles.  Well, if time is not an issue and quick change is not a priority, then at least there will be an extremely low incidence of injury.  The truth is, a muscle will only change (i.e. tone, strengthen, etc.) if the stimulus (the amount of weight, or resistance lifted) is varied and yes, even increased.  Research has shown that increases in female muscle strength is generally accompanied by only small increases in muscle mass and either decreases in or constant total body weight. Furthermore, since muscle is metabolic living tissue, building quality, lean muscle is the only any of us can naturally increase our metabolism. If a woman is trying to change the shape of her body, then that should be music to her ears.  Adding quality, strong, and functional muscle to a female body not only looks good, but also turns her into a perennial fat furnace. The calorie burning effect that weight training has on muscle is sustained three to four times longer than an equivalent amount of time spent performing cardiovascular exercise.

There are some other factors that women beginning a weight training program should also be aware of if they have not already experienced it first hand.  The first is that females generally store more intramuscular fat (fat stored within the muscle itself) than males do.  This phenomenon is common among those who think the StairMaster increased the size of their buttocks or will not participate in a Spin class because they are afraid it will make their legs bigger.  Lifting weights can have that same affect but it is not so much that the girth of the muscles is increasing but that the fat within the muscle is expanding due to the training effect of the muscle itself.  Solution to the problem: do not stop performing those exercises and be serious about dietary intake.  The second is that the weight training program should be built around compound, multi joint movements (such as a squat) and not isolatory movements (such as bicep curls).  While both can be a part of a solid program, the real benefit from weight training for women comes from being able to load the entire skeleton and stimulate not only the large calorie burning muscle groups, but the larger bones of the body as well to protect against osteoporosis.

Always seek the help of a certified fitness professional to set up a program, demonstrate the exercises, or have around specifically for the weight training exercises only.  The body will give back exactly what is put into and the results will be absolutely stunning.

Featured in November/December 2005 of Philly Fit Magazine

Politically Correct Fitness?

man holding hand over his mouthAs long as man has been alive, there has been physical fitness.  Centuries ago, physical fitness was a way of life. It was how we lived and more importantly, it was how we survived.  Fast forward to 2007, and physical fitness hasn’t changed.  At least it shouldn’t have changed.  It is and should still be a way of life and unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, it is definitely something that will help you survive.  But study after study only shows that as a society we move less and less and physical fitness is diminishing as quickly as the national budget.  Is it that fitness is so misunderstood or is our idea of fitness completely off kilter?

Most people would certainly agree that exercise is something that they need to do and more often.  It is no secret that the number one New Year’s resolution people make is to exercise, be it to lose weight or just get moving.  Yet when it comes to making the decision whether or not to exercise, more times than not an alternative or excuse to do something other than exercise usually wins out. Has exercise become so high tech, advanced, and intimidating that even the intelligent person can’t make heads from tails?  Or is it something else? As a society, I like to think we suffer from what I call politically correct fitness.

Political correctness is a term used to describe any language, ideas, policies, or behaviors seen as seeking to minimize offense to racial, cultural, or other identity groups.  In a broader sense, it is also used to describe adherence to any political or cultural belief.  While it’s unlikely that anyone would say they find exercise offensive, it is the cultural belief of exercise that is in question.  That cultural belief is that exercise is time consuming; cumbersome; painful; sweat inducing; only for the already fit; not fun; too much work; etc. But where did these ideas originate? Past experiences from high school gym class; the aerobics/spandex boom of the eighties; the dark, cold steel days of the early weight lifters? Perhaps it is the media’s attempt to make fitness seem more glamorous and easy, thus creating a false sense of what it really means to exercise.

While watching a popular morning news show the other day,  I witnessed the anchor “attempt” to do a rather easy exercise and gasped as she did everything in her power to make it look like it was something only Houdini could perform.  Her message to the audience: “We need more exercise but I’m just going to stay home and watch my TiVo”.  In a popular magazine, an article written by a fellow fitness professional says how all one needs to do to stay in shape is clean their windows and wash the floors once a week.  That may be true if your house was the Sears Tower!  The sensationalism of fitness as it relates to our health has only added to the confusion and reluctance of more people making an active choice to live a healthier life.  There are no guarantees in life and contrary to what some think, we are not entitled to an existence free of injury and sickness.  When you can appreciate the fact that over 70% of the diseases and illnesses listed with the AMA (American Medical Association) are preventable through healthier lifestyles, it makes you wonder why we just don’t carry around our own shovels.

Bottom line – there is no politically correct way to go about fitness.  Fitness requires work.  It requires time.  It requires dedication.  It requires commitment.  And most of all, it requires a willingness to not accept things as they are, but to work towards something perhaps once thought as unachievable. Fitness, specifically physical fitness, is a part of a healthy lifestyle.  It is not the solution, but a piece of the solution. It is part of a healthy lifestyle that includes sensible nutrition habits, good emotional health, and sound spiritual health. To that end, it is a big part of a solution to a problem that is only going to keep getting worse the longer it is ignored. And that is damn near offensive.

Featured in November 2007 Issue of 422 Business Advisor