Starter Steps

Getting better: ways to get started and stay on track for better health, sleep, mood, and fitness. Oh, and fun pictures.
Wonderful cartoon by Will McPhail

Wonderful cartoon by Will McPhail

Should I Junk My Scale?

Maybe!

You should stop weighing yourself if:
- It always makes you feel bad
- You are upset by fluctuations of a couple of pounds
- You are focusing on a single target weight
- You see the readout in terms of being “allowed” or “forbidden” to eat

Your scale might also be inaccurate! First, try using it in several positions and on different surfaces — a scale must be on hard, level surface to function properly. Then try weighing yourself every few minutes over a half hour or so. Is it consistent? If not, it could be out of calibration, and few home scales are worth repairing. (If it’s still under warranty, contact the maker.)

Dropping the scale doesn’t mean letting yourself go. It means thinking clearly about why you’re thinking about your weight in the first place:

Clothes getting tight? Use a particular item or two to check how you’re doing.
Trying to lose bodyfat? The scale isn’t a good method for tracking that — normal weight fluctuations can be 5 lb in a single day. Taking measurements, particularly at the waist, can be a better guide.
Trying to get healthier? The scale isn’t a good method for tracking that. Consider these alternatives:
- Track your exercise activity (moving faster? Going longer? Lifting heavier?)
- Use a sleep tracker to estimate how restful your sleep is
- Keep an “energy level” diary — make a note at key times of the day (on waking, after lunch, when you get home from work) of how alert (or not) you feel

These alternatives help you achieve “non-scale victories” — ways to be aware of improving your health without relying on the scale. Non-scale victories are often the best reasons to eat moderately and nutritiously, and to exercise regularly.

Have you abandoned your bathroom scale? What non-scale victories do you celebrate?

…your workout isn’t over until you’ve told the entire world about the burn or pump you’ve recently achieved. Other people being in awe of how hard you work out is crucial to your working out. It’s one of the main principles of CrossFit." —Do You Even Brag About Lifting, Bro? U.S. Map Shows Which States Brag the Most About Working Out on Twitter

If you have a burning desire to do this, consider joining a fitness site with social aspects, like Fitocracy or Map My Fitness. These sites let you broadcast your workout details to people who not only care, but actively want to see them and know more about them. Social fitness sites can help you track your activity for yourself and get that little bump of motivation that comes from knowing other people are watching — and cheering you on.

Have Some Fun with Your Food

A plate of yogurt with a half peach and apple sticks!

But I’m So Weak

It doesn’t matter how much you can lift. Everyone starts somewhere, and every PR is beautiful!

But I’m So Weak

It doesn’t matter how much you can lift. Everyone starts somewhere, and every PR is beautiful!

What are splits?

Popeye’s buddy is working chest and back today. Why so specific? He is splitting his workout. (Let’s just not get into Mr Performance-Enhancing-Spinach’s routine!)

Splits help:
- To let muscle groups “rest” in stages during the week
- To build a variety in workouts that supports better results
- To make the most of limited workout time

People who are training for a size or performance goal use different kinds of workouts and cycles in order to apply “training stimulus.” When building size or strength in muscle, a heavy or “high-volume” workout (a heavy weights session or a long run) actually causes microtears in muscle, and so the muscles needs rest while they repairs those microtears and gets bigger or stronger.  People sometimes express this as “gains are made during rest.” If you don’t allow enough recovery time, you can lose your progress and even reverse it.

If you have 1 hour at the gym 3 or 4 times a week, splits can help you use that time to focus on a particular muscle group and give it a very thorough workout. Your next gym day, the worked muscles will still be recovering, and so you focus on a different muscle group. Splits let your muscles work — and recover — on a staggered schedule. (Part of that recovery relies on getting enough sleep, too.) 

A split schedule can also mean work on different activities during the week. A lifter might focus on strength building for 3 out of 4 gym visits a week, and use that 4th visit to focus on cardio conditioning, for example, with a sprint session or by doing sled pushes.

Similarly, a cardio-focused athlete (such as a runner or cyclist) might use a couple of gym visits a week to do a mix of strength training and moderate cardio, also do a weekly sprint session, and use a fourth workout day to do a longer cardio session at a slower pace.

Should I do splits?

Yes. At the very least, you should be doing a mix of strengthening and cardio exercise. If you are focusing on a distance-oriented activity, like running or cycling, you should vary your pace and/or do different-length sessions during the week.

The human body is a splendid engine of “adaptation.” If you do exactly the same workout every single day — same distance at the same pace, same weights for the same number of reps and sets — your body will become excellent at that workout. It will use less energy over time to do the same work, as it gets more practice. 

Splits and different “intensities” (faster and slower paces for shorter or longer times; heavier and lighter weights for fewer or more total reps) help to put the body through different workouts in a structured way, so you can improve and grow over time. Splits can also keep working out a little more interesting than just doing the same thing every session!

What are splits?

Popeye’s buddy is working chest and back today. Why so specific? He is splitting his workout. (Let’s just not get into Mr Performance-Enhancing-Spinach’s routine!)

Splits help:
- To let muscle groups “rest” in stages during the week
- To build a variety in workouts that supports better results
- To make the most of limited workout time

People who are training for a size or performance goal use different kinds of workouts and cycles in order to apply “training stimulus.” When building size or strength in muscle, a heavy or “high-volume” workout (a heavy weights session or a long run) actually causes microtears in muscle, and so the muscles needs rest while they repairs those microtears and gets bigger or stronger. People sometimes express this as “gains are made during rest.” If you don’t allow enough recovery time, you can lose your progress and even reverse it.

If you have 1 hour at the gym 3 or 4 times a week, splits can help you use that time to focus on a particular muscle group and give it a very thorough workout. Your next gym day, the worked muscles will still be recovering, and so you focus on a different muscle group. Splits let your muscles work — and recover — on a staggered schedule. (Part of that recovery relies on getting enough sleep, too.)

A split schedule can also mean work on different activities during the week. A lifter might focus on strength building for 3 out of 4 gym visits a week, and use that 4th visit to focus on cardio conditioning, for example, with a sprint session or by doing sled pushes.

Similarly, a cardio-focused athlete (such as a runner or cyclist) might use a couple of gym visits a week to do a mix of strength training and moderate cardio, also do a weekly sprint session, and use a fourth workout day to do a longer cardio session at a slower pace.

Should I do splits?

Yes. At the very least, you should be doing a mix of strengthening and cardio exercise. If you are focusing on a distance-oriented activity, like running or cycling, you should vary your pace and/or do different-length sessions during the week.

The human body is a splendid engine of “adaptation.” If you do exactly the same workout every single day — same distance at the same pace, same weights for the same number of reps and sets — your body will become excellent at that workout. It will use less energy over time to do the same work, as it gets more practice.

Splits and different “intensities” (faster and slower paces for shorter or longer times; heavier and lighter weights for fewer or more total reps) help to put the body through different workouts in a structured way, so you can improve and grow over time. Splits can also keep working out a little more interesting than just doing the same thing every session!

What Does 20 Grams of Protein Look Like?

Counting calories is one of the toughest things to learn — there’s lots to know (like all the ingredients in a food), and most people are frankly terrible at estimating quantities. It helps to memorize the highlights of a few of the foods you eat frequently, and to weigh the food you prepare at home to get practice with “how much.” But you still go out sometimes, too, so being able to eyeball your choices can go a long way.

Like “What Does 200 Calories Look Like?”, this blog entry shows examples of different foods in the quantities that contain 20 grams of protein. If you are active, and new to mindful eating, it can be tough to make sure you get enough protein, but it’s important: not only does it help you build muscle (and protect what you have when you’re losing weight), but it’s satiating, and eating more can help you feel more alert during the day.

Visit the link to see more foods! Elise gives 30 examples with a good wide range, mainly of protein-dense foods. Other foods that famously have “as much protein as beef for the same calories” (very low-calorie vegetables, for example) didn’t make the cut, because they wouldn’t come close to fitting on the plate!

What Does 20 Grams of Protein Look Like?

Counting calories is one of the toughest things to learn — there’s lots to know (like all the ingredients in a food), and most people are frankly terrible at estimating quantities. It helps to memorize the highlights of a few of the foods you eat frequently, and to weigh the food you prepare at home to get practice with “how much.” But you still go out sometimes, too, so being able to eyeball your choices can go a long way.

Like “What Does 200 Calories Look Like?”, this blog entry shows examples of different foods in the quantities that contain 20 grams of protein. If you are active, and new to mindful eating, it can be tough to make sure you get enough protein, but it’s important: not only does it help you build muscle (and protect what you have when you’re losing weight), but it’s satiating, and eating more can help you feel more alert during the day.

Visit the link to see more foods! Elise gives 30 examples with a good wide range, mainly of protein-dense foods. Other foods that famously have “as much protein as beef for the same calories” (very low-calorie vegetables, for example) didn’t make the cut, because they wouldn’t come close to fitting on the plate!

An extra fabulous observation!

If you exercise regularly, you’re still getting health benefits even if you don’t lose weight (or, rather, fat), but if you do have a fat-loss goal, remember to let your workouts chip away at the burgers and fries you already had before you go eating more :)

Also, poster cow says, “GET OUT THE WHEY.”

What’s Your Power Song?

Michael Phelps used it to focus before high-stakes competition, and Haile Gebrselassie uses it to rev up while on the course. Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast, and Longfellow called it the universal language of mankind. Can it help you? And how?

Almost everyone experiences music’s myriad emotional effects, and we are learning that its power reaches even further. Researchers have showed that it distracts people from fatigue and improves endurance and performance — often without the athlete realizing it. Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London has gone so far as to suggest that Phelps’s gold medals are tainted by this “performance-enhancing drug.”

How does it help?

People tend to synchronize their movements with music. We nod, we tap our feet. Runners have long noticed that songs with the appropriate beats per minute can help them maintain a consistent cadence (steps per minute).

This “synchrony” can make it easier for the body to operate. In a 2012 study of cyclists, those synchronizing to music used 7% less oxygen to cycle at the same level of effort as cyclists not synchronizing. 

Music creates a focus point. People listening to music are less likely to be aware of aches and pains, or even fatigue.

Music elicits strong emotions. Running apps invite you to choose a “Power Song,” and some weightlifters swear by music that annoys them — a song you love (or hate!) can provide a surge a emotion that aids performance.

Detractors, particularly in running, cite the meditative experience of being fully present in the world, and experiencing it directly, and point to research that says music “loses its effect” over time. These are important considerations for people preparing for competition — not only as they manage performance, but because some races ban users of music players from awards of top places and prizes. But for most of us, music can simply be a beautiful, inspiring, relaxing, evocative, and supportive part of our regular activity.

Image from "iPod Ad Variations"

Do you listen to music when you exercise? What’s your Power Song?

What’s Your Power Song?

Michael Phelps used it to focus before high-stakes competition, and Haile Gebrselassie uses it to rev up while on the course. Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast, and Longfellow called it the universal language of mankind. Can it help you? And how?

Almost everyone experiences music’s myriad emotional effects, and we are learning that its power reaches even further. Researchers have showed that it distracts people from fatigue and improves endurance and performance — often without the athlete realizing it. Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London has gone so far as to suggest that Phelps’s gold medals are tainted by this “performance-enhancing drug.”

How does it help?

People tend to synchronize their movements with music. We nod, we tap our feet. Runners have long noticed that songs with the appropriate beats per minute can help them maintain a consistent cadence (steps per minute).

This “synchrony” can make it easier for the body to operate. In a 2012 study of cyclists, those synchronizing to music used 7% less oxygen to cycle at the same level of effort as cyclists not synchronizing.

Music creates a focus point. People listening to music are less likely to be aware of aches and pains, or even fatigue.

Music elicits strong emotions. Running apps invite you to choose a “Power Song,” and some weightlifters swear by music that annoys them — a song you love (or hate!) can provide a surge a emotion that aids performance.

Detractors, particularly in running, cite the meditative experience of being fully present in the world, and experiencing it directly, and point to research that says music “loses its effect” over time. These are important considerations for people preparing for competition — not only as they manage performance, but because some races ban users of music players from awards of top places and prizes. But for most of us, music can simply be a beautiful, inspiring, relaxing, evocative, and supportive part of our regular activity.

Image from "iPod Ad Variations"

Do you listen to music when you exercise? What’s your Power Song?

Even Published Resources Can Be Totally Wrong

A well-meaning magazine published this image on a page devoted to “CrossFit exercises for runners.” Everyone should do some strength training, and it can be especially helpful for runners, because being stronger often means less chance of injury and more efficient running with less fatigue — a win-win-win situation. There’s just one problem. Almost nothing in the description is true. Magazines usually have fact checkers verify the information in an article, but not this one!

Error 1. This does not show a deadlift. (This is a deadlift.)
Error 2. What it shows is not a powerlifting move, “classic” or otherwise.
Error 3. The description of the movement is not accurate for what it probably is.

All we can tell from the picture is that she pressed the weight overhead. This move can be done from the floor or from a rack. When the move is done from a rack, it’s almost always with a narrower grip. She might have done 3 separate moves, starting from the floor, with pauses in between. Often when we see this position, with its wide grip, we are seeing the final position of the snatch, a multistep movement used in the weightlifting performed in the Olympics.

This magazine piece is trying to help you, and it’s inadvertently recommending a general strength move that is important. Unfortunately, it gives you nowhere near enough information to do it safely and effectively. It also uses the wrong terminology from start to finish, which makes it hard for you to get more information about it.

When you see a new exercise, particularly in a very short article or blurb like this, do some extra research:
— Throw the name of the movement into a search engine.
— Look for demonstration videos on YouTube.
— Ask a trainer at your gym (although trainers can be wrong, too, sadly).

Should I do this, whatever it is?

Yes, although not necessarily with that wide grip or with a barbell. Upper-body strengthening is something you can use every day, in household chores, moving boxes around, carrying kids, and on and on. You can strengthen this area with “shoulder press” and cable machines at the gym, with dumbbell movements, with kettlebell movements, or with a barbell. Heck, you can even get into a handstand and do pushups (here’s a way to learn, starting from simple floor movements). If you belong to a gym that has set up a basic “circuit” of strengthening machines, at least one of them addresses this kind of movement.

Whenever you decide to practice a new move that you’ve read about, start with something extra light, like a broomstick or a pair of coffee mugs. I am a big fan of practicing a movement in the privacy of my home, even if I am getting help from a coach in a gym, too. Practicing new movements with very light weights lets you get a sense of where your body is as you move, and is great “homework” to get a jump on a new exercise. Safe lifting with good form gives lots of benefits, but that good form is essential.

What are your favorite places to find new exercises?