Starter Steps

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

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

There is only one thing runners love more than running — and that’s complaining about all the petty discomforts of running. This image, which I found on fuelrunning.com, sticks pretty close to that theme, except for one thing: shin splints.

Shin splints is used, often very loosely, as a bucket term for lower-leg pain. It can be as benign as a little soreness as you increase your mileage, or the result of some weakness, tightness, or anatomical features in your lower leg. It can also be as serious as stress fracture or compartment syndrome. These conditions are less common, but they are serious and require different treatment from other lower-leg pain. Stress fractures requires the runner to stop high-impact exercise, and although chronic compartment syndrome is more common in runners, acute compartment syndrome can be a medical emergency requiring surgery, and can be caused by an injury that does not seem serious at first.

If you have shin splits, don’t blow it off like you would some bruises from hurdles, and definitely don’t take pride in it, as you should in brawny calves. Although many people experience a benign dull soreness after a heavy workout, exercise should not routinely hurt you, and recurring pain should be investigated and treated.

In this clip, from Buster Keaton’s “College,” we see a clearly strong and ripped Keaton throwing the javelin as hard as he can but barely making any distance. (This is a short clip of other track and field failures from the movie.)

Although it’s fairly unlikely that Keaton would have done poorly at any of these events at this point in his career, it is true that even a remarkable athlete like Keaton can’t necessarily do any of this stuff. Competition in particular really shines a light on the need to have exceptional technique, even for events that seem simple, like sprinting. But even if you’re just starting Couch to 5k, a little work on form will make everything go more smoothly.

So don’t worry if a new activity doesn’t seem to be coming together right away. Physical activities and strength movements require skills and practice, and the development of “muscle memory.” We all start somewhere!

In this clip, from Buster Keaton’s “College,” we see a clearly strong and ripped Keaton throwing the javelin as hard as he can but barely making any distance. (This is a short clip of other track and field failures from the movie.)

Although it’s fairly unlikely that Keaton would have done poorly at any of these events at this point in his career, it is true that even a remarkable athlete like Keaton can’t necessarily do any of this stuff. Competition in particular really shines a light on the need to have exceptional technique, even for events that seem simple, like sprinting. But even if you’re just starting Couch to 5k, a little work on form will make everything go more smoothly.

So don’t worry if a new activity doesn’t seem to be coming together right away. Physical activities and strength movements require skills and practice, and the development of “muscle memory.” We all start somewhere!

It’s Genetic

When mutant, muscle-bound puppies started showing up in litters of champion racing whippets, the breeders of the normally sleek dogs invited scientists to take DNA samples at race meets here and across the country. They hoped to find a genetic cause for the condition and a way to purge it from the breed. —”As Breeders Test DNA, Dogs Become Guinea Pigs

Wendy, the brown whippet in this photo, has a mutation in a gene that controls myostatin, which is responsible for setting some limits on how muscle grows. It’s not as simple as “let’s purge it” — many genetic disorders represent the occasional “too much” (or “nowhere near enough”) of a trait that, in moderation, is protective or functional, or simply benign (as in Wendy’s case). Wendy got this mutation from both parents, but a whippet that gets it from only one parent is substantially faster than a whippet that doesn’t carry the mutation at all.

This or similar mutations appear in people, cattle, and sheep as well, but as far as I know, no bodybuilders with this condition have taken the stage. In dogs, the genetic testing that is now contributing to selective breeding has brought up a number of ethical and practical questions about the wisdom of tinkering with genes at this level. “I always use dogs as the example of why we don’t want to be mucking around with our own genome,” Mark Derr told the New York Times in the story linked above. “These people are trying to use DNA tests to solve problems of their own making.”

This isn’t directly related to getting started with exercise, but it does illustrate one of the things it really means to say something is “genetic.” Also, I have an abiding fondness for Wendy. She may not be the fastest whippet (and she certainly doesn’t have a “thigh gap”), but she is a healthy beautiful dog.

Your Fitness Age

A Norwegian research group, CERG, recently published a paper that drew from careful measurements taken in a large, observational study, looking for ways to estimate a factor called VO2 max — the maximum amount of oxygen that the lungs can use during exercise. This probably sounds pretty arcane, but it’s a useful measurement of physical fitness, and it’s really labor-intensive to measure. It can also be risky to measure in people who are not healthy, because the standard testing method involves, well, just seeing how hard someone can work and measuring how much oxygen they use.

CERG parlayed their research into an online calculator, first called a “real age” test and now available at a website called World Fitness Level. By taking some measurements and answering a few questions, you can get an estimate of your VO2 max without getting up from your chair. The calculator compares your result to the predicted results for normal people in your age group and compares you to the age group whose result matches yours. A highly fit 70 year old, for example, could have a VO2 max consistent with a 30 year old.

How much does this matter?

Your specific VO2 max number doesn’t have the same impact as, say, your bodyfat percentage. Some people can improve it with performance training, but it is largely genetic, and the same training program may show changes in some people and no changes at all in others. That doesn’t mean the others didn’t benefit from training — exercise has many positive benefits on health, and outside the normal range, VO2 max is of interest mostly to competitive athletes and physicians.

The calculator is still fun and interesting, and CERG offers an option to share more information about general health risks for its database. The results page invites you to follow a link for information to improve your fitness (or, if you are already fit, improve it even further), but this site does not give any personalized fitness advice. The recommendations they make are simply a basic 7-week program geared toward sedentary people. Its program has a nice mix of strength and cardio, but it places too much emphasis on high-intensity intervals. Particularly if you are just starting a new commitment to exercise, you can benefit from their program with only low- and medium-intensity work, or by limiting high-intensity work to one day a week.

Photo by Rick Rickman, from his book, The Wonder Years: Portraits of Athletes Who Never Slow Down.

What is your Fitness Age?

Your Fitness Age

A Norwegian research group, CERG, recently published a paper that drew from careful measurements taken in a large, observational study, looking for ways to estimate a factor called VO2 max — the maximum amount of oxygen that the lungs can use during exercise. This probably sounds pretty arcane, but it’s a useful measurement of physical fitness, and it’s really labor-intensive to measure. It can also be risky to measure in people who are not healthy, because the standard testing method involves, well, just seeing how hard someone can work and measuring how much oxygen they use.

CERG parlayed their research into an online calculator, first called a “real age” test and now available at a website called World Fitness Level. By taking some measurements and answering a few questions, you can get an estimate of your VO2 max without getting up from your chair. The calculator compares your result to the predicted results for normal people in your age group and compares you to the age group whose result matches yours. A highly fit 70 year old, for example, could have a VO2 max consistent with a 30 year old.

How much does this matter?

Your specific VO2 max number doesn’t have the same impact as, say, your bodyfat percentage. Some people can improve it with performance training, but it is largely genetic, and the same training program may show changes in some people and no changes at all in others. That doesn’t mean the others didn’t benefit from training — exercise has many positive benefits on health, and outside the normal range, VO2 max is of interest mostly to competitive athletes and physicians.

The calculator is still fun and interesting, and CERG offers an option to share more information about general health risks for its database. The results page invites you to follow a link for information to improve your fitness (or, if you are already fit, improve it even further), but this site does not give any personalized fitness advice. The recommendations they make are simply a basic 7-week program geared toward sedentary people. Its program has a nice mix of strength and cardio, but it places too much emphasis on high-intensity intervals. Particularly if you are just starting a new commitment to exercise, you can benefit from their program with only low- and medium-intensity work, or by limiting high-intensity work to one day a week.

Photo by Rick Rickman, from his book, The Wonder Years: Portraits of Athletes Who Never Slow Down.

What is your Fitness Age?

It’s Not Enough to “Eat Less”

Here is some food for thought:

— Do you know anyone who grew up with good, concrete information about food, the nutrition different foods contain, and how much of which are healthful amounts?

— Do you sleep enough?

— Do you get the CDC recommended levels of exercise? 

— Do you have a lot of control over how your day goes, convenient options for storing and preparing food wherever you find yourself, and plenty of time to plan and prepare meals?

— Do you go more than an hour or so during the day without seeing advertising for packaged, prepared, or fast food?

For most of us, the answer to all these questions is, at best, “Not really.” And a “no” to any of those questions can contribute to overeating, and ultimately to serious health problems. The CDC lists most of these factors as contributors to childhood obesity, but they definitely contribute to adult obesity, too.

Getting good information, sleeping enough, hectic days — these can all be tough problems to work around, but they give us a better starting point than “eat less.” For one thing, most of us need to eat more of some things — fiber-rich vegetables, for example, and often lean protein.

Cartoon by Cathy Wilcox, from the Sydney Morning Herald article, “The rise and rise of Generation O”

What are your sticking points? What is your biggest obstacle to eating nutritiously or exercising regularly?

It’s Not Enough to “Eat Less”

Here is some food for thought:

— Do you know anyone who grew up with good, concrete information about food, the nutrition different foods contain, and how much of which are healthful amounts?

— Do you sleep enough?

— Do you get the CDC recommended levels of exercise?

— Do you have a lot of control over how your day goes, convenient options for storing and preparing food wherever you find yourself, and plenty of time to plan and prepare meals?

— Do you go more than an hour or so during the day without seeing advertising for packaged, prepared, or fast food?

For most of us, the answer to all these questions is, at best, “Not really.” And a “no” to any of those questions can contribute to overeating, and ultimately to serious health problems. The CDC lists most of these factors as contributors to childhood obesity, but they definitely contribute to adult obesity, too.

Getting good information, sleeping enough, hectic days — these can all be tough problems to work around, but they give us a better starting point than “eat less.” For one thing, most of us need to eat more of some things — fiber-rich vegetables, for example, and often lean protein.

Cartoon by Cathy Wilcox, from the Sydney Morning Herald article, “The rise and rise of Generation O”

What are your sticking points? What is your biggest obstacle to eating nutritiously or exercising regularly?

Halloween Party Foods

Kids (and adults) will be surrounded by candy on Halloween, so why not include some fun that’s not wall-to-wall refined sugar, too?

See Healthy Halloween Goodies for Kids at A Healthy Slice of Life and Halloween Snacks at Natural Noshing for more, and for instructions.

Willpower and Skillpower

You won’t see a lot of advice on this blog like “Figure out your TDEE and BMR, and then figure out how many calories you need to get a modest deficit, taking your workouts into account, and then count all your calories.” People who are ready to do all that probably don’t need help getting started!

I ask people, “What’s holding you back?” And the number-one answer is, “I don’t know the right place to start.” They don’t really know what makes a food healthy. The US dietary guidelines are not great, although MyPlate is better than the Food Pyramid, and they are geared toward maintenance eating, without concrete, specific steps for people who need to eat for weight loss. And definitely without a way to choose the steps that work best with different learning styles and the various constraints of day-to-day life. The confusion around exercise is even greater.

So I focus on simple steps that you can take today to get yourself pointed in the right direction. That involves two things: suggestions of specific actions and information about what tends to make them work (or not). I don’t just want you to eat the way I say you should; I want you to understand enough about food and about why one person eats differently from another so that you can make a confident choice for yourself. In short, I want people to learn skills that help them accumulate better small choices during the day, so they don’t have to rely on brute-force, rote actions, like restrictive diets or exercise regimens they hate.

David Katz, MD, refers to this as skillpower. In essence, he’s saying that having good skills is what puts the power in willpower.

[W]e are built to adapt well to situations that involve consuming few calories and doing lots of exercise. But we have no way to defend ourselves against the effects of caloric excess and the lure of the couch — it’s simply not in our genetic makeup. When eating too much and moving too little are not only possible but easy, they tend to happen, which is how we’ve landed together in the world of epidemic obesity and the chronic diseases that tend to go with it.

It’s a tall order to expect willpower to overcome all this, which is why skillpower matters so much. But the first critical skill is having the will, caring in a way that is truly constructive. Will equals wanting. Willpower is using that desire to to initiate action.

Ultimately, the most powerful formula for getting and staying healthy is to use moderate amounts of willpower with a heaping dose of skillpower…. Willpower can get you started, but it’s skillpower that enables you to stay the course, and cross the finish line. —Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well

Photo is of Chorizo. I took it when I was working with his — well, in San Francisco, she’s called his legal guardian. You can see more of him at my Flickr stream.

Willpower and Skillpower

You won’t see a lot of advice on this blog like “Figure out your TDEE and BMR, and then figure out how many calories you need to get a modest deficit, taking your workouts into account, and then count all your calories.” People who are ready to do all that probably don’t need help getting started!

I ask people, “What’s holding you back?” And the number-one answer is, “I don’t know the right place to start.” They don’t really know what makes a food healthy. The US dietary guidelines are not great, although MyPlate is better than the Food Pyramid, and they are geared toward maintenance eating, without concrete, specific steps for people who need to eat for weight loss. And definitely without a way to choose the steps that work best with different learning styles and the various constraints of day-to-day life. The confusion around exercise is even greater.

So I focus on simple steps that you can take today to get yourself pointed in the right direction. That involves two things: suggestions of specific actions and information about what tends to make them work (or not). I don’t just want you to eat the way I say you should; I want you to understand enough about food and about why one person eats differently from another so that you can make a confident choice for yourself. In short, I want people to learn skills that help them accumulate better small choices during the day, so they don’t have to rely on brute-force, rote actions, like restrictive diets or exercise regimens they hate.

David Katz, MD, refers to this as skillpower. In essence, he’s saying that having good skills is what puts the power in willpower.

[W]e are built to adapt well to situations that involve consuming few calories and doing lots of exercise. But we have no way to defend ourselves against the effects of caloric excess and the lure of the couch — it’s simply not in our genetic makeup. When eating too much and moving too little are not only possible but easy, they tend to happen, which is how we’ve landed together in the world of epidemic obesity and the chronic diseases that tend to go with it.

It’s a tall order to expect willpower to overcome all this, which is why skillpower matters so much. But the first critical skill is having the will, caring in a way that is truly constructive. Will equals wanting. Willpower is using that desire to to initiate action.

Ultimately, the most powerful formula for getting and staying healthy is to use moderate amounts of willpower with a heaping dose of skillpower…. Willpower can get you started, but it’s skillpower that enables you to stay the course, and cross the finish line.Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well

Photo is of Chorizo. I took it when I was working with his — well, in San Francisco, she’s called his legal guardian. You can see more of him at my Flickr stream.

How Does Your Fitness Tracker Work?

Fitness trackers are a category of small, simple, wearable computers that expand on old-school pedometers. Fitbit, Jawbone Up, and Nike Fuelband some well-known examples.

I tested a Nike Fuelband a couple of years ago, and was amused by how many steps it told me I’d taken in my sleep — depending on where you wear a tracker, it can make a bit too much (or not enough) of your movements. So how is it working, and what is it best (and not so good) at?

The New York Times offers this helpful explainer, complete with animations of activities and corresponding fitness tracker readings. Fun and helpful!

In spite of a few foibles, fitness trackers do a good job of showing how generally active you are during the day. If you are sedentary, and can use some accountability help to get into more active habits, fitness trackers are a terrific option.

Tips for Getting the Most Out Of Your Fitness Tracker

Set general goals for activity (or rest, for those that track sleep).

Don’t read too much into the exact numbers — focus on trending. Although they should all count steps well, some devices have had problems even with that. So one day to the next might be a bit arbitrary (although you’ll probably notice that immediately and be able to make a note of some kind about it), but over the course of weeks or months, you can see general activity trends.

Don’t rely on their calorie estimates to justify eating more. Almost no machines estimate calories very well (and that goes for cardio machines at the gym, or even the calorie estimates with chest straps — you’re better off just recording the average heart rate and tracking that as an expression of effort). A lot goes into actual calorie burn, and machine calculators almost never have all the important factors; don’t let the precision and definition of the “calorie” unit mislead you.

Don’t assume you need bells and whistles. Most of the advanced features on fitness trackers (like heart rate — and one even claims to measure blood sugar!) are … aspirational. The majority of what fitness trackers measure can be tracked with a pedometer. Fitness trackers often have a nicer interface for looking at activity history and saving the information, though.

Synergize the value of your fitness tracker by joining a community. The tracker makers often have some kind of Web interface that lets people interact with other users, and get comparisons (“You walked 12,850 steps today — you are in the top 10% of steps taken for the day.”) Sites like MapMyFitness offer some social opportunities and also better options for tracking activity you can’t label well with a simple fitness tracker.

Above all, have fun with it! Your fitness tracker should be a nudge that keeps you honest about moving more, not a taskmaster or a judge.

Caffeine and Performance

It turns out Red Bull doesn’t give you wings. The basis of the recent lawsuit was that its advertising fraudulently claimed benefits in athletic performance and concentration over and above caffeinated drinks alone, as if that was the only reason Red Bull asked a premium price. 

The most interesting claim may be this one: Benjamin Careathers, a regular consumer of the fizzy drink, sued the company for false advertising, arguing that after 10 years drinking Red Bull he neither had wings nor any enhanced athletic or intellectual performance. This claim seems vulnerable on the basis of a basic understanding of what caffeine does.

Does caffeine boost performance?

Yes, caffeine improves performance, but just on what you do right afterward. (By contrast, steroids confer lasting benefits.) Even modest amounts of caffeine, immediately before a workout, can improve performance in that workout, which is why caffeine is the basis for “preworkout” supplements, and is a common ingredient in easy nutrition options for runners, such as gels and blocks.

Caffeine doesn’t really “make you better” (and of course doesn’t give you wings), but it perks you up and lets you train longer. A person who uses caffeine strategically can see cumulative performance gains … if they follow through on a good training program. That is, it can help you make the most of your training, and if you stick with the program, you’ll get lasting benefits over time.

There are some other claims for how energy is used in the body with caffeine on board, and the evidence for them is fuzzier but is still often repeated.

Should I use caffeine?

Maybe. Some people really hate how caffeine makes them feel, so they probably won’t get much good out of it. Some people (like me) don’t feel any different with caffeine on board, but it probably contributes chemically anyway — the effect in athletes is noticed both with regular caffeine users and with non-users.

You don’t need much, either, for benefit in your workout, and normal dietary amounts of it don’t show up on “banned drugs” lists, so there is certainly no need to feel bad about having a coffee or even a Coca Cola before your workout. If a little pick-me-up makes the difference between getting your exercise or just going home and sitting on the couch, it’s a good deal. As with postworkout drinks, like Gatorade or chocolate milk, the main issue to be aware of is whether you need the calories.

Photo by ASR Photos

Caffeine and Performance

It turns out Red Bull doesn’t give you wings. The basis of the recent lawsuit was that its advertising fraudulently claimed benefits in athletic performance and concentration over and above caffeinated drinks alone, as if that was the only reason Red Bull asked a premium price.

The most interesting claim may be this one: Benjamin Careathers, a regular consumer of the fizzy drink, sued the company for false advertising, arguing that after 10 years drinking Red Bull he neither had wings nor any enhanced athletic or intellectual performance. This claim seems vulnerable on the basis of a basic understanding of what caffeine does.

Does caffeine boost performance?

Yes, caffeine improves performance, but just on what you do right afterward. (By contrast, steroids confer lasting benefits.) Even modest amounts of caffeine, immediately before a workout, can improve performance in that workout, which is why caffeine is the basis for “preworkout” supplements, and is a common ingredient in easy nutrition options for runners, such as gels and blocks.

Caffeine doesn’t really “make you better” (and of course doesn’t give you wings), but it perks you up and lets you train longer. A person who uses caffeine strategically can see cumulative performance gains … if they follow through on a good training program. That is, it can help you make the most of your training, and if you stick with the program, you’ll get lasting benefits over time.

There are some other claims for how energy is used in the body with caffeine on board, and the evidence for them is fuzzier but is still often repeated.

Should I use caffeine?

Maybe. Some people really hate how caffeine makes them feel, so they probably won’t get much good out of it. Some people (like me) don’t feel any different with caffeine on board, but it probably contributes chemically anyway — the effect in athletes is noticed both with regular caffeine users and with non-users.

You don’t need much, either, for benefit in your workout, and normal dietary amounts of it don’t show up on “banned drugs” lists, so there is certainly no need to feel bad about having a coffee or even a Coca Cola before your workout. If a little pick-me-up makes the difference between getting your exercise or just going home and sitting on the couch, it’s a good deal. As with postworkout drinks, like Gatorade or chocolate milk, the main issue to be aware of is whether you need the calories.

Photo by ASR Photos

Strategic Fridge Filling

One of the best things you can do to make it easier to eat well at home is to keep good stuff in the house. If you’re trying to limit processed foods (and you should), that means more ingredients, maybe batch cooking to prepare meals ahead of time, and lots of fresh vegetables. So what should you do to keep those foods in the best shape?

"Don’t leave the fridge door open!" may be the only rule most of us have ever heard about using the fridge, but there are lots of ways to get more out the fridge than just food. (And important safety issues to keep in mind, so everything you do get out is wholesome!)

Greatist has published this nice diagram about where foods go in the fridge, and these are the basic principles: [E]ven when the refrigerator is sufficiently cold, the temperature will vary in different parts of the fridge depending on how close they are to the cooling element. Master the art of the refrigerator, and your food will last longer.

Go to their web page to read the notes, see the freezer section, and learn which items should never go in the fridge.

Strategic Fridge Filling

One of the best things you can do to make it easier to eat well at home is to keep good stuff in the house. If you’re trying to limit processed foods (and you should), that means more ingredients, maybe batch cooking to prepare meals ahead of time, and lots of fresh vegetables. So what should you do to keep those foods in the best shape?

"Don’t leave the fridge door open!" may be the only rule most of us have ever heard about using the fridge, but there are lots of ways to get more out the fridge than just food. (And important safety issues to keep in mind, so everything you do get out is wholesome!)

Greatist has published this nice diagram about where foods go in the fridge, and these are the basic principles: [E]ven when the refrigerator is sufficiently cold, the temperature will vary in different parts of the fridge depending on how close they are to the cooling element. Master the art of the refrigerator, and your food will last longer.

Go to their web page to read the notes, see the freezer section, and learn which items should never go in the fridge.