Reversing the Biological Clock

Exercise is the best anti-aging treatment.  However, most individuals seem to prefer being sedentary and risk having many chronic diseases associated with age. Maybe it is because we are completely surrounded with too many so-called “easy ways to reverse the clock.” Botox, plastic surgeries, anti-aging lotions, you get the picture. Unfortunately, these quick fixes only work on the outside. What about the inside? Our heart, lungs, muscles, and bones – they too suffer the effects of aging. As we get older, we tend to lose muscle and bone mass, our flexibility becomes limited, the production of hormones declines, our cardiorespiratory capacity diminishes, and our cognitive function becomes impaired, among others.

The good news is that living an active lifestyle can make your body stronger and more resistant to the wear and tear of time. Regular physical activity contributes to maintain/build muscle and bone mass, keeps your heart and lungs attuned, and improves metabolic function and hormonal production all of which prevent many chronic diseases related to aging.

I know you must be thinking that now is too late; you should have started when you were young. However, this is far away from the truth. The human body is able to respond to exercise at any age.

My husband’s grandma still runs long distance events (5K and 10K) – and she is 92. Her secret is that she keeps herself busy, walking everywhere and attending Pilates and swimming classes three to five days a week. She is the epitome of independent living. Last year, she fell at night and broke her foot, which would be a hospital nightmare for anyone of her age. However, because she kept herself active, in over a month she was up and walking. And if you are thinking that she must have started when she was young, think again. She began her first exercise program on her mid-fifties.  Therefore, age is not an excuse.

Still, you should start slowly, increasing volume and intensity as you get used to exercise. Also, depending on your current health status, you should see your doctor for medical clearance. Age is not a contraindication to exercise, but some medical conditions may require special programs.

Adjust your mindset

As a new year starts, millions of people make resolutions that they don’t believe they can accomplish. In the US, the number one resolution for 2014 was to lose weight (University of Scranton). Unfortunately, only 8% of people are expected to be successful in achieving their goals. Why these statistics are so pessimistic? Well, the truth is that most people want something, but few are willing to work for it.

Keep in mind that just because we write down a simple statement, it doesn’t mean it will magically happen, no effort needed. Therefore, if you really want to achieve your goals this year, it is time you change your approach.

According to Carol Dweck, PH.D., author of “Mindset: the New Psychology of Success,” there are basically two types of mindset: the fixed and the growth. People with a fixed mindset think in a black and white manner (smart or dumb, weak or strong, successful or failure). They believe their attributes are carved in stone, seeing themselves as a finished product.  Because of those beliefs, they tend to be judgmental and have the need to prove themselves all the time. When faced with a challenge, they run away, trying to avoid a possible failure. If they “fail”, they tell themselves that they are not as smart as they thought; they feel sorry for themselves and resign. This means that they lack motivation to keep going through adversities. Consequently they can’t achieve their full potential.

People with the growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that a person’s true potential depends on effort, that everyone can change and growth through practice and experience. They see challenges as an opportunity to learn. When facing an obstacle, they ask themselves: “how can I overcome this?” or “what can I learn from this experience?” Because of this way of thinking, they are highly motivated people and are more likely to succeed in life.

In fact, studies in neuroscience shows that challenges do make you stronger, faster, and smarter because they force your brain to make more neural connections over time. Thus, if you adjust your mindset to be OK with assuming risks, making occasional mistakes, and learning from experiences, you may accomplish whatever you want.

Don’t be afraid of struggles and setbacks. Life doesn’t go in a straight line anyway. More likely than not, obstacles will appear and you can look at them as an opportunity to learn or you can feel sorry for yourself. It is your choice.

However, changing your mindset is not a simple process. There will be times in which willpower won’t be enough; you’ll need strategies. Make concrete plans determining what, where, when, and how you want. It is also important to put effort into your goal. Writing it down and waiting for it to happen, won’t do the cut. Move towards your goal. And when you face setbacks, don’t give up. Analyse what happened and ask what you can learn from it. Oh, and try to enjoy the process.

mindset

Save Your Children

Forget about kids’ menu. Chicken nuggets, French fries, grilled cheese are all poor nutritional options, training the child’s palate to accept artificial flavors and reject the taste of real food. Instead, give your children small portions of what you will have for dinner including vegetables, whole grains and lean cuts of meat. Remember that it is your responsibility to offer your kids new and exciting dishes which incite their curiosity and develop their ability to make smart choices in the future.

Prevention is the Best Medicine

Prevention is the best medicine – I’m sure you heard this before. An overwhelming number of studies have shown that our lifestyle choices are responsible for causing or preventing many chronic diseases. So why is it so hard to improve our lifestyle choices? Maybe it is because we don’t feel immediately threatened by any health issues. At least not right now. However, as we get older chances are that our body won’t be able to deal with all the abuses we do when we are younger.

As the years go by, it is more common than not to put on some weight. Then, we blame our metabolism; we convince ourselves that it is slowing down as part of the aging process and it is only natural to gain a couple of pounds, until they start piling up, and you end up overweight and miserable. Also, many will develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, among others. And now, we blame our genes; it runs on the family, we say.

The problem is that we never think that what happens to our body is our own fault. It is so difficult to assume responsibility for our acts that we fabricate excuses to justify our poor behavior. Let me tell you something: you are going to be in this body for a long time; you can’t exchange it or return it. So, you need to take good care of it, otherwise it will be run down and useless.

It is possible to age gracefully and in full health. All you need to do is to respect your body. Provide it with real nourishment, not some fast-food junk you bought because you were in a hurry or because you “didn’t feel like cooking.” Exercise it to keep your joints “well-oiled,” your muscles strong and your heart healthy. And give it enough rest. These are just simple guidelines, yet many people can’t seem to follow.

The good news is that it is never too late to start eating healthier and exercising regularly. You don’t need to change everything at once. Just do one small change at a time. A good start would be assuming responsibility for your health and reflecting on how your actions impact your life and body. If you can set your mind to do the right thing, your body will be happy to follow it.

Push-up 101

Push-up is an excelent body-weight exercise that doesn’t require any equipment and can be done anywhere. However, many people feel intimidated by it and end up missing the opportunity to work out  many muscle groups at once in a few minutes.

Its initial position  is the plank, in which the body is in a straight line from head to toe. To get into a plank position, start by lying down facing the floor with hands on the ground outside your shoulders. Bring the shoulder blades together to activate the back muscles, engage your core, lift your body from the floor, straightening your arms, and push your heels back to activate your glutes and legs. Practice holding the plank for 30-second intervals, in order to build the core strength that is necessary when performing push-ups.

Watch this video for basic tips for performing perfect push-ups.

Push-up 101

On the Road Mini Circuit

It is holiday time and many of us don’t have time to go to the gym. For those, I put together an exercise routine that doesn’t require any equipment, can be done anywhere (I did it barefoot on my office floor), and can be completed in 10 minutes (if this is all the time you have). It is a mini circuit composed of four exercises, challenging your whole body in a short period of time. However, if time is not an issue, feel free to repeat the circuit as many times as you’d like. Check it out.

On the road mini circuit

 

 

Functional Vs Traditional

Do you arrive at the gym and go right away to the cardio equipment? If that’s your case, you are not alone. Many women feel intimidated by the weight room and end up missing an important type of training. Strength training is a fundamental part of fitness as it builds lean muscle mass, improves bone and joint health, and gives your body that “toned” appearance you’ve always wanted. And even though, many of us still associate strength training with weight-lifting and bulky guys, that’s not the rule anymore. It is possible to gain strength without putting on a lot of muscle. Besides, there are more functional ways of training your body. In the table below I compared functional strength training with traditional weight lifting. If you are new to this type of exercise, I strongly recommend that you to find a competent trainer, who can design a balanced program to address your needs.  

Functional Strength Training

Traditional Weight Lifting

Examples are lunges, push-ups Examples are leg extensions, bench presses
Use an array of tools such as balls, bands, suspension training equipment, stability boards, among others Use free weights and exercise machines
Exercises are usually performed from a standing position Exercises are usually performed sitting or lying
Train the body as a whole Training is divided in body parts or muscle groups
Exercises mimic real life and sports movements Exercises are composed by simplistic movements
Multi-joint movements Single joint movements
Move in multiple planes of motion Move in single planes of motion
Recruit multiple muscle groups Movements are restricted to one or two muscle groups
Improve mobility, flexibility, core stability, balance, strength, power, sports performance, coordination, agility Focus on muscle growth and strength gains
Exercises are composed by complex movement patterns, continuously challenging the nervous system Movement patterns are too basic and the body quickly adapts to the exercises after a couple of weeks
Fitness improvements are easily translated to daily activities (carrying groceries, chasing your kids, moving furniture around the house) Gains in strength are not easily transferred to daily activities
Muscle growth is evenly distributed Muscle growth can be concentrated in a few body parts (chest, abdominals, and quads)
Workouts are usually balanced, which reduce the risk of injuries It is easy to create an unbalanced program, which can lead to muscles imbalances and abnormal muscle patterns

Single-Leg Exercises

Are you still stuck in a training routine that is composed mostly of bilateral exercises (leg presses, leg curls, and leg extensions)? Maybe it is time to rethink your workout. The problem is that, in real life, there is not much we do with both feet on the ground. Actually, most tasks we perform on a daily basis are composed of asymmetrical movements. When walking, running, or climbing stairs, for instance, we are performing a series of single-leg movements, in which we shift our body-weight from one leg to the other.

This means that bilateral exercises are not functional. A program composed mostly of double-leg exercises misses the opportunity to train some of the most important muscles in the body: the ones responsible for body stabilization.

Physiologically speaking, when you balance in one leg, as when you walk or run, the muscles of the inner thighs and outer thighs of the weight bearing leg and the muscles of the lower back on the opposite side are engaged to stabilize your hips and spine. Unfortunately, double-leg exercises don’t recruit these muscles; their focus is on major muscle groups such as quadriceps and hamstrings. And you may think you have strong legs, but if your stabilizers are undertrained and weak, you may injure yourself while performing simple activities. What happens when those muscles are weak? They are unable to hold your body in place during movement, affecting your posture and gait. Keep in mind that weak muscles lead to body compensations, creating a wrongful pattern that might cause injuries in the long run.

Don’t worry. I’m not telling you to ditch squats and deadlifts altogether, just that you should adjust your program a bit. The good news is that your routine will also become more fun because of the variety and added challenge. Single-leg exercises defy your balance because they shift your center of gravity, requiring the engagement of the stabilizers. But how can you incorporate single-leg exercises in your routine? Take a look at the following exercise progression.

  1. Split squats – This is a static supported exercise in which both feet are planted on the ground throughout the whole drill. It is as if you were kneeling and standing up in the same place. This is a preparation for real single-leg exercises; therefore, it is adequate for beginners. The split stance challenges the balance, engaging the hip and spine stabilizers, but doesn’t require much leg strength. You can increase the challenge by placing the back foot on a bench.
  2. Forward lunge – Lunges are dynamic unsupported single-leg exercises. This particular variation is a progression from split squats. In this exercise, you step forward, bending both knees until your front thigh and back shin are parallel to the ground. Then, you push off with the front leg coming back to the standing position. You may also step back or sideways changing the direction of movement to work the body in different planes.
  3. Walking lunges – This is an advanced variation in which you move forward with each step. It is like walking and kneeling. It recruits several muscles to stabilize the hips and spine, as well as working the glutes, hamstrings and quads.

References

Boyle, M. Advances in Functional Training. Santa Cruz, CA: On Target Publications. 2010

Bryant, C., et al, eds. ACE Advanced Health & Fitness Specialist Manual. The Ultimate Resource for Advanced Fitness Professionals. San Diego: American Council on Exercise. 2009.

Clark, M. et al. NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training. Baltimore, MD: Lippinicott Williams & Wilkins. 2011.

Count Your Blessings… More Often

Yes, it is Thanksgiving and we are ready to deliver our little speech at dinner table. But are they just meaningless words that were put together nicely or do we really feel blessed for all those good deeds?

According to well-being researches, the regular practice of gratitude is strongly associated with happiness and life satisfaction. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” and it seems that happiness contributes to mental health.

Positive Psychology is the branch of psychology that studies “the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive[1].” Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, developed the Well-Being theory which states that personal well-being is composed of five elements: positive emotions, engagement, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment. Happiness evidently contributes to positive feelings.

Interestingly enough, the factors that seem to be strongly correlated to happiness and life satisfaction are not exactly the same things most of us tend to pursuit in life. Happiness studies point out that gratitude, optimism and self-esteem have a greater impact in one’s happiness than income level, education or physical attractiveness. Maybe this explains why so many people seem to be so dissatisfied nowadays.

Practicing gratitude on a regular basis seems to increase happiness and life satisfaction, strengthen relationships with others, lead to peace of mind, and even improve physical health. This is because gratitude shifts your focus to the positive aspects of your life, builds positive relationships, gives meaning to one’s life, and creates a sense of accomplishment, all of which are components of the Well-Being theory.

However, to be valid, gratitude has to come from within. Sitting at the Thanksgiving table and blabbing words without feeling them, doesn’t count. To improve feelings of gratitude, positive psychologists suggest a few exercises. Write a letter of gratitude to someone you never thanked properly. Then deliver the letter personally and allow this person to read it, noticing his/her reactions. You can also start a gratitude journal in which you daily record three things that went well in your day. And of course, say “thank you” more often.

Thank you for reading this article!

References

Seligman, M. Flourish. New York: Free Press. 2011.

Peterson, C. A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press. 2006



[1] Available at http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/

Pantry Must-Have: Oats

I know you probably already have oats in your pantry. Who doesn’t, right? However, chances are you’ve been underutilizing this amazing ingredient. But before we talk about all the possibilities you’ve been overlooking, let me explain why you should include oats more often in your diet.

Oats are considered a whole grain, and fortunately, processing does not strip away their germ or bran, meaning that they usually retain their high contents of fiber and nutrients. Nevertheless, you may want to stay clear of instant oatmeal.  Even though they seem convenient and harmless, these varieties are usually packed with sugar, salt and other additives.

Oats are nutritional power houses. They are a good source of selenium (a trace mineral that works as an antioxidant), phosphorous (a mineral associated with bone health), magnesium (a mineral related to bone and muscle health), and zinc (a trace mineral fundamental for wound healing and growth). Oats are also rich in fiber which promotes digestive health, may help with weight management, and is associated with lower cholesterol levels. Furthermore, the large amount of viscous fiber found in oats, slows down glucose absorption, which contributes to better blood sugar stabilization, reducing the risk for diabetes type 2.

In addition, antioxidants and phytochemicals found in oats seem to have a cardio-protective effect, reducing one’s risk for heart disease. These substances have been also linked to improved immune function and reduced risk of developing certain types of cancer (such as colon and breast cancer).

And even though, oats contain a small amount of gluten, they seem to be well tolerated by patients with Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.

Besides all the nutritional qualities, oats are also a very versatile ingredient. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind when you think of oats is oatmeal, but there are so many other ways to incorporate them in your diet (and I’m not referring to granola). Try grinding old fashioned oats in a food processor, using the flour for baking. Add it to any batter (such as breads, pancakes and cookies) to improve the nutrient profile of your meal. You may also replace breadcrumbs with oat flour in meatballs or meatloaf recipes.  Or use it to crust your chicken. Oats also go well in soups or as side dishes, such as a pilaf. I also like to add oats to my smoothies. My favorite recipe is: blend one banana, 2 tablespoons of rolled oats, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, and 1 cup of almond milk.

References

Boyle, M. and Long, S. Personal Nutrition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. 2010.

“Oats – January Grain of the Month.” Available at Available at http://www.wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/oats-january-grain-of-the-month . Accessed in November 2012.

“Oats – The Worlds Heathiest Foods.” Available at http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=54#nutritionalprofile. Accessed in November 2012.

Wardlaw, G. and Smith, A. Contemporary Nutrition. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2009