Zumba: Fun versus Effectiveness

You’ve probably heard about it or even joined one of their parties. For those who are still unfamiliar with this type of exercise, Zumba fitness is a Latin dance-inspired workout that has become one of the most popular group exercise classes in the world. The classes are choreographed using dance moves from several styles (Salsa, Merengue, and Cumbia, among others) that are not only easy to follow, but also make you feel as if you are in a club. It is fun for sure, but is it as effective as a workout? In order to answer this question, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) commissioned a study analyzing the fitness aspects of this type of training.

The researchers recruited 19 young (ages 18 to 22), healthy females who have previously participated in Zumba classes. The goal of the study was to determine if the intensity of the sessions was in accordance with the current fitness guidelines (moderate to vigorous). The study measured the average heart rate and the maximum heart rate (the maximum number of heart beats per minute during the session) of the volunteers in order to determine the intensity of the workout session. It also measured the amount of calories burned per minute, among other variables.

The results were outstanding. Zumba has shown to increase heart rate, fulfilling the industry requirements for intensity. This means that Zumba classes promote a cardiorespiratory challenge, which is fundamental for endurance improvement. In addition, the Zumba workouts are assembled in the same pattern as an interval training session, with bouts of high-intensity exercise followed by lower-intensity periods to allow recovery. This type of training has been shown to successfully improve cardiovascular fitness. Also, this high intensity interval training makes you burn more calories when compared to steady-state cardio exercises such as jogging. In the study, participants burned an average of 369 calories per class, which is more than kickboxing, step-aerobics, and power yoga.

The bottom line is: for a fun and effective workout, you may want to join the Zumba party.


“Zumba Fitness: Sure It’s Fun but Is It Effective?” Certified News. September 2012. Available at http://www.acefitness.org/certifiednewsarticle/2813/zumba-174-sure-it-39-s-fun-but-is-it-effective/

Super Shake

Here is an amazing idea for a quick breakfast or afternoon snack. This shake is a complete balanced meal with one serving of fruits, one serving of veggies, healthy fats, and protein. It is a thick and creamy smoothie which can satisfy your cravings for something sweet while filling you up.

In a blender, start with four cubes of ice (add more if you prefer a thicker smoothie) and 1 cup of almond milk (feel free to use soy or coconut milk, if you’d like). Add ½ cup of frozen spinach, 1 banana (or 1 cup of berries), 1 tablespoon of all natural peanut butter (you can also use any other nut butter), and 1 scoop of vanilla protein powder. Blend it well and enjoy.

Choose a protein powder with at least 25 grams of protein per serving, but watch for the amount of calories per serving too. You don’t want a product full of sugar and additives, so compare brands to find the one that offers more protein with fewer calories.

What Is Intuitive Eating?

Many dieters tend to develop a negative relationship with food. That’s because diets have created the idea that eating is a frivolous habit that should be restricted in order to obtain the perfect body. Unfortunately, most diets completely ignore the body’s needs for energy and nutrients. Instead, they create the illusion that there are “good” foods (such as cabbage and broccoli) and “bad” foods (such as doughnuts and bread), and you should only eat the good ones; otherwise, you’ll be condemned to be fat. Therefore, people try to deprive themselves of the foods they love in the name of “fitness.” However, eating only cabbage and broccoli is unrealistic and unattainable.

So, why do people keep dieting? Because it creates expectations and hopes about a new body and a new life. The problem is that a diet hardly ever delivers what it promises. You may be able to cut off candies, fat, or carbohydrates for a while, but you won’t be able to do it forever. When you can’t do it anymore, you’ll feel like a failure. And what happens after that? Usually, binge eating. It is as if you suddenly rebelled against the self-imposed restraints and decided to eat all you missed in one sitting. After that, you feel awfully guilty and promise to start a new diet the next day, and the cycle restarts.  

In order to help people overcome the diet mentality, two nutritionists developed a program called “intuitive eating.”  This program is based on a few principles that help people make peace with food and respect their bodies. The main goal of the program is to create a state of awareness in order to be able to recognize biological signs of hunger and fullness. According to the authors, restrictive eaters tend to rely on external cues (such as portion size) to determine how much they should eat, instead of paying attention to internal cues (such as how they feel). This numbs their systems, and they lose the ability to trust their bodies around food. Chronic dieters believe that if they don’t micromanage their eating habits, they will overeat.

Therefore, the first step of the intuitive eating process is to give yourself permission to eat whatever you want without guilt or censure. This is obviously a difficult but crucial step, since most people will have a hard time letting go of the dieting beliefs. However, this step will help you get in touch with long lost feelings of satisfaction. You see, for you to feel satisfied after a meal, what you eat is as important as how much you eat. Eating something you don’t like is not as satisfying as having a food you really love. Besides, when you give yourself permission to have a “forbidden” food without guilt, you are able to have a small but satisfying portion. If you restrict yourself, on the other hand, you’ll tend to eat a much larger portion when you have a chance. 

The next step is to reconnect with your body in order to recognize feelings of hunger and satiety. Most dieters tend to suppress early signals of hunger and eat only when starving. That’s what happens when you skip meals. You ignore your hunger for a whole day, only to find yourself famished by dinnertime.   Eating when over-hungry leads to overeating. The problem is that your body won’t be able to use all the calories you’ve just ingested, meaning that any extra energy will be stored as fat. So, according to the intuitive eating principles, you should eat when moderately hungry rather than waiting until you are starving.  

After learning to fuel your body when it is asking for food, you’ll need to recognize when you are full. The authors encourage people to take a time-out during the meal to assess their level of fullness. Your job is to stop eating before you are too full. In order to be able to do this, you must give food your undivided attention. Eating while performing other activities leads to mindless eating, which means that you will probably eat more than you intended.

In sum: eat only when you are hungry, eat what you really want (not what you think you are supposed to eat), watch your satiety level and stop eating before you are stuffed, give food your undivided attention, and savor your food (instead of gulping it down). Following these simple principles can help you get enjoyment from food without overeating.

For more information, read “Intuitive Eating. A Revolutionary Program That Works,” from Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

Gluten-free Pancakes

This recipe yields light fluffy pancakes with a nice crispy crust. For the batter, mix 1 cup of brown rice flour, 2 teaspoons of sugar, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, ½ teaspoon of baking soda, and a pinch of salt. In a separate bowl, combine 2 eggs with 1 cup of buttermilk. Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients, whisking to combine. Makes four five-inch pancakes. For a balanced breakfast, serve it with cottage cheese and fresh fruit, drizzled with a teaspoon of honey.

Brown rice flour has a sweet nutty flavor and is a great substitute for wheat flour in baked goods. It is made from finely grounded whole rice kernels (including the outer layers) which preserves its fiber, vitamins, and minerals content. Rice flour is also naturally gluten-free, being appropriate for people who suffer from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. One serving (¼ cup of the dry flour) has around 110 calories, 2 grams of fiber, and 2 grams of protein.

Overcoming a Training Plateau

You’ve been training religiously for a while and have seen great results so far. However, in the last couple of weeks, you feel that your improvements might be slowing down and your motivation is starting to fail. If this scenario seems familiar to you, you may have reached a dreaded plateau.

Physiologically speaking, the most evident outcomes tend to occur in the first eight weeks of training, especially if you were previously sedentary. This is because the human body goes through physiological adaptations when facing a challenge, and the first few weeks of a new program are always pretty challenging. However, as you get accustomed to the new workout, the challenge is considerably reduced and the adaptations come to an end. The truth is that if you don’t spice things up every once in awhile, your body won’t suffer further adaptations and you’ll stop seeing results.

You can get a renewed challenge through many ways: selecting new exercises, using different tools, or increasing the overload, for example. But if you don’t have the time or money to invest in a brand new workout every month, I have a few tricks for you. The good news is that you can use the exercises from your previous routine. All you’ll need is to rearrange them to shock your body and force it to adapt to the new challenge.

1. Super setting

A superset is composed of two or three exercises performed back to back with no rest in between. For this method, you should choose exercises that work different muscle groups in order to get the best results. This way, while one muscle group is working, the other is resting. In addition, this method allows you to burn more calories in less time, simply because you are working instead of passively resting. For example, you can pair an upper-body exercise with a lower-body exercise such as push-ups and squats, or you can use push and pull exercises together such as chest presses followed by cable rows. You may also use three exercises such as lunges, bicep curls and sit-ups.

2. Timed sets

In this type of workout, you’ll perform each exercise for a set period of time, trying to squeeze in as many repetitions as you can. Your goal is to increase the number of repetitions every set. Write down your scores in order to keep track of your improvements. One thing is fundamental: select only exercises with which you are familiar, so you can maintain proper form throughout the set. Perform between two and five sets, keeping the recovery period to a minimum (from 10 to 30 seconds) in order to increase heart rate and improve fat burn. For instance, you can perform body-weight squats for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds, and then, repeat.

3. Circuits

In order to create a new challenge, we will reorganize the exercises from your previous routine into a circuit. In a regular program, you would perform each exercise for a number of sets (usually, from two to five sets), resting in between sets and before moving on to the next exercise. In this method, however, you’ll be performing one set of each exercise, switching from one exercise to the next with little to no rest in between. The circuit should be composed of eight to 10 exercises, each one performed for an x number of repetitions (between 12 and 20) or for a predetermined period of time (from 30 to 60 seconds). Once you finish a round, rest for up to three minutes before repeating. Perform from three to five rounds. This type of training will keep your heart rate up, help you burn more fat, and build lean muscle mass.   

Book Review: The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet

Are you having trouble adhering to a diet plan? If so, you are not alone. Many people turn to fad diets whenever they want to drop a few pounds fast. Yes, dieting can be an effective way to lose weight; however, keeping it off is a completely different story. The problem is that to successfully maintain a weight-loss, you must make some permanent changes in your eating habits. Quick fixes (such as eating only cabbage for a week) won’t do the job. In addition, most diets tend to fail in the long run because of their restrictive nature. Simply put: when you cut off all the foods you love from your diet, you feel deprived. And will-power alone won’t keep you away from that chocolate cake for too long. Restrictive approaches only lead to frustration and weight cycling[1]. Also, many dieters complain that they feel hungry most of the time. How can you live in a constant state of starvation? That’s not realistic.

If you can’t seem to stick to a diet plan for too long, you may want to check Barbara Rolls’ new book2, The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet. In this book, the author teaches you a few interesting principles that will help you create a balanced meal plan without restricting food intake. First, she introduces you to the Volumetrics principles with one new lesson per week[2] in which you’ll have the opportunity to practice what you’ve learned. The goal is to work on just a few habits per week, so you won’t get overwhelmed by trying to change too many things at once. The second part of the book contains a sample menu plan and several yummy recipes. The author also presents a list of food substitutions, so you don’t get bored by eating the same thing over and over.

The principles behind the Volumetrics Diet are nothing new but are presented in a comprehensive and organized manner that is easy to follow. The diet plan focuses on the consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein sources, in accordance with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. What is new about the Volumetrics concept is that the author teaches you to choose foods with higher water content in order to make you feel fuller. Water-rich foods tend to have a larger volume, giving you satisfying portions for fewer calories. Therefore, in this diet, you’ll be actually eating more (in volume) instead of eating less. But don’t fool yourself. You won’t be eating a lot of cakes, cookies, and ice cream.

The plan limits the number of calories consumed in order to create an energy deficit that will lead to weight-loss. Foods are grouped into four categories (very low, low, medium and high energy-dense) depending on their energy density[3]. Your job is to consume more of very low and low energy-dense foods and smaller portions of medium and high energy-dense foods. Thus, there is portion control but not complete restraint. In addition, the author does a good job illustrating and comparing meals with different energy-densities, so you get a visual idea of what she is explaining.

The bottom line is that this book is a great tool for those struggling with their weight. By creating food awareness and gradually changing eating habits, you’ll be able to maintain a healthy weight for years to come.

[1] Weight cycling is the repeated loss and regain of body weight.

[2] The first part of the book is divided in weeks rather than chapters.

[3] Energy density is the amount of calories a food has relative to its weight. The more calories per weight, the more energy dense a food is.

Whole-Body Short Circuit

Here is a short exercise routine for all fitness levels that works the whole body and doesn’t require much equipment. All you’ll need is a pair of dumbbells and a stop watch. Here is how this works: I assembled four compound exercises[1] in a circuit, which you’ll perform for a short period of time, trying to do your best (as many repetitions as you can, maintaining proper form). Between each exercise you’ll have a short interval to recover and get ready for the next exercise. Beginners will have 30 seconds of work bouts intertwined with 30 seconds of rest. Intermediate exercisers will do 40 seconds of work with 20 seconds of rest. Advanced individuals can go for 50 seconds of work with only 10 seconds of rest between exercises. After completing a whole circuit, you should rest for up to three minutes and get ready to do it again. You may repeat this circuit three to five times.

IMPORTANT! Don’t forget to warm up before you start. You may walk around the block, march in place, or perform dynamic stretches for five to 10 minutes in order to prepare your body for the upcoming intense work.

 1. Squat and press

Stand in a wide stance with your toes slightly pointing out, holding a dumbbell with both hands (1). Bring the dumbbell to your chest as you squat down by bending the knees and hips until your thighs are somewhat parallel to the floor (2). Pushing from your heels, stand up and lift the dumbbell over your head (3). That’s one repetition. Repeat this movement as many times as you can for the interval you chose (30, 40 or 50 seconds). When time is up, rest and get ready for the next exercise.

2. Lunge and curl

Stand in a narrow stance (hip distance) with your toes pointing forward, and hold one dumbbell in each hand, palms facing each other (1). Step the left leg back as you rotate your wrists forward (2). Lunge down by bending the knees (as if you were kneeling down), while bending the elbows and bringing the dumbbells to the shoulders (3). Keep your upper-body aligned with your hips; don’t lean forward. Stand up and step the back leg forward, while returning the dumbbells to the initial position. Repeat this movement with the right leg and keep alternating sides until the time is up. Rest and prepare for the next exercise.

3. Crab toe touches

Sit down on the floor with the knees bent in front of you, placing the hands and feet on the ground. The wrists should be beneath the shoulders with the fingers pointing forward. Keeping the arms straight and strong, lift your hips off the floor until your lower leg is perpendicular to the ground (1). That’s your starting position. Extend the right leg and try to touch this foot with the left hand (2). Return to the initial position and then extend the left leg, trying to touch this foot with the right hand (3). Keep alternating sides until the time is up. Catch your breath and get ready to do the last exercise.

4. Kneeling push-up with glute squeeze

With your knees on the floor, get into a push-up position (1). Your body should be in a straight line from your head to your knees. Keep your core engaged at all times. Hands should be placed slightly wider than shoulder-length. Bend your elbows as you lower the chest closer to the ground (2). Using your chest and arm muscles, push your body up, while lifting the right leg with a bent-knee, squeezing the glutes (3). Place the knee on the floor and repeat with the left side. Keep alternating sides until the time is up.

After you complete this cycle, get a sip of water and rest for up to three minutes. When you are ready, start it all over again.

IMPORTANT! Don’t forget to cool down after you finish your workout. You may walk around the block for five to 10 minutes or perform static stretches in order to bring your heart rate back to resting state.

[1] Compound exercises are the ones that mix two movements in one exercise, usually requiring the engagement of several major muscle groups at once. I suggest you practice the movements before starting the circuit in order to get used to them.

Breakfast Parfait

Here is another breakfast option under 300 calories. To keep calories at bay, go light on energy-dense ingredients such as granola and honey. Instead, indulge on bigger portions of fresh fruit, which provides lots of nutrients for just a few calories. Good options are strawberries, peaches, raspberries, blueberries, apples, and pears. These fruits have a very low calorie-density and can be consumed in satisfying portions.

In a bowl, whisk ½ cup of fat-free Greek yogurt, a splash of orange juice (about 2 tablespoons, just for flavor), and ½ tablespoon of honey. When everything is well blended, add ¼ cup of granola, and top it off with fresh fruit of your choice.

Even though granola is a healthy food, it is also energy-dense, meaning that a small portion contains a great number of calories. With that in mind, read nutritional labels to compare different brands or make your own homemade granola.

Preheat the oven at 450° F. In a bowl, combine 3 cups of rolled oats, 3 tablespoons of canola oil, 3 tablespoons of brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of cinnamon, and 3 tablespoons of ground flax seeds. Spread the mixture on a baking sheet and bake it for around 8 minutes, checking the oven every two minutes to prevent burning it. Let it cool down, and then store it in an air-tight container. It yields 12 servings. The suggested serving size is ¼ cup, which contains 124 calories and 2.9 grams of protein. In addition, the flax seeds and the canola oil provide healthy fats, which are necessary to the maintenance of good health.

Vegetarian Chili

Varying your protein sources is as important as consuming a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Legumes (such as beans and peas) and soy products offer a generous amount of protein for fewer calories. In addition, these foods also contain fiber and phytonutrients which are not found in animal products. Give it a try and go meatless with this vegetarian chili recipe.

Using a large pan, sauté ½ yellow onion (finely chopped) in 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add 1 jalapeño pepper (diced), ½ red bell pepper (diced) and ½ cup of corn[1]. Cook for a couple of minutes, and then add ½ pack of meatless ground beef. Add ½ cup of canned tomatoes[2], 1 can of pinto beans, rinsed (or any other variety of your choice), and 1 cup of water[3]. Cover the pan and let it cook on low heat for 30 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Before serving, sprinkle chopped cilantro leaves, red onions and/or black olives. You may also add 1 tablespoon of fat-free sour cream, if you’d like. This recipe yields four cups.

Meatless ground beef is a soy-based product that resembles ground beef in texture and appearance. It comes fully cooked, which reduces the prep time. In addition, this is a versatile product that you can add to just about any recipe such as tacos and meatloaves. I use “Trader Joe’s Beefless Ground Beef,” which provides 10 grams of protein per serving with only 60 calories (a bargain when compared to 90% lean ground beef – 14 grams of protein with 118 calories for the same serving size).

[1] I use frozen corn, but you may use canned, if you’d prefer. However, if you decide to use canned corn, rinse it before adding to the pan in order to remove the salt.

[2] Choose varieties with no salt added.

[3] You may use chicken broth if you’d prefer but choose low sodium varieties.

Lean People Eat Breakfast

It is very common in the U.S. to skip breakfast. Many people say they don’t have enough time to prepare a morning meal at home (but they seem to have plenty of time to wait in line for an overpriced cup of coffee). Others will tell you they don’t have breakfast in the hopes of cutting calories and shedding a few pounds. I’m sorry to break the bad news to you, but several studies show that people who skip breakfast tend to overeat later in the day.

The truth is that breakfast is one of the most important meals of the day. First, you’ve just awakened from a 10 to 12 hour period of fast (hopefully, if you haven’t been attacking the fridge late at night), and you are getting ready to start your day. How do you expect to have enough energy to perform your morning tasks if you don’t fuel your body adequately? When you don’t eat in the morning, your blood sugar plummets (together with your energy level and your good mood). This will make you feel sluggish, and it is very likely that you’ll have a hard time focusing on any activity.

Moreover, skipping breakfast leads to mid-morning munchies. The problem is that when you are hungry, you usually don’t make very smart choices. You’ll probably reach for fat- and sugar-laden snacks rather than having a piece of apple or a handful of carrots. Even if you don’t give in to the doughnuts in the break room, by lunch time you’ll be starving (good luck on keeping your self-control).

Did you know that Sumo wrestlers purposefully skip breakfast in order to be able to overeat at lunch time? Thus, unless you are striving for a sumo wrestler physique, having a balanced morning meal may be a good idea. In addition, the National Weight Control Registry[1] points out that more than three quarters of its participants (people who successfully lost weight and kept it off) say they eat breakfast.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that you have a balanced morning meal comprised mainly of nutrient-rich foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and low-fat dairy products. This means that a bagel with cream cheese and a cup of coffee hardly qualifies as a nutritious meal. Also, sugary ready-to-eat cereals and energy bars are poor choices. To produce a healthy breakfast, think of balancing your meal. Start by filling half of your plate with fruits and/or veggies. Then, add a serving of grains (a piece of whole-grain toast or a ¼ cup of granola) and a lean source of protein (one boiled egg or 6 ounces of low fat yogurt).

Here is an example of a balanced breakfast meal that is quick and easy to prepare, and it has less than 300 calories. You have no excuse to skip breakfast!

  • 1 slice of whole-grain bread (toasted or not)
  • ¼ cup of fat-free cottage cheese
  • ½ cup of mixed berries (or any other fruit of your choice)
  • ¼ cup of sugar-free syrup to drizzle on top


Andrews, R. Drop the Fat Act and Live Lean. Summertown, TN: Healthy Living Publications. 2012.

Hyman, M. Ultra-Metabolism. New York: Atria Books. 2006.

Rolls, B. The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 2012.

[1] The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) is the largest prospective investigation of long-term successful weight loss maintenance. The NWCR is tracking over 10,000 individuals who have lost significant amounts of weight and kept it off for long periods of time. For more information access http://www.nwcr.ws/