Coping with Stress

A recent survey conducted by the American Psychological Association showed that the majority of Americans live with moderate to high levels of stress[1]. Money, work and the economy were the most often cited sources of stress. And the modern lifestyle is not helping. Consider, for instance, our current life pace. It is hard to think of someone that is not repeatedly overwhelmed by all the tasks, chores, and appointments with which one has to deal in one day.

Another common scenario is the exposure to an unhealthy environment. More often than not we are surrounded by pollution, noise, and overcrowded areas, all contributing to built-up stress in our lives. Who doesn’t get frustrated when facing a huge traffic jam? Even our food has been contaminated with chemicals and hormones! Believe it or not, these small factors can be silent stressors.

This is without considering our own lifestyle choices. Sedentary behaviors, poor eating habits, and lack of proper rest and fun can also contribute to an overall stressed life. And when we add common social issues such as the need to fit in, prejudice, and competition, we probably end up with a lot on our plates.

Ok, I think you got it. But what exactly is stress? By definition, stress is a body response to any stimulus that disturbs or interferes with one’s normal physiological balance[2]. In fact, anything, physical or not, can potentially disturb homeostasis[3]. For instance, when you find yourself in a nerve-racking situation, your body initiates a stress response which occurs in two stages. First, it activates the nervous system by releasing adrenaline, the hormone responsible for the famous “fight or flight” response. At this point, the whole body is being prepared to face the potential threat. That’s what makes our heart race and our breathing accelerate. We also experience a sudden increase in strength and stamina, our senses sharpen, and we can react faster. All these changes happen seconds after we perceive the threat. But a stressor also activates our endocrine system[4] which produces several hormones (cortisol is one of them) that will support body functions engaged in our defense. They stimulate energy release from the body storages (increasing blood sugar), raise blood pressure, and improve immune function. In other words, they enable the body to keep fighting.

So in reality, some stress is good because it can give you an edge when confronting danger or dealing with a difficult situation. All the physiological changes that occur during a stress response can actually improve your problem solving skills by making you more creative. It also increases your alertness, keeping you focused and motivated throughout your tasks. And in terms of personal development, it couldn’t be better; a little stress can push you out of your comfort zone, making you assume some calculated risks.

You’ve probably heard the saying “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” This illustrates really well the positive effect that some stress can have on your body. Exercise, for instance, is a form of stress that forces your body to suffer physiological adaptations, including gains in strength, endurance, power, agility, balance, and/or flexibility, depending on the type of training in which you engage. So yes, stress is an important part of our lives, however, to keep it in a healthy range, you need to learn how to manage it.

The bad stress is also known as distress, and it usually means that the body is having a hard time coping with it. Distress can be caused by a pathogen that invades our body, promoting an ill state, but can also be caused by an emotional challenge. In this case, it is usually perceived as the inability to control an outcome, causing anxiety, fear, and anger. When this kind of stress is continuously present in your life, it builds up to a condition known as chronic stress. The problem is that continuous exposure to stress makes your body “tired,” and at some point, it stops being able to cope. To make a long story short, chronic stress causes fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, immunity suppression, appetite disturbances, and central fat deposition, potentially leading to several diseases (hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, ulcers, depression, and infertility, among others).

So what can we do? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer for that. As Hans Selye, the father of the modern stress theory, points out in his book The Stress of Life, “Stress can be avoided only by dying.” That is why stress management is so important. There are many ways to cope with stress; you just have to learn what works for you.

Experts advise analyzing what stresses you out. Is there anything you can change in your life to reduce your exposure? There are many aspects of our lives that are under our control, such as the number of appointments we make in a day. For those, you can manage stress by planning your day or week in advance and scheduling appointments in a reasonable way. It also pays off to learn to say no. There are so many responsibilities we accept just because we are afraid of disappointing someone! Creating a support network is also helpful. Look for friends and family members that can help you when you feel overwhelmed.

But keep in mind that there will be situations you won’t be able to control such as an unexpected layoff or a family disease. In these cases, you’ll have to be able to accept the challenge and keep going with your life. One thing I’ve learned is that if you ignore a problem, it comes back to haunt you. So deal with it the best you can. Talk to someone, get it off your chest, and move on. 

Improving your lifestyle can also help you cope better with stress. When your body is well nourished and rested, you’ll be more likely to better manage a stressful situation. Finding stress-relief activities can help you recharge your batteries. Common examples are breathing techniques, meditation, mind-body activities (yoga, tai chi), listening to music, reading a book, engaging in a hobby, and exercising. Actually, exercise is an excellent way to de-stress because it releases feel-good substances that can help reduce anxiety, promote relaxation, and improve your mood and self-image. It is also a good way to clear your mind because you’ll have to redirect your attention to your practice. However, for it to work as a stress-relief activity, you have to perceive it as a reward, not as a punishment. So choose activities you enjoy, and adapt your pace according to your present needs. Listen to your body!

 


[3] Homeostasis is the ability of an organism to maintain physiological processes in equilibrium.

[4] “Endocrine system is the body system that consists of the endocrine glands that release their secretions (hormones) into the bloodstream to reach and act on target cells of specific organs.”Available at http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Endocrine_system

 

Fitting Exercise into Your Life

Americans are becoming more and more sedentary[1]. Working at a desk, watching television, playing videogames, and driving everywhere are just a few examples of common sedentary behaviors.   What I mean is that most of us are not physically active at our jobs, during our leisure-time or any other time of the day, just because we don’t need to. We are not even walking anymore. Did you know that a sedentary person may only take between 1,000 and 3,000 steps a day[2]? This is way less than the Surgeon General’s recommendation[3]. I know that many American cities are not exactly walking-friendly. Think about where you live for a second. Are there stores within walking distance, or do you have to drive to the closest grocery shop? My point is that unless you are willing to exercise, you probably won’t run errands on foot.

And not many people are willing to. Recent statistics show that 33% of American adults are considered inactive[4]. The problem is that the human body was designed to move, and whenever we stop or limit our activities, our brain slows down our metabolism[5] and cuts back on muscle mass (just because if we are not using it, we probably don’t need it). Also, lack of regular physical activity is linked to several debilitating conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and some types of cancer.

Another fact that contributes to America’s current health status is that most of us spend a good part of the day seated (at a desk, on the couch, in our cars). A new research suggested that long periods of uninterrupted sitting can cause metabolic disturbances, leading to chronic diseases[6].

So, leading active lifestyles is fundamental to the maintenance of good health. The problem is that the most accepted guidelines[7] recommend a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise at least five days a week. This is the recommendation for attaining general fitness. However, if your goal is to lose weight, you will probably have to accumulate between 250 and 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week. For someone who is currently sedentary and deconditioned, these guidelines seem quite hard, if not impossible, to follow.

The good news is that recent research points out that even small amounts of regular physical activity can have positive effects on both physical and mental health. And by physical activity, I mean anything that gets you moving, not only structured exercise.

Here are a few tips to get you from a couch potato to an active savvy lady:

1. Reserve time to exercise.

Lack of time is the most common excuse for not engaging in regular physical activity. Even though I understand that our jobs, family affairs, and household chores take up a great chunk of our time, it is important that we save time to take care of ourselves. The truth is that you will never find time to exercise if it is not a priority for you. If you want to fit exercise into your life, you’ll have to make time for it. Don’t worry; you won’t need a lot of time.

I know that when we think of exercise, the image of a gym or a health club comes to our minds. But you don’t have to commit to a membership to get your exercise fix. You can exercise on your own, in the comfort of your home. All you need is a little space and a DVD player. There are so many fitness videos available today that I’m sure you’ll find something you like. Consider purchasing a few of them, and then swap with friends when you are tired of yours. It is also a good idea to have different options to accommodate your energy level and mood. For example, yoga for when you are feeling mellow, and boot-camp for more energetic days.

The advantage of working out at home is that you can exercise at different times of the day to suit your needs. But for this to work in the long run, you have to reserve a slot in your schedule. When planning your workout session, consider how much time you have available. It can be 15, 30, 45 minutes; you don’t have to use a whole hour. Remember that some exercise is always better than none. It is also important to choose a time when you know you won’t be interrupted. Create the right environment, and you will be more likely to stick to your plan.

2. Invest in activities you enjoy.

Getting a gym membership to force yourself to exercise won’t work in the long run if you don’t feel comfortable there. The secret is to engage in activities that thrill you. And you won’t necessarily find those in a regular health club. Think outside the box. Do you like dancing? Find a ballroom or salsa class. Or do you prefer exercising outdoors? Joining a hiking club can get you active and double as a social network. And don’t think you are stuck to a single activity. You can always look for something new when you start to see your interest fade. The bottom line is that if you choose an activity you love, showing up for class won’t be an issue.

3. Experience active living.

Up to this point, I’ve only talked about structured exercise and leisure-time activities. But what about the things we have to do during our day such as household chores? Can they count as physical activity? Absolutely.  As I said before, anything that makes you get off your butt counts as activity. So use the household chores for your own benefit. Scrubbing the bathroom floor can be a great upper body workout. Did you know that you can burn around 230 calories per hour while vacuuming[8]? It is almost the same as walking at a moderate pace for one hour. So, get your duster and get busy.

 

For more information on caloric expenditure during household activities check this link: http://caloriecount.about.com/activities-home-activities-ac5.

4. Purchase a pedometer.

Walking is also a simple way to introduce exercise into your life. You’ve probably heard of the recommendation of taking at least 10,000 steps a day. This corresponds to around five miles. Although it seems like a lot, every step taken during the whole day counts, even when you are at home. The important thing is to keep you moving.

For sedentary people, a pedometer is a great way to keep track of physical activity during the day. This piece of equipment is inexpensive (you can get one for five bucks) and light, which makes it comfortable to be worn for long periods of time. It is also a great motivating tool – you’ll find yourself walking more often, just because you are paying attention to it.

5. Disrupt long periods of slouch.

Long periods of sedentary behavior such as sitting can have a deleterious effect on health and contribute to the development of several chronic diseases. The problem is that most of us have sedentary jobs, sitting behind a desk in front of a computer. No, don’t quit your job just yet. Instead, get off your chair every hour (set a timer, if you need to), and walk around your office. Also, performing a few stretches can help you relax tight muscles and improve blood circulation.

Interrupting prolonged periods of slouch is also a good opportunity to realign the body. When sitting for too long, the lumbar region is overcharged, which often results in lower back pain [9]. Create a state of awareness by readjusting your posture frequently. First, stand tall, lengthening your spine. Imagine that there is a string pulling your head up. Hold your chest up high, pull your shoulder blades back, and then, press them down. Keeping your shoulders down and away from your ears will lengthen your neck. Finally, engage your abdominals, tucking in your pelvis. Consider it as a drill that should be performed a few times a day until these adjustments become natural.

And don’t forget about TV time. Use the commercial breaks to perform short bursts of exercise such as push-ups or a quick run up the stairs. If you do this on a regular basis, I doubt that you’ll need a gym to become fit.

6. Start a fitness journal.

If you want to keep track of your activity routine, consider writing it down. A fitness journal is a great way to assess how much exercise you are getting. Briefly describe the activity, the intensity (how hard or easy it was for you), and for how long you’ve performed it. You can even register your thoughts and emotions, if you’d like. Don’t forget that everything counts (cleaning, gardening, even grocery shopping).

By the end of the week, add the time spent in each activity. Keep in mind that the current guidelines suggest you to get around 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. But if you are not there yet, don’t give up. Compare your progress on a weekly basis. This is a great way to keep you motivated, and you’ll probably catch yourself trying to fit some kind of physical activity into your day, just to achieve your goal.



[1] By definition, the term sedentary refers to the tendency of sitting about without taking much exercise. (World English Dictionary)

[3] For more information see http://www.shapeup.org/shape/steps.php

[5] The term “metabolism” refers to all biochemical processes that happen within the body to keep it working properly. However, it is commonly known as the breakdown of food in order to obtain energy.

[6] “The Science of Sedentary Behavior: Too Much Sitting and Too Little Exercise”. Available at http://www.acsm.org/am/template.cfm?section=home_page&template=/cm/contentdisplay.cfm&contentid=12889

[7] Supported by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the American Heart Association (AHA), the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the World Health Organization (WHO).

[9] The abdominal muscles and the lumbar muscles are supposed to work together in order to hold the upper body weight which is essential for the maintenance of proper posture. However, when the abdominals are weak or simply not engaged, the lower back muscles have to do all the work alone, which places considerable stress on the lumbar spine, increasing the risk of injuries.

The Modern Lifestyle – What Went Wrong?

The way of life changed considerably during human evolution. When our species appeared on Earth, humans were hunters and gatherers and had to work hard for their food. It was common to move from place to place, looking for provisions and shelter. Also, food preserving was precarious (canned food was not available!), and they never knew when they would be able to find fresh supplies. These tough conditions contributed to an important body adaptation: any energy consumed but not promptly used was stored, mostly as fat. This was a fundamental factor that guaranteed the survival of our species. So fat used to have a vital function to us – it was supposed to save us from famine.

Mankind slowly learned to produce their food through horticulture and animal husbandry. This meant that we no longer needed to walk around, looking for provisions. We settled down, creating small villages around the crops. But there was still a lot of hard work to be done. Tools were rudimentary, and most tasks required endurance and strength. Food production gave us some control of our food supplies, meaning that people were less likely to die from famine. With that, population started to boom.

At some point, men invented machines capable of producing goods in large scale (the industrial revolution), which reduced the price of goods and made supplies more affordable. It also lessened the work that needed to be done by men. 

As time passed, technological advances started to affect various activities of daily living. The automobile was invented to improve transportation. Small appliances were systematically introduced into our houses, making household chores easier. The radio and the television arrived to brighten up our leisure time. And progress never stops. More and more devices are introduced into our lives every day. Video-games, computers, cell-phones, smart-phones… What will come next?

We are now in the information era, where a good part of the work is done behind a desk and computer screen. Household chores are mostly done by machines (washer and drier, dishwasher, vacuum-cleaning robot­), and even our leisure-time activities (or should I say “inactivities”) are related to some kind of technology (television, video-games, computers).

All this progress sure makes our lives easier and helps us save a ton of time. But at what cost? Our current way of life is taking a big toll on our health. Cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, type-2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and many types of cancers are all chronic diseases caused by our carefree lifestyle options.

Can you see what has happened? In the past, humans had to hunt, collect food, walk from place to place, and fight for survival. Energy needs were very high, while the food supply was limited. The human body learned to survive by storing energy as fat. Then, at some point, we gained control over food, making it abundant. At the same time, we created ways to make daily tasks easier, and our energy demand plummeted. This situation just got more pronounced over time. So now, we are consuming way more energy than we actually need, but our body has not yet adapted to this new scenario. We are still storing extra energy as fat. Thus, we have the so-called “obesity epidemic” that we face today.

But is fat the real villain? For many years we’ve been told that fat is evil, that it is the culprit for most modern ailments. Since then, we’ve been trying every diet, drug and procedure to get thinner in the name of health. The problem is that these strategies are not working. Most people have a hard time sustaining weight loss over time, and weight cycling seems to cause more harm than fat itself.[1] On the other hand, all supposed benefits of weight loss (lower cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose) seem to be more related to the lifestyle changes adopted (regular exercise and better eating pattern) than to the few pounds lost. Which makes me wonder: aren’t we fighting the wrong enemy?[2]

The modern environment favors sedentary behaviors. Eating habits also changed a lot during the past century. Food became more affordable and abundant, portion sizes became larger, and highly processed foods were introduced to our diet. Now, we are eating more and exercising less, which contributes to our expanding waistlines. But the obsession in pursuing a lean body doesn’t allow us to surrender to our body’s “weaknesses,” so we punish ourselves for accumulating fat.[3] Now, add to that stress and sleep deprivation, and you have a modern axiom. These factors combined are contributing to several problems we see today: a number of chronic diseases, eating disorders and other body abuses, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.

The bottom line is that our poor lifestyle choices are killing us. Therefore, we need to take charge of our lives and reverse this situation. The future of mankind lies in our own hands.

 


[1] Studies suggest that losing and regaining weight repeatedly (weight cycling) increases the risk of developing certain diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes. It also contributes to feelings of failure and can lead to depression.

[2] For more information on this subject, read “The Obesity Myth,” by Paul Campos.

[3] Punishments include starving through a fad diet, compulsive exercising, and abusing of weight loss drugs, among others.

What is the Truth behind “Toning Shoes?”

Since their release in 2009, the so-called “toning shoes” quickly became a fad. With compelling claims such as burn more calories while performing daily activities, or tone your buttocks and thighs by simply walking, these shoes seemed to be an amazing fitness solution.

These claims are based on their innovative design. “Toning shoes” generally present an unstable sole that is supposed to challenge your balance, forcing you to use additional muscles to stabilize the body when wearing them. This extra challenge would supposedly make you burn more calories and make your leg muscles work harder.

However, a study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) could not find any evidence that these shoes can make you exercise harder, burn more calories, or improve your muscle strength and tone. The conclusion was that they are no better than regular running shoes[1].

Actually, because of their distinct sole design, “toning shoes” change your gait, placing stress on joints and tendons that might not be able to handle it well.  The abuse of this particular type of footwear could lead to overuse injuries such as sprains, tendinitis, and shin splints[2]. Experts point out that these shoes should be treated as fitness products and be used only for the activities indicated by the manufacturers. Also, keep in mind that these shoes are not for everyone. The American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine warns that the unstable design may increase the risk of falls. So if you have history of falls, ankle instability, vertigo, or poor balance, you are probably not a good candidate to wear these shoes[3].

Apparently, the number of complaints against these shoes is increasing, according to “The Consumer Reports.” The Consumer Product Safety Commission has received several complaints that suggest that toning shoes may cause injuries.

So before you purchase this type of footwear, be sure you are able to deal with the instability. Also, use the shoes as the manufacturer specifies; many of those are designed for walking, not running or lifting weights. Remember that your safety depends on you.

As expected, “toning shoes” are far away from being a quick and easy fitness solution. However, if you bought a pair and feel motivated to exercise just by looking at your new gadget, go ahead and enjoy it. Just don’t think that you are getting more bang for your buck because of them.

Glossary

Sprains – Traumatic injury to ligaments around a joint.

Tendinitis – Inflammation of a tendon (fibrous tissue that connects muscles to bones). Also spelled tendonitis.

Shin splints – Sharp pain in the front part of lower leg.

 


 

[1] “Will Toning Shoes Really Give You A Better Body?” Available at http://www.acefitness.org/certifiednewsarticle/720/

[2] “Five Essential Steps to Choosing Toning Footwear.” Available at http://www.apma.org/MainMenu/News/Five-Essential-Steps-to-Safely-Choose-Toning-Footwear.aspx

[3] “Toning Shoes.” Available at http://www.aapsm.org/toningshoes.html

 

America’s Weight Obsession

American society wants you to lose weight. The cultural standards of beauty and self-worth praise extremely thin bodies that are not a reality for most Americans. At the same time, the social prejudice against fat people increases every day. We’ve been taught that we have to be thin to be healthy, socially accepted and loved. But what America’s weight obsession really taught us is to hate our bodies. Did you know that, at any given time, 33% to 40% of adult American women are trying to lose weight[1]? A recent survey conducted by Mc Neil Nutritionals, LLC, and “SHAPE Magazine” showed that 81% of the women polled don’t think they are at their ideal weight. But what is ideal weight, anyway? The official numbers we have today are based on weight-height tables that are just too simplistic to accommodate human diversity[2]. Is it healthy to obsess about a number? I don’t think so.

Magazines, advertisements, movies, and TV shows glamorize skinny bodies, and many of us believe that appearance and thinness are so important that they need to be chased no matter what. As Carrie Myers, wellness coach and author of “Squeezing Your Size 14 Self into a Size 6 World,” points out in her book that those women try desperately to fit into molds showcased by the media. When we can’t fulfill these expectations, we end up feeling like a failure and blame ourselves for not trying hard enough. Oh, but if we don’t obsess about our weight, people will say that we don’t have self-respect. You know what the pursuit of the perfect body has brought us? Social discrimination, self-hatred, eating disorders, compulsive exercising, body abuses and yo-yo weight loss. Why keep going that way, if we already know that it won’t do us any good?

 Now, ask yourself why you think you need to lose weight. Is it because you feel that people will love you more, or you will feel better accepted by society? Is it because people (family and friends) keep telling you that you need to lose weight? Do you think you would be happier if you were thinner?

If you are solely worried about your health, I have good news for you. There is no scientific evidence that heavier people are at increased risk of mortality (except in extreme cases, but extreme thinness is also risky). Also, being thin is not indicative of being healthy (being skinny and sedentary is worse than being heavy and active). Fitness level[3] is a far better health indicator than weight alone.

If you are trying to fit into pre-formed molds, you should reconsider your options. I understand that it is really hard to let go of these feelings, especially when we are often reminded by society that we are only worthy if we are thin. It will take some time for you to get used to the idea that fighting nature’s will is a lost battle. Consider this – don’t you think that accepting your body is a much better way to take care of yourself than going through crazy diets, unsafe drugs or body mutilations (also known as surgeries)?

Let’s face it. Body weight is determined by a combination of several factors (such as genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, culture, and socioeconomic status), many of which we can’t control. We are born in different body types and shapes, and there is not much we can do about it.  There is a quote from Fernando Sabino, a Brazilian journalist and writer, that fits perfectly here: “If there is no solution, then it is already solved.” Why are we investing so much energy in something that is out of our control?

It is time to stop worrying about things you can’t change, and learn to love what you have. After all, you are stuck in this body for life, and it is your responsibility to honor and respect it. I think it is human nature to desire what we don’t/can’t have, maybe because complaining is easier than dealing with our true issues. We never seem to be happy with what we have. Women are especially inclined to have negative perceptions about body image. We waste a lot of time and energy worrying about silly “imperfections” and don’t even notice our true assets, things that make us special and unique. These kinds of thoughts can undermine your confidence, especially when you tend to compare yourself to others. To recover our self-respect, we need to learn to appreciate what the mirror shows us, because beauty comes in different shapes and sizes.

That’s exactly what the movement “Health at Every Size (HAES)[4]” is trying to accomplish. It encourages people to accept and respect their bodies the way they are. However, it does support the adoption of lifestyle changes (eating better and exercising regularly) for the sake of health. For HAES, a healthy weight is the weight a person maintains while living a healthy life. There is no ideal body size, shape or weight; so you can finally relax and enjoy your life. By getting your weight out of the spotlight, you are free to focus on more important aspects of your life such as enjoying deliciously nutritious food and finding physical activities you love. When you assume healthier behaviors, you are more likely to see improvements in your health status. Your body will set your healthy weight (the one it is comfortable to work with).

So, don’t make weight-loss your one and only goal. Focus your efforts on achieving better life quality, instead. After all, we should strive to live a long, happy life, not the life someone we don’t even know thinks we should be living.



[1] From “Mathematical Modeling in Experimental Nutrition,” by Andrew J. Clifford, Hans-Georg Müller.

[2] If you are interested in knowing more about why these tables are inaccurate and irrelevant, I suggest you read the book, “Big Fat Lies: The Truth about Your Weight and Health,” by Glenn A. Gasser.

[3] Fitness is defined as good health or physical condition that results from exercise and proper nutrition.

[4] More information at www.haescommunity.org

2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is a set of nutritional recommendations for the general public living in the United States that focuses on health promotion and disease prevention. It is a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Guidelines are revised and updated every five years; the last one was published in 2010. Policymakers, healthcare providers and nutritionists use these recommendations to design educational materials and nutrition-related programs.

There is a concern that poor nutrition and sedentary lifestyle can contribute to the development of several diseases such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, dyslipidemia[1], type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, constipation, malnutrition and some cancers. Poor dietary habits and lack of physical activity can also result in an energy imbalance (more calories consumed than expended) which leads to weight gain over the years.

The energy requirement for women is somewhere between 1600 and 2400 Kcal[2] a day, depending on age and physical activity levels. When you consume more calories than your body needs, the extra energy is stored as fat. This is a primitive defense mechanism the human body developed in order to survive times of famine. Even though it is very unlikely that we’ll face food shortages nowadays, our body doesn’t know that yet; so overconsumption will  lead to weight gain.

Not only the quantity of food consumed is a concern; quality is also at stake. People generally favor frozen meals, canned goods, pre-packaged snacks and other convenience foods. The problem is that all of them are processed, usually caloric-dense and nutrient-poor, containing whopping amounts of salt, fat (saturated and trans fats), sugar, and other chemicals that we don’t even know what they are for. Americans also consume a great amount of refined grains in the form of breads, pasta, white rice and baked goods. Refined grains are manipulated to enhance texture and flavor, but important nutrients are lost in the process. What remains is basically starch, a form of carbohydrate that is quickly absorbed by the body, causing a spike in blood sugar. The main concern is that the constant exposure to these high-glycemic[3] carbohydrates may lead to insulin resistance, which is a red flag for type 2 diabetes.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) calls attention to the need of consuming nutrient-dense[4]foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat milk and dairy, lean meats, eggs and nuts (in their natural state). However, many Americans are not consuming adequate amounts of certain foods. The intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, milk and milk products, and oils is alarmingly low. The under-consumption of certain food groups and the lack of variety at the table could cause nutritional deficiencies. In fact, some nutrients are a public health concern (vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and dietary fiber). But popping a multi-vitamin pill is not the solution. The DGAC points out that nutrients should come from food sources, meaning that improving your dietary habits should be a top priority. To learn more, visit http://www.choosemyplate.gov/.



[1] Abnormal amount of cholesterol (HDL and LDL) and/or fat (triglycerides) in the blood.

[2] Same as calories.

[3] High-glycemic carbohydrates are the ones that are broken down very quickly by the human body, releasing glucose rapidly into the bloodstream, which is immediately counteracted by the release of insulin. However, chronic insulin spikes have deleterious effects on the body.

[4] According to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, nutrient-dense foods are those that provide substantial amounts of vitamins and minerals, and relatively few calories.

I Want You to Take Over Control

How many times have you started (and given up) an exercise program? Don’t be ashamed; you are not alone. According to ACE (American Council on Exercise) data, 50% to 65% of persons beginning or returning to a standard exercise program will drop out during the first six months. Even though the statistics are not encouraging, don’t give up just yet. You are not set up for failure unless you believe so. Your mind is a powerful tool; it can work for or against you. All you need to learn is how to use it in your favor.

For many people, every year begins the same way: a lot of promises to get rid of bad habits and many expectations about the “new you” that is going to emerge from this transformation. But, unfortunately, all this excitement dissipates as time goes by, and soon enough you go back to your old comfortable not-so-healthy habits.

From my point of view, the problem lies in a simple fact: people try to obtain different results by doing exactly the same things over and over again. Come on, if it didn’t work the first time, why would it work on the tenth? This is not being persistent; it is being stubborn! It doesn’t matter how hard you try the next time. If you don’t change your approach, you won’t get a different outcome. For instance, you start the year with another crash diet to “detox” your body from the abuses of the holidays. The problem is that you can’t live on arugula and water for too long, so you ditch it at the first opportunity. Or you decide to join a health club, one more time. Even though you don’t feel very comfortable there, you promise yourself that you won’t miss one workout. Well, as your days start to get busier, guess what will happen…

Can you see where the root of the problem is? We tend to make promises that we can’t sustain for too long just because we want to get results right now. Well, it is more than proven that this way doesn’t work. So it is time to start doing something different.

First of all, you have to stop thinking that exercise and diet are shortcuts to solve immediate weight issues (for example, fit in a killer dress for your high school reunion party). Oh, I know it is not your fault. Most fitness, health and beauty magazines are crowded with articles like “Flat Abs Fast” or “Drop Two Sizes in Four Weeks.” But what I think is sad, is that most programs featured are hard core, meaning that if you are a sedentary person, chances are you won’t be able to follow them. If you are already fit, you probably don’t need to drop two sizes. I just don’t get it!

Anyway, exercising regularly and eating healthfully must be part of your daily routine just as showering or brushing your teeth. They have to become habits so you can enjoy long-term results. What is the point of shedding a few pounds in a month just to gain them back the next one?

In fact, what I am proposing is a lifestyle transformation, not a quick fix to your vanity issues. Have in mind that this is going to be a slow process. It is not easy and does not happen in a straight line. You will experience ups and downs, and it will require effort to stay on track. Consider it as a challenge where the reward is achieving lifelong fitness.

There are three fundamental components in this process: proper nutrition, regular physical activity and behavior management. Together, they form the tripod that will sustain your new lifestyle.

Proper nutrition is the base for a healthy lifestyle. The mouth is the entrance door of the body, and your body is your temple. You should honor and respect it by choosing wisely what you allow in. Food provides energy and building blocks that our body needs to function well. If you eat mainly nutrient-dense whole foods[1], your body will be able to work smoothly, and the benefits will reflect on your mood, body composition and overall health. On the other hand, when you eat mainly junk food (super processed foods, poor in nutrients and high in calories), your body gets lost and starts to malfunction.

The second component is regular physical activity. Exercise is one of the major contributors to weight loss and maintenance. It helps us to burn extra energy (calories) in order to keep the weight equation balanced (calories in versus calories out).  However, it should be considered more than just a way to shed a few pounds so you can get into your favorite jeans. Look at the big picture. An active lifestyle can help you live longer and better. Moving your body regularly will keep the integrity of muscles as you grow older, meaning that it is more likely you’ll age gracefully and pain-free. And the list of benefits continues: reducing the risk of developing heart or metabolic diseases, improving blood pressure and cholesterol levels, decreasing anxiety, tension, and depression, among others.

Even though all those benefits are well known, many people still consider exercise as a temporary fix, something that you use just to lose weight. And, sadly, many magazines and reality-shows still paint the image that losing a lot of weight is super easy; you just need to push yourself into extreme exercise routines and fad diets. But these measures are impractical to maintain for the long run. So once you go back to your normal (aka sedentary) lifestyle and eating habits, all achievements will be reversed in a few months if not weeks.

This brings us to the last component of the process: behavior management. This is the part where you will start to take charge of your life. First, you have to identify unproductive behaviors and situations that trigger each one of them. Once you know exactly what you are fighting, it will be easier to apply strategies to keep you on track. But don’t fool yourself; this is a slow process. All new behaviors have to be incorporated little by little into your life. Too many changes at once will make you feel overwhelmed until you will eventually give up.

It is not that you don’t know what is wrong; you probably do. If you ask around, your friends and family mostly will tell you exactly what they should be doing; they just don’t do it. And I’m sure they will have a handful of excuses: “My doctor told me to exercise regularly, but I don’t have enough time” or “I know I should avoid fried stuff, but it tastes soooo good, and I think I deserve it.” See, information is not the problem; management is.

The truth is that we behave the way we do because it works for us, at least somewhat. And everything we do is influenced by our family, culture, financial constraints, work, and health beliefs. It is a matter of what is important to each one of us and how we prioritize things in our lives.

So, you’ll have to review your priorities, and maybe put you and your health on top of your list. The bottom line is: you have to be aware of your regular behaviors, so you can turn the good ones into habits and ditch the bad ones.

A habit is “a recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition[2].” You’ve probably heard that it is hard to break a habit. The good news is that this is true both for bad and good ones. Practicing healthier behaviors will turn them into habits, so you won’t have to think about them anymore. They will occur without your even noticing. But I’ll talk more about habits later. For now, just have in mind that you are responsible for choosing a healthier lifestyle, and you are the only one who can actually change your life.



[1] According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a healthy diet should be composed mainly of fruits, vegetables, low fat milk and dairy, lean meats and whole grains. These are considered nutrient-dense foods because they are packed with vitamins and minerals and have relatively fewer calories than highly processed goods.

[2] See www.thefreedictionary.com/habit

 

Creating Healthy Habits

Every time we try to improve something in our lives, we end up facing a common challenge: we need to create a new habit. Even though at first it sounds easy to incorporate changes in our lifestyles, it can be trickier than we predicted. People say that it is a matter of discipline or will-power, and all we need to do to change is to start and keep going. This is easier said than done.

How many times have you started the year with a sound list of resolutions that was forgotten as time passed? Well, you are not alone. A poll by the Opinion Corporation of Princeton showed that only 8% of people interviewed were successful in achieving their resolutions. So what is the problem? Is it a generalized lack of will power? Certainly not. In my opinion, the problem lies in lack of planning. When we REALLY want to do something, we have put enough effort into it until we achieve our goal. But the truth is that most people don’t even know exactly what they want. Their goals are extremely vague and unstructured (something like, “I want to feel healthier” or “I want to eat better”). Sometimes the goal is not even theirs. They are just trying to please a spouse or a doctor who seems to be more concerned than they are. So in order to clarify several misconceptions, I’m diving into the behavior world.

First of all, what is a habit? By definition, a habit is a recurrent pattern of behavior acquired by frequent repetition[1]. Experts in the field point out that you need to maintain a behavior for around 21 days in order to form a habit. So all you need to do is keep behaving in a certain way until it becomes part of your lifestyle, right? I wish it were that simple! The problem is that there are several variables that can influence our behaviors.

So you want to change, but are you ready to make the move? According to the transtheoretical change model[2], there are five stages in the change process: pre-contemplation (1), contemplation(2), preparation(3), action(4), and maintenance(5). The first is the pre-contemplation (1) stage in which the individual is not even considering the adaptation of a specific behavior. Common situations are, “my doctor told me to quit smoking” or “my wife wants me to lose weight.” In these cases, someone is trying to push you into a behavior that you are not ready to adopt, which sets you up for premature failure. Face it. If you don’t consider something as important enough to even think about, it won’t matter if you fail. So you will, period. The next stage is contemplation (2), meaning that you’ve been thinking about a change, but you are not exactly doing anything to move towards it. At this point, you are probably considering the pros and cons of the new behavior. To move forward, you must feel that you will benefit from the change. If you do move on to the next step, you will find yourself in the preparation (3) phase in which you start planning the change process. That’s when you set up a date to start your new behavior (new diet on Monday, anyone?). Once the “D” day arrives and you engage in the new behavior, you step into the action (4) stage.  Here you will have the opportunity to repeat the chosen behavior until it becomes part of your life. And when this happens, you’ve achieved the final stage – maintenance (5). Now, the new behavior finally becomes a habit, and it is part of your daily routine. You succeeded!

However, there is a catch – the path is never that smooth. During the process, it is common to face obstacles that can undo your progress even when you were already in the maintenance stage. That’s why motivation is so important. You have to surround yourself with positive thoughts that can comfort you when you face a setback and are powerful enough to put you back on track. Motivation is very personal, meaning that you’ll have to know what matters to you. It can be a significant other, a quote, a song, a reward, or just the feeling of accomplishment.

It is also vital to plan ahead. Do your homework and discover what possible setbacks you could face. If you know what to expect, you’ll be more likely to come up with solutions to overcome them. For example, someone who is trying to quit smoking could have nicotine gum at hand when she/he feels the need for a cigarette.

A smart way to plan your path is to set up goals. Many people have just a vague idea of what they want, which makes it quite difficult to accomplish it. You have to know exactly what you want to achieve in order to act on it. A good example is “I want to start exercising.” Ok, but what kind of activity, how many times a week, and for how long? When you are setting up goals, you have to consider all their variables in order to make them achievable. Make them specific enough in order to create a clear path towards your goal. It also should be measurable and time-framed so you’ll know when you get there. And please be realistic; if you are new to exercise, working out five days a week for two hours is not something you will be able to do.

So, instead of “I want to exercise,” you can say something like “I will participate in yoga classes at the club 2 days a week for a month.” Now you have something you can act upon, and you will know if you accomplished it or not. Have in mind that goals are not set in stone; you can and should change them according to your needs. If you see that your goal was too easy, make it a bit more challenging next time; and if it was too hard, make it doable. Remember: your goal, your rules. And if you need a little extra motivation, you can set up rewards for when you accomplish major goals.

But don’t feel defeated if something gets in your way and sidetracks you. Just be sure to resume your activities as soon as possible, and pick up where you left off. Don’t abandon all you’ve achieved because of a minor lapse. I mean, if you are trying to create the habit of eating healthier foods, an occasional burger won’t undo all your good work. Instead of freaking out and feeling like a failure, enjoy your meal and start fresh the next day.

Because a habit is formed by repetition, you have to be able to sustain the new behavior. That’s where discipline and will-power enter. Once you set up your goal and have planned how you are going to get there, it is up to you to make it work. There are several tools you can use, such as making a contract with yourself and placing it somewhere you can see it every day. You can also tell friends and family about your goals and ask them for support. Or create a vision of you achieving your goal. What you choose to use is up to you, but it is important to keep an optimistic attitude. Avoid using excuses to make exceptions, and be persistent. Don’t forget that you are in charge.

At the end, forming good habits is more than repeating a desired behavior over and over. You have to know what you want and plan how to get there. Yes, you are going to need discipline to keep you on track, but you’ll also need motivation to makes things a little easier. And be kind to yourself, because you are just at the beginning of a change process which is challenging enough.

Now, if you think you are ready to make some improvements in your lifestyle, go ahead and choose one behavior you would like to change. Yes, only ONE thing at a time. After all, the last thing you need is to be overwhelmed by too many changes too soon.


[1] See www.thefreedictionary.com/habit.

[2] Morgan, G. Basics of Behavior Change and Health Psychology. In: ACE Personal Trainer Manual. San Diego: American Council on Exercise.

Welcome to Body Pep Talk, Where Information Meets Motivation!

Hello, girlfriends! My name is Carla, and I’m a fitness trainer. I’ve gotten so tired of seeing misleading information about exercise and diet out there that I’ve decided to take the matter into my own hands. Here you’ll find information about fitness, healthy eating, stress management strategies and more. My goal is to give you the tools for building a healthier body. This is an interactive page, so feel free to post any questions, comments, or concerns, and I promise to get back to you as soon as I can.

Have a fit day!