Snowbound: Winter Fitness Training Tips

If you live in the United States, I probably don’t need to tell you that winter is a frustrating time of year to stay on top of your fitness training. Considering most of us overindulge over the holidays, and then resolve to get in shape for the New Year, the January deep freeze could not have come at a worse time. It’s hard enough to force yourself outside in the cold–the early sunset also means most of us are ready for bed by the time we leave the office.

So, how do you stay motivated when beach season feels years in the future? Here are a a few tips that might work for you.

Try shifting your schedule.

Too tired to hit the gym after work? Discouraged from hitting the gym by the New Years Resolution crowds? Try working out at a different time of day! If you have a job that permits it, try hitting the gym at lunch. The morning crowd isn’t much lighter than the evening, but at lunch–especially if you can get free before 1 PM–the crowds are much lighter, and you can probably hop right on a cardio machine or move through your weight stations faster.

Here’s a tip: For many popular businesses (including most gyms) Google Maps mobile app now charts the busiest times of day. It’s a great way to plan your gym visit to avoid peak crowds.

Seek shelter.

For runners (like Your Truly) and other outdoor fitness folks, winter can be frustrating. If the cold isn’t discouraging enough, snow and slush can make outdoor fitness daunting, dangerous, or downright impossible. There are ways to beat the snow and ice (a pair of Yaktrax and a few layers of lycra work wonders) but if you just can’t bear dressing like an astronaut to leave your home, there are indoor alternatives.

Personally I can’t stand treadmills–I get bored after a mile at most–but add in a live coach and some disco lighting, a la Mile High Run Club here in New York City (or similar treadmill studios elsewhere) and even I can suffer through 45 minutes on the dreadmill. Many gyms also offer indoor tracks, for those who can’t bear the moving belt. If running isn’t your thing, there’s always the eliptical machine, spinning classes, bootcamps, and plenty of other alternatives.

Winter is also a great time to dial back the cardio and focus on weight training, which is traditionally done in a climate-controlled weight room. Even if you’ve never lifted before, it’s time to start. Any well-balanced fitness regimen includes at least some resistance training, which strengthens muscles, improves bone density, and helps prevent injury while you’re doing whatever workout you prefer.

Find a Way to Enjoy the Winter

Lots of people look forward to winter and the unique activities it makes possible. For me, winter means a bit less running, but a lot more ice hockey. Here in NYC, I’m lucky enough to have an outdoor ice hockey league. Lasker Rink in Central Park is a swimming pool in the summertime, but by winter it hosts an outdoor men’s league.

Outdoor skating, skiing and snowboarding, ice climbing, snowshoeing–there are lots of sports and activities you can only enjoy in the winter months, or on a vacation to Iceland.

Try Something New

Maybe you don’t have any winter sports you really enjoy. Maybe you’re frustrated as hell that the air hurts your face when you step outside, and you just can’t bring yourself to suffer the crowd at the gym another day. There’s probably some other fitness activity you’ve always been curious about, and maybe this it the time to try.

Crossfit? Kickboxing? Barre? Yoga? There are more options for fitness today that at any time in the past–and the winter months often bring sales and specials, as fitness businesses compete for that New Years Resolution market. Heck, if you live in the right part of the country, you can try dog sledding–don’t those doggies at left look like they love the winter?

And who knows? You might discover some activity you love so much that you’ll keep at it through summer.

Watch What You’re Eating

Winter also brings on a natural craving for calorie-dense comfort foods (and dark beer!) but this works against you. We’re all familiar with “winter weight,” which just adds to the frustration when you can’t work out the way you want. Calorie-dense foods also tend to make us feel sluggish and lazy, though, which can further kill your motivation. Sticking to a healthy diet will keep your energy level up so you have the will to work out.

In the meantime, don’t overdo the calorie counting. Some people, fearing that winter weight gain, will dial back caloric intake until they lack the energy to do anything at all. Worse, this can mean relying on diet products, which often lack the nutritional value you need to feel your best.

Work Toward a Goal or Deadline

When your body would rather hibernate, you can stay motivated by setting yourself a goal or deadline. For runners, that’s often a springtime race–the Boston Marathon or the New York City Half Marathon, or any other of the dozens of races across the country in April and May. If you’re more motivated by aesthetic benefits, “beach season” might be a motivator, but it also might be too vague. Plan a vacation in April or May, so you know what you’re working toward. Knowing what you want to be fit for, and when it’s going to happen, can help get you moving.

In the end, the important thing is that you do something–anything–during the winter months. A few weeks of laziness will make it harder to get back into a routine when the weather warms up. Suffering through those winter workouts now (or finding a way to actually enjoy them) pays off in the long run.

All images via Wikimedia commons.

Diet Soda Hurts Weight Loss, Says New Study

Diet soda is regarded with suspicion by many people, but supposed harmful effects have never been backed up by science. Past studies have linked diet sodas with weight gain, but critics (including me) point out that those studies show correlation, not causation.

However, a new study from researchers in the UK and Iran, and published in the journal Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism provides the most compelling evidence that drinking diet soda has a harmful effect on weight loss efforts.

Researchers followed 81 participants (overweight and obese women with type-2 diabetes) over 24 weeks in which they followed the same integrated weight-loss program. Half consumed a single 8-oz diet soda after lunch, five days per week, and the other half only consumed water. Both groups were free to consume water at any other time during the day, but no other diet soda or other diet beverages.

At the end of the 24-week period, the group that had consumed only water lost significantly more weight: 14 pounds, on average, compared to 11.5 pounds among the diet soda drinkers.

Early Results with Dramatic Implications

Researchers have not proposed a mechanism by which diet sodas may limit weight loss (or potentially cause weight gain) but this result is striking, particularly in that those participants in the diet soda group consumed only forty ounces per week. That’s the equivalent of two single-serve bottles, less than a single can per day, and the result was an 18% decrease in weight lost over 24 weeks.


Certainly more research needs to be done, but this suggests that diet soda (and other diet beverages) may harm weight loss efforts in dramatic fashion. As a real fan of Diet Coke myself (some would say addict) it’s hard to imagine giving it up entirely. That said, if you trying to lose weight you may want to consider eliminating diet beverages entirely.


Photo: Wikimedia commons

How to Prepare for Your First Marathon


It’s officially marathon season, and if you’re like half a million people annually, you may be tapering right now in preparation to toe that start line–or you may already be finished, if you ran in Berlin, Chicago, or another early-fall race.

If you aren’t running, you may find yourself holding a sign or a cowbell alongside a city course, cheering as thousands of marathoners pass you by. There are few feats of human endurance more inspiring than watching a marathon, and maybe you’ve decided you want to do the same yourself. But what’s your next step? Here’s a quick rundown of how to prepare for your first marathon.

Of Course Donald Trump had a Weight Loss Plan

Mother Jones has been cataloging Donald Trump’s many business scams in an incredibly lengthy series they call the Trump Files. Today, we learned that Trump (man of “astonishingly excellent” health) at one point offered a weight loss scam with his name on it.

The “Trump Network,” as it was known (though Trump, as usual, had no ownership stake but instead licensed out his name and image, and recorded endorsement videos) was a multi-level marketing program (AKA a pyramid scheme) that promoted various products including vitamin supplements “customized” to the consumer based on a urine test, alternative snacks for children, and the “Silhouette Solution,” a shake-based weight loss program that promised to leave the user “slimmer, happier, and healthier than you have been in years.”

According to Mother Jones, a starter kit containing the Trump diet products cost (wait for it) $1,325.

The FTC reportedly received a great many complaints from Trump Network customers claiming the program exploited them–particularly egregious when you consider that the program’s literature portrayed it as a good way for people to support their families during the Great Recession–but never took action against the company.

And here I thought Trump’s preferred means of helping someone lose weight was standing behind them and forcing them to exercise in front of news cameras.

Chris’s Quest to Like Coffee


In my near-38 years on this Earth, I have never learned to appreciate one of the most popular and commercially successful agricultural products our planet has to offer. Coffee is woven into American social fabric like almost nothing else, to the point where the word is almost synonymous with conversation; and yet for the last decade or so I have begun each morning not with a hot cup of Ethiopian Coffea, but a cold can of Diet Coke. Which, frankly… people look at you funny.

So I have embarked on a quest to learn to love the roasted black bean, though it’s not the first time in my life I’ve made such an attempt. I’ve tried coffee drinks a few times in my life, usually getting them to within a half inch of my face before recoiling. In the early 2010s I went so far as to purchase a bag of blonde roast beans (having heard those were less harsh and more friendly to beginners) and brewed them up in the French press I keep at home for guests. It didn’t go well. This time, I will succeed.

Report: Your Fitbit Might be Making You Fat


By now you’ve almost certainly seen the headlines: A new study suggests that wearables, like Fitbit and Garmin, that track daily exercise might actually impair weight loss efforts.

The study in question, done at the University of Pittsburgh (my alma mater!), followed 471 adults for two years, and tested the difference in weight loss between those who used a wearable to track their activity and those who did not. In the end, the study found that participants who used wearables did lose weight, but at a rate just better than half of the participants who did not.

Fitness fans, many of whom have gone in big on wearable technology, rightly raised eyebrows. But what does this really mean?

First, sticking to a scientific perspective, I’d point out that this is just one study. It’s not absolute proof of anything, though it does offer evidence in a particular direction. To say with certainty that your wearable is diminishing your weight loss, we’d need to do a few more studies and see if the results were consistent.

To be less scientific about it, I need to tell a quick personal story. In the early 2000s, when I was about 22 or 23 years old, I made a habit of going walking after work. There was a park nearby the zoo where I worked at the time, and a lap of that park’s paved pedestrian trails was something like 4.5 miles, and a bit hillier than average. So, doing the math, I probably burned around 300, maybe 350 calories each time I walked that park.

Often, the first thing I would do after walking that park was head to IHOP with a friend. Emboldened by the exercise, I would order a big pancake platter and slather it in syrup. When all was said and done, I suspect I was consuming somewhere around 3,500 calories in one sitting–ten times what I’d burned in my lap around the park.

This is what I suspect might be happening with people who use their wearables to track their activity, and it’s not an uncommon behavior for people engaging in regular fitness activities. We miscalculate our calorie burn (through actual math or, like me, rough estimates) and feel justified consuming far more calories than we would otherwise. Doing so here and there won’t have terrible consequences, but extrapolated over a year or two, it will greatly diminish your weight loss results.

I also wonder if some or all of these wearables are adding false steps during activities like driving a car, riding a subway, or even operating a computer mouse. Most work on simple pedometers, and though the technology has advanced enough that today’s pedometers are far more accurate than those available even a few years ago, they are still imperfect. The right kind of motion can throw them off.

Either way, it’s probably too early to throw away your wearable, but it’s a good idea to be honest, maybe even conservative, when calculating your calorie burn. It’s better to err on the side of caution than spend a year thinking your dieting when, in fact, you’re just throwing back pancakes.

Take it from me.


Image credit: Wikimedia commons

Study: To Keep Your Brain Working, Keep Working Out


The benefits of exercise for aging Americans is well known: Prevention of diseases including diabetes and some cancers, reduction in the risk of falls, retention of bone density, and more. But new research suggests that exercise is not only beneficial to maintain mental acuity and brain function, it’s vital.

A study at the University of Maryland, published this week in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, suggests that the benefits of exercise in boosting brain function may fade after only a relatively short lapse in a workout regimen.

Past research has shown that exercise, especially endurance exercise like running, biking, and rowing, has benefits for brain function. The theory has been that increased blood flow from exercise boosts the production of new neurons; what this new study shows is that when we lose our motivation for as little as 10 days, that increased blood flow diminishes.

Notably, while the researchers were able to observe this reduced blood flow, they did not observe diminished brain function in their test subjects. It’s not necessarily true that taking a week and a half off from running will leave you a drooling idiot. That said, the study adds to the pile of mounting evidence that our physical well-being is tied to regular exercise. Humans are evolved to move.

Image credit: Wikimedia commons

VIDEO: Amaiya Zafar, 16-Year-Old Muslim Boxer, Fights to Wear Her Hijab in the Ring

Personally, I don’t understand the appeal of a sport that revolves around punching, and being punched, in the face. That said, my favorite sport involves people pelting me with hunks of rubber at 90 miles per hour, so who am I to judge?

Amaiya Zafar is 16 years old and a skilled boxer, but also a Muslim who’s religion requires modesty about her body. She has asked that she be permitted to box wearing a hijab, tights, and a long-sleeved shirt, but so far USA Boxing officials have refused her request, citing the “safety risk” associated with “unnecessary clothing.”

Of course, the question of what clothing is “necessary” is a subjective one, and one can’t help noticing that female boxers already wear significantly more clothing than their male counterparts. If a boxer wishes to add some simple cloth garments for religious reasons, it seems to me USA Boxing should be more understanding. Sports, after all, are for everyone.

Linked video from Amaiya’s YouTube page

Ten Long-Dispelled Diet and Fitness Myths Most People Still Believe

One of the most frustrating things about health and fitness is the way certain myths persist in popular culture. Often, it’s the nature of the news media–new findings are reported widely and with great enthusiasm, but corrections rarely get much attention. Most in the press don’t really understand scientific studies, and tend to misrepresent their findings, sometimes drastically. And of course, sometimes myths persist because nefarious interests are exploiting them to turn a profit.

As trainers, we hear these myths repeated again and again, often from frustrated clients who have been expecting a result science says they’ll never get. To help you, here’s the truth about ten common myths many people (perhaps even you) still think are true.

1. Eating many small meals will not speed up your weight loss.

This one bugs me more than most diet myths, mainly because you hear it repeated so often. No, eating many smaller meals will not speed up your metabolism to help you lose weight faster; weight loss is all about calories in versus calories out. If you’re looking to lose 5 pounds a month, you do that by eating 500 fewer calories each day (on average) than you burn–it doesn’t matter if you eat those calories all in one sitting, or spread across 5 or 10 meals.

There can be other benefits to spreading your calories across many smaller meals; for one thing, it can help you feel full throughout your day, so you aren’t tempted to indulge and wreck that calorie differential. That can make a big difference in weight loss success. For those working to build muscle, eating frequent small amounts of protein will help keep your body from breaking down the muscle fibers you are working so hard to build. But one thing it will definitely not do is speed up your metabolism and lead to faster weight loss.

2. You cannot target a body part for fat reduction.


This is one of the most persistent myths in the fitness world; it seems nothing will ever kill it. Crunches will not burn the fat covering up your six-pack. Body wraps will not burn the fat they squeeze under cellophane. Waist training will not eliminate the fat around your midsection. Once again: You lose fat by eating fewer calories than you burn, and that happens all over your body.

Some people will lose fat from certain areas before others, but that’s genetics, not spot reduction. Body wraps and waist training work by expelling water from the cells, not burning fat. The only form of spot reduction that does work is liposuction, which literally sucks the fat cells out of the targeted area–but with those fat cells gone, if the patient doesn’t watch their calorie intake, their body will just find another spot to store that fat.

3. You can get fat without eating too much fat.

Does anyone remember Susan Powter? I know, she’s still out there, but in the mid-1990s her “Stop the Insanity” videos made her a big name in diet and weight loss. One of her mantras was, “You can’t get fat if you don’t eat fat.” Susan’s followers lived on bagels and pasta, and unfortunately while her mantra was consistent with some of the science of the day, it was dead wrong.

The human body’s only means of storing fuel–our only gas tank, so to speak–is fat. Therefore, any extra calories you take in will be converted to fat, regardless of the form they’re in when you ingest them. Carbs, protein, alcohol, and–yes–fat, all will be stored as fat if you eat more calories than you’re burning.

That said, one gram of fat contains 9 calories, compared to 4 each in carbohydrates and protein. So if your diet is high in fat, you are more likely to be overeating.

4. Eating lots of cholesterol won’t cause high cholesterol.

In the 1990s, Americans were warned left and right against eating eggs and beef because of their high cholesterol content, and to this day many people are leery of both products for that reason. But science says serum cholesterol (the cholesterol in your blood, the stuff you get tested at the doctor) is entirely manufactured by your body, it doesn’t come from your diet.

This is good news for many people who enjoy high-cholesterol food, but it’s frustrating for those with a genetic predisposition to cholesterol problems, who have to avoid the fats and sugars that their bodies will use to produce the offending molecules. The actual triggers are complex, so if you’re worried about your cholesterol you should talk to your doctor–but if your levels are safe, eating high-cholesterol foods won’t change that.

5. Organic foods are not healthier than regular foods.

I’m sure some readers are already angry with me about this one, so allow me to clarify: I’m not saying organic foods are never healthier; I’m saying that simply being organic doesn’t automatically make your food safer, and it almost never makes it healthier in the sense that vitamin or nutrient levels are higher.

Organic is a huge complicated topic that’s too much for me to get into here, but it’s important to note that (a) most organic food is still exposed to pesticides, some of which are even more toxic than those used on non-organic foods; (b) the regulations behind the “organic” label are so vague that, in many cases, the label is almost meaningless; and (c) in the majority of cases–with some notable exceptions–there is no substantial difference between organic and non-organic versions of the same food.

The Mayo Clinic and other sites offer lots more information on organic food. You may have very good reasons that you choose to buy organic, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that “organic” label automatically means the food is more nutritious or better for your body.

6. Diet soda will not make you fat.

I happen to have a bit of a Diet Coke addiction, so I frequently hear the many reasons people believe diet soda is unhealthy, particularly the idea that diet soda makes people fat.

And, like most people I engage on the topic, you probably won’t believe me when I tell you there is zero scientific evidence to support any of the beliefs about diet soda being unhealthy. That’s right: No evidence that it lowers bone density; no evidence that it causes cancer; and no evidence that it makes people crave sugar or calories. There is not one single negative health effect of diet soda that has ever been backed up by research–which is not to say it is definitely not unhealthy. That’s not how science works. All of those beliefs stem from hypotheses that may one day be proven correct, but at present it’s not so.

It’s true there have been studies that show a correlation between obesity and the consumption of diet soda, but as the saying goes, “correlation is not causation.” In yet another instance of the media running wild with a scientific misunderstanding, this was widely reported as ‘diet soda causes obesity,’ but it is equally as likely that obese people are more likely to choose diet soda. All we know for sure is the two show correlation.

7. Lifting weights will not make women bulky and masculine.

This is Andreia Brazier, a champion fitness model who proudly lifts heavy. Do you think she looks masculine?

In recent years, particularly with the growing popularity of Crossfit, weight training has moved from something only muscle-bound bodybuilders enjoyed to something everyone wants to try. This is a very good thing; weight training has tons of health benefits, and health experts currently recommend it for literally everyone, from children to the very elderly. However, many women still gravitate toward those 5-pound dumbbells, worried that lifting heavy will make them look too masculine and bulky.

There is no reason whatsoever to be concerned; it is almost impossible for a normal woman to put on the kind of muscle a man can, for one simple reason: Testosterone. The human body requires testosterone to build muscle. Women naturally produce much less of the hormone than men do; enough to add some muscle, but not enough to really pack it on. Women who want to get big and bulky, like you see in some magazines, have to take supplements, eat a very specific diet, and (sometimes/often) rely on steroids to get that big.

There are one or two exercises that some women might want to avoid; using a wide-grip on lateral pulls, for instance, can broaden the back in a way some women find manly. The solution is not to reduce the weight, but to keep to a narrow grip. Lifting too light is never a good idea; it’s almost like not lifting at all.

8. Running is not harmful for your body.

Around mile 22 of a marathon, you may feel like your body is not good for running.

As a runner, I hear this one all the damn time, usually some variation on “Oh, my grandfather was a runner until his knees gave out. What will you do when you can’t run any more?” The assumption seems to be that running is a limited-time enterprise, as if there weren’t people in their 80s and 90s still running marathons.

The truth is that running is not bad for your body; running badly is bad for your body. Just like any other physical enterprise, from walking to playing a sport to working a computer mouse, using bad form will eventually lead to injury. As a relatively high-impact sport, running may carry higher risk than some other activities, but these risks can easily be mitigated by learning proper form, wearing good shoes, and listening to your body. When something hurts, stop doing it. If it hurts a lot, or hurts consistently, talk to a medical professional about what’s going wrong.

Persisting in running through pain is a surefire way to end your running career forever, but if you treat your body right, and give it the preventive care and maintenance it needs, there’s no reason you can’t be toeing the start line for the rest of your life.

9. Weight lifting is not more dangerous for children.

This isn’t one I hear very often, but when I do it takes me by surprise. There is, apparently, an old belief that lifting weights and building muscle would cause children to stop growing. This is totally false, and dates from around the same period in time when women were warned not to exercise, lest their uteruses should just fall out onto the ground.

It’s safe for children to start lifting just as soon as they want to; however there are some added precautions kids should take to avoid injury, and I would strongly recommend working with an experienced coach or trainer. Weight lifting equipment is dangerous for anyone, and kids are often inexperienced, less coordinated, and less cautious than adults. That said, with proper guidance, there’s no reason a child can’t start lifting, provided it’s something they want to do.

10. Sugar is not a stimulant, and does not make children hyper.

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My absolute favorite myth to dispel, and I’ll tell you why: I bet you don’t believe me. I can probably link to ten scientific studies that conclusively show sugar isn’t a stimulant, and isn’t linked to hyperactivity, and you still won’t believe me. It’s so ingrained in our culture that it seems impossible to believe, but it’s true.

Sugar is not a stimulant. In fact, it’s a sedative. No, really. Look it up. Or just think about your day. Do you actually feel stimulated after you eat something sweet? I’m not talking about coffee or chocolate, those have caffeine. A hard candy. Do you feel a surge of energy? Or do you just get sleepy a few minutes later?

Why is sugar so linked with child hyperactivity? There are a few theories, though none is conclusive; some researchers believe children have reactions to other ingredients in sweets, like preservatives and food dyes. Others point to the socially stimulating experiences that often accompany childhood sweets: Birthday parties, trick or treating, bake sales, and the like. I’ve seen suggestions that, over time, a sort of Pavlovian response can take hold; kids associate sugar with exciting activities, and tasting sugar therefore triggers excitement–but it’s not a biochemical response.

The one thing that is conclusively true? Sugar won’t make you, or your kids, hyper. In fact in the long run it will help them go to sleep.

Report: Sugar Industry Paid Scientists to Cover Up Health Risks

In what should be a bombshell report (though that remains to be seen), researchers at the University of California, San Francisco announced their findings that the sugar industry paid scientists to downplay the harmful effects of sugar on the heart, in favor of a focus on saturated fat and cholesterol.

An analysis of documents from the 1960s revealed that trade industry organization the Sugar Research Foundation (which is still around today, as the Sugar Association) paid researchers at Harvard the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s dollars for a research analysis that shifted the blame for heart disease. Industry insiders then shaped the resulting report by selecting which articles should be included and reviewing drafts prior to publication.

Reportedly, industry analysis suggested that Americans who cut fat from their diets were likely to increase sugar consumption by about 30 percent. The Harvard scientists, one of whom also served on the Sugar Research Foundation’s advisory board, criticized earlier studies that had linked sugar to heart disease.

What followed were decades of increasing obesity, heart disease, and diabetes rates. To this day, many Americans continue to believe long-dispelled myths like “you can’t get fat if you don’t eat fat,” or that eating cholesterol will cause cholesterol problems. Dr. Cristin Kearns, who headed the team that discovered the payoff, places blame for decades of bad nutrition science on this Harvard review.

The Sugar Association does not deny their role; instead, in a statement, they admit that they should have exercised greater transparency, but point out that standards were different 60 years ago. No word yet on whether that’s a comfort to the 100+ million Americans with diabetes or prediabetes, or the 17% of American children with obesity.