Author Archives: Caitlin Burke

Getting Past Judgmental Motivationals

Do or Die

The fitness industry has heavily promoted some of the motivational messages that have accumulated in competitive sports settings over eons. It’s a funny kind of image management — even when the idea is supposedly to help support people new to exercise, the slogans recall an old-school coach who doesn’t seem to care whether his athletes get hurt, as long as they win. This can sound pretty creepy if your childhood memories of exercise involved dreading gym class.

The hard-core attitude can also be harmful. If you are a competitive athlete, you do make trade-offs to focus on your performance — it’s part of competition. But super aggro “Winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing” messages handily submerge the reality of successful competitive athletes: heavy pushes are strategically placed within a program that provides enough nutrition, rest, and recovery to make sure the athlete’s speed and power are truly there when it counts.

Hall of Shame: Fitspo

Jessi Kneeland (and many others, notably The Great Fitness Experiment and Mama Lion Strong) have also discussed the similar way a special category of fitness messages — dubbed “fitspo” — is harmful, by explicitly holding up visual “goals” while masquerading as promoting health and fitness. It’s the worst of both words: unattainable model looks combined with unsustainable training attitudes. At least the old-school hardcore stuff is about actually being good at something!

So What? I’ll Never Compete

Scratching the surface of some of these insistently “beastly” claims can help us understand two things: the grains of truth within them, and how a good foundation is built. Building a good, strong foundation of fitness is important for everyone — especially if you never compete, because that foundation is where you get your health benefits.

Chet Morjaria explains “Why These 7 Do-Or-Die Motivational Memes Are Misleading You” (and proposes some alternatives, available as images at Strength Education’s Facebook page). These aren’t subtleties — they’re realities. Progress comes when we train wisely, attentive to technique and willing to scrap a bad session in order to come back stronger after some rest. The same mindset also helps prevent injury at every level of expertise or interest.

Image from Tumblr

The Sports Bra

Sports Bra

When I got my first sports bra, I had a few days where I just gave up and took a nap before I got the darn thing off. I even considered using an Ace bandage instead — and felt lucky I was small enough to get away with that. Happily times have changed immensely. If you take a smaller cup size, there are tons of good options in camisoles with shelf bras and other fairly light-construction garments. It’s just a question of taking some time to figure out which options feel best for your activities.

Today’s heavier sports bras feature more bra-like closures, including some that zip up the front. Shaped cups (“encapsulation”) are also available, and the fabrics have better wicking properties than the old-school cotton-spandex deals. Some even have adjustable straps and bands, and wide, comfortable straps show up regularly for larger cup sizes — a welcome change from having to live with a binding garment just to get some control. Modern sports bras may promise “no jiggling,” but I think we all realize that’s not very reasonable; still, they are offering better — more comfortable — options to minimize jerky movement and keep things down to a dull jostle.

REI offers this guide to choosing a bra for different activities and sizes, and Runner’s World got women together to give bras the classic test. As always, you have to try a lot of bras to find a comfortable one, but for something you’ll move and sweat in, it’s well worth the time.

Image by Vera Bee.

Healthy Eating Is About “How Much”

Alex Viada Diet Tip

Dieting tip: Peanut butter and similar foods are very calorie dense. Use a teaspoon rather than a tablespoon to help control portions.

Every day we see claims for super foods and “healthy options,” but foods that are healthful can still be eaten in excess. As a practical matter, that is more difficult with lean protein and fiber-rich foods, because they tend to leave you feeling satisfied and full with fewer calories. (That’s why people say “I cut out sugar and didn’t even have to count calories.”) But even the most “virtuous” foods can be prepared with enough fats, in particular, to make the calorie count skyrocket.

When dishing out nut butters, the serving size may say “tablespoons,” but tableware is rarely exactly the same size as measuring spoons, and you can easily stack a tablespoon (or much more!) of peanut butter on a teaspoon. Doubling your serving of broccoli won’t make much difference; doubling your serving of nuts or nut butters (which looks small to start with) adds hundreds of calories. It’s also a big help to use a scale to measure calorie-dense foods, instead of just spoons and cups. Be careful out there!

Image: Photo by Alex Viada of Complete Human Performance.

Walk Right for Your Blood Type

Walk right for your blood type

One of the odder diet claims out there is that there is an optimal way to eat depending on blood type. It makes no scientific sense, and there is no evidence to support it. It was bundled up with some claims about exercise, also with no support. There are a few ways to walk right, though. (No blood-type testing required!)

Wear comfortable shoes for walking. You may need more cushioning in the sole, or find a slightly raised heel (as in a traditional running shoe or hiking boot) more comfortable. Don’t overthink this, but pay attention to how your feet and lower legs feel — you may want to try something different when it’s time to replace your shoes.

Make sure you have plenty of room for your toes. Feet expand during the course of the day, especially if you’re putting miles on them. Cramped toes can hurt and even bruise under the toenail.

Be aware of your surroundings. Music or an audiobook make great company on a walk, but don’t let them distract you too much.

Keep some kind of track of your distance or time (or both). It’s fun to see progress, and nice to get a sense of how close you are (or how far over!) the recommendations for physical activity.

There’s no strict rule for what speed you walk, but you’ll generally get more health benefit at speeds over about 3 miles per hour. If that’s too fast, don’t worry. You will still benefit — and get better — with practice. The CDC suggests your usual exercise intensity be about “a 5 or 6 on a scale of 0 to 10.”

Look both ways before you cross a street! (Even on a one-way street — a car going in the wrong direction might present extra danger.)

Make it social! A great way to stay more active is make it part of socializing — explore a park with a friend, or have a walk after you meet for that coffee.

Here in the Northern hemisphere, spring has sprung. Get out there and have a nice walk or three!

Wait, What About the Belly Fat?

Walking can definitely help as part of a program to lose weight, but no exercise regimen can spot reduce fat or cause you to lose fat all by itself. For fat loss, be sure that you are eating a nutritious diet that gives you fewer calories than you burn during the day. Here are some suggestions for curbing overeating: “Just Eat Less” and “Are You Enjoying It?

Image: the cover of a magazine whose identity is being withheld to protect the misguided.

Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal of the Day?

Googly-eyed breakfast by Angie Naron

Over the last few decades, claims have grown up around breakfast — notably that people who eat “a good breakfast” have all kinds of good outcomes, like easier weight control and better metabolic function. There isn’t a lot of great science on this, because studies are notoriously bad at food tracking, but there’s also no great evidence that breakfast has magical qualities by itself. Large observational studies have shown a benefit when breakfast was a regular feature of a person’s day, but people who are careful to have “a good breakfast” may do a lot of other things that keep them in good health, too. Short-term studies have not shown smoking-gun issues from skipping it.

Eating breakfast can make good choices easier for some people, though.

Breakfast Can Help You Make Good Nutrition Choices If…

— You just like having a meal in the morning, large or small — especially if missing it on hectic days leaves you feeling bad or frustrated. Finding a way to protect that meal can make the rest of your day go better.

— You exercise in the morning. Whether you eat before or after, or have a small snack before and more food after (the timing is personal), moving more means eating more, and people often feel more comfortable when they eat at a time close to their workout.

— You work in an environment with a lot of empty-calorie options hanging around, whether it’s nearby coffee shops or donuts or vending machines in the break room. We often eat simply because food is present. Already having some food in you (especially satiating, filling protein and fiber) or packing a nutritious snack can help you resist “because it’s there” eating.

— You try to skip breakfast to “save calories” but end up feel deprived and hungry. If skipping breakfast leaves you grazing all morning, you might feel more alert and happier with a nutritious snack first thing.

– You have medical issues. If you have diabetes, of course, a dietitian can help you choose foods and meal times as part of your treatment. Other medical conditions can also have food and timing implications — work with your healthcare team if you’re under regular care.

The Traditional Morning Breakfast Doesn’t Matter If…

— You feel fine and ready to get going on your day once you roll out of bed.

— You’ve comfortably adopted a “feeding window” approach to eating that has you “break your fast” at a different time of day. (People may lecture you about this. Tell them, “I do have breakfast — just later.”)

— You may actually feel worse when you eat right after waking. You may be fine with “nontraditional” breakfast foods, starting with a very small snack, or just eating after you’ve gotten a start on the day. It’s worth keeping an eye out for health or stress issues that may be involved, but if that coast is clear, it’s down to what works for you.

— You think breakfast means only cereal, pancakes, eggs, bacon, and pastries. There’s no reason to limit those foods to a specific time of day, if you like them, nor any reason to privilege them as first foods of the day. A turkey sandwich is also a good breakfast, and diners serve “breakfast all day” for a (delicious) reason!

It’s Your Overall Pattern That Matters Most

The breakfast issue is similar to the claim that “small meals boost the metabolism.” Some people feel better with lots of small meals — or when they eat breakfast. Some people do fine — good energy level, able to do the activities they care about, able to stick with a nutritious eating pattern — with one or a few big meals, with or without breakfast. (Oh, and if you study someone making an abrupt change in pattern, they may get outsize results.) Humans are highly adaptable, and the major factors driving weight are simply how much you eat and move. So keep an eye out for the ways that make it easiest for you to make the choices you want to make.

Image: Angie Naron created this wonderful breakfast as part of a challenge issued by Amy Sedaris. You can see other entries at the Flickr group.

“I’ll start, just not right now.”

Do what you said

It’s easy to get overwhelmed or tired or frustrated, to wonder if you’re doing the right thing, and wait until you have the perfect plan and plenty of time to focus on it.

Don’t. Do something small. Once a week, if that’s all you can manage for now. A glass of water when you were reaching for a snack. One jumping jack — just one — when you get out of bed. One less can of soda, or one less beer.

Begin it.