The post about goals you almost never saw

Full disclosure: I probably started this post almost two months ago, left midway through writing it, and then started another post a few days later and moved on with my life.  I just realized that I never finished this one, and since I didn’t look back and think, “Wow, I sounds like a complete moron in that post,” I thought I’d share it with you.  Enjoy.

One of the first things you learn to ask your clients as a fitness professional is, “What are your goals?”  (You learn to ask lots of stupid things when you become a trainer, because most of us get our start in this industry by working for big health clubs, who quite frankly know as much about fitness as I know about the Russian ballet… and in case you’re wondering, I’m not an expert on Russian ballet)

The person being questioned will invariably answer this overly-broad question by saying, “I want to lose 20 pounds,” “I want to be able to do a push-up,” or some other business as usual response.

“So what’s wrong with that?” you may ask.  (If you read my blog regularly, it’s actually far more likely that you’re asking yourself, “Why does he always play this stupid ‘pretend question and answer’ game?” with me)

Well, what I’ve come to realize is that when you ask someone their goals in this fashion, what they’ll give you isn’t a goal, it’s an outcome.  The distinction is more important than you might think.

Losing 20 pounds isn’t a goal, it’s just the outcome you want.  A goal should probably involve something you can directly influence, such as what foods you’re eating or what kind of workouts you’re doing.

A much more appropriate way of looking at goal setting is to work backward from your desired outcome.

If you want to lose 20 pounds (I hope that’s not the actual outcome you want – I’ll post a later date about why you should throw away your bathroom scale), then you should probably create a goal that states how many times you’re going to workout a week and what kinds of foods you will and will not have.  These are things you actually have control over and you can measure your success on a far more meaningful basis than if you’re just weighing yourself.

Here’s where present-day, January 2012 Mark jumps in and relates his months-old work to something current.

Now that it’s the New Year, if you have fitness-related goal, make sure it’s just that – a goal.  An outcome can be nothing more than a delightful illusion if you don’t have any plans to put into action.

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‘Tis the season to be morbidly obese (fa la la la la, la la la laaa)

Warning: This is one of those total bummer posts where a fitness professional will bemoan all the sugar-laden seasonal foods we all eat.  Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

It’s that time of year again.

The time when we all gather around to shove sugary food down our collective gullet (sorry for using the word gullet – I know it’s not exactly a pretty word), all while developing our well-intentioned plans to make up for it when January 1st rolls around.  Of course, nobody will actually do anything to repair the harm their bodies have suffered at the hands of the holidays, unless you count three weeks at the local health club doing something.

It’s a funny thing we do this time of year.  “It’s only once a year,” we tell ourselves.  But is it?  And what, really, are we referring to when we say that?  December 25th or the entire month of December?  While I suppose it’s true that December does, technically, only come once a year, it’s not exactly an insignificant amount of time.  Buildings can be erected in that amount of time (well, maybe only small or poorly made buildings, but you get my point).

The story that the media picks up around this time of year is that the average American gains 5-10 pounds over the holidays.  I’ve told this to people, not knowing that it’s a pure, unadulterated lie.  The real number is closer to a pound or two (in case you’re wondering, the Freshman 15 is bogus, too… most cutesy fitness statistics are).  So then what’s the problem?

What kinds of foods do you most associate with this time of year?  Is it gingerbread cookies?  Candy canes?  Fruit cake?

Whatever it is, the smart money says it has enough flour and sugar to fell a wildebeest (okay, this may be a slight exaggeration).  The problem is that those sugary, floury, processed foods we all adore so much around the holidays give us a taste for something that is actually very addictive.  And very fattening.

Remember, contrary to what most people think, fat isn’t really what makes you fat.  You store excess fat because your hormones tell you to (not just because you eat too much), and your hormones are greatly influenced by the kinds of food you eat.  Insulin, the most powerful of these hormones (at least regarding fat storage), is especially receptive to carbohydrates – the kind you find in potent quantities in holiday sweets.  Our country’s battle with obesity began in earnest when we chucked out all the fat in our diet and replaced it with processed carbs.

The thing most people don’t know about those processed carbs is just how addictive they are.  Flour and sugar create a dopamine (one of the “reward” chemicals in our brain) response similar to nicotine, heroin and cocaine.  What we’ve created is a nation of people who are addicted in a very real sense to foods that are hormonally likely to cause them to store fat, then we blame our will power when we stop working out the last week in January.  It’s not that we’re lazy – we’re hooked!

When we excuse excess consumption of sugary baked goods over the holidays, it has longer lasting effects than just the 12 Days of Christmas.  It creates impulses that are biologically stronger than the strength of our will.

Should you avoid every cookie or piece of holiday candy you come across?  No… I certainly don’t plan on it.  But remember that there are real consequences to even the most harmless of pleasurable distractions.

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And the definition of a vegetable just got a little weird…

Why haven’t I posted in what seems like forever?

Because clearly I’ve been waiting for Congress to change the definition of a vegetable to include pizza, THAT’S why!

Yes, you read that right – a school lunch bill is aiming to count the tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable.

I really could end this post right there, because it is just preposterous enough as to defy further discussion, but I always enjoy these little forays into the realm of the ridiculous.

I could point out that this is amusing because tomatoes are actually a fruit, but I think that’s kind of a dodge.

The crux of the matter is that our school system really does buy into the nutritional value of food that, while admittedly tasty, is not exactly high on the list of healthy, natural foods.  I can’t tell you how many gym teachers I’ve heard talk about how pizza really isn’t so bad – it’s a source of grains in the crust, protein in the cheese and yes, you guessed it, a source of vegetables in the sauce.  That I haven’t punched anyone as a result of this, I believe, is a testament to my self-restraint.

In case I haven’t mentioned this openly in the past, pizza just so happens to be my absolute favorite food in the whole word (yes, contrary to what you may believe, fitness professionals like junk food, too).  That said, I’m never going to try to convince schoolchildren that it’s healthy.  Let’s be really honest… nothing in pizza is real.  I don’t even know what kind of animal one gets pepperoni from (and maybe I’m okay with that).

We have a problem with what we feed kids.  Did you know that the guidelines for the National School Lunch Program haven’t been updated in 15 years?  Did you know that schools can only be funded by the program if they push kids to drink milk (and we wonder why kids are hitting puberty earlier than ever… perhaps we shouldn’t keep drinking cow’s milk long after their own babies have stopped)?  Or that, according to their guidelines, french fries can be consumed in an unlimited quantity?

When I write posts about nutrition, I want you to know that, half the time, I don’t so much care what you or I eat.  I’m just being honest.  Sure, I want everyone, myself included, to eat more whole vegetables, fruits and meats, but I also know that we adults have decades of habits built up that make cutting some foods out of our diet about as easy as assembling a nuclear reactor in the dark (clearly something better-suited to the daylight hours).

Kids are where we can make a difference, and they’re the ones we’re harming the most.  It’s not okay that the grain and dairy lobbies influence what goes into kids’ lunches, especially when those kids come from families that can’t afford to send them to school with a prepacked lunch.

So when I write a post like this, what am I trying to tell you?  While it may not sound like the most constructive thing in the world, I want you to get ticked off about this stuff.  I don’t even care what reason you choose.  Do you care more that our government is complicit in harming our children or that they’re using your tax dollars to do it?  I don’t care.  I just want you to be less okay with the nonsense that’s allowed to go on in our schools regarding what our kids eat.

Things tend to get done when enough people get angry about something, not when everyone complacently shrugs it off.

So I’ll leave you with this happy question – what about pizza sauce counting as a vegetable makes you angry?

‘Til next time!

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How often should YOU be working out

People often ask me, “How do you come up with what to write for your blog?”  (People never ask me this, nor do they really ever ask me any other blog-related questions… I simply live in a fantasy world where my throngs of imaginary followers are in a constant state of awe at the top-notch material I churn out)

This week, for whatever reason, the question of how frequently one should workout has come up at least a dozen times (full disclosure: actual number is far closer to three times), so I took it as a sign.  Besides, it’s actually one of the more important questions I feel I can answer.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is assuming there is some set number of minutes of exercise one should be getting or an exact number of days per week you need to workout to benefit from it.  Our government, in seemingly common act of deliberate stupidity and malice, says we should workout, well… here, take a look and see if you can figure it out, because I sure as hell can’t: http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/adults.html

Let’s pretend for a second that the government didn’t make the infuriating mistake of dividing cardiovascular and strength training.  (“According to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, you need to do two types of physical activity each week to improve your health–aerobic and muscle-strengthening.”  The individuals responsible for these guidelines, I’m assuming, received their training in exercise from the people who invented this.)

They still make a broad recommendation that takes probably four to six days a week of your schedule.  Now, a professional work-avoider such as myself may have time for that sort of thing, but I don’t think most people do.

What if you work more than full-time and have an hour-long commute?  Are you really supposed to pretend that it’s a realistic goal to do daily exercise?

First of all, don’t believe that you have to exercise a ton to benefit.  If you’re not working out now, but you can commit to ONE workout a week, you’ll walk around feeling like a superhero compared to how you currently feel.  And, contrary to what the government will tell you, that’s great!

When you’re trying to figure out the right amount of exercise, remember that you don’t get to make the decision in a vacuum.  Sure, if you’re a stereotypical movie character who has amnesia, and is trying to piece together who killed his wife (sorry, I watched Memento recently and apparently it’s stuck in my head), you do get something of a blank slate, lifestyle-wise.  And if you have a blank slate, and the free time that comes with it, try to get in some daily exercise.

But if you’re not living in a Christopher Nolan movie, you should probably start by making a more realistic commitment.  And this is where I can only step back and hope that you have some common sense.  What sounds like something you can commit to?  If it’s three days a week, do that.  If it’s one, fine – it’s better than none.  The goal is to make this something you can stick to, and if your exercise schedule is making you feel like it’s all you can do just to keep your head above water, it probably means you’re trying to do too much.  If you can’t keep the commitment, you’ve made the wrong commitment.

I’ll refer you to my previous post about motivation to address the concerns of anyone who would like to say, “You just need a little will power, and you can do it!”  Well, as comforting and appealing as the silly notion that all things are possible so long as you just want them bad enough may be, at the end of the day, realize that you’re human.  Even the toughest among us are going to fail if we set ourselves up for more than we can handle.  If you can handle daily workouts, awesome.  But whatever your decision, know that what works for you and what works for everyone else you know is going to be different, and that’s just fine.

‘Til next time!

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Our National Motivation Epidemic

In my line of work, I hear a common theme from a lot of prospects.

“I just don’t feel motivated to exercise.”

This lack of motivation is clearly spreading and leads me to believe we need to declare some sort of state of emergency (I don’t really know how states of emergency work).

I know what you’re thinking… “You haven’t posted for over two weeks and you want to lecture us about motivation?”

(Perhaps I shouldn’t point that out in case this is the first time you’re reading this blog… so I’ll move on.)

Every January, hordes (full disclosure – I had to spell check that to make sure it didn’t appear I was talking about the TV show, Hoarders) of people rush to 24 Hour Fitness and Gold’s Gym in a national display of guilt over the holidays.  “This is the year,” everyone will say defiantly.  We are a nation overflowing with motivation.

Then what happens?

Three weeks later, health club attendance returns to normal, people stop working out, and we try to pretend it never happened.  And if you ask most people, they’ll tell you that they just lost their motivation.  Well, there’s a reason for that.  Know what it is?

(Warning: condescending italics coming)

Motivation is fleeting – stop relying on it to get stuff done.

You know how every spring people go into fits of spring cleaning?  They get a burst of motivation and ride it to a clean house that will end up looking like a disaster area in a month.  It doesn’t matter what you are motivated about; a few weeks from now, I guarantee you will no longer still feel so moved.  It’s great for getting things started, but it’s terrible for getting them finished.

When it comes to fitness, it’s so important to realize this, because ultimately we’re talking about something that is, depending on your age, a decades-long endeavor.  And I guarantee you, even the most motivated among us aren’t going to be motivated to go to the gym three days a week for 30 years.

The key is to realize this, and stop relying on motivation to do things for you.  I don’t know anything about sailing, but that’s not going to stop me from making the following analogy (I’m a firm believer that almost total ignorance about a given subject shouldn’t stop one from talking as though they know about said subject).  If you go out on a sailboat, the wind is going to help you move in the right direction, but only when it’s blowing.  Motivation is going to help you move more quickly to your goals, but only when it’s blowing… I didn’t know what verb to associate with motivation, so I just repeated “when it’s blowing” and I’ll let your mind finish the analogy for me.

You have to have something else to rely on when it comes to something as long-term as fitness.  You have to have a plan… a system.  I don’t like bodybuilding, but bodybuilders sure are good about sticking to their workouts.  And I’ll tell you this – they don’t always want to do them.  But they’ll do the workouts anyway.  Not because they’re motivated to do so (they’re not… at least not always), but because they’re sticking to their plan.

Make your workout times an appointment in your calendar, develop an accountability plan, have something (or several somethings) in place that are going to keep you on track when your motivation wanes.  Whatever you do, don’t blame being unmotivated for not staying active.  One final analogy (because I rock at these)…

If you’re riding a bike down a hill, you can go pretty far and pretty fast without peddling.  But sooner or later, the hill is going to end and you’re going to have to pedal the dang bike.  Motivation, just like hills, ends when it ends – be prepared to do some peddling.

P.S. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about peddling drugs.
P.P.S. I realize I didn’t have to clear that up, but I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry.

‘Til next time!

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“Calories burned” makes me sad

It never ceases to amaze me how even bad ideas can become so commonplace as to be a part of our daily conversations.  And lucky me – in my line of work, you get to be a part of a LOT of these conversations.

“Does this count as my exercise today?” someone will playfully ask me while moving a couple boxes or some other physically trivial task.

I put on a cheesy grin and feign laughter as part of me dies inside, because to this day, I have no idea how I’m supposed to respond to that kind of question.

I believe the question, serious or not (I can never quite tell), stems from the belief a that it matters how many calories we burn, especially when we’re working out.  That’s why they put that obscenely inaccurate readout on all the treadmills and ellipticals so you know that your workout just burned 250 calories.  Well first of all, it didn’t.  Second of all, that’s less than one-tenth of a pound, so maybe don’t throw a party just yet.

But most importantly, even framing the conversation this way is playing on their terms.  Who are “they?”  I have no idea – but I feel like they’re out to get me.

The most important thing to remember is this: if you burn energy through activity, your body is going to want that energy back in food.  Believe it or not, your body doesn’t care about weight loss; it cares about survival.

We can try to pretend that’s not the case all we want.  We can keep saying, “Listen body,” in an angry, condescending voice, “I know you’ve evolved over eons to give me cues when I’m starving myself, but I have a Halloween costume to fit into, so knock it off!”  (I know most people aren’t trying to lose weight to fit into a Halloween costume, but it’s almost October and I’m trying to be seasonal)

When you exercise, your body is going to want more food.  And, believe it or not, you should actually give it what it needs.  When you don’t exercise and don’t eat enough, you are literally starving yourself, even if only to a small degree.

You should workout, but you shouldn’t do it with this idea in mind that you have to burn off as many calories as possible, even if the goal is losing weight.  What you eat plays a much more important role in fat storage than simply how much.  Your body has different uses for fats, carbs and protein, and to just cut back on everything and leave your body short on nutrients is exactly why we have the term, “yo-yo dieting.”  You can’t do it long-term, so you stop, gain weight back (because you’ve never changed what kinds of foods you’re eating) and then start all over again.

Exercise should be done to improve how your body functions (stronger, more mobile muscles and a capable circulatory system) not to burn off energy.  Your body isn’t stupid enough to let you starve it without fighting you, so if you want to choose the calories burned approach to exercise, prepare to be hungry.

Always remember that your body knows better than your brain what it needs, so if you’re hungry, eat.  And if you’re trying to lose weight, that rule doesn’t change,  but the kinds of foods you’re eating should.

‘Til next time!

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My one Biggest Loser post for the year (I promise!)

I promised myself I was going to take it easy on the Biggest Loser this season.  After all, it’s a pretty easy target, and there’s no shortage of people making fun of it.

Yet as I’m watching the season premier on DVR, I realize that I have to dedicate one, and only one, post to deriding this insult of a fitness show, mostly to get it out of my system.  You may be asking yourself, “If it’s an insult, why on earth would you DVR it in the first place?”  Allow me to answer your question with a question – why are you trying to make me look bad?

The most noticeable change this season is that Jillian Michaels is no longer around (Tiger Woods’-style fist pump).  In case you’re wondering (and I know you’re not), she’s now on the show, The Doctors, because apparently you don’t need any credentials to call yourself a doctor these days.  I’ve never heard a doctor tell me to do something or they’ll, and I quote, “rip your arm off and beat you with it.”  Well, she’s always been nothing if not classy.

“She has dedicated her life to becoming one of the most elite athletes in the entire world.  She knows first-hand what it takes to become a world-class competitor.”  This was the intro given to Anna Kournikova as she replaces Jillian for this season.

Listen, Biggest Loser – don’t pretend I haven’t been watching ESPN for the last ten years.  I must say that I didn’t come up with this on my own, but it’s worth sharing:

Anna Kournikova is a perfect addition to the Biggest Loser – after all, she’s done a LOT of losing.

(In case you don’t know, she never won a singles tennis title her entire career.  Apparently the producers and I have a different definition of the word “elite.”)

And since it apparently takes two people to replace one vastly underwhelming trainer (Michaels), they also brought on Dolvett Quince, who happens to be Justin Beiber’s trainer.  I don’t think anything else needs to be said.

As I told you when I started, the Biggest Loser is an easy target, so I want everyone to know WHY I insist on a post like this.

It’s because the show isn’t helping, it’s hurting.

We’ve got a real problem as a country, and a show sponsored by Subway isn’t helping anybody.  There are people who do need to lose weight, and they just don’t know how bad some of this advice is, yet it’s probably the single best-known fitness show on television.

Your average American doesn’t know that the contestants are working out six hours a day.  Or that they workout in as much clothing as possible when the cameras are off.  Or that they have to sign a waiver saying they can’t talk openly about their experience on the show without the producers’ permission.  Or that they dehydrate themselves the day before weigh-ins.  The winner of the first season was so dehydrated during the finale that he was urinating blood.  He’s since gained back all the weight.

But all people see is the before and after, not the behind the scenes or what happens to these contestants after the show.  You can’t take action that’s completely unsustainable and expect the benefits to be sustainable.  Yet Bob Harper, Jillian Michaels and crew are thought of as heroes.  People believe they’re the best of the best – professionals who have a track record of helping people who really need help.  But all the dangerous crap they do on this show happens on their watch, and in spite of all the damage they’ve done, they have no problem cashing the paychecks.

I make fun of the Biggest Loser because it makes my job more difficult.  It makes people want more exercise, not better exercise.  It makes them want to eat more Subway and less, well, real food.  Why?  Because the TV trainer said so, never mind how awful they are at their job.

If you watch the show (heck, even I have to admit, it makes for pretty good TV), please remember that what makes for good entertainment usually makes for really lousy fitness.

All right, I’m off my high horse – have a great weekend, everyone!

‘Til next time!

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