Top 5 Fat Loss Mistakes

1. YOUR WORKOUTS

The problem:   You train like a wimp. In fact, calling it training is giving you too much credit. Listen, you’re not fat because you don’t do enough curls – an exercise that targets roughly 3% of your total body mass. The only way exercise can help with fat loss is by increasing resting metabolic rate (RMR) and the only way to do that is to inflict maximum muscle damage. Be honest with yourself.  If it feels too easy, it’s probably not inducing the type of metabolic demand required for body recomposition.

The fix:  Work with a qualified trainer to develop a program based on compound lifts. These are exercises that require multiple joints to move the weight. Since you’re using more muscles, compound movements lead to a more pronounced response from the muscle and a bigger release of muscle-building hormones. And remember, the process of maintaining muscle is a lot of work for your body.  So the more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism and the more calories you’ll burn, just at rest. As for cardio, interval-based workouts will provide a similar “afterburn” effect.

So focus on the big lifts.  Think squats, presses, and rows, not pressdowns, crunches, and calf raises.  Your body has to work harder to do these movements, which expedites strength gains, muscle building, and fat loss. Soon, you’ll reach a point where you can actually see your biceps. Then it will make more sense for you to add in some curling.

2. YOUR SLEEP

The problem: You stay up too late. A sleep deficit throws hormone levels out of whack. More specifically, poor sleep:

  • messes with the body’s ability to process carbohydrates and causes high blood levels of glucose, which leads to higher insulin levels and greater body-fat storage.
  • drives down leptin levels, which causes us to crave carbohydrates.
  • reduces levels of growth hormone, a protein that helps regulate the body’s proportions of fat and muscle.
  • can stimulate the release of additional cortisol — a stress hormone which, in excess, can trigger hunger.

The fix: Stick to a set bedtime as many nights of the week as possible.  Start unplugging at least an hour before bed.  That means put away the screens: phones, computers, televisions all emit blue light, which suppresses the body’s natural production of melatonin, a hormone that signals that it’s time to start winding down.

3. YOUR DIET

The problem: You lie about your diet. According to research, the average American overestimates how much they exercise and underestimates how much they eat. Thathandful of chocolate you grabbed from the office candy bowl because your day was getting progressively more stressful and the sugar was comforting? That counts.  That really happened.  It went in your body. These “it was only one cookie” mishaps can accumulate throughout the course of a week and often explain the caloric surplus that prevents many from reaching their goals.

The fix: Though it’s not appropriate for every personality type, tracking what you eat is a good way to eat healthier, lose weight (if that is the goal), and curb cravings. Tracking over the long haul can become tedious but for short periods it can help. But if you’re going to do it, you have to record EVERYTHING. And though I blame sites like Instagram for triggering body image issues, taking pictures of your meals can help keep you honest.

4. YOUR MINDSET

The problem: You’ve convinced yourself that losing weight is all about willpower.  Those who have been successful in building and maintaining a lean, healthy physique typically have great self-control but relying on that alone is draining.  Willpower only gets you so far.

The fix: Develop habits and routines so that smart exercise and healthy eating become automatic.  Put in the work upfront – prepping meals, packing your gym bag, etc. Eliminate the distractions and constantly remind yourself why you’re doing it.  After a few weeks, these new habits will become second nature and no longer a chore.

5. YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS

The problem: The people you spend your time with -consciously or not – are sabotaging your diet. However well-intentioned, talking to loved ones about your insecurities can sometimes result in misguided comments and negative feedback about your body or your weight loss efforts.  Negative comments can increase stress, which could lead to weight gain.

Do any of these sound familiar:

  • “You’re no fun anymore!”
  • “What’s the big deal about a slice of pizza?”
  • “But I made this meal just for you! You have to eat it.”
  • “You don’t need to lose any weight! You’re fine just the way you are.”
  • “Can’t you skip a workout just this once?”

The fix:  Tell them you’re doing this to get healthy, not skinny.  Make it clear that you’re asking them to support you, not to change with you.

If it’s really bad, consider spending less time around them.

10 Ways to Boost Testosterone Naturally

Testosterone is  most often associated with “masculine” traits like strength, body hair, and aggressiveness but both males and females require it for proper sexual and physical development. That’s right ladies, this blog post applies to you too (did you know you secrete testosterone from your ovaries?).  Though men produce roughly ten times more testosterone, females are much more sensitive to its effects.  The right amount is crucial to a woman’s health. It keeps their bones strong, increases libido, and provides emotional stability.

Low testosterone levels can lead to a number of serious health consequences – in both sexes. These include an increased risk of depression, low sex drive, obesity, and osteoporosis.  Men with low testosterone tend to have higher rates of heart disease, depression, and dementia. A decrease in testosterone levels in women can lead to a loss of muscle mass and weight gain.

Sub-optimal testosterone levels will wreck your training performance and results. Testosterone helps with protein synthesis, allowing the body to rebuild muscle fibers with amino acids. You need testosterone to maintain existing mass as well as to build bigger muscles.

Here are the 10 best non-pharmaceutical methods of increasing testosterone – no patches, lotions, or injections required:

1. Lift heavy

Resistance training supercharges testosterone production and research has shown that using a load between 85% and 95% of your 1RM (one-repetition maximum) releases the most testosterone.  

2. Lift smart

Don’t just hit the gym and start heaving.  Put a little more thought into the variables. Choose quality over quantity when structuring your workouts. Limit training sessions to an hour for optimal hormonal balance and to minimize the risk of overtraining.  Rest periods matter too: Research has shown that resting 90 seconds between squat and bench press sets increases post-workout testosterone levels the most, followed by rest periods of 120 seconds. Obviously, this will allow you to lift heavier loads (see #1, above).  Focus on full-body, compound movements like squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows. 

3. Perform high-intensity, interval-based cardio

Not only are short, intense bursts superior to traditional aerobics for fat-burning, but research has shown that activity such as sprinting will increase serum total testosterone levels.  In fact, in a study on young men, six-second sprints resulted in testosterone levels that remained elevated during the recovery period.  

Research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine compared the effects of sprint intervals, running, and a strength training circuit on testosterone levels.  Only the group of participants performing sprint intervals experienced a significant increase in testosterone levels.  In case you’re wondering, the “strength” training circuit used 30-second recovery periods – a duration too short to allow a load sufficient enough for testosterone-boosting. 

4. Keep cortisol in check

Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone.  While it does some good – preparing us for fight-or-flight situations – too much cortisol leads to catabolism, a state in which your muscle mass breaks down. Testosterone and cortisol have an antagonistic relationship. What can you do? Avoid overtraining – especially  in the form of  long-duration aerobic exercise. You can keep cortisol in a healthy range by lowering your overall stress level.  Adequate sleep will help in this regard, as will activities that promote mindfulness and relaxation. Fish oil supplements have also been shown to reduce cortisol levels, in addition to their many other benefits.

5. Ensure adequate vitamin D 

Vitamin D has long been associated with bone and muscular strength but research has shown that it also positively correlates with testosterone levels in men. Translation: men with sufficient vitamin D levels have significantly higher testosterone levels. Another study determined that when healthy male participants take 3,332 IU’s of vitamin D daily for a year, they have 25.2% more testosterone on average when compared to placebo. The optimal amount of vitamin D in the blood seems to be around 50-70 ng/dl.  Unless you’re spending several hours in the sun each week, supplementation is advisable.   Here is the product I recommend.  

6. Use carbohydrates strategically

If you’re relatively lean and train hard several days each week, you’ve earned some carbs. Post-workout carbohydrate consumption is highly anti-catabolic, which means it drives down stress hormones like cortisol. This can be very beneficial in optimizing the testosterone-to-cortisol ratio. Carb sources such as potatoes and rice are what I use most frequently with my clients.  Just be sure to adjust your carbohydrate intake downward on non-training days due to reduced activity levels and the increased likelihood that they’ll be stored as body fat.

7. Eat fat 

Dietary fat increases testosterone, while low-fat diets reduce it.  Saturated and monounsaturated fats are preferred over polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), like soybean, corn, and canola oil.  The ratio of PUFA to saturated fats (SFA) also matters. Lower ratios (less PUFA, more SFA) are better for testosterone production.

A low-fat, high-fiber diet reduced serum and free testosterone levels in middle-aged men according to one study. Other research on male athletes found that saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, and cholesterol intakes were positively correlated with resting testosterone levels.  In case you didn’t know,  testosterone is synthesized from cholesterol.

The best sources of saturated fats include grass-fed beef, lamb, and bison, pastured eggs, and organic butter and heavy whipping cream, also from grass-fed animals. For monounsaturated fats, choose extra virgin olive oil, raw nuts, and avocados.

And in case you’re visiting my site for the first time or you cling to a misguided, antiquated, and baseless 1980’s nutrition mindset: no, saturated fat DOES NOT clog arteries and no, saturated fat DOES NOT cause heart attacks. That myth has been debunked over and over. Inflammation is the real culprit. The structure of PUFAs makes them chemically unstable and therefore vulnerable to damage from heat, light, and oxygen.  When exposed to these things, oxidation occurs and that process increases inflammation.

A study in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine found no link between eating saturated fats and increased risk of heart attacks. Additional research has even found that higher saturated fats are associated with lower risk of heart disease.   Read more here

8. Buy only meat and dairy from clean, responsibly-raised animals…and aim to lower your overall toxic load

Not only do products from animals raised on pasture provide a favorable omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio, but these animals are also not given estrogen, antibiotics, and other injections, which end up being present in commercially produced beef and dairy.

Toxic substances called dioxins have been shown to interfere with the male reproductive system, including production of testosterone.  Most of our exposure to dietary dioxins comes from conventionally-raised animal products. Factory-farmed meat and dairy is also much higher in estrogen and estrogen correlates with low testosterone levels.  

While you’re at it, avoid plastic products and the chemicals they contain, especially phthlates and bisphenol A (BPA).  Among other harmful effects in the human body, these endocrine disruptors are known to lower testosterone levels.  If  you can’t completely eliminate plastic, at least try to avoid putting it in a microwave or dishwasher, as the heat will cause the toxins to leach from the plastic.  Stainless steel and glass are much, much safer options.

9. Keep blood glucose levels under control

Here’s another reason to avoid rapidly-digested carb sources like pasta, cereal, and bread: Researchers found that 75 grams of pure glucose – and the resultant spike in blood sugar – was enough to drop testosterone levels by as much as 25% for hours, regardless of whether the participants were diabetic, pre diabetic, or healthy.  

10. Get more zinc 

A zinc deficiency predicts lowered testosterone in men.  Research conducted at the University of Tehran found that zinc also promotes healthy sperm counts in men. The mineral increases testosterone levels by inhibiting aromatase, an enzyme that converts testosterone into estrogen. If you don’t eat much shellfish, you. may need a supplement. This is the product I recommend. 

How to Keep Fruit in Your Fat Loss Plan

Fruit can stall fat loss.  I’ve seen this play out repeatedly with the physique competitors I train. After months of restricting calories their metabolisms inevitably slow down.  When I have them cut back on or remove fruit from their diets in the weeks leading up to a show they’re able to break through the plateau, rev things up again, and drop those last few pounds.  There’s a lesson to be learned here, even if you have no intention of ever stepping on stage. If you’ve got all the basics dialed in – you’ve cut out grain and sugar and your training program is in check – and you’re still not seeing the results you’re looking for, it might be time to take a closer look at your fruit intake.

I’m not anti-fruit. All fruit contains vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting antioxidants. When eaten whole, you also get some fiber and fruit is certainly less problematic from a health and physique standpoint than most other convenience foods.  But fruit is often consumed in excess. The fructose it contains can lead to insulin resistance, elevated blood cholesterol levels, and increased weight gain, particularly in the abdominal region.

Modern fruit seems to have been designed to be sweeter and has less fiber, a thinner skin, and greater water content to make it juicier.  In my experience, fruit also increases hunger. There’s a reason for this: fructose lowers the amount of insulin secreted by the pancreas in response to meals. This then leads to lower circulating levels of leptin – a hormone that tells the brain you’ve had enough to eat – and increased levels of ghrelin, a hunger-promoting hormone.  This situation can cause overeating and fat gain.

It’s true: sweetened beverages contain higher amounts of fructose than found in fruit and processed sugar certainly contributes more to weight gain.  But natural or not, fruit does contain quite a bit of sugar and it needs to be accounted for in the diet, especially when you’re down to your final inches of belly fat.

You don’t need to avoid fruit completely.  Here are some tips that will allow you to get the benefits while minimizing any potential risks:

  • Eat fruit that is seasonal and local.
  • Limit yourself to two servings per day; one if you are trying to lose weight or are insulin resistant.
  • Opt for varieties with the lowest fructose composition, aiming to limit your total daily fructose intake to 10 grams or less (two grams of fructose is equivalent to one teaspoon of sugar).
  • Favor darker fruits.  They have a lower glycemic load and they promote insulin sensitivity, meaning that they blunt the glucose response of the foods they are consumed with, making other carbs less likely to be stored as fat.
  • Reserve high glycemic fruits like bananas for the post-workout window when glycogen stores are depleted.
  • Avoid fruit juice entirely (unless you’re trying to gain weight!).

 

 

Low Fructose Fruits

Apricots, cantaloupe, raspberries, clementines, kiwi, blackberries, strawberries, cherries, and pineapple.

High Fructose Fruits

Mangoes, grapes, pears, watermelon, and apples.

Source: Jane’s Healthy Kitchen

 

Bonus tip # 1:

Fruits such as avocado, lemons, and limes are very low in sugar and do not have to restricted.

Bonus tip # 2:

Avoid dried fruit completely.  The sugar in dried fruit is much more concentrated and it’s akin to candy.

 

6 Ways Exercise Fights Cancer

We’ve known for years that exercise reduces the risk of several types of cancer but we weren’t always sure exactly how.  New research has identified several mechanisms:

1. Exercise and Immunity

Exercise boosts the immune system. More specifically, exercise stimulates the release of the hormone epinephrine, which helps to circulate natural killer (NK) cells in tumors. These specialized white blood cells act as our immune system’s assassins, infiltrating tumors and causing them to shrink.

2. Exercise and Inflammation

Study after study has shown that long-term exercise programs reduce markers of inflammation, a critical component of tumor progression.  High intensity interval (HIIT) training, in particular, is known to stimulate the release of myokines from the muscle cells. These chemical messengers inhibit the effects of inflammatory molecules produced by body fat.

3. Exercise and Insulin

Physical activity reduces the amount of insulin in our blood. Scientists believe insulin can turn on signals that tell cells to multiply. Since cancer begins when cells multiply out of control, lowering insulin levels could help stop some types of cancer from developing. Elevated insulin leads to over-stimulation once a cancer cell has emerged, promoting proliferation, migration, and invasiveness of cancer cells through multiple pathways.

Research has shown that prostate cancer incidence is more than 2.5 times higher in men with the highest blood insulin levels.  Stomach cancer risk is nearly 70% higher for people with blood insulin levels in the middle third, compared with those in the bottom third and over 100% higher in those with the top one-third of insulin levels! And cancers of the female reproductive system seem especially sensitive to elevated insulin levels.

4. Exercise and Estrogen

Exercise lowers blood estrogen levels.  This is important, as women with high estrogen levels in their blood have increased risk for breast cancer. In fact, dozens of studies have shown that women who exercise have a 30 to 40 percent lower risk of breast cancer than their sedentary peers. Older women also need to be concerned about estrogen. After menopause the hormone is produced by fat cells. Women who exercise have less fat and therefore produce less estrogen.

5. Exercise and Leptin

Exercise affects leptin levels.  Leptin is a hormone produced by the fat cells in your body. Leptin controls your metabolism, hunger, and energy expenditure. Leptin levels rise after you’ve eaten – as does your metabolic rate – and your brain then sends a signal to the rest of your body that you’re full. This is good. But if you’re always in a caloric surplus, you  can become leptin resistant.  If you eat a diet high in sugar (especially fructose), grains, and processed foods, the sugar gets metabolized in your fat cells and the fat releases leptin. Over time,  these surges cause your body to become resistant to leptin in the same way it can become resistant to insulin.

When leptin levels are high, cancers survive better, grow faster, and spread more. There’s evidence that leptin increases levels of insulin and estrogen, both of which promote cancer growth. Research has shown that breast cancer cells express unusually high levels of leptin and its receptors.  Additionally, it’s been shown that when leptin is high, cancer drugs like Tamoxifen do not work as well to block estrogen. Exercise – especially sprinting and weight training – can help restore proper leptin function and even reverse leptin resistance.

6. Exercise and our DNA

Exercise can literally “turn off” genes that are associated with diseases like cancer.  This typically happens through a process called methylation, which is when a clusters of atoms, known as methyl groups, attach to the outside of a gene affecting how it sends and receives signals from the body.

When those methyl groups are removed, it’s referred to as demethylation. If this cycle gets disrupted, you get sick.  DNA hypomethylation can be found early in carcinogenesis and is also associated with tumor progression; hypermethylation is also thought to be a cancer culprit.  For example, these processes can silence a gene (CACNA2D3) that would
otherwise suppress tumors. Exercise can reverse hypermethylation and restore normal gene function.

Past research has suggested that a single bout of exercise can produce immediate changes in the methylation patterns of certain genes in muscle cells.  A more recent study has demonstrated a long-term effect, with scientists noting significant methylation changes on thousands of sites on the genome of muscle cells in response to single-leg training (no changes were seen in the unexercised leg).  Gene expression was noticeably increased  in thousands of muscle-cell genes, particularly those that play a role in energy metabolism, insulin response, and inflammation within muscles.

 

 

 

 

While the health benefits of exercise typically focus on its proven cardiovascular effects, increasing evidence supports its therapeutic value for those seeking to prevent and treat cancer as well.  Clearly, the benefits exert themselves through multiple pathways – cellular, hormonal, genetic – and go beyond the obvious weight management considerations. While any type of exercise will be beneficial, the intensity, duration, and frequency are important factors and guidance from a qualified fitness professional should be sought when trying to safely and effectively apply these research findings to a new or existing exercise routine.

 

 

TIP: Rotate Your Protein Sources

It’s now widely understood that we create many of our own health struggles through poor dietary choices and I’m not just referring to fast food consumption and the corresponding increased risk of weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease.  We can actually give ourselves intolerances when we eat the same foods over and over. This is a fairly common occurrence among bodybuilders and other physique competitors who ignore certain symptoms while ingesting pounds of chicken breast, cans of tuna, and cartons of egg whites each day for years and years.

I’ve watched as clients have nearly choked on mucus within minutes of downing a whey or casein shake. Both are dairy proteins, most often derived from cow’s milk, which is one of the most allergenic foods on the planet.  Though the prevalence of allergies has increased in recent years, it is still quite rare.  But even if you don’t have an actual allergy to a food, you may have a sensitivity or intolerance. And though they aren’t life-threatening, they can be downright annoying. These low-level reactions can produce bloating, an increase in phlegm, headaches, and fatigue. Other possible issues include joint pain and rashes.  If this sounds familiar then perhaps dairy proteins don’t suit your digestive system. It may not be necessary to cut them out completely but if you continue to consume foods that you’re sensitive to you can end up with chronic inflammation, which can actually damage the intestinal wall and lead to other, more serious health issues down the road.

While whey and casein have some unique benefits, there are other muscle-building, fat-burning, meal-replacing options for your post-workout and smoothie-making needs. Alternative protein sources that tend to be less problematic include goat milk wheypea, and beef protein.  You can also consider an amino acid supplement. Sometimes the solution is as simple as switching brands or opting for a different form of the protein.  I’ve always felt better with raw, undenatured, whey concentrate from grass-fed cows than the more processed whey found in supplements geared towards meatheads and gym rats. The best approach, from both a physique and health standpoint, is to strive to take in a variety of protein sources, as each provides its own amino acid profile and a distinct array of other nutrients.

DIY Pre-Workout Supplementation

Most popular pre-workout supplements leave quite a bit to be desired.  Sometimes the ingredients are disguised in a “proprietary” blend. They can be pricey, are often underdosed, and usually contain artificial colors and flavors, binders, and fillers.  These products are unnecessary if you’re willing to do a little research and put together your own science-based, cost-effective stack.

To do so, you must first understand what exactly is happening during exercise. There are many steps involved in the movement of bone and muscle but the process begins when a signal is sent from the central nervous system to the muscle cells. This results in several chemical reactions, which cause the muscle fibers to reorient themselves in a way that contracts, or shortens, the muscle.

So the trigger for a muscle contraction is an electrical impulse and since all movement is initiated by the central nervous system, a well-formulated pre-workout  supplement should factor in the activity of neurotransmitters.  Among other functions, these brain chemicals are involved in muscle motor unit recruitment.  In short, muscle contraction is dependent upon proper neurotransmitter signaling.

Some better-known supplements like creatine and beta alanine act directly in the muscle cells to improve muscular energy and endurance. Others, such as caffeine, provide a more pronounced energy “rush,” though the stimulant effects might be undesirable to some. While these categories of supplements are certainly effective, the neurotransmitter enhancers listed below can improve workout performance through different mechanisms and should therefore be considered if you haven’t responded to traditional pre-workouts the way you may have hoped.

Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR)

You brain requires energy to function properly and ALCAR helps supply that fuel.  In fact, research has demonstrated that individuals who suffer from chronic fatigue have consistently low levels of ALCAR.

Not only does ALCAR have an energizing effect on brain cells, but it also protects them and helps them regenerate.  By improving brain plasticity, ALCAR can help you learn new skills and adapt to changing environments.

ALCAR helps maintain brain energy levels during periods of stress, allowing nerves to more efficiently tolerate higher levels of stress.  It’s even been shown to increase the output of serotonin and dopamine, which can improve mood and motivation.

There are several forms of carnitine available as supplements.  For cognitive enhancement, make sure you choose acetyl-l-carnitine.  A dose of less than two or three grams (2,000 – 3,000 mg) will NOT produce a noticeable effect. ALCAR should be taken on an empty stomach.

Products I like: NOW Foods Acetyl L-Carnitine 500mgBulkSupplements Pure Acetyl L-Carnitine (ALCAR) Powder.

 

L-Tyrosine

L-tyrosine is an amino acid that increases norepinephrine and dopamine levels in the brain, both of which are depleted in the face of an acute stressor, like exercise.  Supplementation can increase energy and focus, as well as improve mood.

Research has shown that tyrosine can improve cognitive performance  and reduce fatigue under stressful conditions, including sleep deprivation.

Tyrosine can help with information processing in demanding scenarios and is thought to improve cognitive “flexibility,” or the ability to switch between tasks, as would be required during circuit training, for example.

L-tyrosine should be taken on an empty stomach.  500-2000mg approximately 30-60 minutes.

Products I like: Now Foods L-tyrosineBulkSupplements Pure L-Tyrosine Powder.

 

Alpha Glycerylphosphorylcholine (GPC)

Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine is a form of choline, a precursor to acetylcholine.  And acetylcholine allows for communication between brain cells and is the primary chemical messenger involved in muscle contraction.  In contrast to ordinary choline supplements, alpha-GPC does a better job of increasing acetylcholine levels.

Research on alpha-GPC has demonstrated increases in recall and attention.  Other benefits have been shown related to memory and learning ability.  The effects have been so impressive that alpha-GPC is not being studied for use with Alzheimer’s patients.

Beyond its cognitive benefits, alpha-GPC enhances growth hormone production and is increasingly popular with athletes for its ability to increase power output.

The beneficial dose used in studies is 600 – 1,200 mg.

Products I like: Now Foods Alpha GpcJarrow Formulas Alpha GPC 300Powder City Alpha GPC 50% Powder.

 

Gingko Biloba

Gingko is a plant extract that has been used around the world for thousands of years to treat a variety of ailments. Of interest to us is its ability to protect the mitochondria, i.e., the “powerhouses” of our cells and where energy production occurs.

Gingko increases blood flow and oxygen delivery to brain cells and protect neurons, enhancing mental functioning and fighting the effects of fatigue and poor concentration.  In fact, a standardized ginkgo extract is one of the most widely-used dementia treatments in Germany. Additional research has shown that the supplement can significantly improve symptoms in patients with attention-deficit disorder.

The recommended dose is 40-80 milligrams up to three times a day.

Products I like: Extra Strength Ginkgo, 120c by Doctors Best, NOW Foods Ginkgo BilobaBulkSupplements Pure Ginkgo Biloba Leaf Extract Powder

 

There’s no need to give up proven supplements like good ol’ fashioned creatine and caffeine but if you’re not currently including a brain booster in your pre-workout stack, you’re probably missing out on some gains.

 

How to Increase Your Motivation to Exercise

It’s that time of year again.  You’ve probably noticed a lot of new faces at the gym the past couple of weeks.  Yes, health clubs see a spike in memberships in January but the crowds usually start thinning out by the end of the month.

Maybe you’re part of the January gym rush? If you’re like hundreds of millions of people around the world, chances are that you’ve decided to adopt healthier lifestyle habits in 2017, with one of the most common being more exercise. Unfortunately, no matter how noble your intentions, the likelihood of you sticking with your resolution long enough for it to become a habit are statistically slim.

According to a study by researchers at University College London, it takes 66 days to form a habit. Yet for many, the commitment wavers after just a few weeks.

You’re undoubtedly familiar with the tips and tricks that promise to guarantee success:

Be realistic.  

Be specific.  

Share your intentions with friends.

You’ve heard it all before. But what if you just don’t feel like working out? Is it laziness…or something else?

Until recently, many experts would point to a lack of willpower as the prime culprit for failing to stay motivated to stick with a workout routine. But a new study suggests that there might be a neurobiological basis for why some of us are couch potatoes  – one that we might actually be able to alter!

The report, which appears to support previous research on the subject, discusses the abnormalities within a person’s dopamine signaling system and how dysfunction in a specific type of dopamine receptor called “D2” can make exercise a very disagreeable experience on a neurobiological level.  According to the researchers, all animals (including humans) seek pleasure and avoid pain but without proper dopamine signaling, it’s impossible for physical activity to feel like a pleasurable or rewarding experience.

So what is dopamine and why is it so important? Dopamine is a brain chemical that plays a key role in  our ability to be productive. It’s sometimes referred to as our “motivation molecule” and can increase our drive, focus, and concentration.

When dopamine levels are out of whack you may experience low energy and motivation, and perhaps rely on sugar, caffeine, or other stimulants to get through the day.  Addictive and self-destructive behaviors are also common.The symptoms of dopamine dysfunction sometimes mimic those of depression. These include:

  • fatigue
  • apathy
  • procrastination
  • inability to feel pleasure
  • low libido
  • sleep problems
  • mood issues
  • hopelessness
  • poor memory
  • difficulty concentrating

The best news to come from the latest research is that the dopamine receptor dysfunction is not set in stone. The scientists involved in the study discovered that dopamine receptors are malleable and can be reshaped with the right diet and lifestyle modifications.

FOODS THAT INCREASE DOPAMINE LEVELS

If you’ve been eating an unhealthy “obesogenic” diet, your dopamine signaling has likely been affected and you’ll benefit from  some rebooting.  You can actually “wake up” your dopamine receptors with the right foods and this will kickstart the biological reward mechanism that can make someone want to move his or her body voluntarily.

There are certain foods that are known to increase dopamine levels, either directly or indirectly. These include:

  • Almonds
  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Beets
  • Chicken
  • Cheese
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Eggs
  • Kefir
  • Leafy greens
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sauerkraut
  • Watermelon
  • Yogurt

These foods are loaded with nutrients and provide a host of other health benefits.  I try to include several of these foods daily as part of an overall weight management and disease prevention strategy.

SUPPLEMENTS THAT INCREASE DOPAMINE LEVELS

  • Probiotics.   You may have noticed a few natural probiotics in the list above.  As it turns out, when unfriendly bacteria outnumber the “good guys” in our gut, there’s an increase in a toxic byproduct known to lower dopamine levels.  A quality probiotic supplement can rebalance your intestinal flora. Look for a multi-strain product with at least one billion colony-forming units (CFUs). The brand Prescript-Assist has considerable scientific backing. Jarrow and Renew Life are reputable companies.tyrosine
  • Tyrosine.  This amino acid is one of the building blocks of dopamine. Foods like eggs, meat, and fish contain tyrosine but some people are unable to absorb and utilize dietary tyrosine due to their genetics.  Supplemental doses of 500-2000mg approximately 30-60 minutes before exercise – or other stressors – can produce a performance boost.  The acetyl-l-tyrosine form seems to result in superior absorption.
  • Theanine.  This is the relaxation-inducing component of green tea.  Not only does it increase dopamine levels but it also boosts other feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA. Drinking several cups of green tea per day may have similar effects but theanine is available in supplement form. Studies have used as little as 100mg.  Several daily doses may be needed. Look for the patented SunTheanine brand.
  • Curcumin. Its benefits in the areas of cancer and Alzheimer’s prevention and joint health are pretty well-established but curcumin has been shown to raise dopamine levels as well. Perhaps this is the reason why it’s proven to be as effective as Prozac in treating mild to moderate depression! Since curcumin has poor bioavailability, look for a supplement that contains bioperine or a patented form like BCM95 or Meriva.

ACTIVITIES THAT INCREASE DOPAMINE LEVELS

Yoga and meditation. Both activities lead to increased dopamine levels, focus, and concentration and it will come as no surprise to regular practitioners that there’s even some research to confirm the effect.

Music. More than one study has demonstrated that even the anticipation of the sound of music is perceived as a reward and can result in dopamine release and feelings of euphoria. Other research has shown that listening to music during exercise makes us work harder and improves mood and self-awareness.

Hobbies.  Working in small steps toward a goal can help re-wire dopamine pathways. The best activities are those in which you produce something tangible. Examples include photography, sculpting, knitting, and car repair.

5 Ways to Minimize Holiday Weight Gain

Estimates of holiday weight gain are all over the place.  In some surveys, Americans report that they put on about five pounds between Halloween and New Year’s, while some media stories suggest the average is as high as 20 pounds! Those who are already overweight gain the most and the formerly overweight struggle as well. Regardless, holiday weight gain is real and research indicates the gain is not reversed.holiday-weight-gain

Some folks don’t care but if body composition is a priority to you, the holidays can be especially stressful. The good news is that you can still indulge without packing on the pounds and completely abandoning your healthy habits.  And it doesn’t require superhuman willpower. Here are 5 strategies:

  1. Consider a short-term fast the day before and/or after your holiday meal.  In addition to lowering cancer risk, improving lipid profile, and enhancing brain function, research shows that intermittent fasting (IF) can increase fat oxidation and weight loss.  Without any glucose floating around, your body is forced to burn stored fat for fuel.  Contrary to what you may have heard, your metabolism will actually increasenot slow down- during brief periods without food. Aim for 14-20 hours, much of which can come during sleep.
  2. Train with weights as close to the start of the meal as possible.  This type of activity, particularly exercises that target the body’s largest muscle groups, will increase metabolism for hours, as well as elevate levels of fat-burning hormones. Squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows will provide the most bang for your training “buck.” Use short rest periods for an increased benefit.
  3. Perform “smart” cardio the day after your holiday meal to clear excess sugar from the blood.  High intensity intervals interspersed with periods of rest/recovery will get you out of the gym much faster and torch more calories over the long-term than traditional aerobics.  By working harder in less time, your muscles accumulate more lactic acid and your oxygen stores become depleted – both of which result in an elevated metabolism post-workout (like when you’re indulging!). Sprinting, cycling, swimming, jump roping, recumbent bikes, and stair climbers all lend themselves well to HIIT.
  4. Keep your protein intake up, even if you’re not working out that day.  Protein has a very large thermic effect, which means that the process of digesting it elevates metabolism. Protein also increases satiety to a greater degree than carbohydrates, meaning you’ll likely eat less overall if your meal contains some protein.  In addition, protein has been shown to lower blood glucose levels so including it as part of a carbohydrate-containing meal will slow the digestion and absorption of the carbs into the bloodstream.  In contrast, an all-carb meal or snack leads to rapidly elevated insulin levels and a greater likelihood that those carbs will be stored as fat.
  5. Supplement wisely. Omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and green tea have all been shown in research to slow blood sugar spikes and increase insulin sensitivity, improving the body’s ability to store carbs as muscle glycogen rather than fat. Spices like cinnamon and turmeric and acids like vinegar have demonstrated a similar effect, as have nuts and berries.

Holiday weight gain stems from a combination of factors:  stress, social pressure, an inability to control our environment. The increased hustle and bustle this time of year can throw us out of our healthy routines and though it may be hard to avoid holiday parties and feasts, it’s also not necessary! You can eat, drink, and be merry without packing on the pounds.  Why wait until January to resume healthy living? Incorporating even just one of the strategies above will make you feel empowered and in charge.

 

The Best Foods for Joint Health (and a Few to Avoid)

Most forms of joint pain, stiffness, and swelling involve some kind of inflammation — either local or systemic.  Whether the cause is direct trauma or an overuse injury, this triggers a series of events in the immune system known as the inflammatory cascade.  The process begins with pro-inflammatory hormones recruiting white blood cells to repair damaged tissue and clear out infection. This is what leads to the redness, swelling, and pain we typically associate with injury.

If the inflammation persists it can lead to chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis, the most common joint disorder.  Though most often thought of as an “old person’s disease,” any individual who subjects his or her joints to wear and tear needs to be aware of their risk of osteoarthritis. Athletes – both recreational and competitive – are especially prone to developing the condition, as their joints typically receive a significant and frequent amount of stress.  When this occurs the cartilage between the joints breaks down, pain might result, and performance may be impaired.

Though training variables can be modified and recovery methods incorporated to minimize the likelihood of developing osteoarthritis and other joint problems, certain dietary strategies can be beneficial as a complementary intervention. Specific compounds in the foods listed below have demonstrated the ability to fight inflammation, reduce symptoms of and in some cases even prevent both exercise-induced and age-related joint pain and discomfort.

OLIVE OIL

Olive oil contains something called oleocanthal.  This compound works the same ibuprofen does – by  preventing the production of pro-inflammatory COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes.

“By inhibiting these enzymes, inflammation and the increase in pain sensitivity associated with them is dampened,” says Paul Breslin, PhD, co-author of a 2011 study that looked into the topic.  “Virgin olive oils from Tuscany, or other regions that have the same variety of olives, have the highest oleocanthal levels,” says Breslin.

A  2015 study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry looked specifically at the benefits of oleocanthal in managing arthritis. Researchers found that the compound had a significant impact on both chronic inflammation and the kind of acute inflammatory processes that typically accompany repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise.

According to researchers, 3 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil is equivalent to a 200-mg tablet of ibuprofen.  That might sound like a lot but olive oil has other health benefits, while ibuprofen – like all NSAIDS – can lead to kidney damage, and gastrointestinal bleeding and ulcers, while increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

CHERRIES

Cherries get their crimson color from a plant compound known as anthocyanin.  Many studies have shown that both fresh cherries and cherry juice can halt inflammation… AS WELL AS OR BETTER THAN ASPIRIN OR OTHER ANTI-INFLAMMATORY DRUGS!

A 2013 article in the journal Osteoarthritis and Cartilage reported that study subjects who consumed two 8-ounce bottles of tart cherry juice daily for 6 weeks experienced a significant improvement in pain, stiffness, and physical function. Patients also demonstrated a dramatic decrease in levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a blood marker of inflammation and one that your primary care doc should be checking at your annual physical to determine your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other conditions linked to out-of-control inflammation.

cherry-juiceIn another study, cherry pills were found to reduce osteoarthritis pain and stiffness, with more than half of the participants reporting improved pain and function after taking one cherry capsule a day for eight weeks. Each capsule contained 100 milligrams (mg) of anthocyanins.  (For reference, three ounces of pitted dark cherries are thought to contain from 80 to 300 mg of anthocyanins).

And a study conducted at Oregon Health & Science University looked at the effects of tart cherry juice in 54 long-distance runners who consumed two bottles of either that liquid or a placebo, twice daily, for a week leading up to a race. Those who drank the tart cherry juice noted a significantly smaller increase in pain both during and after the race.

As an added bonus, cherries are a good source of melatonin, a natural sleep aid with potential anticancer and antiaging benefits.

BONE BROTH

Bone broth is trendy these days with the increased popularity of Paleolithic or “caveman” diets.  Its inclusion recognizes that our ancestors made use of every part of an animal by boiling and then simmering the parts you can’t eat directly – bones and marrow, skin and feet, tendons, and ligaments.  It’s thought that while cooking, the bones release compounds with healing properties.  Among them are chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine, both of which happen to be sold in supplement form and touted for joint pain relief, though the evidence supporting these products has been mixed.

Bone broth also contains collagen, a protein found in the bones, skin, cartilage, ligaments, tendons and bone marrow of animals.  Both age and exercise-induced stress like that sustained during jogging, basketball, plyometrics can lead to the degradation of joint cartilage. We know from previous research on athletes that collagen supplements can produce significant improvements in joint comfort and a decrease in factors that negatively impact athletic performance.  Collagen from bone broth is easily absorbed and can help restore lost cartilage.

Another beneficial component of bone broth is gelatin, which can provide cushioning for bones to move freely and without friction.  In clinical trials, subjects supplementing with roughly two grams of gelatin daily were largely reported to experience less inflammation, reduced pain in the muscles and joints, improved recovery, and enhanced athletic abilities in comparison to those taking a placebo.

Since bone broth is somewhat of a new arrival on the superfood scene, there hasn’t been much research on the stuff itself.  However as discussed above, there’s considerable evidence that some of the nutrients it provides can improve health in a number of areas. This isn’t limited to joint pain and discomfort and also includes digestion and skin health. Beyond that, anecdotal support continues to mount and bone broth has made its way into the nutrition programs of professional sports teams.  kettle-fire

If you’re interested in making your own bone broth at home, it’s important to use grass-fed bones, which you can find at a local farmer’s market or from an online health food store like US Wellness Meats.  Here’s a recipe.   Warning: the process is time-consuming! Fortunately for those who aren’t quite so ambitious, bone broth is commercially available.  Just avoid products that contain the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) – it’s a neurotoxic substance that causes a wide range of reactions, from temporary headaches to permanent brain damage. Kettle & Fire makes a good product.

ONIONS (AND GARLIC, LEEKS, AND SHALLOTS)

These are all members of the allium family,  a group of vegetables loaded with a type of antioxidant known as quercetin. Research has demonstrated that quercetin may help relieve inflammation in diseases like arthritis. Quercetin inhibits the production of inflammatory molecules like histamine, prostaglandins,  and leukotrienes. 

In addition, alliums contain a compound called diallyl disulphine, which may reduce the enzymes that damage cartilage.  One of these, 5-Lipoxygenase, is known to trigger a cascade of inflammatory responses in the body.  Inhibition of these enzymes helps to lower inflammation levels in patients with arthritis.

Sulphur compounds are also present in onions and can provide protection against symptoms of arthritis through yet a different pathway. This naturally occurring mineral provides the cellular “scaffolding” on which connective tissue – cartilage, ligaments, tendons – is built.  Sulphur has been used for generations to reduce pain and swelling and is a prominent ingredient in many beauty creams. It is commonly found in joint relief supplements under the names dimethyl sulphoxide (DMSO) and methyl sulphonyl methane (MSM) but getting your dose through consumption of foods like onions and garlic will confer the additional health benefits of allium intake, such as a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease.

CARROTS (AND SWEET POTATOES AND SQUASH)

Orange-hued vegetables get their distinctive bright color from antioxidants called carotenoids.  One in particular, beta-cryptoxanthin, has been shown in  research to reduce the risk of developing arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. Scientists have determined that people who eat diets high in beta-cryptoxanthin are half as likely to suffer from a form of inflammatory arthritis as those who eat very few.  It appears that adding just one additional serving each day of a food high in beta-cryptoxanthin can help reduce the risk.  Other foods that contain beta cryptoxanthin include winter squash, pumpkin, persimmons, papaya, tangerines, red peppers, oranges, and apricots.

There you have it! This is by no means an exhaustive list, of course, but I think it covers the bases pretty well.

I have two primary criteria when creating “best of” lists:

  1. The foods, or the compounds contained within the foods, also provide additional health benefits in other areas.
  2. The foods are relatively easy to find and incorporate into the diet.

The foods on the list above provide a lot of “bang” for your nutrition buck. In addition to helping prevent and manage joint pain, they can also lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s…the list goes on.  And, because they’re low in calories and carbohydrates when used in reasonable quantities – and satiating – they can assist with weight management.

So that’s the good.  What about the bad? Just as some foods have a protective effect on joints, others lead to degradation and pain by promoting inflammation.  This disease process also increases the risk of developing other chronic, degenerative health problems. In most cases, these foods offer little to no nutritional value anyway and there are safer alternatives.  If joint pain is a concern for you, consider staying away from the following (your skin, midsection and brain will probably thank you too!):

 

FOODS TO AVOID

CORN

Corn oil in particular is loaded with omega-6 fatty acids, which promote the creation of eicosanoids.  These “signaling” molecules increase systemic inflammation, leading to arthritis and a host of other health problems.

SUGAR

Processed sugars like those found in baked goods and sodas promote inflammation in the body by increasing the release of inflammatory messengers called cytokines. Refined carbs such as white flour are also pro-inflammatory.

inflammation

MILK

Milk contains a specific type of protein – casein – that can irritate the tissue around a joint. Those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis commonly experience intolerance to milk because their bodies develop antibodies to casein in order to protect from what it mistakenly perceives as a harmful substance. These antibodies turn the body against itself in those with autoimmune diseases, manifesting in symptoms like joint pain and swelling.

FRIED FOOD

When foods are cooked at high temperatures toxins known as advanced glycation end products (AGES) are formed. They corrode the body the same way rust damages metal in a machine. French fries, onion rings and fried chicken are common sources.

NIGHTSHADES

Eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes are all members of the nightshade family. These vegetables contain the chemical solanine, which some people claim aggravates arthritis pain and inflammation.  Plants produce solanine as a defense mechanism against insects, disease, and predators (humans included!).

To date, no scientific studies have proven that nightshades cause inflammation or worsen symptoms but it’s interesting that the World Health Organization has set an upper limit of 20 mg per 100 grams of solanine per fresh weight of potato.  Above that limit, they are considered too toxic for human consumption and can’t be sold in stores.

Nightshades contain many beneficial nutrients as well but if you find they trigger joint pain, it’s probably best to avoid them. A three-month elimination diet should help you determine if the stiffness you experience when you wake in the morning or get up from prolonged sitting is caused by nightshade sensitivity.

It’s clear that paying more attention to your diet – in addition to smart exercise and recovery methods –  could eliminate the need for doctor’s visits, bulky and cumbersome braces, and even surgery. Eating anti-inflammatory foods on a regular basis will allow for safer, more productive workouts, make activities of daily living more comfortable, and possibly extend your life.

 

3 Surprising Ways Posture Affects Your Health

Good posture can have immediate and dramatic effects on your appearance.  When you slouch you shrink the internal volume of your abdomen, your organs can’t spread and you end up with a “bulge” or “pouch.”  It’s not a good look but it’s becoming increasingly common as electronic devices play a more prominent role in our lives. 

Beyond what you see in the mirror, poor posture can cause or exacerbate conditions that produce physical discomfort and even force you to limit or restrict certain activities.  When discs are compressed, for example, you could experience lower back pain.  And slumped shoulders could lead to pinched nerves in the neck, triggering tension headaches.

But the health implications of your posture extend beyond your musculoskeletal system and in ways that might not be so obvious. Here are three:

DIGESTION

Experts have identified improper posture as a contributing factor in gastrointestinal issues such as acid reflux and constipation. Digestion requires blood flow and poor posture impairs blood flow, depriving the organs of the oxygen and nutrients critical to the process.  Standing up straight allows the organs in the abdomen to assume their natural position.  A hunched-over position, on the other hand, constricts movement of the diaphragm, resulting in abnormal contractions that force the contents of the stomach into a smaller space.

Poor posture may also explain why patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) often have unusually relaxed abdominal muscles, as was the conclusion of the authors of a 2011 research article.

A slouched posture can actually cause gas to become trapped in the intestines.  This may lead to bloating and gastrointestinal discomfort.  A 2003 study in the journal Gut confirmed that an upright position is best for gas propulsion.

BREATHING

Poor posture restricts the function of the diaphragm, resulting in shallow breathing. Leaning over also squeezes the lungs, making them smaller, and decreasing  breathing volume by as much as 30%, according to Dr. Rene Cailliet, a pioneer in the field of musculoskeletal medicine.

A 2006 report by the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation revealed that bad posture affects lung capacity. Researchers tested slumped seating, normal seating, standing and a special posture that imitates standing spinal alignment (WO-BPS). This special posture involves tilting the bottom of a seat with lumbar support—with the spine “against the back part of the seat without ischial [sitting bone] support.”
They found that slumping produced the worst lung capacity and expiratory flow (LC-EF). Normal sitting was better. WO-BPS was even better—in some cases as good as standing posture in both lung capacity and flow.

ENERGY

Less oxygen getting into your system can certainly lead to lower energy levels but there’s more to the story.  Research has established that “power poses” – postures that reflect confidence – increase production of testosterone, while lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol and improving mood.

“The amount of change that you see in testosterone when power poses are engaged is like when you win a game,” says Dana Carney, cognitive psychologist and assistant professor at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley.  According to Carney, posture affects how we think about a task: “Productivity is really about telling your brain: ‘I’m in charge, I feel good, go,'” especially important with a fast-paced schedule, when sitting in a long meeting, or when giving a presentation.

A study in the journal Health Psychology found that sitting straight when feeling overwhelmed can help us crowd out negative emotions.  When we choose an open, upright posture, it’s hard to drop into the kind of depression that can cripple productivity.

Another study showed that the signal that gets sent to the brain when we assume a power pose can even decrease our sensitivity to pain, something that would obviously be beneficial during a grueling workout session.