Fitness and the Media

I wonder if this is how the media does it's research...

I wonder if this is how the media does it’s research…
Image: Stuart Miles and FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I enjoy reading the Health and Wellness section of the NY Times – well-written discussions and summaries of recent trends and research…with references to boot!  Certainly better than much of what is put out there on the Google-verse (honestly, who says I’m going to search the Internet anymore?).  It also raises awareness of the need to be active, which is an essential message in sedentary modern age.

However even the best journalism sometimes omits details that count, in my humble opinion.  This concern was recently highlighted as the result of sending some emails back to clients after they asked me whether certain Times articles shed a revolutionary light on the way we should approach training (short answer: no).

Unfortunately, not everyone has a fitness professional to run these questions by.  So some of these articles may lead readers to draw speculative, or unrealistic conclusions for themselves, resulting in unnecessary confusion, reduced self-confidence or even increased risk of injury. I realize that no accomplished writer is aiming for these results, but this can be where science-based journalists can take their pieces from good to great.

I generally find two issues occur at this higher level of writing related to fitness and the media:

1. Stories Posing as Fact

Fitness anecdotes and stories, while compelling and motivating, fail to identify their one weakness in the realm of research.  They are a study of 1 (or as us geeks call it, an n of 1).  Therefore, what may work for that person, won’t necessarily work for everyone, or you.  It’s never the author’s way or the highway – think critically about what is presented and if it’s really sound advice for you and your unique situation.  Only one person knows your body best – and that’s you.  Don’t ever forget that.

Story Under Discussion:  Fitness Crazed

Response to My Client:

“I just looked it up online and read it – and the author makes good points.  As in most aspects of life, simpler is better.  Consistency breeds results – the key is doing the movements properly and avoiding injury as you continue to add weight or intensity.  I’ve seen or heard about too many people injure their backs, knees, shoulders, etc. with loss of form.  Or consider what happened when you went faster a couple of weeks ago on the treadmill – we were able to work together to adjust your form so you used your abs and hips instead of lower back.

And despite the author’s preference for barbell training (or another person’s preference for marathon training), many people have gotten fit from other variations, like p90X, because they liked it and did it consistently.  It’s really whatever floats someone’s boat and keeps them motivated to stay active.

Trainers can fill many roles beyond dictating what to do (though that is an important role) – for some it’s motivation, accountability or paying attention to good form.  But yes, making things needlessly confusing and complex is useless.  My goal is to teach someone to fish, but if they want to keep coming back for fishing lessons, I’m not opposed because I know that even the best athletes in the world have knowledgeable trainers and coaches looking out for them.”

2. Inflated Implications or Unproven Conclusions

When taken to the extreme, this situation can become the equivalent of a promoter or agent hyping a new fighter – they’ve got the “next best thing.”  You’ve never seen anything like him before.  He’ll be the best, no doubt about it.  Then all the fans turn up for a first round knock out by the defending champ. At least the promoter (and maybe the fighter) got paid.

In the case of health or fitness research, the fighter is a new study that indicates a potential new correlation between two variables (i.e. egg intake vs. cholesterol levels, or exercise intensity in mice and an increase in a particular hormone related to fitness or health). If you actually read the studies, they are long, wordy and often…boring.  Unless you have a working knowledge of research design and basic statistics, you’re probably staring at the equivalent of a foreign language.

Journalists know this, and so rather than crossing their “t” and dotting their “i” by mentioning the statistical limitations and possible confounding factors of a research article, they only go for the sexy stuff – the breakthrough “conclusion.”  Unfortunately, the headline conclusion that everyone reads and acts upon can greatly misrepresent what actually occurred in the study – either by making the result seem more important than it really is, leaving out important limitations, or by jumping to a conclusion that is not supported by the study (correlation does not make causation).

Granted journalists need a hook, but once the reader is hooked, I hope journalists will do the reader justice by giving a fair and accurate representation of what truly occurred – the facts and just the facts.  No hype.  The bedrock of good journalism.  And if the journalist does not know how to interpret the studies, they should reach out to people who do.

Story Under Discussion:  For Fitness, Push Yourself

Response to My Client:

“Interesting study. A few facts to note:

1. It was a mice based study, not humans.

2. The mice that displayed supernatural results (103% I believe?) were in fact, supernatural. They were bred to over exhibit a particular metabolic protein (CRTC2) which amplified the results. It’s like saying taking steroids will make you gain muscle faster.  The normal mice gained 9%

3. Just because something improves results in the short run doesn’t necessarily lead to long term safety (I’d want to follow up on the heart health of those rats in a few years). See the steroid argument above as well.

4. All that being said, yes it’s probably better to work a bit harder if you can in Good Form. If you push yourself at the expense of your joint health you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.

A few good sayings to train by:

1. Push yourself mentally, listen to yourself physically
2. Feel the effort in muscles, not in the joints
3. The harder you train, the harder you need to recover (low stress lifestyle, sleep, good nutrition)”

How Thinking Like a Kid Can Improve Your Health and Fitness

Kid Playing Bball

Photo courtesy of: photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I have the pleasure of training some awesome clients at a boutique gym in Jersey City, Hamilton Health and Fitness (HHF), that has an on-site pool. Pools are coveted in urban areas, so there are a lot of swimming programs at HHF – including many for kids. As a result, these kids briefly walk near the training floor on their way to the pool. I’m always amused at how they look at all of the weights and machines in wonder. Sometimes they’ll just stare and other times they ask their parents, “What are those people doing?” We are, of course, training and exercising. And every so often a kid will start imitating a movement or climbing on a piece of exercise equipment (to the behest of their parents).

One time I watched a young boy, maybe 4 or 5 years old, walk over to a 90 pound dumbbell, squat down (in perfect form, I might add) and try to pick it up. Unsurprisingly, the weight won. But still, I was intrigued at how this kid just saddled up to a huge weight most adults wouldn’t go near (and a weight that was definitely heavier than him) and just “give it a go.” While some may view this boy’s attempt as foolish or unrealistic, I found a few lessons to be learned that adults can use to improve their chances of success when making positive changes to their eating and physical activity habits:

Kids Explore Possibilities

As adults it’s way too easy to get stuck in a rut or routine. And sometimes that routine is what leads us to an unhealthy lifestyle. We need to break that status quo. Kids’ minds, on the other hand, are a blank slate looking to explore; they look at everything with wonder and curiosity. They seek to interact with and understand the world around them, regardless of whether they go to a new country on vacation or are adventuring in their friends’ backyards for the 1,000th time. They notice changes in their environment and come up with lots of ideas of what they can try in a particular situation (can I pick this up? can I go there? can I climb on that?). Similarly, you can take a curious approach to eating better or becoming more active.

See your “old” surroundings with “new” eyes and build awareness about ways to live healthier. You’ll start to notice things you never knew existed, but in fact may have been right under your nose the entire time, such as a new area to go for a run near your house or an area of a kids’ jungle gym that you can use for an outdoor workout space. Or you could decide to take a walk around your workplace or neighborhood and stumble across a new place to grab a healthy meal or snack. Maybe you’ll see a new fruit or vegetable in the produce aisle that you want to try.

Kids Are Optimistic

Kids don’t know no and can’t; they assume yes and success. They smile much more than they cry. They want to be baseball players and astronauts regardless of whether they can swing a bat or breathe in space. They imagine what could be and then work towards it, assuming they will achieve it. They don’t have “baggage” that negatively influences their future pursuits. Similarly, no matter what you’ve done or tried before, approach each new health or fitness opportunity with the belief: if I put in the effort, success is inevitable.

Unlike kids, however, you may have to deal with baggage from previous experiences. But remember, with experience comes wisdom. Consider what’s worked for you in similar situations in the past and learn from what hasn’t. As I always say, “there’s no such thing as failure, only feedback.” Take your wisdom and leave your baggage; it makes for a much lighter, and easier journey.

Kids Are Persistent

Kids experiment. That’s how we learn to ride a bike or play a sport/instrument. If a kid falls down (or misses a note or fly ball), they don’t just throw their hands up in the air in exasperation and say it’s impossible. They get back up and try, try, try again. And eventually, they get better at it. Eating better and becoming more active is no different.

To get the results you want, you will likely need to develop new skills such as running, lifting weights, cooking, reducing how often you indulge or ordering different menu items when you’re at restaurants. And if the skill is new, you’ll probably mess up a few times. But rather than just give up and stay down after one slip up (i.e. oh no I ate dessert tonight, my diet is ruined, I’ll just eat whatever I want the rest of the weekend), accept what happened, get back up, dust yourself and keep moving forward. Think of each mistake you make as a missed note when playing the piano; one or two off-notes rarely ruin the entire performance, especially if we get back on key as soon as we realize it. However running away from the piano after our first mistake will.

Successful businessman Marshall Thurber once said, “Anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly at first.” I agree, because living a healthy lifestyle is undoubtedly worth doing well.

Take Action & Respond: Live life and “think like a kid” for a week, or even a day – explore your surroundings, think like you can do anything and be persistent…then tell me what changed about your “usual” actions and habits.

In the Mind of a Nutritionist

Mmm, water.

Mmm, water.  At Basic, in Jersey City.

I originally wrote this post for the Hospital for Special Surgery blog, which you can find here.  The HSS On the Move blog has a great series of rehab, fitness and nutrition blog posts, please do check it out!

From the HSS On the Move Blog, “In the Mind of a Nutritionist” (me!) –

“I eat chocolate. And I eat salads. I don’t count calories, but I pay attention to my portions (i.e. I know when I’ve eaten too much). I try to eat slower, a constant battle considering my genetics. I drink diet soda a couple times a week, but I drink a lot of water every day. I drink a glass of wine or beer on occasion. I drink a green smoothie most mornings (thanks to meeting my wife). I exercise a fair number of days per week, but I’d always like to do more. And I’ve maintained my 30+ pound weight loss for the past eight years – which got me into this whole fitness and nutrition field to begin with (I used to be an engineer). These are my habits, and they allow me to achieve what I want in my life.

Will things change in the future?  Sure they can. And then I’ll tackle those goals when they come. If I wanted to train for a marathon, I’d have to change some habits. If I wanted six pack abs, I’d have to restrict a lot more. In fact, I went for them back when I was losing my weight in 2005 and when I got to single digit body fat percentage and a good outline of 4-pack abs, I felt like food was becoming my enemy – not a good feeling. I guess that’s why most bodybuilders are miserable right before competition.  So I’m ok not being ripped.  I can still deadlift 300 pounds. And I can run. And I can spend time with my family. And most importantly, I’m happy with all of those results because no one is the judge but me.

This is why the glut of fad diets and misrepresented nutrition research infuriates me. People stop listening to the most important part of the healthy eating and living equation – themselves. Yes, I have the background in nutrition and exercise science that can help someone run faster, jump higher, drop inches or recover from training better. But in the end it’s not about me. It’s about you. I can’t force someone to be motivated and accountable (a.k.a. the dream client, or a fair number of athletes). I can merely explore the hopes and dreams a person has and figure out how eating and exercise can best complement them in that pursuit.

When I meet with clients, I always remember there are two experts in the room: I may be an “expert” in nutrition and exercise. But my client is the expert in their own life, preferences, routine and habits. And to get long-lasting change, we need a partnership. I promote people, not plans.”

TELL ME: What’s your dream?

Healthy Indian Meal Mods: Keep the Taste, Cut the Calories

Delicious AND Nutritious

Delicious AND Nutritious
Image: smarnad and FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Many thanks to my friends and colleagues Kuber Bhalla and Kristine Schweitzer for heavily contributing to the creation of this article!

Indian meals are world-famous for flavor and richness. They leave you feeling comfortably stuffed, yet still craving one bite more. But behind all that delicious comfort are some less-than-healthy ingredients that can add up to weight gain and heart trouble in the long run. So let’s take a second look at a few traditional favorites. I asked my friend, dietitian Jason Machowsky of DeathoftheDiet.com, to show us ways to make them just a little gentler on the waistline, while holding onto the aromas and flavors we know and love.

Butter Chicken

Reference: http://www.ecurry.com/blog/indian/curries/gravies/murgh-makhani-butter-chicken/

Butter chicken is such a classic that it may seem wrong to alter it, but you can keep all the comfort food flavor and add a healthy twist, as well. The marinade and meat are perfect as they are. You only need a trifle of mustard oil to flavor up to 2 pounds of chicken. Of course, it may be useful to go lighter with the amount of sugar and oil/butter/ghee used when cooking. The biggest issue is the sauce: ¼ cup of butter and over ½ cup of heavy cream. Consider replacing some of these saturated fats with thick, plain yoghurt, or evaporated milk, to keep a rich consistency while cutting fat calories. You could also compromise with a tablespoon or two of butter and ⅔ cup of lowfat yoghurt. Another option is to leave in most of that delicious cream and simply cut back on serving sizes. That can include serving fewer carbs (i.e. naan and rice) with the meal. Load up your plate with extra veggies instead. You can even replace the rice with cauliflower.

Chole

Reference: http://indianfood.about.com/od/vegetarianrecipes/r/chole.htm

Chole doesn’t need much help in the health department. After all, you can’t go too wrong with a dish based on chickpeas. But do watch the oil. Chickpeas are a great source of fiber and protein. The real trouble comes from the fact that this dish is often paired with fried breads or rice. Instead of adding lots of fat and carbs in the form of sides, bulk up on veggies. When you’re full of those, there isn’t much room to go astray with fried foods.

Dosa

Reference:  http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/vegetables-recipes/amazing-indian-dosa

The link takes you to a great example of a modified classic, from chef Jamie Oliver. Oliver uses olive oil in place of the heavier oils that most people use to make dosa. It’s an easy swap that won’t affect the taste enough to attract any notice. Sweet potatoes and gram flour are hearty staple foods, and the health benefits of tumeric, ginger, and chilies continue to unfold in nutrition labs around the world. Once again the problem lies not so much with the dish itself, but with the buttery/oily things that dosas are sometimes stuffed and paired with. Try wrapping your chutney or potato mixture in lettuce, rather than fry bread, for a more healthy alternative. You can also swap steamed spinach for the crackers many people tend to use.

Samosas

Reference: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/baked_samosas_69255

The biggest issue with samosas is our old nemesis, the frying pan, along with its assortment of artery-clogging oils. To avoid this altogether, try the baked samosa recipe we reference above. But frying doesn’t have to be unhealthy if it’s done properly. To cut fat and fry up delicious samosas and other foods, always make sure to use fresh, clean oil. Next, the oil needs to be heated to the proper temperature before you begin frying. Starting out at a low temperature means that your food will absorb too much of the oil, and end up greasy and unhealthy. Hot oil fries quickly, with a minimum of absorption. Another easy modification for samosas is to supplement the potatoes with lighter veggies, like carrots, peas, and spinach.

Be Bold. Be Healthy.

Great foods are born from love and experimentation, so don’t be afraid to make little changes, even to the most sacred of recipes. You may not get away with altering your great-grandmother’s best dish for a big family gathering, but in the privacy of your own home on a chilly weeknight, nobody can stop you from making your household meals just a little bit better for everyone.

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