Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, people are trying to sell you things. “This will make your life easier! How have you even lived this long without it?!” This message permeates our culture, but the kitchenware industry has got to be one of the worst offenders. A tool specifically meant for chopping garlic? Another one for slicing avocado? Even more for peeling apples, slicing eggs, coring pineapple, peeling onions, hulling strawberries, juicing oranges, deboning fish, seeding tomatoes, mixing, dicing, crushing, blending, etc? I’ll admit that I’ve become a bit grumpy about these specialty items, even though some of that stuff is great. Some of it is actually useful and will really save you time, but a lot of it can be replaced with a cutting board and a good knife.
This grumpiness is why, for a long time, I didn't exactly consider a kitchen scale to be an essential piece of equipment. This post is about why I was wrong.
This is a fitness blog, and I'll get to that in a moment, but I ought to mention that not every scale in every kitchen is used by someone making changes to their diet. If I had to guess, I'd say that most aren't.
With flour, do you dip your measuring cup into the bag, or do you use a spoon to fill a measuring cup before dumping it into the bowl? Is 1 cup of flour meant to be packed, scooped, sifted, etc? Isn’t there an easier way to get the perfect amount of flour and make the perfect cookie?!
While you might not lay awake at night thinking about the perfect cup of flour, a scale is an indispensable tool for anyone who wants accurate measurements of flour, sugar, or other dry ingredients. Proper measurement means better baking, and I can use all the help I can get in that department. Even better is the idea of not having to wash a sink-load of measuring cups.
Now that you’re all set to use your kitchen scale to make better cupcakes, let’s take a look at how we can use it to undo the effects of those cupcakes.
“How Will a Scale Help Me?”
One of the first steps to making dietary changes is to keep a food log; you can’t know what you need to change until you know what you’ve been eating. Keeping a log is about discipline and honesty, but it’s also about accuracy. Inaccurate reporting is the most common way that we undermine an otherwise complete food journal, and a scale takes the guesswork out of it. Here’s what I mean:
According to the package, a serving of dry pasta is 85g and provides 300 calories. Do you know what that serving looks like? Do you know what it looks like once it's cooked? I thought I did, and it turns out I was way off. The implications of this when you are logging your food can be huge: If you thought that you had one serving of pasta for 300 calories, but really you had 2 servings for 600… you get the idea.
“But isn't it tedious to weigh your food all the time?”
I actually find it kinda fun to see what 100g of different food looks like, but I won't lie, it can be tedious at first. It's an extra step when you're prepping food, which can be a deterrent for those of us on a tight schedule. That said, it’s an important step in getting an idea of what you're eating, which makes it worth the extra effort.
Since you likely eat a lot of the same things from one week to the next, you probably aren’t signing up for a lifetime of weighing or measuring every ingredient of every meal. 100g of chicken breast? ½ cup of rice? One serving of broccoli? It won’t take long for you to know what that looks like on your plate.
It’s also important to note that using a scale might be the easier of two options. If you’re going to have some tortilla chips, you can either count out 40 chips or put a bowl on the scale and dump them in until you’ve got 50g. Once you’ve done that a few times you’ll have a good idea of what “one serving” looks like, and you’ll be able to skip the scale altogether.
“Alright I’m convinced. But how do I decide which scale to get?”
The easy answer for me to give would be “If you’re even using a scale, you’re stepping up your game, so it doesn’t matter!” That may even be true, but I know it isn’t that helpful.
The old-school analog scales really are fine, if all you need to do is weigh moderate amounts of food and you aren’t overly concerned with accuracy. If you already have one of these then go ahead and use it.
If you don’t have one yet, I suggest getting a digital scale. These allow you to measure small amounts of ingredients (again, useful when baking), but the key feature of many digital scales is the Zero/Tare feature.
With an analog version, you put your plate on the scale, then your bagel. The difference in weight is how much your bagel weighs. Next, you put peanut butter on your bagel and do more math to find out how much of that you’ve used.
With the Zero/Tare function, you put your plate on the scale and hit “zero,” which resets the display to zero. Now when you put your bagel on the plate, it will just tell you how much it weighs! Hit “zero” again, add your peanut butter, and record the amount shown.
But wait! It gets even easier!
Instead of having your plate on the scale, put the jar on there and hit “zero.” When you take some peanut butter out and spread it on your bagel the scale will read “-10g,” and you can easily get the exact amount you want. This is way easier than subtracting with an analog scale, and way easier than putting a bit on your bagel, taking some off, getting a bit more, etc.
Removing barriers and excuses can be the key to actually making the positive changes you want to make, so the extra flexibility, ease of use, and increased accuracy of a digital scale make it the right choice for anyone who’s reading this and thinking “this all sounds like a lot of work.”
Anything worth doing is worth doing right, and that means using the right tool for the job. Upping your food-logging game with a kitchen scale isn’t going to change your life overnight. What it is going to do is take away the guesswork and give you greater control over what you’re eating, and that is the foundation for successfully making changes to your diet.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about mindset and the role it plays when we attempt to make changes in our lives. This isn’t some fresh idea or epiphany, and it’s a topic I’ve touched on before, but it does seem to come up all the time when I speak with clients, colleagues, and friends. Fitness is about changing the body, but it just isn’t as simple as “work hard, see results” or “eat better, lose weight.” If it was, I wouldn’t have this blog, and I might even be out of a job altogether.
We are often our own worst enemy and our own biggest obstacle, but why? What is it that prevents us from working as hard as we need to work, from sticking to our dietary changes, and ultimately, from reaching our goals?
The short-and-maybe-not-so-helpful answer is that it’s all in our minds (I wasn’t kidding about it not being helpful). For a longer-and-hopefully-more-enlightening explanation, read on.
As we go about our day and take in information, we think about it, apply it to ourselves, and make decisions. With so much going on around us, our brain uses little tricks to speed up the process, so we are subject to these hidden little things called Logical Fallacies, Cognitive Biases, and Heuristics.
In plain English, we have mental shortcuts that run in the background of our thought-processes, and they allow us to act & think quickly and to make decisions that are usually correct, though they sometimes result in faulty reasoning.
I am not an expert on this topic, but I find it fascinating. If you’d like to follow me down the rabbit hole you can read more by following the links throughout this post, but in the meantime I thought I would take a look at some of the more common mental traps we fall into when we talk and think about fitness. In each case I give a formal name, an example, and a discussion about the potential danger.
Agumentum ad Populum – The argument that if something is popular, it must be good.
You may have learned this one when you were a kid and you really wanted something because all your friends had it, or because “Jimmy’s mom lets him do it!”
Say it with me: If Jimmy jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?
Plenty of people run as part of their workout program, but not me. I have asthma, my ankles get really sore, and I just plain don’t enjoy it. It works for thousands of people, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for me. A good fitness program needs to be effective, safe, and fun, and if I relied on running as a primary component of my fitness regimen, it would be none of those.
An even better example is fad diets and exercise crazes. The fact that x-amount of people buy into the idea of detoxing through diets, cleanses, colonics, etc does nothing to legitimize the idea that detoxing is a good idea. The fact that x-amount of people who don’t have celiac disease have lost weight after going gluten-free does not indicate that gluten is bad for you.
Each claim must stand on its own merit, and the efficacy of the product/diet/habit in question must be evaluated based on a complete understanding of what’s going on. If you lose weight after going gluten-free and cutting bread, pasta, and other processed carbohydrates out of your diet, is that be because of the lack of gluten? Is it more likely that you were over-consuming those products and have now reduced your daily caloric intake?
More importantly, each claim must be evaluated as it fits in with your lifestyle and goals. You are an individual, and what’s good for one person may not be good for you, even if it’s actually good to begin with.
Appeal to Authority - This implies that because an expert says something, it must be true.
There are plenty of ways this can go wrong: some experts are self-described, some use expertise in one field to give themselves credibility in another, some are only out to make a buck, and sometimes they're just wrong. Of course, experts are often correct when they say things, but it's up to us to dig deeper and find out if they're reliable, if the information is backed up by solid research, and if there are any valid criticisms to the claim they're making.
This is exploited by people who make “documentaries” that aren’t documentaries at all. When someone appears on screen wearing a lab coat we are more likely to accept the things they say, even if that “doctor” is saying something that’s based on faulty research or isn’t based on scientific evidence at all.
"[TV Doctor] says we need to eat 4 cups of goji berries a day, do you know where I can buy those?" That seems like a lot of goji berries, and didn't he say yesterday that you had to eat 8 cups of rhubarb a day? When/why am I supposed to eat all of this?
“[TV Personality] says that no woman should ever lift more than 3lbs, so I guess it’s time to ditch the heavy lifting.” Yes, this is a real claim by a real person, and it is a perpetuation of the myth that lifting heavy weights will make you bulky. This statement implies that no woman should ever lift her own baby, or carry her own suitcase, or work in a physically demanding job. It also implies that female athletes, body builders, fitness models, etc must not have to work very hard to develop muscle mass. These insinuations are misleading, insulting, and false.
A variation of this is the Appeal to Anonymous Authority. "They say you have to work out 3 times a day to see results." Who are "they," anyway? Surely we need a better source before we take action.
Confirmation Bias - This is our tendency to accept information/evidence as true when it conforms to beliefs we already hold. Also referred to as Cherry-Picking, it allows us to justify holding unfounded positions because we can point to supporting info while we ignore/deny that which refutes it.
Here's an example from my personal life. I am not a big fan of doing core training. Don't get me wrong, I get all my clients to do it, but I personally don't like doing it (probably because I need to strengthen my core). While searching online for some info about core training, I learned something amazing: many body builders spend very little time on core-specific exercises! Well that's all I needed to hear, I could put my gruelling core circuit on the back burner, maybe never do it again, right? Good enough for body builders is good enough for me!
Hopefully you've noticed the obvious flaw in my reasoning... I am not a body builder. My goals include overall functional strength, not washboard abs that win competitions. Also, your core will certainly get strong if you do that type of training, alter your diet, spend a lot of time & effort to pack on muscle, perfect your form, etc, but I don't do that type of training. None of that applies to me, so neither can the argument.
Here's another example: have you ever heard someone say "I may be considered overweight based on BMI, but BMI is a flawed statistic, so who cares?" If you're willing to simply throw out a statistic that gives you a result you don't like, you're experiencing a classic case of confirmation bias.
For clarification, Body Mass Index is, by its very nature, an incomplete stat that is more useful for discussing populations than individuals. It doesn't take body composition into consideration; you could lower you BMI considerably by having your arms amputated. At the same time, when things like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, etc can be linked to increased BMI, it's worth finding out if you fall under the category of "exception" or "rule." Again, just because a body builder has a BMI of 32, that doesn't mean that someone else will be healthy with the same number.
Cognitive Dissonance – This describes our ability to simultaneously hold two or more contradictory ideas, beliefs, or values. I find this one to be particularly interesting because while we can be really good at seeing Cognitive Dissonance in other people, we can be completely oblivious when it comes to ourselves.
If you or someone you know has ever complained about not getting results while at the same time skipping workouts or eating unhealthy food, you have experienced this phenomenon.
A few more quick examples. A person is exhibiting Cognitive Dissonance when they:
• Drink coffee at 6pm then wonder why they can’t sleep
• Spend money on frivolous things and then complain about being broke
• Avoid exercises they don’t like because they’re too difficult, knowing that doing more of that exercise will make it easier and make them hate it less
You get the idea.
This isn’t always on purpose. The issue is often that the speaker simply hasn’t thought about how the two thoughts are linked. They aren’t being stupid or intentionally missing the connection, it just hasn’t occurred to them. Cognitive Dissonance is more common than you think, and I’ll bet you can think of an example from your own life.
“Ok, but why are telling me all of this?”
In case you aren’t finding this as interesting or compelling as I do, allow me one last attempt to stress the importance of this:
Just like it’s tough to make changes to our diet without understanding how our body uses food, it’s tough to make changes to our mindset unless we have an idea of what’s going on up there. Understanding how our minds work and how they can play tricks on us is a crucial part of any sort of self-reflection or self-improvement, and the areas of health, fitness, and weight-loss are no exception.
You don’t need to be an expert in psychology, either. Avoiding the mental traps I’ve described above (and knowing that there are many more that I haven’t mentioned) may be as easy as taking an extra moment when you hear a claim, or think about skipping your workout, or tell a friend about some diet you saw on TV. In that extra moment, ask yourself an extra question, something like, “Is this really how I feel? Is this in line with my goals? Do the claims about this product/diet match what I know to be true about how the body works?” Break the habit of placing blind trust in your brain and build a new habit of making sure you really think what you thought you thought.
A couple of years ago I started trying to learn classical guitar. A few of my friends were getting ready to take their RCM exams on the instrument, and after speaking with them, hearing them play, and listening to some of the great classical guitarists, I became interested in giving it a try.
I’ve been playing guitar for a long time, and my playing is fine, but when I brought my modest little nylon string home I knew I was embarking on a completely different way of approaching the instrument; what I wasn’t prepared for was just how bad I was going to sound.
What was the difference? The strings are a different material, and the neck is a bit wider, but the main thing was that I now had to pay proper attention to how I held the instrument, how I plucked the strings, where my feet were, and more. My old technique, such as it was, had to be thrown out the window if I wanted to play this style of music on this style of guitar.
This ought to have been obvious to me, and not just because of my experience with guitars. A large amount of my time as a fitness professional is spent talking to people about their form, showing them that there’s a better, safer, or more effective way to move, in the same way that there’s a better and safer way to play a musical instrument. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently, and now you get to think about it with me.
The topic of what constitutes proper form can be a contentious one, with debates about specific movements or techniques, but in this post I wanted to take a broader look at the idea of “form.” We’ll examine what good form generally means and how we can ensure we’re using it, but first let’s talk about why we need to talk about this at all.
Why Form Matters
The most important reason to use proper form is that it reduces your risk of injury. We exercise to get stronger, but we can’t exercise if we’re hurt. If we hurt ourselves while exercising, we’re creating an avoidable setback that prevents us from reaching our goals.
The word “setback” doesn’t really do justice to the type of injury I’m talking about. Having to rehab something like a thrown-out back or a torn rotator cuff can be a long and painful process, and may not only mean weeks or months of rest for the injured area, but may also mean a reduction in any high-impact exercise while it heals. Over-use injuries can be devastating as well, and can be even more frustrating because they might never have occurred if proper form/programming had been used. Not all injuries are preventable, but we ought to do what we can to prevent the ones that are.
Many of us have busy schedules and find it difficult to make time to exercise, so another great reason to perfect your form is that you owe it to yourself to get the most out of your workouts. The exercises you do aren’t done by accident. They’ve been selected, either by you, your trainer, or whoever made the video you’re watching, because they will positively impact your goals. Do them properly to build real strength and endurance; life is too short to do bad squats.
How to Get it Right
“I bet this is the part where he tells me to spend money on a personal trainer...”
Well, maybe. A good personal trainer knows you, knows your body, knows what you’re trying to accomplish, and knows how to give you corrections in a clear and effective way. They’ll be focused on your form, your tempo, which weights you’re using, and how the workout has been programmed, giving you the best chance of success.
Hiring a trainer is not the only way, of course. Even if you have one you might not be with them every time you exercise, so learning the basics about good form & what it feels like is a really good idea (more on that in a moment).
Checking someone else’s form is a good way to learn more about your own, so doing form-checks with your workout buddy can be a helpful and educational activity. If you’re really serious about getting things right you can have them take photos/video so you can see for yourself (as long as this is permitted by your gym).
If you aren’t working out with a friend, don’t hesitate ask one of the other members for a hand. It’s as simple as saying “hey, do you mind telling me if I’m rounding my back at the bottom of my Deadlift?” You’ll find that most folks will be happy to help you out.
Don’t worry if there’s nobody around to help you, because I’ve discovered a fitness secret that not everyone knows: that big mirror in the gym isn’t just for selfies! You can also use it to see if your shoulders are down, if your hips are square, if your core is engaged, etc. The mirror isn’t perfect, since some angles will be obscured or difficult to see, but it’s one more tool at your disposal. This may seem obvious, but enough people use the mirror AND use bad form, so I feel like it bears mentioning.
With all the different types of exercise and all of the different movements your body can make, the idea of one blog post covering everything might seem a little far-fetched, but there are a few key points you can keep in mind no matter what you’re doing:
Alignment – This is the basis for all good form. One could almost use the terms interchangeably, especially with exercises like Plank where there is no movement. If your wrists are directly under your shoulders, and your shoulders, hips, and ankles are in a straight line, your form is perfect: you are in proper alignment!
This concept applies to all exercises, though perhaps not as simply as in Plank. With a complex movement like a Deadlift, the alignment of each joint and limb needs to be considered, not to mention that of your spine.
As if that wasn’t enough, we must also pay attention to the alignment of the equipment we’re using. In an Inclined Press, is the bench supporting you at the correct angle? Are you moving the weight straight up in direct opposition to the force of gravity pulling straight down?
Seeing how proper alignment looks and connecting with how it feels is an important and often overlooked practise. What does it feel like to have your arms at a 90o angle to your torso? Do you bring them up too high at first? Do your shoulders hunch up? Spend some time in front of the mirror, maybe even when you aren’t working out, to develop a good sense of what it feels like to be aligned correctly.
Range Of Motion (ROM) – This refers to the movement of our joints: the distance and direction a joint can move between the flexed position and the extended position. We can try to increase Range Of Motion through stretching or strengthening muscles, but we also must work within a certain ROM if we want to ensure proper form.
One example of this is The Good Ol’ Fashioned Pushup. It is possible to do a Pushup with your elbows splayed out at a 90o angle to your body, but this can cause damage to your shoulders. Similarly, when doing a Squat it is possible (and common) for the knees to come forward, past the toes. In order to prevent knee pain and target the muscles we’re trying to strengthen, the ROM needs to be controlled.
ROM also comes into play when flexibility takes over for strength. If, when doing a Pushup, your shoulder blades come together as you lower yourself to the floor, you’re using the mobility of your joints rather than the strength of your muscles. Maintaining control over this will result in better, safer, more effective work.
Breathing – I mean, you need oxygen to live, right? I know I do.
Generally, holding your breath as you exercise is a no-no, while exhaling as you move the weight on the contraction (the hardest part of the movement) seems to work best. If you find yourself unable to breathe properly because you’re straining to lift/push/pull the thing you’re moving, that may be an indication that the weight is too heavy, which is a common cause of bad form. Your ego has no place here: reduce the weight or the number of reps until you’ve built up the strength to do it properly.
Of course proper breathing doesn’t just apply to resistance training. Whether you run, swim, cycle, climb, train in martial arts, etc, find out if there is optimal way to breathe and work to incorporate that into your training. I’ll never get Olympic results in any sport, but there is nothing holding me back from using the same breathing technique as a top athlete.
“The ‘right’ way doesn’t feel natural to me.” Fair enough. Lots of things don’t feel natural when you first do them. Driving a car, playing a musical instrument, even walking; these all take time and practice before they feel effortless. You’re learning a skill using muscles you may not have used before, so it’s only, well, natural that you need time and practice to feel natural.
“This is just how I’ve always done it.” Cool, so you’ve always done it the wrong way, let’s fix it. Seriously, a bad habit doesn’t eventually become a good habit, and just because you haven’t injured yourself doesn’t mean you won’t.
“But I’m tall/short/thin/not thin/long-legged/top-heavy/whatever. This doesn’t apply to me.” It really does apply to you. Your body type or body composition may change what a movement looks like, and you may need to modify or avoid certain exercises, but the fundamentals of good form apply to absolutely everyone.
Some Final Thoughts
There is a lot of information out there about form and technique, and not only have I just scratched the surface, but I’ve spoken in very broad terms. Hopefully this will serve as a starting point for you, and you’ll take a closer look at what proper form means in the workouts you do. “If something’s worth doing it’s worth doing right,” so find out if there’s something you need to work on and get to it.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I’m slightly less abysmal at classical guitar than I was when I first picked it up. At the very least I’m holding the poor thing properly now; the rest is going to take some practice.
Whenever we start a new project or task, there is always a first step. “Journey of a thousand miles,” and all that. I’ve written before about the importance of making a plan, but I also realize how hard it can be to make a plan when you aren’t sure what steps to take.
I’ve especially noticed this with people who are trying to lose weight. For many, it’s an uncomfortable process. Especially when talking to someone else about it, and especially when you’re talking to someone you may not know very well, memories of past unsuccessful weight-loss attempts and reasons/excuses why the weight was put on in the first place can contribute to feelings of guilt, stress, and anxiety. With all of that going on, “Make a Plan” might not be the most helpful instruction you receive, even if it’s technically correct.
I mentioned weight loss, but of course that isn’t the only reason people want to make changes to their diet. Some folks want to gain weight, and some don’t care at all about how much they weigh, they just want to eat better. No matter what your motivation, a good first step is to make a record of your current diet. This isn’t ground-breaking advice: you’ve likely heard of food journals, and maybe you’ve even seen printable templates online or checked out some diet tracking apps for your phone. The one thing that you may be missing is an answer to the question “Why (and how) should I do this?”
Allow me to attempt to answer that for you by answering a series of questions I’ve heard from actual people.
“This seems like a lot of work. Is it really necessary?”
I’m not going to lie, it is an extra step in the process of preparing and eating food. It may even be 2 extra steps, depending on how you choose to record it. It’s an important step to take though, because it is extremely common for people to underestimate just how much they’re eating. This is why you’ve heard people say “I don’t know why I can’t lose weight, I don’t even eat that much!” I am not a betting man, but I would put money on the fact that they don’t actually know how much they eat in a day. Making effective changes to our diet can only be done once we know what our diet is, and keeping an honest, accurate food log is the best way to get this information.
It may be helpful to know that you aren’t making a lifetime commitment to your food journal. If the plan is to make a series of small, sustainable, long-term changes to your diet (and I sincerely hope that it is), the day will come when that improved diet is just the way you eat. You won’t need to keep track of your eating habits because you’ll be more in touch with them than you are now.
“So how do I do it?”
Well, the method is up to you. Keeping a physical notebook works for some, while logging it into an online calorie counter like My Fitness Pal works better for others. Some people do both, though that’s 2 steps. You can keep track as you go throughout the day, you can record it in the evening before bed, or you can write it down in the morning and keep yourself locked in to what you plan on eating. If it works for you, and if you can keep it up over the next few weeks and months, then it’s the right way.
“Ew, you mentioned calories, I don’t want to count calories.”
Well you don’t have to if it’s really that important to you, especially not at first. It can be enough to see that you maybe aren’t eating as many vegetables as you thought (most of us aren’t), or that you’re eating more processed grains that you thought (most of us are). If the idea of digging into how many calories or grams of protein, sugar, and fat you eat seems too crazy for you, then don’t do it. Focus on the task of recording it, and take action on any obvious issues you see. At a certain point it may become helpful to know this information, but you’ll be well equipped to handle this step because you’ll be an all-star food-log keeper.
I’d also like to mention that if you have an aversion to keeping track of calories, it may be a good idea to ask yourself why that is. Are you just being lazy? This excuse sucks, get over it and do the work you need to do to reach the goals you set. Are you just afraid of what you’ll find out? All the more reason to keep track. Are you worried that it will add stress to this whole process and make you less likely to keep up with keeping the journal? Then don’t worry about the calories for now, and focus on the journal like I mentioned above.
Last, but most importantly, for some people who have dealt with an eating disorder or an unhealthy relationship with food/dieting, obsessing over calories or the number on the scale is not the way to move forward. That is not my area of expertise, and if you fall into this category it may be a good idea to speak with your doctor or therapist as you approach this task.
A calorie is just a unit of measurement, and like the journal itself, calorie counting is one tool at our disposal. We can decide whether or not it is the right tool for the job.
“Ok so I just write down what I eat?”
Well, yeah, but there’s a bit more to it than that. You just write down EXACTLY what you eat.
Here’s what I mean:
If you have a sandwich for lunch you could write “sandwich,” but what does that tell us? Almost exactly nothing.
What about “Ham sandwich?” A bit better, but how much ham? What kind of bread? Was there cheese on it? Any condiments? Did you only have the sandwich, or did you have a side as well?
“Lunch – 3 slices of black forest ham on rye bread w/2 slices Swiss cheese & mustard. 1/2 bag BBQ chips, 1 can diet cola.”
Now that’s an accurate entry, though I’ve deliberately omitted brand names, and they ought to be included when possible. As long as it’s honest, we’re in business.
Estimating how much you’re eating can be tricky, so it’s a good idea to use measuring cups and even a scale for the first week or two, or at least until you get a good grasp of what “1 Cup Brown Rice” or “100g Chicken Breast” looks like. If measuring is too much work, here is a guide to help you make better guesses.
For a really accurate picture of your diet, include what time you eat. Things like bored eating in the afternoon, overeating at dinner when lunch was too light/too early, and energy levels that fluctuate can all be revealed, explained, and addressed when we know when you’re eating.
There is a lot to keep in mind, and it all needs to be specific to your situation, but the short answer to “how and why do I keep a food log?” is this: The first step towards making successful changes to your diet is to keep a detailed record of everything you eat over a given period, being as honest and accurate as possible.
The words we use can both reflect and have an effect on our mindset. As I’ve written before, my personal bugaboo is the word “should.” When we say that we “should” do something, we are not necessarily saying that we intend to do it. We have no plan, we may not know where to start, and we may even feel a bit guilty about it. It isn’t a useful way to feel, therefore it isn’t a useful word to use.
I had an actual physical reaction to something I overheard the other day. I was sitting in a coffee shop and two people were chatting at a nearby table. One turned to the other and said, “I should go on a diet.”
As if “should” wasn’t bad enough, along comes its old friend “diet.” Now that I’ve stopped cringing, allow me to explain why we should need to stop using this word, or at least why we should may want to rethink how we use it.
“I’m on a diet.”
“I’m making changes to my diet.”
Those two statements are different in subtle but very important ways. The difference hinges on the interpretation of one little four-letter word, and just like with “should,” what we’re telling other people is far less important than what we’re saying to ourselves.
So when we talk about being on A Diet, what do we mean? A Diet is short-term or temporary. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to a number on the scale or to pulling our jeans out of the closet only to have them feel a bit snug.
It can also be a fad, meaning that it’s popular but not well-studied, and usually not based rigorous scientific evidence. This, of course, is only an issue if you actually want results, which we can assume you do if you’re committing to only eating cabbage or whatever it happens to be this month.
In other cases, its a drastic attempt to fit into a dress by a certain date, or to look better on the beach than you did last year, even though your vacation is 6 weeks away. A Diet is the equivalent of cramming for a test. Did that work in school? If it did, how much of that information was retained long-term? A better strategy is to spend time with the material, really understanding each piece of information before moving on to the next. This is what we mean when we talk about making changes to Our Diet.
Our Diet is simply what we eat. It can be recorded by keeping a food log. We can plan for it, or we can make last minute decisions. Whether we eat at home on the run, whether we’re vegetarian or omnivorous, whether we’re trying to lose weight, gain weight, or stay the same weight, whether or not we have any goal in mind at all, the food we eat and the way we eat it can be referred to by one simple label: Our Diet.
This need for clarification is so frustrating to me I can’t even tell you. I truly wish there was a different word for one or both of those things, but here we are.
“So are you just going to complain, or are you going to offer a suggestion?”
As the old saying goes, “the best way to cure a headache is to cut off the head.” I think that’s the saying, anyway. The point is that we never need to clarify to each other or to ourselves what we mean by the word “diet” if we only use it to mean Our Diet. Taken a step further, we never need to talk about A Diet at all if we never go on A Diet again. Diets suck anyway, right? They don’t work, at least not in the long run, and they end up costing money, time, and effort that would be better spent on just about anything else.
If you’re going to make the commitment to make changes to Your Diet, understand exactly what that means: sustainable, permanent, positive changes that move you closer to being the healthiest you you can be. If you find yourself saying and meaning the other thing, take a step back, reevaluate, and make a new plan.
This is my second post about the meaning of words and using words to get ourselves into the right headspace, but I feel like I can’t stress it enough. There’s another one that I often hear besides “should” and “diet,” so rather than subjecting you another example in the future, I’ll do it right now.
Instead of saying “I have to go for a run,” say “I get to go for a run!”
I thought this was crazy when I first heard it, but think about it; you get to go for a run? That’s awesome! You get to spend an hour listening to music, challenging your body, and increasing your cardiovascular health. If you REALLY hate it, if it really isn’t for you, then don’t go. Find something else that works for you and never run again. If you’re just complaining, consider the idea that you get to go, and get going.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to running. You or someone you know has said this about lifting weights, swimming, going to a spin class or bootcamp, going for a walk, doing physiotherapy exercises, even doing meal prep or keeping a food journal. If you stop thinking of these things as chores you’ll be less likely to skip them, which means you’ll be more likely to get the results you want.
If you’re having a hard time thinking of why you “get” to do something, I’ve got you covered: There are things in your life that you want to change, and you get to take control of them and change them. You have challenges and limitations, but you get to determine what they are and what you can do to overcome them. You get to start small, you get to work at your own pace, and you get to do something good for yourself.
Talk to yourself the right way, get yourself into the right mindset, and see what a difference it makes. That’s the hard part. Once you have that figured out, all you have to do is get to work.
Back when I was still in school, I faced an issue that I think many people face. I was rolling along, getting decent grades, when all of a sudden I started struggling. Not in every class, not even in most, but there were one or two where I just couldn't seem to get my act together. I was going to class, I was doing the assignments, I was even studying!
It wasn't until later, looking back, that I was able to figure out the cause of my sudden academic struggles: I just wasn't working hard enough. I thought I was working hard, and I guess I was, but I definitely could have been doing more. Taking better notes, joining study groups, asking for extra credit assignments, there were things I could have done.
I see the same thing in the work I do now. People make positive changes but can't seem to get the results they want. This can be so discouraging, and it can lead to the person thinking that they're just meant to be a certain size, or that they'll never be able to run a certain distance, or that they just aren't very strong. It can even lead to them giving up, which is just the worst; in many cases the only thing they needed to do was to work harder!
With that in mind, let's take a look at the way you're working out to see if you're working as hard as you can be. As we go through the rest of this post, please keep in mind the importance of being honest with yourself. You're only cheating yourself if you aren't honest, and I can't hear your answers anyway.
A well balanced fitness regimen will contain elements of resistance, cardiovascular, and flexibility training. Depending on your goals, you may focus more on one aspect than another, but when we completely ignore one or two of those we are doing ourselves a disservice. Are you really including enough of each component? Your heart rate gets elevated when you lift weights, but is that really enough of a cardio workout? Yoga takes strength, but is the type of yoga you're doing challenging enough to be considered resistance training? We choose workouts we enjoy, and that's great, but it is often the things we avoid that we really need to do.
If honest introspection reveals that your exercise routines are incomplete, make a commitment to yourself that you'll be more balanced in your approach. This doesn't have to mean changing your entire program. It certainly doesn't mean running marathons, turning yourself into a pretzel, or doing Olympic-style lifting. Adding 10 minutes of stretching to your normal routine, spending some time on the exercise bike or doing some sprints, and picking 4-5 weight-training movements to do after your run are all simple ways to balance out your program. Talk to your trainer about any specific needs you have, and talk to your workout buddy to see if they have ideas of how your program could be more complete.
Alright, so now you have a well-balanced training program. The next thing to check is how hard you're working while you're doing the exercises. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself:
Even more simply, you can ask: Do you push yourself to be faster, to do one more rep? Do you spend more time resting than lifting? Are your weights heavy enough? Are you distracted by TV or a book while you work out, or are you fully present?
You can also check to see if your flexibility training is being done properly. If you're taking your time and holding each stretch for at least 30 seconds, making sure to hit all the muscles you worked on that day (or just all of your muscles), then you're doing it right. Anything less than that, and you have room for improvement.
Are you exercising often enough? This is not an easy question to answer. You'll want to consider your goals, your fitness level, and the type of exercise you're doing, so the advice that follows is very general. With strength training, your muscles need a day or two to recover from the stress you'be put them under, so aim for 2-3 sessions per week. Cardio/conditioning can be done 3-5 times per week, and flexibility training can either be added to the end of each workout or can be done on its own.
If you really want to work every day you can, just alternate between the types of work you're doing. If you are able to exercise 2-3 times per week, then make sure that your workouts are balanced and difficult enough as mentioned above. If you are only able to get to one session per week, you have to be really sure that you're making it count. You may also want to consider ways to increase your activity level on other days. This could be walking, cycling, swimming, playing a sport with friends, anything that gets you moving. This might not be the same type of work that we do in the gym/studio, but when the goal is to generally increase physical fitness, everything gets taken into account. Just don't fall into the trap of thinking, “well I went for a walk yesterday, I don't need to do my strength training today.”
We often overestimate our activity levels, which can lead to skipped workouts or bad decisions around food. Especially if your weeks aren't consistent, keep track of the amount of physical activity you've actually done in the past 7 days, rather than tricking yourself into feeling like you move around more than you really do.
If you want results, you've got to do the work. That's the bad news, I guess. The good news? If you really want results, all you have to do is do the work. There are plenty of things that are beyond our control, but the amount of effort we devote to being better at lifting weights, or running, or Grade 12 Chemistry? That's completely up to us.
So you've injured your ankle, and after reading my last post (or better yet, seeking actual medical advice), you know what kind of injury it is, and you've taken the appropriate steps to take care of it for the first few days. You're probably wondering, “what's next? How can I get this ankle rehabilitated, and how can I prevent this from happening again in the future?” Fear not, my slightly-limping friend, I've got you covered.
Most of what follows is a mash-up of advice I've either found online or heard from medical and/or fitness professionals. That said, please don't take my word for it! At the end of this post you'll find “Further Reading,” and I urge you not only to check those links out, but to get more info from your doctor or physiotherapist. Also, as we saw last time, sprains are the most common way we hurt our ankles, so much of the information below is geared towards that particular injury. If you're dealing with a strain or fracture, seek the appropriate medical advice.
And so, without further ado (or further disclaimers), here are the steps to take when you're rehabbing an ankle injury, as well as ways to prevent a similar injury from occurring in the future.
Regaining Range of Motion
As long as the pain isn't too severe, you can start the recovery process by walking around a bit. Use crutches to help you bear your weight if you need support. I used my trusty baseball bat as a cane, which was not ideal, but did the trick.
Shortly after your injury (within 72 hours), you need to start working towards regaining the Range of Motion (ROM) in the ankle joint. The most common exercise that comes up for this is called “Tracing the Alphabet with your Toe.” To do this exercise you sit in a supportive chair and, you guessed it, trace the alphabet with your toe. This works because it gets the ankle joint moving in all directions, doesn't put too much strain on the affected area, and allows for progressively larger movements as the pain diminishes. Do the full alphabet 1-3 times. You may want to do this right before you plan on applying ice, since you may want to ice it after anyway.
Another ROM exercise is the Towel Curl, where you place your foot flat on the floor on top of a towel. Use your toes to “scrunch” the towel towards you, then to push it away again.
Once your pain has started to subside, it's time for some stretching. The achilles tendon connects your calf muscle to your heel, so stretching this area helps to relieve pressure on the foot/ankle.
Start with a Towel Stretch: Sitting on the floor with a foam roller or folded towel under your foot, loop a towel, belt, dog leash, or something similar around the ball of your foot. Hold an end in each hand and gently pull the toes back towards you, keeping your knees straight. Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds, and repeat 2-4 times. If you aren't able to feel a good stretch before feeling pain, you may not be ready for this step.
Once you can stand without pain, you can do a standing calf stretch. Stand facing a wall, and lean against it with your hands about head-height. Put the injured foot a step behind the other one, and bend your knee forward with your heel flat on the floor. Again, move slowly and gently, holding for 15-30 seconds and repeating 2-4 times.
When ankle sprains are frequent or severe enough, they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Spraining my ankle has made it weak, which makes me more likely to sprain it in the future. What better time to focus on preventing a sprain than while you're still tender from the last time? In the early stages, therabands or exercise tubes are great tools for providing the appropriate amount of resistance.
Rather than trying to describe these strengthening exercises to you, I'll direct you to an actual physical therapist (and my favourite source for stretching/rehab/therapy advice), Doctor Jo:
Preventing Future Injury
Once your ankle is sufficiently healed, you can get back to your regular activities, your training program, and your life in general. Everything's back to normal, right? Sure, but you would do well to add some ankle-specific exercises to your normal routine in order to become more stable. Go easy on yourself at first. It is both easy and unhelpful to overdo it.
Start with standing heel raises. Standing in a stable position, using the wall or a chair for balance if necessary, raise both heels off the ground. To make this more difficult you can do one leg at a time, or hold weights for more resistance. Aim for 10-15 reps, 2-3 times.
Standing on one leg is a great way to work on balance, and it's something you can practice anywhere. Do each leg for 30 seconds (or whatever feels challenging to you), repeating each side a few times. You can scale this up by having a friend lightly push against you to force you to engage the ankle. Another challenge is to throw a basketball back and forth while balancing, working your way up to a medicine ball as you become stronger.
Adding a heel raise to a squat is another easy way to include some balance training. Do a normal squat, but once you come back to standing come up onto your toes. For a great cardio challenge do some squat jumps; get into a low squat, jump straight up, land back into a squat, and do it all over again. Other low-body exercises that challenge the ankle are skater-hops, curtsy lunges, side lunges, and single-leg jumps.
If you're really interested in improving agility, be sure to look into some athletic agility training using ladders, cones, etc. There are many variations, so I'll spare you more of my clumsy exercise descriptions, but if you're looking to get better at sudden changes in speed and direction, athlete-style training might be just the thing.
So there you have it! You're healed up, stronger than ever, and ready to help a friend when they suffer from a similar injury. Now all that's left is to be more careful when doing something crazy like walking down the sidewalk...
As many of my clients, friends, colleagues, strangers, and anyone who will listen to me complain already know, I twisted my ankle really badly last week. I was taking part in the extreme activity known as “walking,” and I just rolled it over. This is nothing new for me. My right ankle is a constant issue, and is often tender from whatever stress I've put it under most recently. This time, however, my left side is the one that went down. I've had enough. I decided to learn more about what the heck is going on with my ankles, and now I'm sharing that with you. In Part 1 I'll be looking at some stats, types of ankle injuries, and how to care for your ankle when you hurt it.
A study looking at the Canadian Community Health Survey examined the data of Canadians who suffered injuries from 2009-2010. You can check out the Stats-Can article explaining the findings here, but in the meantime, here are some key points:
So if you've never experienced an ankle injury, you likely know someone who has. More importantly, as someone who engages in regular physical/athletic activity, you are more likely to experience this type of injury than your sedentary friends. The article also says that after falls, overexertion was the biggest cause of injury, which points to the importance of prevention (something we'll look at in part 2).
Types Ankle Injuries
You've likely heard the terms “Sprain,” “Strain,” “Twist,” and of course “Broken” to refer to ankle injuries, but they are not all the same, and the treatment of each is different. The diagnosis is extremely important in determining whether you need a cast, rest/ice, or even surgery; as always, a visit to the doctor is the best way properly diagnose your injury (unless, of course, you do your own x-rays at home).
Twist – This is often thrown around as a diagnosis, but it more accurately refers to the method by which the injury occurred. I don't have a twisted ankle, I have a sprained ankle because I twisted it.
Broken/Fractured – This is when one or more of the bones that make up the ankle joint is, well, broken or fractured. A fracture that occurs as the result of a twist or impact may be accompanied by damage to the soft tissue in the surrounding area, which can make self-diagnosis difficult. To determine if you require an x-ray, you can check yourself against the Ottawa Ankle Rules. In short, if you have pain in specific areas of the ankle/foot, or if you can't walk more than 4 steps immediately following the injury and in the emergency room, you need an x-ray.
Strain – A strain is when there is damage to the muscles and/or tendons. While acute ankle strains can occur from twists or impacts, it is more common for a strain to be the result of chronic overuse such as running long distances or repeated hard impacts from jumping. If your ankle is strained you may also be experiencing tendonitis, and injuries from overuse may mean that you need to reevaluate your training program, your technique, your footwear, etc.
Sprain – This is the most common type of ankle injury, and it occurs when the ligaments in the ankle joint are stretched or torn. This can be due to the foot rolling past the normal range of motion, making a sudden rapid motion with the feet planted, or just walking on uneven ground, like me. You'll feel pain right away, followed by swelling, redness, and possibly bruising. In a more severe sprain you might even hear a pop or a snap, and if it's bad enough you may not be able to walk or bear any weight on the ankle (which may mean it's time for an x-ray, as mentioned above).
Depending on the severity of your injury, your ankle could take anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks or more to heal, and taking the right steps immediately following the incident will allow the healing process to start right away. The RICE process is pretty universally accepted has been described many times, but here it is anyway!
Rest – This may not take much convincing, but avoid walking or standing, and move the ankle as little as possible as it heals.
Ice – To reduce pain and swelling, apply icepacks to the area for 20-30 minutes at a time, 3-4 times throughout the day. Putting ice directly against the skin can cause tissue damage, so wrap your icepack in a cloth and avoid more frequent icing schedules.
Compression – Use an elastic bandage to reduce swelling and provide support to the joint. Immobilizing the area will prevent further damage, but be sure not to wrap so tightly that circulation is cut off.
Elevation – Keep the ankle elevated above the level of your heart for the first 48 hours following the injury, which will help with swelling and discomfort. Plus, you get an excuse to put your feet up for a couple of days! Silver linings, my friend.
In Part 2 I'll take a look at rehabilitating your ankle once the initial healing is done, as well as some preventative measures we can take to avoid future injury.
Having a fitness partner can help keep us motivated and disciplined. Here are a few more steps you can take to make sure you're being the best workout buddy you can be!
Learn to Spot
If you are going to exercise together, it makes sense to know how to help each other out. Having a spotter who you trust will allow you to push yourself harder when lifting heavy weights, so take the time to learn how to spot properly for the movements you and your partner do. Even if you aren't lifting heavy, being able to offer a critique on each other's form can be helpful in preventing injury, since we can't always tell when we're performing an exercise improperly.
Naturally, you want your advice to be both helpful and correct. Learn the information together by sharing/discussing videos and articles, and discuss with your partner what kind of feedback they want, such as whether they want to be pushed hard or bailed out of a lift early.
If you're really not comfortable with the idea of spotting or form-checking your partner, consider booking a session with a trainer who can give you a hands-on tutorial. Anyone can learn, and you'll be helping each other have safer, more effective workouts.
This one seems like a no-brainer, but I'll mention it anyway. Many people find the idea of exercise and healthy eating to be extremely daunting, and it is common for discouraging thoughts to creep in. Be a sounding board, address negative thoughts/feelings with compassion, and try not to be dismissive of your partner's issues (even if they seem small or incorrect).
That said, know when it's time for them to suck it up. Sometimes we need to have our butts kicked, and who better but our workout buddy to deliver the blow? Discuss this before the situation comes up, and let each other know which type of feedback you respond to best.
Support is given through words, but also through actions. If your dietary needs are different, be mindful of the effect your eating habits may have on your buddy. You may be at different levels of fitness; taking off and leaving your partner in the dust doesn't exactly convey a sense of fellowship, but neither does an accusation of being a “show-off” when one person performs better than another. Leave the ego at home, or better yet, get rid of it altogether.
Be available to one another even when you're not together. Keeping each other accountable with a simple text message about going for a run or hitting your daily calorie target can be a powerful way to feel supported and supportive during the time between workouts.
Try Something New
Nothing can inject life into your fitness regimen like going to a new spin class, climbing gym, or indoor obstacle course, and checking out a new gym or fitness class can be a lot more fun if you do it with a friend. This is especially true if you experience anxiety about meeting new people or going to unfamiliar places, so having a partner can get you doing things you never thought you would try. Even if your workouts are home-based, there are so many different workout ideas online and in magazines that there's really no excuse to be bored with what you're doing.
It's even been found that we get more out of workouts when we think our partner is better than us , so use this to your advantage! Take turns recommending workouts to do, especially if you come from different fitness backgrounds. You'll both get to try new things, and you'll both have a chance to do things you're good at.
For some people, exercise is a private joy. They can't wait to get up early and run on empty streets, or crank up the music in their headphones and tune the world out while they lift. This is their time, and they cherish every moment of it.
For others, exercise is one more thing they feel like they should do. They don't really like it, but they're going to try and make it happen. Since misery loves company, it is fairly common practice for people to team up with a partner to try and keep them on track. This subject has even been the subject of studies which confirm what many of us have known for a while; having a “workout buddy” makes us more likely to stick with our exercise plan and get more out of the work we're doing .
With that established, let's take a look at what we can do to be better workout buddies. Making one post about workout partners just didn't feel right, so stay tuned for part 2!
Understand Each Other's Goals
No matter who your partner is, you'll likely have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to fitness. You'll be able to lift more or squat less, jump higher or run more slowly. As such, it is reasonable to expect your goals to be different. Spend some time discussing them, both before you get started and as you continue along. Understanding each other's goals will allow you to provide support and motivation when needed.
While this may seem counter-intuitive, you and your workout partner don't have to be doing the same things when you're together. The “togetherness” aspect of the workout might end as soon as you enter the gym, and pick up again once you leave. You'll still have provided each other with accountability, you can still hang out afterwards, but the point is that you've added a social aspect to your workout.
I mentioned accountability, and this may be the biggest reason people consider using the buddy system. Booking your workout like an appointment will help you fit it in to your schedule, and booking that appointment with another person will make you less likely to cancel.
This ought to go without saying, but I'll say it anyway; if you're using the buddy system to help you show up to your workout, you have to show up yourself! This is a two-way street, and it only works if you're both doing it.
As I've written before, there is more than one way to show up. Make sure that you arrive at the workout ready to rock. Put the phone away, have a plan, and get to work.
You've pumped yourself up, you've made it to the gym, you're about to get started, and you hear “ugh, I don't even know if I wanna do this” or “what's the point, I can't seem to lose this weight.”
Negativity has no place here. We're supposed to be helping each other out, motivating one another, keeping the momentum going, and you're gonna whine about having to do this?
I've caught myself doing this before. I've had people do it to me. It sucks. Take a deep breath, think about the effect your words have on your partner, and say something else. Or nothing, that's good too.
In fairness, there's a big difference between being negative and complaining about your decision to do a fourth set, or complaining that your legs don't work after yesterday's stair run. Good-natured groaning is ok, being a downer is not.
Ryan Casselman is a personal trainer, musician, and the founder of Real Trainers. Stay tuned as he finds out what he's going to write about each week or so!