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Motivation

Why You Should Exercise – Even If You Don’t Feel Like It

I get it – it’s hot, school’s about to start under who-knows-what conditions, and we’re all really sick of COVID-19 with not much end in sight. And honestly, you just don’t feel like exercising. Deep down, you know you “should” (the dreaded “s” word). Now more than ever, I encourage you to get up and move. And there’s even research to back me up.

Continue reading “Why You Should Exercise – Even If You Don’t Feel Like It”
Wellness

The Brain: Your Body’s Most Important Muscle

Image credit: Gerd Altmann

When you think about being healthy and fit, you probably think of a strong core, lack of aches and pains, having lots of energy, and being able to perform the physical activities you enjoy – everything from playing with your kids or grandkids, to running a marathon. But do you ever think about the health of your brain?

Continue reading “The Brain: Your Body’s Most Important Muscle”
Weight Loss

The Body’s Fat Thermometer

Smart_Thermostat

Author’s Note: As I write this article, the world is in the middle of the COVID-19, or corona virus, pandemic. As are millions of other people around the world, I am living under a “shelter in place” order for at least another few weeks, possibly longer. Literally everything we see, hear, and read these days is about coping with this life-changing event. So rather than give you one more article highlighting the virus and more coping strategies, I’ll instead write on the topic I’d planned to before the virus struck. I hope this will take your mind off it for a little while, at least. Be safe and healthy, everyone – we will get through this.

 

Although you might not believe it, permanent, long term weight loss isn’t about cutting calories and exercising more. This has been proven in countless studies, and also the countless frustrations of dieters desperately cutting calories and depriving their bodies of nutrition.

So what then is the key to successful weight loss? According to nephrologist Dr. Jason Fung, the solution lies in controlling your body’s ‘thermostat’ — what’s also known as Body Set Weight (BSW).

Think about how a home’s thermostat works to control the desired room temperature: in the summer when it’s hot, the thermostat turns on the air conditioning. In winter, it detects the temperature is too cold, and turns on the heat. The house stays at the perfect temperature despite varying outdoor conditions.

The human body’s BSW, also called an appestat, is essentially a thermostat for body fatness. There are also many powerful satiety mechanisms built into our physiology to make us stop eating. For example, the stomach has ‘stretch receptors’ that signal when it’s too full. The body also has powerful satiety hormones, such as peptide YY and cholecystokinin, that stop us from overeating.

The BSW sets an ideal body fatness that it defends just as the house thermostat maintains the temperature. If we’re too skinny, it can trigger the body to gain weight. If we’re too fat, it triggers a higher metabolic rate (total calories burned at rest) to lose weight. The body tries very hard to maintain its BSW in the original position. This directly contradicts the calories in/ calories out theory that simply eating too many calories causes body fatness, without taking into consideration the BSW, satiety hormones, or other physiological signals. In fact, if you deliberately overeat, your body will try to burn it off.

Think about it:  a ‘calorie’ is not a physiologic notion. The body doesn’t have ‘calorie’ receptors and doesn’t know how many calories we eat, or don’t. A calorie of carbohydrate is metabolized entirely differently from a calorie of fat or protein. The concept of ‘a calorie is a calorie’ is, honestly, pushed heavily by processed food companies. They want to convince you that 100 calories in a sugary drink is the same as 100 calories in an avocado, in terms of weight gain. Or that 100 calories of sugar is as fattening as 100 calories of kale.

Consider artificial sweeteners as well. They have no calories, and so fool our taste buds –  but won’t fool our appestat. If all we had to do to lose weight was eat fake sugar and fake fat and no calories, we’d all lose weight and there’d be almost no obesity crisis, or Type II diabetes crisis. But these are real, despite all the artificial sweeteners.

So what to do?

First, think again about a home thermostat. Suppose it’s set at 70 degrees, but we want the temperature indoors to be 65 degrees. So, we bring in a portable air conditioner. Initially, the temperature will go down – but then the thermostat kicks in and turns on the heat, returning the room temperature to 70. We keep adding more portable air conditioners to cool it down, and the thermostat keeps cranking up the heat to get it back to 70. It’s a futile, no-win battle.

So how about just turning down the thermostat instead?

Decreasing calories to lose weight gets the same result as adding air conditioners to cool off a room – because doing so completely ignores the BSW, or thermostat. Suppose your BSW is set at 150 pounds, but you want to weigh 120 pounds. Conventional advice says cut 500 calories per day to lose 1 pound per week. Initially, your weight may go down to 140 pounds, but then the appestat kicks in to make you gain weight. You become hungrier, and your metabolism slows down in order to regain the weight. So then what do most of us do? Keep restricting calories! But guess what? The body responds again by slowing our metabolism even further.  This is a continual fight against ourselves in an ultimately futile attempt to lose weight.

Turn down the appestat or BSW

Obesity is a disease caused by excessive insulin, not excessive calories. In other words, it’s a hormonal imbalance, not a caloric one. Insulin, which is produced by the pancreas, does several things. First, it transports glucose (sugar) inside of our cells to be used in the chemical reaction that creates energy. When more insulin is produced than is needed, the body is signaled to store the extra food energy as fat. When we fast, insulin goes down, and we burn some of that stored energy. That’s we don’t die in our sleep every night!

Just like a room thermostat, the BSW uses a negative feedback loop. What this means: excess insulin leads an increase in the size of fat cells. Fat cells, in turn, produce more of the hormone leptin which then signals the brain that ‘we’re too fat’. What happens then? Appetite decreases, we stop eating so much, and insulin levels drop. This signals the body to start burning fat instead of eating and storing it, and to return to the original, desired BSW.

Body weight thermostat model

The BSW is, in essence, the balance of insulin effect versus leptin effect. In obese individuals, the insulin effect has prevailed over the leptin effect. This could be for many reasons, but eating foods high in refined (not whole) grains, eating frequently, and eating lots sugar all keep insulin levels high, despite leptin’s best efforts to curb appetite to lower insulin. On the other hand, if insulin is extremely low, such as with Type I diabetes, the body loses weight continuously, no matter how many calories are consumed.

So as fat cells stay over-filled, they produce more and more leptin in an attempt to fight insulin. However, if the root problem hasn’t been addressed – eating too much sugar, too many refined carbohydrates, eating constantly – then insulin levels also continue to rise. When a persistently high level of a hormone exists, resistance to the that hormone will develop.

Leptin resistance is virtually universal in common obesity. With leptin no longer able to keep up the fight, insulin takes over and causes continual weight gain. The insulin vs leptin battle has been lost, and the BSW thermostat is reset upwards.

Body weight thermostat in OBESITY

The key: lower insulin levels

Cutting calories will not reduce insulin’s effect. Instead, the BSW is unaffected and the body desperately tries to regain the lost weight. Eating frequently means constant stimulation of insulin as well.

The key to losing weight then is to help in the Insulin vs Leptin fight. Leptin is already maxed out, so the only thing left is to lower insulin. How to do that?

  1. Eat less sugar.
  2. Eat less refined grains (whole grains are okay – they have many nutritional benefits).
  3. Eat moderate protein and more natural fats.
  4. Don’t eat constantly.
  5. Eat more real, unprocessed foods.
  6. Exercise: proven to reduce insulin resistance; builds more muscle fibers; allows excess body fat to be burned for fuel; increases resting metabolism.

So there you have it. You don’t need some special diet, expensive supplements, or pre-packaged foods to lose weight. You already have the tools within your own body to get that thermostat down to where you’d like it to be.

 

Laurie Kelly is a Precision Nutrition Certified Level 1 coach, specializing in behavior-based nutrition coaching. She is also a NASM-certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist, a Road Runners Clubs of America Certified Adult Running Coach, and a Certified Professional Triathlon Coach by the International Triathlon Coaching Association. She’ll help you make lasting positive changes that will keep you healthy for a lifetime. Contact her hereor follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.

Motivation

Momentum to Move: Igniting Motivation To Exercise

Let’s face it: it’s hard to feel motivated to exercise all the time – even if you’re a professional athlete and you’re getting paid to train. Life is busy, with so many things competing for our time – both important and not so much. Meeting a big deadline at work is important, while watching “just one more” episode of a show on Netflix arguably is not. But what about exercise? Like any form of self-care, we often put exercise at the bottom of the list when things get busy…and even when things aren’t so busy? Continue reading “Momentum to Move: Igniting Motivation To Exercise”

Health and Fitness

Self Acceptance

So January is behind us now…the month of “new year, new you.” Did you set goals for your health and fitness this year? If so, and you’re like most of us, the enthusiasm has already waned. Life takes over, change is difficult, information overloads us. We all want to be healthy and fit – even achieve an epic goal such as completing a triathlon, obstacle race, or running event. But what does it really take to make those goals a reality? Two things: smart goal setting, and self-acceptance.

At first glance, these two concepts seem contradictory. If you accept yourself as you are, why set goals for improvement?

I believe that goal setting and self-acceptance are actually essential companions. In other words, accepting yourself as you are today is vitally important to keeping yourself on track, and especially getting back on track when things, inevitably, don’t go as planned.

I’ve written before about SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attractive, Realistic, and Timely. When your goal doesn’t have all of these qualities, it’s often a recipe for failure. I’m not a huge believer in the “dream big” philosophy; rather, I understand how the brain responds to success and achievement. Every time we succeed at something, accomplish something we set out to do, or move out of our comfort zone, even just a little, we get a hit of feel-good brain chemicals as a reward. And that reward is incredibly powerful. Not meeting a high-reaching “dream goal” has the opposite effect, and we give up, feeling like a failure.

This effect demonstrates the power of “process” vs. “outcome” goals. Process goals are based on actions we take ourselves – where we are in control. Outcome goals are often only achieved when everything comes together perfectly – and much of which is outside our control. Read more about process goals here.

A big part of self-acceptance is the ability to see exactly where you are, right now, without judgement. Accepting where you are in your fitness journey does not mean giving up before you get started. Instead, reframe your current state or ability level as just a starting point. The best place to start is right where you are. This is truly the way to form a foundation for your goals. You may have far to go, but every step will get you closer. Every little success is another gold star on your homework, and proof to your inner self that you are capable.

Embracing Self-Acceptance

Many of us have a perfectionist mindset. While this can serve us well to some degree, eventually that internal “task master” can squelch your progress. Constant self-criticism often leads to an internal rebellion, if you will – a struggle between doing what you know you “should” do (i.e. your workout or eating healthy); and “cheating.” While initially “cheating” feels good, it usually leads to a knee jerk response of even more perfectionism – and a vicious circle ensures.

How to break through this cycle for good? Embrace self-acceptance.

The foundation of any fitness or training journey is accepting your physical body, your mind and your spirit, just as they are. We all have imperfections, either real or perceived. Think about what aspects of yourself you’ve struggled to accept. Is it some extra weight, your current running pace, your fear of failure even? Accept that this is where you are now, and that you are taking steps in the right direction toward change.

What about motivation?

“I just can’t get motivated to __________.” The “blank” here is something you want to do to move you closer to something you want to achieve.

It’s a common misconception that in order to want to do something, you must first feel “motivated.” In fact, motivation is the effect, not the cause. It’s the action itself that produces motivation, not the other way around. Read more about motivation here.

First, accept that you are feeling this way – and don’t beat yourself up for it! Instead, acknowledge the feeling, and even explore it a little. What’s behind it? Then simply take one small step – and you’ll begin to generate energy that propels you forward.

Some personal examples:

  • When I don’t feel motivated to write a new blog post, I challenge myself to take just one small step – sitting down at the computer and pulling up my list of topic ideas. Then I feel “motivated” to take one more step, this time selecting a topic that sparks with me today. Now I’m feeling even more motivated. Then I open a blank document, type the title, and suddenly I’m off and running. I set the timer on my phone for however much time I have (or want) to work, and when time’s up I can either keep going (which I usually want to do) or I give myself permission to stop at that point.
  • When I have a particular training session scheduled – let’s say it’s a run intervals workout – and I’m not feeling motivated to do it – I challenge myself to do just one small step: putting on my running clothes and going outside. Once I’m out in the fresh air, I make a deal with myself that I’ll do my warmup and two intervals. If I don’t feel like continuing, I give myself permission to stop and go home. 99% of the time, my “motivation muscles” start to fire and I finish my workout as planned.

Accept Yourself – Enhance Your Training

Once you find self acceptance in the present, you may find that making choices and taking actions that move you toward your goals come much easier. Your choices are based on who you are, instead of a struggle for instant perfection.

When, inevitably, something doesn’t go as planned, you’re not a failure. Temporary setbacks, obstacles and “bad days” are just a part of the journey – they don’t define you. You still accept yourself for the amazing person you are, which allows those obstacles and “bad days” to become just another part of the process.

In life our first job is this: to divide and distinguish things into two categories. Externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.

Epictetus

Accept yourself, and embrace the journey.

Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES, is a Road Runners Clubs of America Certified Run Coach. She is also a Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist accredited by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), and an ITCA-Certified Triathlon Coach. Based in Denver, Colorado, Laurie works with clients one-on-one to help them live healthy and active lives, and achieve their unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.

Running

How can I become a faster runner?

Committed runners frequently want to improve their pace in their favorite distance, and that is an admirable goal. If this is you, it’s important to establish a realistic new pace goal, with intermediate smaller goals along the way to get you there.

There are many factors that impact how fast a runner you may become – some of them within your control, and others not so much.

First, let’s go back to Physics 101 to understand the difference between speed and velocity.

Speed is the rate of change in distance with respect to time. Think: miles per hour.

Velocity is the rate of change in displacement with respect to time. Think: minutes per mile

Notice that the key difference between these is distance vs. displacement. Simply stated, distance is the total amount of ground covered by an object in motion. Displacement, however, is the net change in position of an object in motion.

Here’s a simple example:

If you place a car on rollers and hit the gas pedal, the speedometer will tell you that you’re going very fast – 65 to 70 mph or more. However, the car itself doesn’t move in space or change position, meaning it has no velocity. Technically speaking, running on a treadmill is also a zero-velocity activity (which is perhaps why treadmill readouts are only in miles per hour?)

Therefore, with respect to running, we’re generally more interested in improving our velocity – but for simplicity’s sake we’ll refer to this as “pace” going forward.

Biomechanics and running

Biomechanically, running pace has three key components:

  • Stride rate (how many steps are taken in a given time period – typically, one minute)
  • Stride length (how much distance is covered with each stride)
  • Strength, force and power production (defined later)

There are some key interrelated factors that influence how these measures work together to create the most efficient, and thereby fastest, running pace.

Running form (aka gait) is the first of these. Improper running form can biomechanically impede a faster pace. For example, a prominent heel-strike at the beginning of the stride, with the foot landing on the heel out in front of the body’s center of gravity, creates an enormous braking effect. It reduces forward velocity, as well as placing enormous stress on the ankles, knees and hips. A mid-foot strike, where the point of landing is on the ball of the foot beneath the body’s center of gravity, allows for the most effective transfer of ground force energy up through the leg to the muscles.

The relative strength of the runner’s leg musculature has a significant impact on the amount of power produced with each stride. Albert Einstein said, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” Therefore, the force of the runner’s foot as it meets the ground transfers (or “changes”) energy into the muscles and tendons, propelling the entire body both up and forward.

Running pace is directly related to the magnitude of this force. For example, an Olympic sprinter can push off the ground with a total peak force of more than 1,000 lbs. In contrast, the average person can apply 500 to 600 pounds of total peak force. [Reference: http://www.thepostgame.com/features/201107/usain-bolt-case-study-science-sprinting]

A strong core is also critical to improving running pace. The core consists of the abdominals, lower back, gluteal, hip and inner thigh muscles. These core muscles provide the structural foundation of the entire body.  If the foundation is unstable and weak, everything that attaches onto it (i.e. the hips and legs) will also be unstable.  As just described, when the runner’s foot strikes the ground, energy is transferred to the foot, up through the calf to the thigh and finally to the core.  This causes the spine and hips to rotate, which then drives the opposite leg forward to take the next step. If a runner has a weak core, their “foundation” will be unstable, and they will waste unnecessary energy during a run.  In addition to preventing fatigue during a lengthy run, a conditioned core helps maximize the efficiency of each stride.

Things you can do to improve your running pace

The most efficient way to improve your running pace is through a comprehensive program combining strength, power, and endurance (cardiovascular strength) training, along with specific corrections to any running form issues.

Strength training: Target the large muscles of the legs, including the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings. Choose exercises that involve multiple joints and require core stability to perform (meaning choose body weight, dumbbells, stretch cords/bands and other freestanding exercises over machines.) Examples include squats, deadlifts, lunges, step-ups, calf raises, and toe walks, incorporating movements in all planes of motion (forward, sideways, and rotation).

Core training: Focus on core exercises that target the low back, the gluteals, the obliques and transverse abdominus (deep low belly abdominals) using a variety of modalities. Avoid basic crunches on the floor or an incline bench, and any type of abdominal machine. Instead, try planks, Russian twists, kettlebell exercises, BOSU™ balance trainer, and suspension trainer exercises. Yoga is also a highly core-focused form of exercise that also improves flexibility and spinal stability and develops breath control.

Running form: Have a video running form analysis performed by a professional. It is truly enlightening to see yourself running on video, as you’ll notice issues with your form you never knew you had. After evaluation, identify specific form drills that will address your particular issues, and practice them before every single run.

Endurance training: Build cardiovascular strength in order to maintain that faster pace for longer distances through a combination of easy-pace runs, short intervals (speed work), and long slow distances efforts. Increase total weekly mileage and per-run mileage by no more than 10% at a time.

Warm up and cool down effectively: Never start a run with cold muscles and allow plenty of time to cool down afterwards. These are crucial elements for any type of physical activity and will help produce greater results while decreasing the risk of injury. Warm up with active stretching that includes dynamic movements such as walking lunges, toe touches, hip rotations, and leg swings. Cool down with static stretches, holding for at least 20 to 30 seconds.

Additional considerations

There are two factors in running pace over which you have no control: age and genetics.

As we age, our musculature loses strength and connective tissues become less flexible due to lower collagen production. While a strength training program can improve muscular power at any age, recognize that someone in their 20’s will almost always run faster than a person in their 60’s. There are exceptions, of course, but overall this is the case.

Our individual genetic makeup is another factor influencing running ability. Certain individuals are simply more genetically predisposed to run faster and more efficiently. Whether it’s body shape (e.g. longer legs), more muscle tissue, greater aerobic capacity, or other factors, some people are just born to run.

Lastly, a word about setting a running pace goal. As with any goal, a running pace goal should be SMART (specific, measurable, attractive, realistic, and timely). Becoming a faster runner takes a significant commitment of time, dedication, and patience. Some experts estimate it takes years to shave 1 or 2 minutes off of one’s pace, no matter how fast you were to begin with. So be realistic, set small intermediate goals, and above all, be kind to your body and proud of your own achievements.

Laurie Kelly spent over three decades in pursuit of the corporate rat race, but found her greatest source of satisfaction came from her 15 years of triathlon training and racing.  Realizing this, she abandoned her cubicle and moved into full time coaching. Laurie is now a Certified Professional Triathlon Coach by the International Triathlon Coaching Association; a NASM-certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist, a Road Runners Clubs of America Certified Adult Running Coach, and Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach. She’ll work with you one-on-one to help you live a healthy and active life and achieve your unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.

Health and Fitness

Why is nutrition information so confusing?

Photo credit: Arek Socha

We’re bombarded with nutrition information these days. Every day there seems to be a new study showing how this or that food may cause cancer…or eating lots of one special food (cabbage? kale? green tea?)  makes you lose weight…or that taking this company’s special supplement cures all ills. Even documented, peer-reviewed studies seem to contradict one another.

The fundamental principles of science involve combining many ideas and concepts, then testing, evaluating, re-evaluating and so on – over decades – to ultimately come to a final conclusion.

Interestingly, nutrition science is still in its infancy:

  • Macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and protein) weren’t discovered until the mid-1800’s.
  • Vitamins were discovered in the early to mid-1900’s.
  • Only in the past two decades have studies emerged on newer problems, such as what foods are healthy in a world of tasty, cheap, processed food where people move and exercise very little.

Below are nine reasons why nutrition science can be so confusing. [Note: content and graphics courtesy of Precision Nutrition.com]

#1 – Nutrition research is still very young.

It takes time to master a science. Compared to chemistry, for example, nutrition science is still in its infancy.

#2 – Most research funding goes toward disease treatment – not preventative nutrition

Most researchers would rather work towards finding an end to an epidemic – not how to get rid of a muffin top.

#3 – Nutrition research is often funded by “interested parties”

Where the money comes from can often affect a study’s results. While this doesn’t mean researchers are “cheating,” corporate pressures can influence a study’s design so the research outcomes are more likely to show what the company wants.

#4 – Confounding variables make it difficult to prove the effects of food

Even in the best controlled trial, it’s difficult to isolate the effects of nutrition from all the other factors that affect human health. In fact, just the act of participating in a research study can change the outcome one way or another.

#5 – Most nutrition studies are observational

Observational studies rely on participants’ completing questionnaires about their lifestyles and eating habits. This approach is fraught with errors, as people tend to underreport what they eat, and overreport how much they exercise. Furthermore, observation-only studies can’t account for all variables, resulting in faulty and meaningless correlations.

#6 – Measurement tools always have limitations

For example, even with a straightforward question such as “how do calories affect weight” it’s difficult to get a concrete answer, because:

#7 – What you eat does not affect your health immediately

For example, to definitively prove whether red meat causes cancer would require a large group of human subjects to live in a metabolic chamber eating varying amounts of red meat for 30 years or more. Who wants to sign up for that?

#8 – You must never assume a particular study’s findings apply to YOU.

Even if you could seal a group of people in a metabolic chamber and study them for 30 years, the results would still not provide evidence of who else those results would apply to. Here’s why:

#9 – If doing the scientific research seems difficult – reporting on it is even harder

Remember this:

Hopefully these points help you understand that just because a study comes out stating that food X causes disease Y doesn’t mean the end of the world. Most importantly, remember that there is a vast difference between correlation and causation. Correlation means two things are observed to happen at the same time, but causation means one thing truly is the cause of the other – and is much harder to prove.

So how do you interpret nutritional information so it’s meaningful for YOU ? Talk to an independent nutritionist, registered dietician, or health/wellness coach – preferably one who’s impartial, meaning they are not selling a particular nutraceutical product/ supplement or commercial weight loss program. These professionals will give you non-biased, personalized advice to help you reach your wellness goals.

Laurie Kelly is a Precision Nutrition Certified Level 1 coach, specializing in exercise and sports-based nutrition coaching. She is also a NASM-certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist, and a Road Runners Clubs of America Certified Adult Running Coach, and a Certified Professional Triathlon Coach by the International Triathlon Coaching Association. She’ll work with you one-on-one to help you live a healthy and active life and achieve your unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.

Strength Training, Weight Loss

How do I get rid of my belly?

Belly fat_Budda

This is without a doubt the most frequently asked question I get as a personal trainer – probably because there’s so much information, and mis-information, available nowadays about this subject. Call it the midsection, core, belly, muffin top, spare tire, or something else – we all have one and we all struggle with getting, and keeping, it looking the way we want.

First, let’s talk about the “core.” It’s technically a collection of muscles that spans from the glutes to the rib cage – front, back and sides. These include the rectus abdominus (what makes the “six-pack”) and transverse abdominus in the front, the groups of obliques on the sides, the hip flexor complex, the glutes complex, and the smaller muscles of the low back. The muscles of the core serve an important purpose: to support and move the spine. This is why core strengthening and mobility are so important. When the core is weak, a host of other problems up and down the chain ensue.

Now, let’s talk about fat. The body contains three types:

Triglycerides: These are fat cells that circulate in the bloodstream. They comprise about 95% of all fat in the body and have many functions.

Subcutaneous fat: The layer of fat directly below the skin’s surface, such as between the skin and the abdominal wall, or the dreaded cellulite in the thighs and upper arms.

Visceral fat: This is what we usually think of as “belly” fat. It’s located deep within the belly, below the stomach muscles and close to the internal organs.

Why do we store excess visceral fat?

There are many reasons why humans store excess body fat. Here are three of the most common ones:

Inactivity and excess caloric intake

As a society, we’re becoming more and more sedentary with rates of overweight and obesity at epidemic proportions. Technology, desk jobs, urban sprawl, and the prevalence of highly palatable, inexpensive, high calorie foods are just some of the contributing factors. When we consume more energy (in the form of calories) than we expend, the extra energy is stored as body fat. [Read:  Calories in vs. out? Or hormones? The Debate is Finally Over.]

Stress

Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. It’s produced by the fight-or-flight response to perceived threats, most of which nowadays are more imagined than real. Interestingly, other things that we don’t necessarily think of as “stressful” actually place the body into stress mode and generate cortisol production: too much high intensity cardio exercise, and extremely low calorie diets. A steady stream of cortisol, which can’t be used by the body for fight-or-flight, winds up stored as body fat. [Read: More About Cortisol, the Stress Hormone]

Metabolic Syndrome

This condition affects an estimated one-third of Americans. It causes the body to store food as fat instead of using it for energy. Starches and simple sugars are the biggest problem, and even very active people can have it.

Metabolic syndrome is linked with a condition called insulin resistance. Insulin, a hormone, moves glucose (sugar) into the cells to generate energy. With insulin resistance, however, it can’t do its job – so excess glucose remains in the bloodstream instead of getting into cells to be used for energy. This excess glucose winds up stored as fat.

Eliminating belly fat – what doesn’t work, and what does

It seems everyone has some magical prescription for reducing belly fat – whether it’s a pill, potion, special food diet, or exercise routine. One thing is for certain – there is no magic solution. Instead, here are some proven, commonsense ways to achieve a slimmer midsection:

Do:  Stand more and sit less. When we sit, the core muscles are not engaged or active. Standing, however, activates the core just to keep the body upright. Find ways to incorporate less sitting and more standing into your daily activities.

Do: Eat fewer empty carbohydrates and unhealthy fats. Replace them with more fresh fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meats and whole grains. Check the sugar content on processed foods you eat regularly. You’ll be amazed how much added sugar is in so many of the foods we eat, from supposedly “healthy” breakfast cereals to spaghetti sauce. It doesn’t really matter what type of sugar (thinking of the high fructose corn syrup scare from a few years ago). [Read: How to Get Your Eating Back on Track]

Do: Exercise the right way.

  • Forget about crunches: these are the least effective form of core exercise.
  • Whenever possible, avoid using weight machines for strength training. Instead, use dumbbells, stretch cords/bands, barbells, or just body weight. Most weight machines involve sitting, so there’s no core engagement involved. When you must hold your body upright and lift the weight, your core is constantly active. [Read: The Myth of Weight Machines]
  • Recognize that you cannot “spot reduce” fat from specific areas of the body through targeted exercises. Working your abs for 4 hours a day, seven days a week will give you very strong (and larger) ab muscles, but they’ll reside underneath that layer of fat.

Instead, develop a regular weekly exercise program that incorporates full-body strength training two to three times per week, and moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise for at least 150 minutes per week. Short bursts of higher-intensity intervals, with plenty of recovery in between, can also increase calorie-burning without over-stressing the system. Build these into your strength training or cardio sessions to add variety to your workouts.

One final word…

It’s important to emphasize that physical appearance is not nearly as important as having a strong, healthy body. Excess visceral fat can lead to serious health risks. A strong (not necessarily flat) core is foundational to wellbeing, providing balance, good posture, and elimination of aches and pains up and down the kinetic chain from the neck to the knees.

Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES, is a Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist accredited by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Based in Greenwood Village, Colorado, she specializes in helping people in mid-life and beyond to become stronger, fitter, and lead healthy and active lives. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.

Injury Prevention, Strength Training

How Often Should I Exercise?

Woman on mat w KB

“Train the body, don’t drain the body” is an adage often touted by experienced personal trainers. What this means is that exercise should add energy and life to your body – not take it away. But how do you know when you’re doing enough, versus too much or too little? Continue reading “How Often Should I Exercise?”

Wellness

Demystifying Oxidative Stress

Pile of question marks

If you haven’t heard the term “oxidative stress” mentioned at least once a day in social media, supplement advertisements, and popular magazines, you might be living under a rock. (Can I join you there, by the way?) Oxidative stress is the latest fear-mongering buzzword tossed around the health and wellness community these days. It sounds scary and bad, very scientific, and hard to understand. In this article I hope to shed light and clarity on just what oxidative stress is, so you can make lifestyle choices for yourself and your loved ones based on facts, not hype. Continue reading “Demystifying Oxidative Stress”