Friday, July 06, 2007

Making the Best of It

One of the biggest challenges of healthy living is the dreaded “change of plans.” If we had time to plan every single meal and activity, we’d always make good choices. But sometimes things don’t go quite the way we anticipate and we can be tempted to chuck our diet or exercise plan for the day, which can lead to a binge or a long period of inactivity, derailing our carefully thought-out routine.

But it doesn’t have to be that way if you prepare. I want to share with you something that happened today. In 48 hours, we are leaving for vacation. As usual, I have a million things to do, three writing assignments to finish, and my husband is working every night (and therefore sleeping every day) until we leave.

Earlier today, while waiting for my car to be serviced, I took the opportunity to take a walk and get some exercise instead of sitting in the waiting room and watching TV and gorging on the free popcorn they offer their customers. (Besides, the combined smell of tires and hot popcorn is a bit nauseating!) The temperature was over 100, but I went slow and just concentrated on moving since I knew that my massive chore list would prevent me from getting in my regular workout.

Tonight’s dinner was supposed to be sandwiches, and for tomorrow night I planned to order pizza. (It’s a “sometimes” food, but I’ve learned that the trick is to order a smaller pizza so I’m not tempted to eat so much or have leftovers for lunch the next day.)

Unfortunately, because of the heat, the last few slices of bread I had carefully saved for tonight’s dinner had gone bad. Now what? My default response was to hit our local drive-thru, but I had planned pizza for tomorrow and didn’t want “sometimes” food two nights in a row. Well, I managed to convince my daughter she could have her sandwich on a leftover hamburger bun from our barbecue a few days ago. And I did find two pieces of bread in another bag, so my son got those for his sandwich.

Wonderful, now what about Mom? I poked through my nearly empty fridge and pulled together: one chicken Italian sausage, a handful of shredded mozzarella, and handful of shredded parmesan, some liquid egg whites, and some chopped tomatoes. The packages for these items were already opened, and nearly empty, and I probably would’ve wound up throwing them out before we left. But I scrambled it all up instead. The end result was delicious, filling and surprisingly healthy. Less than 300 calories, and to tell you the truth, it tasted even better than the sandwich I’d planned to make. What a victory.

Experiences like this teach us that it is possible to take a negative and turn it into a positive. All it takes is a little planning and creativity and you will be set up for success. By keeping those items in my fridge, I was able to make a good choice instead of caving in to the convenience and temptation of fast food. And it took me less time to make that healthy dinner than it would’ve taken to go through the drive-thru and come back.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Family Challenge Course

Kids home from school and bored? A family challenge course is a great way to get everyone moving, do some team building and encourage support, all while having fun. And it’s a perfect Saturday morning activity to kick off the weekend in an active, healthy way.

First, sit down and brainstorm for ideas. Write down your list of ideas and then tailor the exercises and the order to each family member. Not everyone is going to be good at everything, and that’s the beauty of it. Each family member has an opportunity to succeed, learn and grow, while receiving encouragement from others.

So what should that list include? Aim for activities that combine cardio, strength, and flexibility. Relax, no one’s going for a ten-mile run. These are easy conditioning exercises in short bursts that everyone can do. For example, we always start and end each challenge course with a sun salutation. It’s a great way to get yourself grounded as you prepare to start, and it’s also a good stretch and reward at the end of your course. Other ideas include push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks and skipping rope. Again, remember to design each person’s course to suit his or her skill level. Your teenager might be able to do 50 jumping jacks, but your toddler might only be able to make it to 3. (Or is it the other way around?!) You will get a kick out of your older child rooting on your younger child to finish that third jumping jack, I promise.

You can use every day objects to make your challenge more interesting. How about setting up Mr. Potato Head at one end of the living room and making each person run to him, bend down and touch him, and then run back, say, 10 times in a row. If you really want to up the silliness quotient, add a piece to his face each time you reach him. And make sure everyone gets a big high-five when they complete their laps. You don’t have to be too serious, either. Think of the fun your kids will have watching you hula hoop, crab walk or juggle. Stack up plastic dishes and try to walk from one end of the room to the other without dropping any. Or walk with your kids’ favorite storybook on your head. Possibilities are endless. Look at your kids’ toys and the ideas will come.

Another handy fitness item you might have built into your house is a staircase. We like to do stair laps and stair steps. A lap is one time up and one time down the stairs. You can run up and walk down, or just walk. Be especially mindful that everyone is using caution, particularly little ones. Keep it safe. It’s more about endurance than speed. For stair steps, stand at the base of the stairs. Step onto the bottom stair with your left foot, then your right, then step down with your left and your right. That’s one rep. You might do ten starting on the left and then ten starting on the right. Even your littlest family member can do this. Don’t forget to switch feet.

If the weather’s nice, take it outside, set up an obstacle course on the grass, shoot some baskets, throw football passes, hit a golf ball, or whatever you like to do. Now have everyone try it while pushing a stroller. Don’t be afraid to improvise. You can impose a friendly “penalty” if someone breaks the pattern. My son and I like to go out front and play catch with a football or baseball. If one of us drops the ball after we get a good rally going, we both have to do ten jumping jacks.

Aside from the physical benefits, one of the best things about a family challenge course is that you get to cheer for each other. You don’t have to keep time or make it competitive. Some kids (and adults) do better if they don’t feel that pressure. Some thrive on competition. You know your family best, so just use your judgment. Even if you don’t keep track of time, try to make note of progress. Adjust the components to keep up with each person’s fitness level. If you try to do this challenge course once or twice a week, and you notice that your child has improved from barely able to do five push-ups to cruising through ten with ease, be sure to praise them for their accomplishment. It feels good to hear, “What a strong girl you’re getting to be!” Or, “Wow, look at how much you have improved!”

It may also surprise you to discover how good it feels to hear, “Come on, Mom, just three more push-ups! You can do it!” I think those are about the sweetest words I’ve ever heard.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

TV or Not TV

Some people would have you believe that the root of all evil is that box that sits in nearly every American living room. And in some cases, they might be right. But it doesn’t have to be. Everything in moderation, I always say, and that extends beyond food and beverages.

Especially during the summer months, you may discover that the TV seems to be on as long as someone is awake in your house. If you are concerned that your family is watching too much TV, try limiting it for a while. Assess your family’s situation and set some rules. Ask yourself how many TVs are in your home and do you really need all of them? One rule we set long ago was that there would be no TVs (or computers, or video games) in any bedroom, including the master. My kids are young, but I don’t want them disappearing to their rooms for hours at a time to watch cartoons when we could be doing something together as a family. It sets them up for bad habits later on and there’s no need to head down that path. And although it would be convenient to watch TV in my bedroom in the evening, I know that would lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, and I have to remind myself that I am setting the example for my kids. Only you know what is best for your family? Is an hour a day OK? Two hours? More? Think about what’s best for your family and then try it. We have used a system where the kids get a designated amount of poker chips each week. White chips are a half hour show. Red chips are an hour show. Blue chips are a movie. If they want to watch TV, they need to pay us a chip. We have a yoga video that they may watch for “free” any time they want, and videos that teach morals like the Veggie Tales series are two for one. This system is especially helpful when school is out! When they have to consider giving up a chip or doing something else besides watching TV, it forces them to think about how they’re spending their time.

Another “exception” is sports, but again we use moderation. I moved away from my hometown a few years ago and I love to follow the baseball team I grew up rooting for. But because I’m in a different time zone, games often come on during dinner. So I had to make the tough choice to turn off the TV while we were at the table. Sure, it can be frustrating to miss part of a game, especially when you’re paying for that subscription cable service, but I know that spending time with my family at the dinner table is far more important and rewarding than any ball game I’ll ever watch, and at my age, I’ve watched thousands. Besides, if something really incredible happened when I was away, they’ll show replays of it, either during the broadcast or on SportsCenter anyway. And if not, was it really that important?

TV can provide motivation for you while you are tackling your diet and fitness goals, as well. There are tons of great shows on network and cable stations that can give you tips and ideas for living a healthier life. Check out TLC, Discovery Health, FitTV and other networks for shows that will interest you. If you like reality shows, NBC has The Biggest Loser and even VH1 has Celebrity Fit Club. Watching these can inspire you to make positive changes. Or if it’s convenient, you can watch a show while you hit the treadmill or do your workout. I lift weights and do yoga or crunches in the evening, and I love watching these inspiring shows or—some habits die hard—sports. I’m especially partial to a baseball game or bull riding, but will also watch football, cycling, hockey, or whatever I can find. Watching athletes compete really inspires me to work harder. If I’m really in need of an energy boost, I’ll switch on one of FitTV’s shows like Cardio Blast or All-Star Workouts. Even if I’m not doing the same exercises, I feed off the energy and find the motivation I need to finish strong instead of saying, “Oh, it was a long day. I think I’ll quit early.”

The TV can also provide a built-in pace for your workouts. I wear a pedometer and strive for 10,000 to 12,000 steps each day. If, at the end of the day, I find I’ve come up a bit short, instead of zoning out in front of the TV, I will do “stair laps” during a show. My staircase is right next to the living room, so it’s easy to get some exercise without missing my program. You can walk the stairs, run up and walk down, or add some hand weights to up the intensity. I like to carry a ten-pound dumbbell in each hand to get my heart rate up. You can do these during the entire show, or do “bursts” on the commercials, challenging yourself to do as many laps as possible during the break and then resting in between. Or just do some step ups from the bottom stair, counting out sets of 15 reps starting on each foot. Don’t forget to use the stairs to stretch your calves. See how many crunches you do before your show comes back on or do a wall sit with a stability ball during the commercial break. I also like to do pushups with my hands or feet on the bottom step. This can also be a fun way to break up your routine if it has gotten a little stale.

A word of caution: know your limits. If I'm aimlessly wandering through the channels after the kids have gone to bed, and the only thing that appeals to me is a Food Network special on decadent desserts and I have PMS, I know I have to turn it off and do something else. Even if that means turning in early or reading a book in bed, I know it's better than the binge I'll inevitably start after watching anything that involves chocolate!

TV provides us with information, entertainment and an opportunity to learn. We all need to veg out from time to time to recharge our minds and bodies. But that said, with moderation, TV does not have to be adverse to a healthy lifestyle. You just have to learn how to use it to your advantage.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere

You know you need to drink more water. We all need eight to ten glasses a day. But so many of us don’t care for the taste (or, if you will, non-taste) of water so we skip it in favor of other things. Before you go buy another case of diet soda, take a look in your grocery store’s beverage aisle and see what’s there these days.

An easy to make, low calorie alternative to water is an Italian soda. You may have had one of these in a fancy café. They’re simple to make at home and are especially refreshing on a warm day. In your grocery store’s coffee aisle, you will find flavored syrups. (Torani is the brand I like best, but there are lots of others.) You can also find these in cafés, import stores like Cost Plus, and many other locations. Many of the flavors are available in a sugar free variety. When you get home, fill a glass with ice, then drizzle a little of the flavored syrup over the ice. You may need to experiment before you find the right amount to suit your taste. Now just fill the rest of the glass with club soda. Add a straw and sip away. You can mix it up to combine the flavors or leave it as is, depending on your preference. My kids think this is a special treat and they have no idea that it has virtually no calories and no sugar. Use one flavor or a combination. Chocolate and hazelnut are great together and I get the feeling that I’m indulging when I’m really not. You can combine flavors like raspberry and lime for a refreshing summer cooler. Or take yourself to a faraway place with flavors like coconut, banana, Irish cream … the possibilities are endless.

Another great alternative to plain water is the little packets that you can add to your water bottle and mix on the go. It seems like these are getting more and more popular and you’re bound to find a flavor you like! There are all sorts of special varieties so pick a few to give you enough choices to get through the week.

Many of these contain artificial sweeteners, just like diet sodas, so use them in moderation. I wouldn’t recommend replacing all of your water servings with these, but if you just need to get some variety in your liquid diet to keep you from getting bored, these are great solutions.

Friday, May 18, 2007

One Hour A Week To Better Health

In order to facilitate healthy eating, you’ve got to do a little prep work. This is the point where most of us give up and cave in to the path of least resistance. We think we don’t have time to wash and chop all that produce, especially when it’s so much easier and cheaper to grab a prepackaged snack and call it good. Or maybe you start out with good intentions and buy a cart full of healthy produce, only to have it turn into a science experiment at the bottom of your crisper.

Precut fruits and vegetables can be expensive, and if this is the only way you think you’ll eat them and can afford to buy them this way, then stick with that plan. But the next time you’re in the grocery store, look at how much you can save if you buy an equal amount of unprepared produce. That five pound bag of regular carrots is usually the same or less than the two pound bag of the peeled baby carrots. Yes, it takes a little longer to process, but all it really takes is one hour each week.

I do my prep on Monday afternoon, but you can do it any day or night of the week that suits your schedule. To get started, I fill a pot with water and put on 8-10 eggs. In warmer months, I’ll also boil water so I can make a pitcher of iced tea. While that’s going, I get out all of my produce, zipper bags or plastic containers, a large stainless steel bowl, a vegetable peeler, a colander, a cutting board and my favorite knife. I might even put on some music to keep me moving. And then I go to work. As the eggs are boiling and my tea is brewing, I rinse anything that needs to be cleaned and let it drain in the colander. Next I peel my carrots and cucumbers, dropping the scraps into my stainless steel bowl. Then I start chopping.

As the hour passes, it is quite a sense of accomplishment to see all those produce bags on the counter transform into a stack of containers full of healthy snacks for the week. This is your fuel, your foolproof arsenal of tools for staying on track. Hungry between meals? No problem. Just look at what you can reach in and grab. On a good week, I’ll have an assortment of carrots sticks, celery sticks, red, yellow and orange bell pepper slices, cucumber slices, cubed watermelon, cantaloupe or honeydew, rinsed red or green grapes, sliced strawberries or kiwis, or maybe even a fruit salad. Plus I’ve got a pitcher of iced tea to keep me from reaching for sodas all day long, and a bowl of hard-boiled eggs, which can be used as a quick dose of protein between meals on their own, or chopped and added to tuna salad, etc. If you’re concerned about cholesterol, it’s pretty easy to use only the egg white and not the yolk once they’re hard-boiled.

As an added bonus, you now have a stockpile of healthy foods to add to your kids’ lunches, instead of having to rely on individual bags of unhealthy chips, cookies and crackers loaded with trans fat, and sugary gummy snacks.

A few common sense tips:
* It might be wise to clean out your fridge before you start.
* Chop the messiest foods (like tomatoes, oranges, strawberries, kiwi, etc.) last and you’ll have less of a mess to clean on your cutting board.
* Some people like their carrots or celery stored in water to keep them extra crisp. Some don’t. Do what works best for you.
* Once your produce is prepared, put the containers back in the crisper and you’ll save some room on your refrigerator shelves.
* Don’t have an hour? Do what you can for a half hour while dinner is cooking. You’re already in the kitchen anyway. If you have to chop produce for the meal you’re preparing, it’s no big deal to chop some more for later in the week.

Depending on the size and needs of your family, you may choose to do this process twice a week to ensure freshness of your produce. Again, experiment and see what works best for you. Once you get into a rhythm, you’ll be so glad you took a little time to make such a big impact on the health and nutrition of your family.

Friday, May 04, 2007

How To Set A Goal

What’s a good weight loss goal? Experts say that even losing ten percent of your body weight will dramatically improve your health. So do the math. If that number is still overwhelming, break it down into increments, pound by pound if necessary, until you get there. Create a reward system for every milestone: 10 pounds equals a pedicure, a new book or CD, that shirt you've had your eye on. By focusing on the smaller goal, you're still working toward the larger goal, but without the all or nothing attitude, which often results in failure. Slow and steady wins the race.

A healthy loss is one to two pounds a week. But expect peaks and valleys. The trick to consistent weight loss is to change your routine about every four weeks. Your body naturally adjusts and finds more efficient ways to exercise. (even if you don’ feel it!) Increase the weight/reps in your strength training routine, add time or up the incline on your treadmill. Or throw in something new: a spontaneous jog around the block and run the hills. Soon you will enjoy your reward.

Dress for Success!

Pick out your workout clothes the night before. If you don’t have to dress for work or another occasion, put on your exercise gear first thing in the morning and get to your workout as soon as possible. The Lycra in these clothes makes us more conscious of how our bodies look and feel. Even if you won’t be able to work out for a few hours, you might be more mindful of your exercise plan, which in turn might keep you from making poor nutritional choices.

Conversely, if you need to work out after a day at the office, change into those workout clothes as soon as you get home. Sure, it's tempting to put on those ratty sweats and curl up on the couch with a bowl of ice cream, but isn't that what got you in this shape in the first place? Give yourself a few minutes to make the transition from work life to home life, and then go for the exercise gear.

Still can’t find the time to workout? Life happens. Babies need changing. Groceries run out. Unexpected phone calls keep us busy. Just make the most of the time you have. Since you’re already in your workout gear, take 15 minutes to do some stretches. Keep moving when you talk on the phone—walk at a comfortable pace through the house or yard, do calf raises or squats. Do as many crunches or push-ups as you can on commercial breaks. If you have stairs in your house, try this old standard from my track and field days: Run on the way up and walk on the way down. You can even add a pair of dumbbells to increase the difficulty. Don’t take the closest parking place to the store. Make it your “default” to add extra steps whenever you can. Briskly walk the full route of the store even if you just need a few things—just don’t linger in the snack aisle! Extra points if you return your cart when you’re done unloading.

Crank Up Your Metabolism

Now that you’re exercising regularly, it’s time to start eating like an athlete. Food is fuel for your engine. Would you fill your car with poor quality gas and slack on oil changes before a long trip? Of course not. Treat your body the same way. Your first meal each day starts your metabolism. Skipping breakfast “stalls” you until lunch time. You’ll lose a few hours your body could’ve spent burning fat. Skipping meals slows weight loss, and forces your body into starvation/survival mode, storing more fat. Instead, eat consistently throughout the day, small meals every three hours if possible. Metabolism naturally slows down about eight hours after waking. That’s the perfect time to work out. (Another good time is first thing in the morning, before breakfast. But you might want to have a banana before you hit that elliptical.) By working out when you’re metabolism slows, you burn more stored fat and give it a boost by increasing your metabolic rate for a couple more hours. The result will be increased energy and decreased waist size.

Not sure what to eat? Focus on lean protein at every meal, whole grains, fiber, lowfat dairy, and lots of fruits and vegetables. The idea is to eat slowly, and only eat enough to fill you up. You don’t want to feel full or hungry, just satisfied. This means your metabolism is burning steadily. A piece of string cheese with a slice or two of turkey is great between meals. Or try a handful of unsalted almonds. A protein bar or shake (or half of one) is another good choice. Another option is a piece of fruit with natural peanut butter and a small glass of milk.

Stranded at the Drive-Thru

It happens. Sometimes we find ourselves there whether we like it or not. But you can still make wise choices. Many places offer a nice grilled chicken sandwich. Skip the mayo and lay off the fries. At home, have a juicy apple or pear to finish your meal. A great choice on the run is Subway. Get a six-inch whole wheat roll, choose provolone instead of American (or omit cheese altogether) and load it with veggies. Go for mustard, but pass on oil and mayo. If you get a meal, count out a handful of chips and give the rest to someone else. Pizza? Not many healthy options, so try to minimize the damage by going to a place where you can buy by the slice. Take the time to blot the excess grease off the top with a napkin. Hit the salad bar if they have one—but skip the high-fat dressings. Drink a lot of water.

Most restaurant portions are two to three servings. Fill up on a salad or clear soup before your main course arrives, and then cut your meal in half and push it to the side. Ask for a box. That’s what you’re taking home. Don’t feel the need to clean your plate. Mom’s not there to lay a guilt trip on you about starving kids in China and tell you to clean your plate. It’s easy to say, “Oh, I deserve this treat, so I’ll order the biggest steak and the gooiest, most decadent dessert.” But it’s quality, not quantity, that matters. Have your steak, just don’t have it all at once.

At home, chop up that leftover steak and serve it over a salad or in a whole wheat tortilla for lunch the next day. You won’t have that “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” feeling or have to plan lunch the next day.

Finally, keep a protein bar, a piece of fruit and a water bottle handy for each family member so you don’t have to make those drive-thru stops in the first place. Our kids love getting their little "kit" together for a road trip. We use inexpensive plastic sports bottles that have a removeable core that can go in the freezer to keep beverages cold. Check your local drug store for these, especially as warmer weather approaches. Depending on how long we'll be gone, they might grab a Tiger Milk bar or a Z Bar, or some homemade snack mix with high fiber cereal, dried cranberries, and almonds, all neatly packed in a zipper bag or a small plastic container. It can be risky to eat in the car, so be aware while you are driving, particularly if you have young children who may choke.

Take Heart In Your Diet & Exercise Plan

Risk factors for heart disease include being overweight/obese; having high blood pressure, high triglycerides or low HDL; or a waist circumference larger than 35 inches. Family history is another factor. But knowledge is power. The sooner you see a doctor, the sooner you can assess your situation.

Like family history, some risk factors can’t be controlled. It’s a fact that heart attacks are more prevalent in men than women. And regardless of gender, everyone’s risk increases with age. However, many risk factors can be changed.

A person’s cholesterol level, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity/being overweight and diabetes can contribute to heart disease, but fortunately all of these things can be controlled or sometimes even reversed. Stress is another factor. Although not a primary cause of heart disease, this contributor is often linked to other risk factors like smoking, overeating and high blood pressure.

Excess fat around your middle—what some call “heart attack fat”—has been linked to increased risk for heart disease and diabetes. Researchers speculate that the link between abdominal fat and these conditions may be related to metabolic syndrome—a cluster of conditions such as high blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure—which can increase your disease risk. As waist circumference increases, so does the risk of each of those conditions. Researchers also note that excess abdominal fat may be associated with inflammation, believed to contribute to the risk of heart disease and stroke.
[Sources: American Heart Association and MediResource.]

Staying Motivated

We all fall into a rut and lose motivation at times. Even if we are successfully making progress, life can get hectic and our exercise plans can fall by the wayside. To keep yourself on track, here are a few tips to help you stay focused.

Set your routine and stick to it. Put it on your calendar. Cross it off when you’re done. Tell yourself that extra hour of TV is not a worthy substitute for your workout. You owe it to your kids to be here to watch them grow up and be able to pass on healthy habits. A good goal is a blend of strength, cardio and flexibility training each week. Identify your trigger foods and plan for healthy alternatives. Or know how much you’ll have to work out to burn off a serving of that food. Is it worth it?

Feeling weak and unable to resist? Concentrate on what size pants you are wearing right now. Get that number in your head and keep it there. Every time you see your trigger food, focus on that number. Want to cut out of your treadmill session early? What size pants was that again? Didn’t think so.

Remember that you have been through childbirth, grief, heartache, loss, pain and other challenges in the past and you are still here. Ten more minutes on the treadmill and a few push-ups will not do you in. Hang that sexy new outfit or a picture of yourself at a smaller size across from the treadmill so you can keep your focus each time you work out. If you pray at night, give thanks for the ability to stay strong and focused and you will reach your target.

Sometimes we run into a hectic stretch before a deadline or during our kids' sports seasons and it's hard to stick with our exercise program. This is not the end of the world. If you really can't squeeze in your regular workout routine, give yourself some leeway. It's OK to say, "All right, I'm not going to be able to work out this week, BUT, I won't abandon my healthy habits altogether." Resist the urge to cave in to fast food and make an extra effort to eat healthy and you'll be fine. Then as soon as the crisis is over, know that you will be back on track without having lost any momentum.