Eight little things to boost your health and fitness

When you're trying to improve fitness and athletic performance, it's often doing -- and not doing -- the little things that takes you to the next level.

When you’re trying to improve fitness and athletic performance, it’s often doing — and not doing — the little things that takes you to the next level.

Search the Internet and the bookstores long enough, and you’re bound to find “revolutionary” workout programs and diets that promise to transform your life. The thing about these deals is they have broad appeal, resonating with athletes and the out-of-shape alike.

Some of these are good: Bill Phillips made a mint with “Body for Life,” mostly because the exercise and diet plans he made were easy to follow and effective in terms of spurring fat loss, muscle gain and overall health.

Others are junk. I won’t get into those here, but if anything is promising great results from a pill or a workout plan that includes massive numbers of reps, weird gadgets or whatnot, buyer beware.

What doesn’t sell a lot of books, videos, gear or dietary supplements, however, is possibly the secret to getting where you want, and it costs nothing. And that’s doing the little things.

I’ve noticed that when I get the little things wrong, or ignore them altogether, I often don’t get the results I’m looking for in terms of maintaining my fitness or improving my overall health and athletic performance. So it’s always nice to do an audit of your behaviors and see where you could stand to add or subtract some of the little things.

DO THESE THINGS

Take the stairs. I live in a multiple-story apartment building, with my unit on the tenth floor. It would be easy enough to take the elevator every day, and most of the time, I do. But when I finish my shift at work and come home, I make a point to forgo the elevator and turn my apartment into a tenth-floor walk-up. That gives me about two minutes and thirty seconds of glute/quad/hamstring and calf work and gets my heart rate up a bit, and an added 450 feet of vertical gain every week.

Getting your vert, urban style.

Getting your vert, urban style. (pixelwhip.com photo)

If you live a few floors up, you can do the same. If you work in a high-rise building, start taking the stairs, and if that’s too much, take the elevator part of the way, then get your extra work by walking the stairs the rest of the way. When you’re about and about, skip the escalators and elevators and climb those stairs. One stair climb is small, but turn that into a daily habit over a year, and you’ll be that much more fit and strong than you were before.

Walk or ride to work. This may not be possible for everyone, and certainly the weather can dictate how you get to and from your job. But if it’s possible, consider walking or riding your bike to work. This is a particularly good idea if your workplace has a shower you can use; then your options increase even more. You might even be able to run to work, if that’s your thing. It will take some planning, and it won’t be nearly as simply as dressing for work, jumping into your car and heading down the road. But you burn no calories driving (sometimes, you consume them if you make a habit of snagging a latte on the way to the office), nor do you work any muscles. A human-powered commute will do both.

Stow the cellphone more often. I wish I had a timer to see how many minutes (hours?) a day or a week I burn just looking at my phone. And I wonder how much less intense my workouts are when I have my phone with me, even if I’m using it as a music player. I’ve found that leaving the phone out of my workout plans makes for a better-paced, more intense session than when it’s with me. Too often, a social media notification or a text message pops up, and the temptation to check Facebook or Twitter gets the best of us when we should be focusing on the task at hand. Most of the time, that stuff can wait.

Even in a non-training situation, the wonderfully connected world of that hand-held device can be a tremendous time-suck. How many more things could you get done around the house if you just left it in your bedroom for a couple of hours? How much more quickly would you get to sleep if you didn’t spend time in bed staring at that little glowing screen? How much more peaceful is that hike or run when you’re completely unplugged? If you don’t know the answer, maybe it’s time to put the damn thing down and find out.

Get more plant-based foods in your diet. Seriously. We’ve been hounded about eating our fruits and veggies. But come on, man. Just do it. The nutrients and fiber in plant-based foods are awesome for you, and if you eat enough of these (start out at getting six servings a day), you won’t need a lot of supplements you may be taking now. Put some greens on that sandwich. Build a wrap with some spinach. Make a salad a big part of your dinner. Put some berries in your cereal or oatmeal in the morning. Your body will love you for it.

CUT BACK ON THESE THINGS

Lessen your booze intake. I’m no teetotaler. Far from it. If folks enjoy a beer or some wine or a nice single-malt Scotch, I’m good with that. I like that stuff, too. But let’s talk about a few things related to alcohol, and how it affects your health.

Any alcoholic drink has calories, sometimes lots of them. Alcoholic drinks also contain sugar. Aside from a few small health benefits of having a drink every now and then, the fact is if you’re a regular drinker, you’re taking in empty calories (anywhere from 90 to 400 calories a serving, depending on what you’re drinking) that go straight into your body’s storage containers, which we know as fat cells. Popular mixed drinks, which often contain fruit juices and syrups, are tasty but they’re also massive calorie bombs. So if you want to gain flabby weight, drink up.

Alcohol also dehydrates the body. Drink too much booze, and that headache you get is actually a reaction to dehydration. Alcohol consumption will detract from athletic performance, be it during training or in competition.

I do love me some good beer. But this needs to be an occasional treat and not a daily habit if you're looking to take your fitness to the next level.

I do love me some good beer. But this needs to be an occasional treat and not a daily habit if you’re looking to take your fitness to the next level.

Lastly, let’s look at beer. The hops in beer helps spike levels of estrogen in the body, which can give the fellas those distinct beer bellies and man boobs. It can also lower testosterone levels, which will affect athletic performance and recovery as well as sex drive. And for any beer consumer, regardless of gender, these fluctuations can throw your hormones out of balance — never a good thing.

If your goal is high-level performance or weight loss, consider the effects of alcohol. A drink every now and then is fine. But as a daily habit, I’d suggest changing course.

Ugh, the sweets. This is a huge downfall of mine. I’ve love a sweet treat. A package of cookies, a brownie, whatever — after a savory meal, a sweet little dessert just sounds so good.

Like the booze, however, it’s just empty calories that goes straight to your gut/moobs/hips/thighs. The nutritional value is next to zero. If you go to a vending machine and snarf a small package of cookies, you’ll have to run an additional four miles from what you’ve already done that day just to burn that junk off.

The same is true of sugary drinks, be it sodas, fruit juices, sweetened teas, energy drinks or those delicious “coffees” that’ll run your five bucks at a lot of coffee shops these days. You’d be shocked out how many calories you drink every day.

You don’t have to go cold-turkey on this stuff, but if any of this is a daily habit, you need to rethink your daily habits. Start out by replacing one of those daily drinks with a 16-ounce glass of water. Better yet, keep a water bottle handy, keep it filled with the H2O and sip on that all day. No calories, plenty of benefits.

And erg, the fried food! You know you’re in trouble when you look at your dinner plate and it’s mostly food that is the color brown. Fried foods are tasty, satisfying, and their texture (the crunch!) is really pleasing to the palate. But fried foods also gum up your arteries and cause inflammation, two nasty side-effects that contribute to heart disease, strokes and a number of different cancers.

An occasional fried food ain’t that bad. But if you’re eating the fried stuff more than three times a week, cut-the-eff back. Replace that crispy brown stuff with the fresh green goodies I mentioned earlier.

You may think you'll run it off, but no. You won't. (popsugar.com phoro)

You may think you’ll run it off, but no. You won’t. (popsugar.com phoro)

Eat out less. There are restaurants that focus on offering dishes with locally sourced or even organic foods, and those are great. But most American eateries fill their pantries and freezers with industrially produced foodstuffs that are high in sodium, fats, sugars and chemicals that just aren’t good for you. They’re also often served in portions that a far bigger than you need (sometimes a single dinner at many popular restaurants can top 2,000-3,000 calories, not including appetizers or desserts). If you want to sabotage your diet, gain bad weight, and feel like crap, then eat out often. If you want to control what goes into your body and get healthier, concentrate on your home food prep and limit the restaurant visits. Your waistline and your wallet will thank you.

So that’s it. No huge secrets, no whiz-bang workout plans. Just a list of little reminders that will help you get faster, stronger, leaner and healthier.

Bob Doucette

Route 66 Marathon post-script: The inspiring story of Mason Harvey

Mason Harvey

I have to be honest about something. It’s not easy to write about a major race when you’re not running in it. I previewed the Route 66 Marathon and had a couple of other posts mentioning it. I went to a blogger’s forum and heard from some stellar runners who also blog about running and a variety of other topics, and what makes them run and write. I checked out the sizable wellness expo.

Heck, I even shot out a few tweets about what was going on.

But the bottom line is I wished I was joining the thousands of other runners who lined up Sunday morning to run Tulsa’s big marathon/half marathon event. That sort of sucks the enthusiasm out of it. No one’s fault but mine: I waited too long to sign up, waiting to see if my training was up to snuff, and I missed the deadline.

I felt like the only person in the exhibit hall who wasn’t running it.

But there was something there that perked up my interest. It all had to do with a kid.

His name is Mason Harvey, an Oklahoma boy who, in sixth grade, was weighing more than 200 pounds and suffering from all of the health and social consequences of an adolescent suffering from childhood obesity.

He then proceeded to lose 85 pounds. He ran, exercised, changed his diet and started playing sports. He got active and changed the way he lives.

At the age of 12.

He’s not stopping there. Instead, he’s got a website, strivefor85.com, which tells his stories and encourages others to make small changes through their lives to find a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.

For his efforts, he was given the Kjell Tovander Award, which is given to people who change the world around them in an uplifting way. It was named after a person who ran the Route 66 Marathon in 2008, but died during the event.

This matters to me because this kid lives in a state that has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity and overall obesity in the country. Cases of diabetes have grown at a higher rate in Oklahoma than any other state in the country. Heart disease and stroke hits Oklahoma harder than almost anywhere else. These maladies didn’t just start suddenly. They started years ago, during the childhoods of tens of thousands of kids (maybe hundreds of thousands?) who spent countless hours in front of the tube, or playing video games or just not doing much of anything while downing bottles of soda and eating pounds and pounds of fast food every week.

Plenty of adults find it hard to make the kind of changes Mason has made. Fewer kids can do it. But Mason did. He quickly told his story, did so confidently, and is determined to reach out to other kids – as well as adults, including his own family – to help them get more active and healthy.

Check out his website or go to @strivefor85 on Twitter. See why he’s so awesome.

You’ve got to love finding inspiration from someone so young.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7077

Fitness: Build a workout that makes sense, avoid those that don’t

How well your workout benefits you depends on a lot of factors. Key among them: Matching proper training methods with your training goals.

For more than a couple of decades now, I’ve been hitting the gym. I’m fascinated by fitness, bitten by a bug when I first began hitting the iron and saw the fruits of my labor in quick order.

Like any eager young gym rat, I devoured any piece of knowledge regarding weight training and fitness that I can find. Powerlifting, body building, plyometrics, you name it. I still see myself as a learner, not an expert. So I still absorb what I can, and watch new trends with interest.

The hottest trend in fitness right now is Crossfit. I won’t jump into anything I haven’t analyzed, but I know people who do it and love it. It has a lot of interesting concepts and non-traditional training methods that are intriguing. But like a lot of things in this field, I like to see it vetted before I jump in.

Crossfit has its boosters and fans. But it also has its critics. To me, however, judging it comes down to breaking down fitness goals, training methods and marrying the proper methods with the desired goals. It’s going to be under this framework that a fitness system will succeed or fail.

In short, Crossfit combines a number of different forms of fitness into one quick workout. Speed is emphasized. Crossfit combines plyometrics, weight lifting (with an emphasis on Olympic lifts), body-weight work and high-intensity cardio work (such as speed work on a spin cycle).

What this reminds me of is circuit training or station drills. But unlike most circuits, Crossfit is more radical in that is mixes a number of types of training methods into one workout.

So what do all these things do? Will they work together? And will they give you the desired fitness results?

Plyometrics (box jumps and exercises like that) are designed for explosive power. Power lifters, football players, track athletes, fighters, basketball players and a number of other athletes will use these to facilitate power in jumping, sprinting, takedowns (in wrestling), and lots of other tasks that deal with fast-twitch muscle performance. They key is performing these exercises explosively and repetitively. It’s hard work, taxing the muscles as well as the heart.

Weight lifting is designed to build mass, strength and slow-twitch power. The key, as so eloquently put by the folks at Lean Bodies Consulting, is tension. You are taxing your muscles, using dead weight in the form of barbells, dumbbells and other weights to stress your body to the point of muscle breakdown and rebuilding. The key to exercising your muscles with tension (as opposed to explosivity) is to perform the exercises in slow, controlled repetitions, with minimal breaks between sets. I’ll see unfit lifters break form by trying to go too fast or use too much weight and completely thwart their goals in the process. Anyway, you’ll notice I mentioned power as a stated goal here, but it’s a different power than plyometrics. Think of it like this: the explosiveness of plyo work is a lot like a high-end street bike that can rip 0-60 in less than 4 seconds. Tension work with weights is more like the low-end torque you get with a 4-wheel drive truck in low gear.

See the difference? People who employ this type of training will include all the athletes I mentioned before, but it will also include body builders. This type of training is how you build bulk, strength and symmetry.

Olympics lifts are their own animal, as they combine elements of both. But unlike plyo work or traditional weight training, Olympic lifts go way beyond “good form.” They are very heavy on proper technique. You won’t derive the benefits of Olympic lifts unless you do them right, and that’s a learning process that takes time and good coaching. Learning how to do a proper snatch or clean-and-jerk isn’t like plopping down on a bench press and slinging the weight around.

What’s more, Olympic lifts, while able to be performed in single reps or multiple reps, are not done “fast.” They are performed with explosiveness, but this is not a form of exercises you do with stopwatch in hand, looking to see how many reps you can do in a given amount of time. Sets are done with technique in mind, with the lifter taking as long as he or she needs to properly complete a set without breaking form. This is important, and I’ll come back to it later.

Cardio is likewise broken up into different types, and again, it’s very dependent on what you goals are.

If I want to lose weight – particularly fat – I’m going to do intervals, where I start slow, then increase intensity in segments of time, rising to a crescendo of difficulty (speed) and then drop it back down to an easy level of effort. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) follows this pattern; many runners and triathletes will be thinking of fartleks when people talk about interval training.

But if your goal is running a marathon, competing in an Iron Man, or perhaps mountaineering, this type of cardio training will only get you so far. I can speak from experience here. HIIT cardio helped me drop a lot of weight fast, and it helped me from an athletic perspective in activities that involved lots of jumping, sprinting or other short, intense levels of physical activity. It’s also great for quick recovery. But when I’m hiking or climbing above 12,000 feet, intervals by themselves fell way short.

And needless to say, intervals alone won’t get you very far in endurance sports like distance running, long-ride biking or triathlons. To succeed here, you’ll need those long-burn, steady-state workouts that last an hour, two hours, or even more for marathoners and triathletes doing Olympic- or Iron Man-length races.

But steady-state cardio, even when it’s on the higher end of effort, is not the most efficient way to drop weight. Sure, it can be done. But intervals just work better.

In any case, you can see what I’m getting at here: Specific goals need specific types of training. If you do it wrong, it just won’t work.

If you lift too fast, you will injure yourself.  Half-hearted box-jump routines will leave you wanting. Similarly, low-intensity interval training will do little good. And no one finished a marathon by sprinting from start to finish.

But what if you mixed all these methods together? Isn’t muscle confusion a proven way to get fit fast?

Well, sort of. But I would argue that the concept of muscle confusion (exploited well in programs like P90X) is different than mixing methods. A program that employs muscle confusion that’s worth anything will still have continuity in methods that are designed to achieve a specific fitness goal.

So here’s where Crossfit comes in. Crossfit mixes methods. It combines plyo, tension and high-intensity cardio, and does it all at a high pace in a short amount of time.

So here is what I’m wondering: Aside from getting your heart rate up, can this blend of rather incongruent methods of training actually work? My thinking is that in the short term, it might. But over the long term I have my doubts. My fear is this: Lifting fast is not inherently bad, as long as you rep slow. Repping fast (performing repetitions fast) leads to injuries. Doing Olympic lifts for time (repping fast) can and probably will lead to serious injuries.

And this is where I find fault with this type of workout system.

I know there are a lot of people certified in this, and many of their clients, who will staunchly defend Crossfit and similar workout plans as effective. There are likely loads of positive testimonials to back it up.

But I will stand by this premise: You will get more out of your training when you match your training methods with your training goals. You can’t bench-press your way across the finish line, you can’t swim your way to a 500-pound squat and you can’t rush your way through weight training for the sake of getting your heart rate up.

In short, analyze your workouts – any workouts – to see if they’ll work for you or if they’ll work at all.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088