The Fat-Burning Zone – Myth or Magic?

Fat: it’s on everyone’s minds right now. Holiday parties, cookies and milk, too many bottles of wine and big smorgasbord meals all combine this time of year to make it easy to put on the pounds. So people are thinking about A) gaining weight, B) being overweight, or C) that in the new year, they are going to lose weight.

Heart Rate ZonesCome the first week of January, gyms throughout the country will be packed with people on cardio equipment, staring at heart rate graphs and hanging onto the heart rate sensors to make sure they are staying in their “fat burning zone”. This zone – 60-70% of your maximum suggested heart rate (calculated as 220 minus your age) – will keep you doing low to moderate intensity exercise, and it’s true that more of the calories burned will come from fat stores. Will that help you drop the pounds? Let’s discuss.

From a cellular perspective, a lower intensity workout requires a slower supply of cellular energy – read: calories – which is perfectly matched to the slower process of breaking down fat stores. Even the most fit people have higher stores of fat than they do of carbohydrate (which provides cellular energy very quickly), and the high volume of fat stores let us keep moving at a slow-and-low intensity for a relatively long time. And so we loop around to the beginning of the paragraph: Lower intensity generally means slower movement, as well as lower (and therefore slower) energy demands. In plain english, lower heart rate and energy demands equal fewer calories burned over a given period of time. 

Let’s look at what happens with higher energy demands: Once your heart rate rate starts edging about that 70%, you’re getting into the “aerobic zone”, or if you’re really hustling, into your “anaerobic zone”. Since your heart rate is higher, your cells need more energy, pronto, to keep you moving. During periods of high energy demand, our bodies don’t have time to break down fat stores. Instead, they make quick energy by breaking down sugars (our stored carbohydrate) and other cellular molecules. But we only have these in limited supply, which is a big part of the reason that sprinting and other high-intensity activities can’t be sustained for more than a minute or two. The body is infinitely clever though. When we have to stop, gasping for breath, our bodies immediately go into recharge mode, creating more energy-providing molecules for our cells to use. In plain english, higher heart rate and energy demands equal more calories burned over a given period of time, but you won’t maintain the highest intensity for the entire period of time. 

So we have Option A – burning fewer calories, but primarily from fat stores, or Option B – burning more calories, but from non-fat sources, and only able to do it for a short time. Does it sound like either is a clear winner? Maybe not.

But here’s the magic: While we might love the little graphs that neatly divide our heart rate ranges into “fat burning” or “anaerobic” training zones, the body doesn’t work with such strict segments. In fact, the fuel you use during any given workout comes from a combination of stored cellular energy-providing molecules, stored carbohydrate, and stored fat. High intensity interval training is actually now the most recommended fat-loss workout. This method combines short bursts of high intensity exercise with short periods of recovery, and maximizes calories burned (and fat lost!) in three ways:

1) The high intensity periods (your aerobic and anaerobic zones) burn A LOT of calories for the duration of the interval.

2) The recovery periods drop your heart rate into your “fat burning zone”. You may burn fewer calories during this interval when compared to the high intensity, but you’re still burning them at a higher rate than if you’re sitting on the couch, and the recovery period allows the body to prep for another high intensity burst.

3) Possibly the most useful calorie burn is after your interval workout is over. After a high intensity workout, your body will continue to burn calories at a higher-than-normal rate as it repairs muscle, replenishes cellular energy stores, and makes you a little stronger, faster, and fitter for your next workout. Depending on the amount of time you spent at high intensities, your post-exercise calorie burn can remain elevated for up to three days. And because this is all happening in a “behind the scenes” sort of way, your fat stores are helping fuel this recovery as well.

So is the fat burning zone a myth? Definitely not – fat is your primary fuel source for any low to moderate intensity exercise. The real question is will it actually result in more weight lost overall, and that is a whole different story! While there are definite reasons to stay working in the low-moderate exercise intensity zone, like rehab situations or chronic health conditions, if you’re healthy and looking for fat loss, getting out of your fat burning zone will do you a lot more good.


Motivation When You Need It Most

Thanksgiving is over. Christmas is coming – less than 25 days! Parties, shopping, travel planning… Things are getting serious. This usually means that we’re all a little more short on time and energy. When these things happen, it’s usually our routines that suffer, including our workouts. Don’t let it happen to you!

Instead, take 10 minutes out for yourself, and holiday-stress-2011figure out how you can keep yourself on track. When we are in a routine, we tend to not think much about why we do what we do. Sometimes it’s because we need to (jobs and stuff), sometimes because we want to (Friday night pizza anyone?). Sometimes it’s because it’s just what we do. Most of our everyday activities fit into this category. Our brains create routine and habits because it takes way less brainpower to automatically do something than it does to make every single decision, every single day. Imagine trying to decide every day whether you should go to the gym? Not always a fun decision, right? But if you get yourself into the habit of going straight there after work, you’re going to do it without thinking about it. Less brain stress, better health.

When everything is out of routine though, you end up making those “should I?” decisions all the time. Remembering why you wanted to create your routine in the first place can make a big difference and keep you on track. When you’re low on motivation or struggling to fit in the workout you know you should be doing, think about why you wanted to (or thought you should) get it done in the first place. Some of these motivational tricks might help!

Use A Visual

Post a picture of your goal somewhere you will see it. Heck, post a bunch of pictures. When I was in high school, a cross country teammate of mine put his goal race time on Post It notes on his locker, his text books, the dashboard of his car, and all over the walls on his house. It took about four months for him to reach his goal, but he was reminded every day why he was working so hard.

Join A Group

Whether online or real life, being around people with the same interests or goals will have a positive impact on you reaching yours. You can share stories and information about what works, what doesn’t, how you make progress, and how you stay on track when you get discouraged. These are your people!

Find Your Inspiration

The most important question a coach can ask: Why do you want to achieve this goal? The people who do achieve their goals are the ones that have a solid reason to do so. Sometimes it can be hard to figure out what the “why” is, but it’s worth the effort. Once you have the answer, it can become way easier to put in the work to get there.

Fight Back

You know that little voice in your head that tells you everything seems too hard and you’d rather just sit on the couch? Declare war on it! Prepare yourself for those days when it’s tempting to skip a workout by making a list of all the reasons you should be working out. Read back to yourself as needed.

Though none of these tips are a surefire way to stay on track with workouts (or any other habit or routine), remember that simply showing up will help improve motivation for your next session, and will definitely help beat holiday stress. And if they help you finish even one workout that you might have otherwise skipped, it’s already worth it.

Sweat and Stress: How Exercise Makes You Feel Better

Ready for that big job interview?

Have an exam coming up?

How about the holidays with those in-laws that you’d really just prefer not to see?

Feel that heart rate rising already?


No matter how you look at it, stress is a big deal. We’ve all experienced it’s ability to instantly impact our days (or weeks, or months) and totally derail the way we think things are going. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’d like to have less of it, but good or bad, stress is actually an important part of life.

hard work means sweatBeneficial levels of stress help improve motivation, memory and recall, and can actually sharpen our focus – bonus for big job presentations or school exams. Physically, stress can help improve endurance and physical performance – the zebra running from the lion is definitely stressed out. Through the body’s physical responses, stress can also act as a pain block. Remember the last time you sprained an ankle? It probably hurt slightly less initially than it did the next day.

So stress can sometimes be good. And I’ll state the obvious – too much stress is can be bad. While we think of stress as a mental and/or emotional problem, it has a quantifiable physical impact. Feelings of stress lead to changes in hormone secretion, which in turn impacts the physical function of your body. The most common response to heightened stress is anxiety – you can thank increased adrenaline production for that. High levels of adrenaline and another of our major stress hormones, cortisol, can also have a negative impact on your immune system. Thanks to this increased hormone release, high levels of stress can lead to health problems including headaches, eating and digestive problems, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems, depression, insomnia and fatigue, and may even increase your risk of cancer. According to the American Psychological Association, the majority of American are living with at least moderate to high stress levels. No wonder around two-thirds of doctors’ visits are for stress related illnesses!

Leisurely walkingPerhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, exercise can help. Many people dealing with high levels of stress have the “go to ground” or “run away” reactions, figuratively and literally. I know that when I’m really stressed, I want to get away from everyone and everything until I can get a handle on things. But these reactions are super NOT helpful. Getting moving is. Exercise in almost every form has been shown by decades of research to decrease stress levels, both immediately and long term. Even if you’re not feeling it, going through the motions of your workout can be a distraction from your stressors, and can help decrease muscle tension and cortisol release. In turn, this can lead to decreased feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger, as well as physical changes like decreased heart rate and blood pressure. It’s possible that the amount of exercise you do can impact how significant these effects are. Some studies have shown more exercise leads to greater stress reductions, while others have shown that neither the amount, frequency, or intensity change how much stress is decreased. According to this second set of studies, walking the dog can be just as beneficial as a tough strength training session.

In my professional option, I don’t think it’s worth getting too bothered by how much, how hard, or how often you get moving. The take-home message here is just get going! Any sort of movement will serve as the above mentioned distraction, and boost positive feelings of well-being. Take a moment and consider what kind of movement, physical activity, or exercise makes you feel better. It doesn’t have to be gym-based, or any sort of organized sport. Feel free to add your opinion in the comments today, or tomorrow, when we talk about some of the best exercises for stress reduction. 

Find the Time: Exercise for Busy People


Getting into an exercise routine and sticking with it can be tough at the best of times. Now that we have the holiday season sneaking up on us, it can be even more challenging. Not only are there extra demands on our time (albiet fun ones) but we’re also often a little more stressed out, and faced with many difficult food choices. Who doesn’t like cranberry sauce and eggnog?? (Hint: it’s your waistline).

Even though the time crunch can make it tough to take care of yourself, all is not lost. We’re ready to share our strategies for sneaking in workouts when you don’t even have time to think. Try them out, and remember, it’s all about finding what works for you.

1. Schedule It

This is one of the most effective methods of ensuring you get your exercise in. Step 1: Pick two to four days, and put it on your calendar. Go ahead, do it now! Schedule for times and days you think are less likely to be interrupted, or double booked. Step 2: Actually get to it! I am guilty of putting my workouts on my calendar, then totally blowing them off when I have “too much work to do”. Nevermind that hitting the gym actually makes me more focused and productive! Oops… I’ve (mostly) managed to solve that problem by reminding myself how much more productive I am when I do get my workout in! Scheduling multiple workouts per week can give you a little breathing room as well. If you find you have to miss one, you know you can make it up in the others. And if you don’t miss any, even better!

2. Make It Short and Sweet

You don’t need to exercise for an hour for it to be worthwhile – every little bit is better than nothing. Each workout in the Holiday Help Workout video series provides a heart-pumping ten minute workout. The videos will be posted between now and December 31st, and even if you don’t want to stick with the outlined workout, they should give you some great ideas about how to get your workout in, in a short period of time. The basic rule: Work hard, rest as little as possible, and aim for an exercise intensity that allows you to keep moving as much as possible. That might mean not working as hard as you can, but working as hard as you can sustainably!

3. Enjoy It

You are way more likely to stick with an exercise routine when you look forward to it. Find something you enjoy, and remember that exercise doesn’t necessarily mean hitting the gym. Love your tunes? Find a dance class to go to. Super competitive? There are a ton of recreational sports out there: soccer, flag football, volleyball, paddle sports, just to name a few. Nothing gets me pumped up like lifting heavy things. On the other hand, if you told me I could only workout on a treadmill for the rest of my life… Well, I would probably be hitting Netflix pretty hard, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

4. Share the Love

Make a date with a workout buddy. One of the biggest reasons people sign up for personal training is that they feel they need the accountability. If you know someone is waiting for you, you’re probably going to turn up. If you actually like that person, you are even less likely to bail! The benefits go way beyond the workout too. You can share, commiserate, and support each other through all the pies, cookies, and chocolate that pop up during the holidays.

There are lots of other ways to keep yourself on track when you’re busy, and these tips apply year round. What’s your trick to staying on track when you’re busy? Let us know in the comments section!



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Remember to Exercise: Your Brain Will Thank You!

We all know that exercise and physical activity are helpful in maintaining good physical health (I hope!) We know that exercise builds muscle, and increases fitness, and generally can make life a little easier. That makes sense – you use your muscles, heart, and lungs when you exercise, and they get stronger to keep up with the demands of your workout.

You might also know that exercise is good for your mental health. Maybe you heard that it’s a primary treatment recommendation for depression, or just heard a friend describe getting a mental boost from a workout. But since most people aren’t doing mental calculus while they work out, where does that boost come from?

exercise fun

Our short term feel-goods, as it turns out, come in part from the brain itself. During times of stress, which is how the body perceives exercise, the brain releases endorphins – those hormone things everyone has heard of. These chemicals help block pain signals that the stress might be causing – kind of a preventative measure. These endorphins also create feelings of euphoria (they are chemically similar to morphine!) and can increase positive thoughts and feelings. Since this provides both an immediate and (with regualr exercise) lasting effect, exercise is a particularly useful aspect of treatment for depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.

Endorphins, it turns out, are not the only players in the exercise-and-brain game. During times of stress, the brain releases another chemical, brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which serves to protect the brain cells and their connections with each other, called synapes. BDNF helps improve cell signaling and can reverse cell degradation. Improved connections between brain circuits mean improved memory, attention span, and processing speed. In some studies, increased levels of BDNF have actually been shown to have a reparative effect, and may restore learning abilities and memory. These improvements have been shown to occur even with modest exercise, like going for a daily walk.


The neuroprotective effects of BDNF can have a some life-long benefits. Numerous studies of older adults have shown that those who were more physically active earlier in life were less likely to develop degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. People in the early stages of these diseases also benefit from exercise and physical activity – the aforementioned walk can be helpful in preventing disease progression. BDNF production does tend to decrease as we age, so since we can all benefit from the chemical boost that exercise provides, getting started with an exercise program will be beneficial regards of age or mental health.

Chemicals aside, exercise actually benefits the brain in some of the same ways that it benefits the rest of our body. The arteries in our brains are very small, but still susceptible to the same blockages as any other artery in our bodies. Tiny blockages can lead to potentially unnoticeable ministrokes that damage tiny areas of the brain and potentially leading to long term decline mental health. Fortunately, these arteries are also positively affected by exercise – the same way as the rest of our blood vessels. Good blood vessel health also means optimal blood flow to the brain, and with it, optimal delivery of nutrients to the brain. Consider the fact that the brain is by far the largest user of blood sugar in our bodies. Sounds like a good idea to keep those channels open, right?


Take home message: Exercise is good for more than just your muscles, heart, and lungs, and the buzz you get after a workout or a walk may just be your best defense against mental illness, at any age!

Creating a Sustainable Exercise Program, Part 2

The thought of creating a life-long sustainable exercise habit can daunting, but with the right strategies, it doesn’t have to be. In part one of this series, we talked about how to get started with the right exercise for you, and how goals can help you gain and maintain your momentum. Here are three more strategies for successfully creating a sustainable exercise program.

Enlist some help:

Support systems are essential to establishing new habits, whether it’s a one-person system or a whole network. Some people prefer in-person interaction with a friend, family member, personal trainer or exercise coach. It’s harder to skip a session when you’re supposed to be meeting someone, and for most people, more enjoyable to exercise with someone else than it is on your own. There are also a ton of internet forums dedicated to general and specific health, fitness, and nutrition goals, if you want a HUGE support system and dig the virtual world. My favorite forum is the Precision Nutrition forum, offering great food and nutrition topics, and the most current exercise topics as well – a great starting point regardless of your goal.

Don’t: Go it alone. It’s lonely and there’s no one to listen to you complain.

Do: Make a date with a friend or get yourself some cheerleaders who won’t let you quit when the going gets tough, and will celebrate your successes with you.

Make it fit:

You don’t actually have to set aside a whole hour for a workout (or more, if you’re trying to get to the gym and then shower and then get to your next appointment). If it works better for you, start with smaller blocks of time to exercise and spread them throughout the day. Two minutes of pushups and squats or a walk around the block before each phone call you have to make will really add up over the course of the day.

Don’t: Make “not enough time” an excuse.

Do: Fit your exercise in wherever you can.

Track it:

Tracking the exercise you’ve done has been one of the most successful tools for my clients when creating new exercise habits. Find an app like MyFitnessPal or get yourself a Fitbit, plug in your data, and track your progress. Seeing the results on a screen can be especially helpful when you’re just getting started and the results in your body haven’t kicked in yet.

Don’t: Underestimate the value and motivation of the hard work you’ve already done.

Do: Plug it in! Every time you add to your exercise log, it’s one small success – and these add up to great habits and great results.

The most challenging part of starting a sustainable exercise program is starting – this goes for healthy eating and lifestyle choices, too. Remember that there is no single best exercise or workout routine. We all have different needs and goals, and the exercise you do should reflect those, even if they change over time. If you are unsure of what a good program for you would look like, don’t hesitate to contact a coach or personal trainer. Setting up a program doesn’t have to mean committing to dozens of personal training sessions, and the expert advice does mean that your new workouts will become your normal workouts in a much shorter time frame. The bottom line – it’s all about getting moving, and then keeping it that way!


This article is has also been published at our sister site, Fix Fitness & Bodywork – Alexandria’s premier in-home personal training and massage providers. Visit us there if you want to exercise the sustainable way!

Creating a Sustainable Exercise Program, Part 1

Starting an exercise program can be exciting, terrifying, exhilarating, and daunting – all in the same minute. I’ve seen many people, excited to start, get so wrapped up in trying to do everything that they quickly end up doing nothing, shut down by trying to change too many things at once.

There are also success stories that we see every day: people who go from sedentary to regularly active, and even become avid exercisers. There’s no real “secret” to making this change – it’s all about figuring out how exercise can work for you, and having the patience to let yourself adapt to the changes and see the results. Different people transition from their holding patterns to sustainable, healthy activity levels in different ways. The trick is using the right strategy.

Start small:

People often think that to have a healthy lifestyle and exercise routine, wholesale changes need to be made – exercise an hour a day, do something for every muscle, eat only salad, things like that. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Instead, pick one thing to work on. The science behind habit formation is pretty well established, and tells us that we need three to four weeks to make a new action or activity part of our routine. Set yourself up for success by working on one thing at a time.

Don’t: Think you have to exercise for an hour a day and eat only salad and grapefruit.

Do: Start small with some challenging-but-do-able exercise for 10-20 minutes, three to four times a week. You’ll quickly be able to progress from there.

Choose something you enjoy:

It’s so much easier to exercise regularly when it’s something you’re looking forward to. Personally, I hate running, but I love lifting weights. I grin like the Cheshire Cat when I get to lift heavy things. But I know that sometimes I need to work on my cardio, and I know that to do so successfully, I need to do it with some distraction involved. My solution was to play recreational rugby and soccer – plenty of running, but plenty of distraction. It did take me a few tries to figure out exactly what sports I really enjoyed playing, but it was worth the process.

Don’t: Choose something you don’t enjoy, just because you think it’s good for you.

Do: Find something you look forward to!

Remember why you want to change:

It can be easy to get lost in the day-to-day effort of creating a new, long-term exercise program (or creating any new habit). The work required for a lasting change is a little easier when you keep your “big picture” goal in mind, whether it be a health goal, improved ability to keep up with the kids, or wanting to wow old classmates at a high school reunion.

Don’t: Focus on the hard stuff without thinking about the benefits of doing it.

Do: Create reminders of your “big picture” goal to keep it on your mind. Vision boards or reminder notes on the refrigerator, in the car, or on the bathroom mirror can all keep you focused on why you’re working hard – which can make the hard work easier.

Each strategy presented here and in Part 2 of this series can be useful when you’re working on creating a sustainable and hopefully lifelong exercise habit. I say habit – it’s important to note that your interests and reasons for exercising might change throughout life, and so might your routine. Maybe you’ll have to re-strategize, but that’s ok. It gets easier with practice, and the really important thing is to keep moving!

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this series.


This article is has also been published at our sister site, Fix Fitness & Bodywork – Alexandria’s premier in-home personal training and massage providers. Visit us there if you want to exercise the sustainable way!

Have Better Success With Behavior Goals

Most of the time when we decide to begin an exercise program or revamp our nutrition , we do so because there is something we want to achieve by it.

This end result that we want to achieve is called an end goal or an outcome goal. It’s the main outcome that we wish to accomplish, generally occurring because we carry out specific behaviors. This is usually more of a long-term goal (or often should be, if we are realistic). Our outcome goals usually look like:

  • I want to fit into “x” dress size.
  • I want to get rid of these love handles and be in better shape.
  • I want my cholesterol to be lower.

It is important to have an outcome goal. However, though we can work hard to achieve it, as an end result of our behavior, we can’t control it as well as we can control other aspects of our lifestyle that can affect it.

Enter behavior goals, aka progress goals.

These are the steps we take along the way to achieving our outcome goals. We have full control over our behavior, and so we have full control over behavior goals. These are arguably more important than our outcome goal, since they have a more immediate and lasting impact on the outcome. Committing to your behavior goals right now means that you’ll already be on your way to achieving your outcome. Examples of progress goals can include:

  • I will eat vegetables with every meal.
  • I will exercise at least five days a week.
  • I will always start my morning with a big glass of water.
  • I will have grilled chicken and vegetables when I go out to eat.

The common thread here is that these are all actions you can choose to complete, or not to complete. You achieve your behavior goals, or you don’t – it’s not left up to chance and only your choices influence this. If we put the right processes and behaviors in place, the outcome will come along without having to think about it too much.

How to set successful behavior goals:

  1. Pick one behavior goal that you can commit to right now. One is enough – trying to juggle more than one can lead to failure in achieving any of them. Find one that is both important and achievable, and stick with it.
  2. Pick two or three ways to remind yourself to stay committed and complete your behavior goal. Want to drink more water? Put a bottle next to your alarm clock or on the front seat of your car so that you see it. Other strategies can include putting signs up around the house or setting an alarm on your watch or phone as a reminder.
  3. Stick with it for three to four weeks (generally thought to be the amount of time it takes to turn a behavior into a habit). Then pick a new behavior to support your outcome goal and repeat the process.

keep calm and check progress for progress goals and behavior goals

This article is has also been published at our sister site, Fix Fitness & Bodywork – Alexandria’s premier in-home personal training and massage providers. Visit us there if you want to exercise the sustainable way!

Exercise Strategies For A Busy Lifestyle

Almost everyone I know is pressed for time, at least a few days a week. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t recognize our busy days as anything more than a lot of work, and will happily lose strength, cardio fitness, and flexibility while we collapse on the couch at the end of the day. While it’s important to note that 1) a long day on your feet can be enough exercise in itself, and 2) that there needs to be a balance between physical work and rest and recovery, most of us still need a little exercise boost on a daily basis.

Sadly, I don’t have the magic secret to extra hours in the day. Maybe I can console you with some tips for squeezing a little exercise into the (jam-packed) time we do have:

1. Find (or make) your opportunities for incidental exercise. Park at the far edge of the parking lot, get off public transportation a stop early and walk the extra few blocks, take the stairs instead of the escalator – the opportunities are endless.

2. Make it social. Exercise with friends is better than exercise alone. Meeting for a walk or a trip to the gym certainly beats meeting at Starbucks, where sitting and calorie consumption are king.

3. Break it up. There is a significant amount of research to support the idea that several shorter exercise efforts are just as good as one long one. If you can find a few five to ten minute (or even 30 second) breaks in your day where you can sneak in some body weight squats or a walk around the block, you’ll hit your exercise target in no time.

4. Schedule it in. I know people who live and die by their day planners (possibly the busiest people I know). If your workout time gets put on the books, you are much more likely to follow through with it. Plus, scheduling it in can help relieve the guilt of “should be doing something else”.

5. Take a break. I recently saw someone suggest following the “20/20” rule: for every 20 minutes of work/running around/life being crazy, stop for 20 seconds to stretch. I love this idea and you can certainly be flexible with it (no pun intended) by holding the stretch a little longer, or changing the stretching for different exercises for some variety throughout the day.

6. Multi-task. Many exercises can be done in front of the TV, so you can catch up on the news or your favorite shows and get your sweat on at the same time. BUT – make sure that you’re still putting a good effort in. I’ve seen more treadmill zombies who are walking a half mile and hour while watching TV than I care to count.

7. Find something you enjoy. This will not exactly help you fit exercise into an already busy day, but when you look forward and enjoy your workout, you are much more likely to make the time for it. Making the time and actually completing your workout is key to actually getting results.

8. Worst case scenario: do the chores. Vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom, washing windows, and lugging laundry around – all of these things get you moving and probably tick some of your “to-do’s” off your list (I know it would for me). While I would probably rather lift weights than any of these things, they are certainly better than nothing!

What Does Your Food Diary Do For You?

I’m pretty sure everyone groans at the mention of the food diary (aka food log, journal, or “that horrible thing you’re making me do” – as I’ve heard it called). I groan too. The idea of dragging this little book around with you, stopping all the time to write down every little morsel that passes your lips, is not an appealing one. Factor in any measuring and weighing the components of your meal that you might do, plus or minus looking up the calorie/fat/carbohydrate content – it’s a drag. So is it worth the hassle?

As with so many things in the health/fitness/nutrition fields, it depends. (Who doesn’t love that answer??) My use of food diaries – with my clients and myself – depends on what I’m trying to achieve by keeping the log. Ninety percent of the time, it’s an exercise in awareness. I don’t actually ask clients to use them very frequently though, especially initially. Many people don’t like being told what to do, even when they think they want to be asked to do it, and especially when there is such a high risk of judgement attached – perceived or real. My goal is always to foster an environment of success with new habits, whether nutrition or exercise-related, and anything that puts a client on the defensive is not going to be high on my list of popular tools.

In addition, keeping a food diary can be overwhelming. If you are trying to wrap your head around one or more major changes in your lifestyle, adding a bunch of nit-picky forms to fill out is not going to help. This is particularly true for those of us who tend toward the “all or nothing” thought process. If you think that you have to record each component down to the gram, and count your calories, and calculate your percentage of good vs. bad fat, and how much protein there is… You’ll either never do it, or you’ll do so much of it that you’ll never do anything else.

On the other hand, keeping a food diary every now and then can be helpful. When YOU make the choice to keep your log, and do so for yourself rather than as homework for someone else to “grade”, the risk of judgement decreases greatly – you become the only one who can judge. This turns it into an exercise in self-awareness, where you can acknowledge what you see and and know what you need to change, and what you are doing well.

It also means you can keep your log on your own terms. I’ll do a few days’ worth of a food diary occasionally, and I never measure or weigh anything (though I probably should). For me, it’s a periodic check-up on how well I’m keeping on track with my good-nutrition habits. More to the point, I’ll use it when I know I’m not doing so great nutritionally as a tool to get myself back on track (it’s much less pleasant to eat handfuls of M&M’s when I know I have to write it down). Being aware of your actions is a necessary first step to establishing (or re-establishing) the positive habits that lead to the results we all want.

So, what does your food diary do for you? If you can clearly answer that you are using it to establish or reinforce good nutritional habits, or to be more mindful of what your intake actually is, then you are likely on the right track. This is especially true if you are doing it for yourself and using it as positive reinforcement. If you’ve been tracking your food for what seems like forever, and it has become a chore, an exercise in embarrassment, or an overwhelming task, then it’s time to find a new way to support your good intentions, create good habits, and make some progress.