Holiday Help: Workout Video 13

Workout video thirteen is all about the legs. Kicking off with a little bit shoulder mobility, then working through hip flexor pulses to activate glutes. Once we hit the workout, we’re doing more glute activation, some lower body-based cardio, a squats galore. Time for the fun to begin!

 

Food Friday: Bulgur Stuffing with Dried Cranberries & Hazelnuts

Thanksgiving is around the corner, and the menu planning is rolling around in my head. This is one of my favorite holidays, thanks both to the presence of family and tons of delicious food. I still aim to have a healthy meal on the table, and I’m always looking for ways to up the “healthy” without sacrificing the “delicious”.

Stuffing is one of my favorite side dishes, but I’m always mindful that, at least with most traditional stuffing recipes, I’m essentially just eating seasoned bread. I do love bread, and it has it’s place at some meals. But when I’m looking at a Thanksgiving table that’s already overloaded with a lot of my not-so-normal foods, I can definitely find a better substitute. Some great alternative stuffing recipes are based on whole grains, like wild rice, or this nutty bulgur-based recipe that includes citrusy-sweet cranberries and the crunch of hazelnuts. Bulgur is a quick cooking form of whole wheat. Bulgur wheatAs a whole grain, it is high in fiber, B vitamins, iron, phosphorus, and manganese – lots of nutrients here! These recipes are fairly versatile, and you can play with a combination of whole grains – just remember that if you change things, your cooking time might change as well. But for something healthy, tasty, and maybe a little different for your Turkey Day table, it might be worth the try!

Bulgur Stuffing with Dried Cranberries & Hazelnuts

Adapted from Eating Well, Fall 2002
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 cups chopped onions, (2 large)
  • 1 cup chopped celery, (2-3 stalks)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 cups bulgur, rinsed
  • 3 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock, if you want to be vegetarian-friendly)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 2/3 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 2/3 cup chopped hazelnuts, (2 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste
  1. Heat oil in a Dutch oven or heavy pot over medium heat. Add onions and celery; cook, stirring often, until softened, 5 to 8 minutes. Add garlic, cinnamon and allspice; cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add bulgur and stir for a few seconds. Add stock, bay leaf and salt; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until the bulgur is tender and liquid has been absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, combine dried cranberries and orange juice in a small microwave-safe bowl. Cover with vented plastic wrap and microwave on high for 2 minutes. (Alternatively, bring dried cranberries and orange juice to a simmer in a small saucepan on the stovetop and remove from heat.) Set aside to plump.
  3. Toast hazelnuts in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until light golden and fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. When the bulgur is ready, discard the bay leaf. Add the cranberries, toasted hazelnuts, parsley and pepper; fluff with a fork. Enjoy the delicious!

Notes:

  • Make Ahead Tip: The stuffing will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. To reheat, place in a baking dish and add 1/2 cup water. Cover and microwave on high for 10 to 15 minutes. (Alternatively, bake at 350°F for 25 to 30 minutes.)
  • Stuffing the Bird: You can absolutely use this stuffing inside your turkey. Just follow normal stuffing guidelines: stuff the bird loosely, and make sure that the stuffing reaches an internal temperature of 165°F for food safety. Or, you can heat your stuffing separately and not worry about it! 

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.

Neurons

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?

Brain

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!

What Is Functional Exercise??

“Functional” has been a buzzword in the health and fitness industry for many years. But how many people do you know that can tell you what it actually means?

To some, the word functional may conjure up images of exercising while standing on one foot to improve balance, or doing everything sitting (or standing – though please dont!) on a big rubber swiss ball to switch on your “core”.

In reality, functional exercises are those that help you in real life. This could include exercises that mimic the movements of your job, or that help you improve strength or cardiovascular fitness levels so that the activities of everyday life become easier. There is no particular group of exercises that are “functional”. Rather, any and every exercise can be functional, depending on what you do (or want to do) day in and day out. For example, every time we get up out of a chair – and for many of us, that’s frequently – we use the same muscles as we do when we do a squat. Likewise, a half-hour of heart rate-increasing exercise regularly can help keep you going when you’re on your feet all day. And, just maybe, if you need to work on your balance, doing a few things while standing on one foot will help. But it doesn’t have to be your entire exercise session!

Functional Exercise Real Life Movement
 Squat  Sitting down and standing up
 Lunges  Riding a bicycle, walking up stairs
 Bicep curls  Picking up a little kid
 Dumbbell Pullover  Freestyle swimming

So is your program functional for you? Whether they’re called functional or not, the best programs will evaluate your daily movements, energy needs, and lifestyle goals, and focus on exercises that will improve or maintain your abilities in these areas. To create a functional program for a client, trainers should be looking at those three points, and figuring out which movements they need to include to get you your best results. Some exercises should look a lot like what you do outside the gym, but be aware that some won’t, since creating strength for movement can require different muscles and joint angles than you might expect. Our bodies are complex machines, and it’s rare that anyone ever pushes, pulls, or sits down in the same perfectly straight line all the time! Bottom line: look at your life, then look at your exercise program. Do the movements look the same? If they do, then congratulations – you’re functional!

Exercise and Stress

What springs to mind when we hear the term “stress”? For most of us, we think of heightened mental and emotional states, feelings of anxiety caused by too much work, fighting with friends or loved ones, financial situations, and a million other aspects of life. Sometimes we associate stress with muscle tightness or headaches, or an upset stomach, but these seem to be because of stress, rather than causing it. So what happens when we throw physical stress into the mix?

Interestingly, physical stress – caused by exercise or physical activity – can both alleviate and worsen our stress symptoms. Too much stress of any kind can overload our bodies. There are links between all types of stress and mental and physical health and wellbeing, ranging from being exhausted and cranky to the development of diseases like Type II diabetes or triggering latent mental illness like bipolar disorder. But stress is not all bad – it’s useful, in that it can motivate us to get things done instead of putting them off. So we want to find that fine line between good stress and overload.

Back in 1936, an endocrinologist names Hans Seyle came up with his General Adaptation Syndrome model to explain how the body reacts to any given stress, or level of stress.

General Adaptation SyndromeIf you look at the left side of the graph, we can see that some stress is necessary to get out of bed in the morning. A little more stress puts us into a healthy, productive state. Keep building on those stress levels though, and they become less than helpful. Whatever is causing your stress, you’ll now start feeling an increased levels of fatigue, procrastination, anxiety, depression, etc.

BUT – and this is a big but – even though our bodies recognize physical stress as it does any other stress, we can use the aftermath of it to our advantage. This is called supercompensation – where appropriately timed stress and appropriate recovery leads to the ability to handle more stress, better. And even though we are talking purely about physical stress here – again, from exercise or physical activity – when we give ourselves the appropriate stress and recovery, we bounce back so much better physically, mentally, and emotionally.

SupercompensationSo how much is enough? If you’re just getting started with an exercise routine, having a day off between each workout day is a good starting point. It’s also really important to listen to your body. If you’re feeling particularly sore, or just that you need an extra day or two, take the extra time. That’s when you recover, get better, and get ready to handle the rest of life.

 

 

Fit or Fat: What You Need To Know About Body Composition

If you’re not an exercise professional or in the medical field, the term “body composition” might be a bit confusing, or mean exactly nothing at all. And that’s totally ok – you’ll never know something you haven’t been taught! But from a health and fitness perspective, it’s a great concept to understand, and pretty easy to wrap your head around.

At the very basic level, body composition refers to the ratio of lean body mass to fat, or, more simply, the amount of fat you have compared to all the other tissues in your body. Poor body composition has a higher percentage of body fat than good body composition, but that doesn’t mean that good body composition looks like a super fitness star, or that bad body composition necessarily looks “fat”.

The American College of Sports Medicine, the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world, provides a wealth of information about body composition and body fat percentage standards, which vary by gender and age. “Minimum” body fat levels are set by the ACSM at 3% for men and 12% for women, though bodybuilders at their extremes can sometimes get lower than this for very short periods of time.

ACSM Percentage Body Fat Norms

According to ACSM standards, body fat percentage between 10-22% for males and 20-32% for females of all ages are considered satisfactory for good health; higher body fat percentages are associated with higher risk of lifestyle diseases such as cardiovascular disease (increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke) and Type II diabetes, among others. At the very low end of the scale (no pun intended), other health problems may occur, as having some body fat is necessary for tissue and organ function, especially the female reproductive system. It bears noting that most of us need to be more concerned about being too high than too low!

Do you really need to worry about your specific body composition though?

Well, yes and no. If you’re looking to lose weight, keeping your body composition in mind can be helpful. After all, I can sit on the couch for a week and not eat a thing, and I’ll have lost weight – but as much of that will come from muscle as from fat, and I probably wont feel very well (even once I start eating again). What most people are after, really, is fat loss. Having a little bit of muscle tone coupled with low fat levels is actually what makes us look good 🙂 as well as making us healthier and better able to cope with day to day life. The right exercise coupled with the right nutrition leads to improved body composition (we’ll have some specific plans for this coming out in the next couple weeks).

The extreme ends of the range probably know they’re at the extremes without any sort of measurement, and the difference between 2% and 5% body fat, or 40% and 50% body fat isn’t necessarily going to make a big difference in terms of health or appearance. If you’re at either of these extremes, you probably already also know what you should be doing about it (again, more of us could stand to lose some fat than to gain it!). From a health risk perspective, there is evidence showing that regardless of current body fat levels, fat loss will improve health outcomes (read: decrease the risk of bad stuff). If you’re somewhere in the middle and don’t want to worry about your exact number on a day to day basis, it’s likely that living an active lifestyle and focusing on making other healthy choices will place you in the right categories.