Fitness

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We're going to start this post off by going on a shopping trip. I'm in the market for a new weight loss fitness product - maybe there's something out there that can motivate me to do some cardio?! (probably not) So, what are some of my top options here?

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Why lose 15 pounds in 30 days when I can lose 20 pounds in 30 days???? Clearly the bottom right product is superior.

Eh...on second thought I don't really want to commit to spending any money yet. Is there anywhere that will give me the secrets to washboard abs and fast weight loss for free?

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IS YOUR LUNCH KILLING YOU?!?!?!!! Find out at 11.

Buuuuttt then I have to go out and find the magazine. I'm really not looking to leave the house today. All right internet, what have you got for me?

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I'm pretty sure a tummy tuck takes a little bit longer than 5 minutes, so I'm calling shenanigans on the bottom right one here.

Man, options really abound for how to lose weight and get toned (and/or firm and/or sculpted) fast without dieting! Diets have always been the hard part for me when it comes to weight loss, so I can just add in some more exercise to compensate, right? Sadly, exercise alone hasn't been found to be that effective for losing weight. (1, 2, 3)

...But I completely get how it can seem like that's the case. Every month both men and women are marketed quick exercise fixes to their physique woes. Any of these sound familiar?

  • Get bigger biceps with this one new curl variation! 
  • Get a flat belly fast with this killer core workout!
  • Drop 1 size by summer? Yes please! 
  • Pack on 10 pounds of solid muscle in 30 days - no bullshit, just hard work.

You hear all over the place that there are no short cuts to weight loss. That it requires hard work and a lifestyle change. Well, going from doing nothing to doing vigorous exercise with Jillian Michael's yelling in your face is hard work and a lifestyle change. Does that not count?

No fitness routine will get you drastic results without a change in diet.

Yeah, yeah, I can hear the critiques now: "Psh, everyone knows that Kat. You're beating a dead horse." And you're right, I am beating a dead horse. And I'm going to keep beating a dead horse until everyone understands that these kinds of headlines are inherently misleading.

But I also want to talk about something odd I've noticed with many potential clients who have sat across my desk over the years...

We'll go over a realistic timeline for results and what it really takes to get there. Some topics we cover often include:

  • Slow and steady changes win the sustainability game
  • It takes a lot of hard work to build enough muscle to be considered "bulky"
  • You must change your diet habits to see significant physique results
  • There is no such thing as spot reduction
  • Cleanses are basically bullshit

Almost always, my potential client will nod along and affirm they're familiar with these common myths.  Fast forward a few sessions, and my now current client will turn and ask about what we can do to get rid of their belly/saddlebags/arm flab/etc. Not even two weeks ago, we affirmed they knew spot reduction was not a thing.

What happened between then and now?

Most of my readers probably already know most of the above if you've been following my blog for any length of time. But have you ever found yourself doing any of the following:

  • Running despite your intense hate for it because of some vague notion you'll lose weight if you can run a 5k?
  • Tacking on 10 minutes of intervals at the end of your workout because you know you're going to be drinking this weekend?
  • Getting through a grueling workout and immediately following it up with a large pizza with a side of garlic knots to "refuel"?
  • Trying a yoga or dance class in hopes you'll get a "yogi's" or "dancer's" body?
  • Find yourself doing a lot more direct abdominal work as swimsuit season approaches...despite the fine layer of marbling above them?
  • Going on a cleanse after the holiday season?

I guess I'm just bringing this up so that maybe we won't judge others who regularly get mixed up about what works in fitness and weight loss so harshly. Most of us have been there at some point or another.

I mean, I'm guilty as charged on a couple of those myself.

I know that the 100 calories worth of intervals aren't about to make a dent in the 10 beers and 1:00 AM cheeseburgers I'll be indulging in over the weekend. Sometimes it just feels good to do something illogical. And hell, can be a good enough reason to do something.

So yes, we can logically "know" that spot reduction isn't a thing, but we're still compelled to glorify planks and do a zillion Russian twists whenever we feel down about our stomachs. Because it feels good.

Because it feels like we're in control of how we want our body to change if we can, ever so briefly, believe spot reduction works. It's the same thing that draws us to ridiculous magazine headlines or over-the-top weight loss promises on Fitness products or DVDs. The lie feels good.

Eating less than you were before doesn't feel like you're doing something proactive. It's a passive action. But exercise? Exercise feels so much better than a diet. You're DOING something, which is what we're compelled to do when we want to change anything in life.

Unfortunately, for weight loss the best thing you can do is put the fork down and wait a few months.

...All right the above paragraphs are just me bullshitting, but those are my personal experiences. (Maybe they're yours too - I'm not sure, so you should let me know what your experiences are in the comments)

Equal attention and emphasis must be given to the diet and fitness portion of products

Criticism number two I'm predicting is: "But many DVDs come with diet plans. And articles often talk about the importance of diet." Sure, but they're throwaways, just a token "oh yeah, and diet" line to placate people like me:

  • "Of course, diet is also very important. So make sure you're eating healthy."
  • "It's important to eat a lot during this program as well. Gallon of milk a day should do it."
  • A 10-page booklet on diet telling you all the things you already know that is barely mentioned in the infomercial.

Not happening unless you start eating less.

Take this Insanity commercial for instance. (Don't even get me started on "Max Interval Training") Yeah, Insanity comes with a DietPlan, but it's not even mentioned in the commercial! The Diet Plan is absolutely, 100% necessary to get results on this program. One would think that would warrant at least a small mention, no?

The product is the workout. The result promised is weight loss. In real life, that's just not how these things work.

But fitness is sexier than something like, EAT 10 VEGETABLES IN 10 DAYS, or ARE YOU MAN ENOUGH TO COOK SALMON, or EXTREME 21-DAY FRUIT FIX. It's harder to make a real attention-grabbing infomercial with that, I guess?

These mindsets hold us back

Logically we know that exercise and diet changes are necessary for weight loss. But we tend to buy and act with our emotions - probably why cop-outs like Snackwell cookies or sugar-free gummy bears get more sales than canned vegetables.

Be honest, is a lack of a diet plan or workout regimen what's keeping you back from results? Come on, you could Google "fat loss meal plan" right now and get some decent diet plans that would get you results. There are more than enough free workouts online to last you a lifetime.

So what's stopping you from making those changes right now? Why does the prospect of doing it on your own for free seem unappealing, but you're motivated to get started now when you see a well-done infomercial?

Does that intense and schnazzy DVD infomercial compel you to buy because they seem to make it look so attainable? Because it's completely planned out for you? Does it feed into that small logical part of you that knows magic pills don't exist, but completely ignores the part where changing your diet is required, but fucking hard to do?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but you should ask them before you click "add to cart" next time you find yourself browsing for motivation on Amazon.

Moral:

You will NOT be losing 10 pounds in 2 weeks from a fitness DVD or workout program without some changes in your diet, no matter how convincing an infomercial is.

This shouldn't keep you from exercising or moving in general, especially if you want to lose weight for health reasons! Walking for 30 minutes a day is one of the easiest things you can do to drastically improve your health. ...You just won't lose 20 pounds in 30 days.

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You started seeing them pop up a few weeks ago.  It was probably slow at first - maybe just one Facebook advertisment or one little post on Pinterest:

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Abs everywhereeee

But now that Memorial Day and the end of the school year are getting closer and closer, you're reminded that your body is just so not ready for the beach more often than Hallmark reminded you to buy a card for Mother's Day:

21Days

Oh look, more faceless abs!

But let's get real here for a moment.

Yeah, it's nice to think that you can look like that model in 21 days, and the juxtaposition of her abs next to "21 Days" is 100% to make you feel like that's what you'll get...even though both you and the advertiser know you know better.

Unfortunately, deep down, your emotional brain doesn't give a damn what your logical brain has to say on the matter.  It wants to be sexually appealing and comfortable NOW dammit!

But as you've read in my Bullshit Detector ebook, you know it's my mission to give you the information to better arm your logical brain.  So let's ask the only actually relevant question about 21 day weight loss challenges:

How much can you really change in 21 days?

Is 21 days enough time to make any actual visual change?  Can you look better in your swimsuit in a mere three weeks?

Anecdotes won't help us here.  When you're trying to logically judge whether you should believe in a certain idea or purchase a product, the last place you want to get your information is from the person promoting it.

Think of it this way, have you ever applied to a job, and they ask you the question "what's your biggest weakness?"  Your answer and your parent's or former employer's answers are probably quite a bit different:

  • You: My biggest weakness is that I'm a perfectionist. (Nice 'humble-brag' answer, good job!)
  • Your Mom: Her biggest weakness is that she takes 3 hours to do her hair in the morning and always makes us late.
  • Former Employer: Her biggest weakness is that it takes her 3 weeks to do a project that should only take 3 days.

My biggest weakness is that I'm a workaholic. No, I mean that I just care too much about customers...actually it's that I have a hard time maintaining a good work / life balance because I work sooo hard. Or umm...actually it's that I have mild OCD when it comes to expense reports and logging my hours. IT'S ALL OF THE ABOVE!!

See how the message sounds quite a bit different depending on the perspectives and motivations of the person telling it?  This is one of many reasons you can't just Google "21 Day Weight Loss Challenge Results" and expect to get an unbiased opinion.

Where can you get an unbiased opinion?  Glad you asked!

Scientific Studies!!

So let's run the gamut of ways you could try to change your physique in 21 days by looking at studies on various diet plans, starting with the most drastic:

Complete Fasts

What better way to understand how much you can actually change yourself in 21 days than at its most extreme - abstaining from all food for 3 weeks?

There aren't a ton of studies done on normal, healthy people fasting for extended periods of time...it's probably not always the easiest to squeak by the ethics committee.

But, you'll most certainly lose a ton of weight.  How much depends on what size you start out at, but it's going to be a combination of:

  • Water
  • Muscle Tissue
  • Fat
  • Lack of anything solid in your system (aka no poop. Yeah, it registers on the scale)

But if you're a healthy, ~120-130 pound,  21-25 year old female, you might lose about 17 pounds of a combination of the above substances. (1)

A few studies (2, 3) seem to indicate that you can expect about half of weight loss to be due to water.  (As well, you can reasonably expect to gain all the weight back later. (4) )

At the same time, you run the risk of significantly increasing your cortisol levels, becoming emotionally distraught, and fairly irritable...so you'll maybe look a little better in a bikini but you won't give a crap.  On top of that, can you imagine how miserable and bloated you'd feel after breaking your 3-week fast on some chili cheese fries?!

Could look hot on outside, but feel miserable inside.

(To be fair, this study only had 5 subjects and most of them did just fine emotionally during the 3-week fast.  However, they were basically secluded during the research and not given options to consume food.  If you increased the sample size and tempted them with food at every turn - like the real world does - what would the outcome have been?) 

Alternate-Day Fasting

So let's say you want to do something more "reasonable", like say, only fast for 1 day at a time rather than 3 weeks all at once.

This is accomplished by people who do a particular version of "alternate-day fasting" where the idea is that you won't eat for 1 day, then you'll get to feast the next.  Most people don't eat quite double the amount of food on the feast day, so weight loss occurs.

In one study, patients participating in alternate-day fasting for 3 weeks:

  • Lost about 2% of their original bodyweight. (5) (So, if you were 130 pounds, about 2.6 pounds)
  • About 1.1% of that was fat.  (1.4 pounds for our 130 pound example)
  • Around 0.9% was muscle and/or water. (1.2 pounds)

I know, I know after 17 pounds lost in complete fasting, 2.6 pounds sounds measly.  But keep in mind that you'll

  • Have more energy for exercise and life in general
  • Won't lose as much muscle
  • Are still in a completely reasonable and good realm of weight loss.

...Unfortunately, some participants were still hangry and irritable on their fasting days.  Go figure! So this does not appear to be a diet that could be maintained for a significant period of time by yourself.

So how about you eat a little something everyday, but cut your intake by half?  That's like the best of both worlds, right?

Low Calorie Diets

Usually these kinds of interventions (along with their sibling, the VERY Low Calorie Diet) are reserved for the super-obese who need to lose about 50 pounds of pressure off their heart and lungs now, and are in a hospital setting.  But you need to look hot in a bikini.  So that's like, comparable in urgency, right?

Well, in an old but very well-known and interesting study, a group of men were put on a diet that involved 1/2 of their daily calories needs, and were also expected to walk 22 miles each week.  (6)

One of the study participants - during the Starvation Cycle on the left and going through the Recovery Phase on the right.

This study is so well-known because of the harrowing pictures of the men after 6 months of this and their extreme emotional duress and depression during the process.  One man had to be eliminated from the experiment after just a few weeks for emotional instability.

Just how few calories were these men on to induce such dramatic weight loss and mental problems - surely something crazy like 600 per day, right?

It was ~1,600 calories per day.

To be fair, this "diet" extended over 6 months time, much longer than any 21 Day Weight Loss Challenge.  As well, the diet was mostly carbohydrates and basically no protein to prevent muscle wasting, described as:

...starvation diet reflecting that experienced in the war-torn areas of Europe, i.e., potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, dark bread, and macaroni.

Tasty.  Anyway, a summary of this experiment is:

  • Participants ate a little less than half of their maintenance calories for 6 months.
  • Diet was a high-carbohydrate, low-fat and low-protein diet.
  • Participants walked 22 miles per week.
  • Weight loss came out to an average of 1.5 pounds per week for 6 months.

...Doesn't this actually sound kinda familiar?

This diet sounds like an exaggeration of what many of us do to lose weight:

  • Eat a low-calorie, low-fat, high-carb diet.
  • Log in the miles via walking / running / cycling
  • Do so for an extended period of time - possibly indefinitely

I'm not trying to say that you're going to end up looking like the man in the above picture - health problems and mental issues and all - by following the above regimen.  If it was up to you, your body wouldn't let you get to that point assuming you didn't have an eating disorder.

What I am trying to say is if you ever beat yourself up about "falling off the wagon" after "being so good" for 5 days...think about that in a new light.  Your body doesn't like running 3 miles a day on 1,200 calories of Special K with skim milk for weeks on end.  For most of us, your body will overpower your mind.  That's probably for the best.

Hey, at least they're bucking the trend of this article and going for a 14-Day Challenge instead!

Summary: So what can you accomplish in 21 Days?

Complete Fast: ~17 pounds if you're a young, normal-weight female.  Half of this will likely be water.  The rest will be a combination of muscle tissue and fat, depending on your activity.

Alternate-Day Fasting: ~2% of your bodyweight for healthy, normal-weight people, half of it being fat.

Low Calorie Diets (~50% of daily needs): The men in the study started at ~150 pounds and lost on average 1.5 pounds per week over 6 months.

If you eat a similarly high-carb diet, you can probably expect this or a little bit more over 21 Days as weight loss is typically greater during the first few weeks.

If you eat a low-carb diet of similar calorie levels, you can expect to lose more due to losses in water weight.  Note that this won't affect your appearance much.

Overrall: In all studies, subjects gained back all, or close to all, their weight back afterwards.  Some even ended up heavier. Across the board were reports of irritability and distracting hunger, though this wasn't the case for all participants.

Moral

Look, I know the quick fix is always tempting, especially when you want to look good for a particular event.  Marketers PREY on that.  Just read Harper's Jumpstart to Skinny book (essentially a 21-Day Diet) - he repeats over and over how much you know you want to look hot for the beach / reunion / wedding!

And I'll be real with you: it's not that you're likely to kill yourself on these diets. (Though there is seriously a reason why all the participants on these diets, especially complete starvation, were under constant medical surveillance.) They're short-term, and the negative physiological consequences tend to go away after a couple days of re-feeding.  (Though the mental ones can last much longer, which is my main concern) You'll probably even lose a fair amount of fat, an amount that you might even notice.

But now it's time for you to be real with me and with yourself: will it really make you that much happier to lose at most around 5-8 pounds of fat?  Do you want to exchange 3 weeks of stress and misery for maybe 1 good day at the beach, only to have to repeat the cycle every year because you'll likely gain the weight back from the crash diet?

WorthIt

6 pound difference - 160 on the left, 154 on the right. Worth it? Only you can answer that question.  (Also not covering my face out of anonymity, it was because I was making embarrassing faces in both pictures!)

Why not make this year the one that you do something permanent about your weight-loss goals by making small changes that add up over 365 days instead of huge changes that crumble after 21 days and leave you right where you started?

Maybe you have an iron will and you'll be really strict during your 21-Day calorie restricted diet, be really strict after, and keep the results.  But if that was the case...wouldn't it be likely you'd be at a weight you're happy with already?

If you made it this far, thanks for staying with me.  Leave a comment below, or share this with your weight-loss-hopeful friends and family if you enjoyed it!

P.S. While researching this article I came across this book on fasting.  I only read Chapter 4 about fasting for medical interventions, but it looks like a good resource on the use of fasting for various reasons throughout human history!

P.P.S. I realize that many of the studies I posted are old, or I only used 1 study where it would be better to use at least 3.  Many of them have small sample sizes...unfortunately finding 3-week long starvation or semi-starvation studies on healthy, non-obese individuals was really, really tough.  So I worked with what I could find. 

Guess it's time for my second "I hate Tracy Anderson with the fiery passion of 1,000 suns" post of 2014.  I'm a glutton for punishment I suppose.

When I saw that Tracy Anderson and Dr Oz were going to "de-bunk some popular fitness myths" I felt a strange combination of sorrow and giddiness.  This is an unlikely mix of emotion that can only really be properly encapsulated with one sentence:

"Oh my God, this is going to be the worst thing I've ever seen."

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Tracy Anderson and Dr Oz - a dynamic duo topped only by Avril Lavigne and Chad Kroeger

But you know what, after watching the clip, I gotta say...it really wasn't that bad.

I mean, in just five minutes it's tough to get across any actual good information.  But nothing they said was particularly egregious.

I know, I was shocked as well.

So, let's go over exactly what was said and see if there was anything really helpful to glean from this segment.  Let's start from the top:

Dr. Oz: "You think you know the facts about getting fit?  Well you may be surprised to find that much of what you've been told is fiction.  So fitness expert Tracy Anderson is here to help de-bunk the three biggest fitness myths.

Why is it so important to tell fact from fiction for you?"

Anderson: "It's so important, we don't have a lot of time to exercise. We want people to see results, we don't want them to hurt themselves - they need to be educated."

Oh boy.  Let's just get this out of the way first...

Tracy Anderson is one of the biggest promoters of fitness myths

Whether it's having zero understanding of how the human body actually works,

...you know that my method reengineers your muscular structure through the constant flow of new workout sequences, prescribed specifically for you. These unique sequences are based on targeting the accessory muscles (the small muscle groups). Strengthening the accessory muscles while burning fat through intense cardiovascular work helps to create a tight knit group of small muscles that actually pull in the larger muscle groups...

seemingly just making shit up off the top of her head,

"We all store weight in different areas dependent on where we are muscularly weak," Tracy explains.

being under the impression that literally everything bulks women up (except her super-secret dance routines),

"...spinning creates an imbalance in the muscular system. It bulks the thigh and butt muscles. You develop mass by working these same muscles over and over."

Tracy is totally against other forms of cardio, such as running, where you repeat your movements over and over. That, she says, will bulk muscles.

or of course, the numerous times she's said not to lift anything heavier than 3 pounds,

"A woman should never lift anything heavier than 3 pounds."..."I carry my 30 pound son in my left arm...so [my right arm] sags lower than [my left arm]" The dissonance hurts...

So you want to build muscle but not look like the Terminator? Anderson suggests working accessory muscles first, avoiding bulking up the large groups. Also, never work out with weights heavier than 3 lbs.

Anderson says more things that are flat-out wrong and completely in line with common fitness myths than anything remotely close to the truth.

Let's not mention that some of Anderon's methods take an unnecessarily long time.  For example, one reporter had this to say about her "30-Day Method" plan:

On the 30-Day Method you have to do to three hours of exercise a day, which decreases to one hour on the 90-day plan.

Or her recommendation to work up to doing 100 repetitions of a single exercise - that wouldn't take a long time or anything:

Now on to toning. For each of the below, start with 10 repetitions and work up to 100.

Anyway, let's move on to the first myth Tracy Anderson and Dr Oz set out to de-bunk:

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Myth #1: Crunches are the key to flat abs

Dr. Oz: "This is why crunches don't help you get flat abs - it's all about this concept of 'spot reduction,' it doesn't work...

So if you really want to lose the fat so you can see the six-pack underneath, you gotta build up a lot of muscle, not just a little bit of muscle in your belly.  And to do that, Tracy, you say you've got a better way of doing it?"

Anderson: "Yes, I'm going to reach all of those muscles, not just the large ones, and we're going to use our whole body so we're gonna burn calories at the same time - which burns off the fat." 

This is an interesting exchange to look at in-depth.  I actually completely missed what Dr. Oz said the first time around - that one should 'build up a lot of muscle' to lose fat and see your abs.  This advice (though not the umm...best tactic for fat loss) completely flies in the face of everything Anderson promotes and suggests, so it's interesting to see how they just rolled with it.

Anderson suggesting that exercises that use more muscles at once burn more calories for your time is true enough. (For instance, doing a deadlift instead of fancy kneeling kicks for "butt toning") And burning extra calories could certainly help to get rid of the fat over your stomach eventually.  When she says "all of the muscles," she's referring to working all of your abdominal muscles, I assume.

There are a lot of exercises that do that.  Walking, squatting, deadlifting...etc.  But the exercise she demonstrates does as well.  It's a perfectly fine exercise, I suppose, but it's not likely to help you out a significant amount more than crunches to reveal dem abs.

JustShittyThings3

"I can't copyright a plank, so I added this little leg kick."

 Dr. Oz: "So you build those core muscles up...with all those core muscles getting strong you have a better metabolic furnace burning through calories to get rid of that fat."

It's technically true that muscle requires more calories to sustain itself than fat, though the difference is pathetically small.  Regardless, two things with that:

  1. Anderson doesn't advocate building muscle
  2. Simply doing that exercise won't be enough to build significant muscle mass

As well, counting on building muscle to be your saving grace in fat loss is probably not the way to go about achieving your goals.  If you've got a significant layer of fat covering those abs, your best bet will be to eat at a caloric deficit (which generally won't allow you to build much muscle anyway) to get rid of it.

Myth #2: The more you sweat, the more calories you burn

Dr Oz: "The amount you perspire is not at all correlated to the amount of calories you burn...you could sit in a sauna...and you're perfectly still burning no calories at all, sweating away.  So it clearly doesn't work.  In order to burn more calories you have to elevate your heart rate." 

I don't have too much to comment on here.  This is generally correct.  Sweating more does not equal burning more calories.  You might just be in a sauna, like Oz suggested, or you may be trying to squat in a garage gym with no AC in the middle of a North Carolina summer and have a hard time keeping the bar on your back because it's so sweaty and you nearly pass out.  I dunno.

As far as needing to elevate your heart rate to burn more calories, I'm gonna admit that I'm not 100% on how true that is.  After all, you could go through a weightlifting session picking up heavy weights for few reps at a time not get your heart rate up that much while still burning a significant number of calories.

Anyway, they go on to do some cardio to elevate the heart rate.  Yay.

Myth #3: Stretching before a workout warms up the muscles

Dr. Oz: "Truth is you can actually injure muscles if you stretch before you warm up a little bit."

I've read many studies on the efficacy of static stretching before warming-up, but none mentioned static stretching actively injuring the muscles - just that they didn't prevent injury from happening too well.  I may be missing studies on this, however. (1, 2, 3)

Anderson: "Absolutely, it's about warming up, it's about connecting your brain to your muscles, getting focused, getting ready to burn calories, build muscle..."

Woah woah woah.  Is this segment a foreshadow to Anderson's impending endorsement of building muscle for women?  Considering that she just released her exercise routine for men to make them "skinny ripped" panthers, as opposed to big, bulky, overdeveloped bison, it seems unlikely.  But then again, strength training for women is catching on...

In any case, I've got nothing against a good warm-up that gets your mind right to do some awesome stuff in the gym. (or do 30 minutes of glorified arm circles, whichever)

"Range of Motion"

"Range of Motion"

In the segment, Anderson says the warm-up sequence she's demonstrating will work on your range of motion, however I could think of quite a few better ways to do so than doing a slight knee bend with a backwards-to-overhead arm reach. Could try something like:

  1. Spiderman Lunge x 10
  2. Bodyweight Squat x 10
  3. Laying Windmill x 8 each side
  4. Downward Dog to Plank x 10

But, whatever, not a really big deal.

Conclusion

We end with a product promotion and that's the end of it.  Seriously, that's all.  Nothing that makes me want to rage and claw my eyes out or facepalm.  It's not a segment I'd be particularly proud of, but it's not one that would make me want to hide under my bed in shame for the rest of my life, I suppose.

And that's the most positive endorsement you'll likely ever hear me say about Anderson.

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Summer abounds with month-long challenges: the 30 Day Squat Challenge, 30 Day Plank Challenge, 30 Day Body Transformation Challenge...it goes on.

This was the only picture I could find of a not half-naked butt.

Hell there's an entire website devoted to 30 Day Challenges.  I want to take a moment to talk about these challenges, and why they're so popular.

See if this sounds familiar:

What we WANT to happen after 30 days...

  • Day 1: I'm so excited to start this challenge!  It's a whole new way of life - but easy to do.  I'm going to look SO HOT in my shorts this summer.
  • Day 5: I'm pretty sore, so I know it's working.  I think my legs might be looking a little firmer!  It's hard work, but I've got this.
  • Day 15: Half way through!  I feel great, these squats are getting easier and easier.  They take a bit longer now, but it's no problem.  Man my legs look great.
  • Day 25: Finish line in sight!  In addition to doing a crap ton of squats everyday, I've been eating fresh veggies every meal and drinking a shitload of water out of my fancy water bottle.  It didn't even take any thought on my part.  I feel so light!  So pure.  Much healthy.
  • Day 30: Damn, my ass is fine.  I feel great.  It was tough, but this experience was truly rewarding and absolutely worth it.  Not to mention these results will last forever and I'm never going to have to squat again.

What ACTUALLY happens after 30 Days...

  • Day 1: I'm so excited to start this challenge!  It's a whole new way of life - but easy to do.  I'm going to look SO HOT in my shorts this summer.
  • Day 3: Holy fuck my thighs are sore.  I have to spend 5 minutes strategizing how to get on and off the toilet.  My coworkers spent all day asking why I was walking funny.  How embarrassing.
  • Day 4: I can't even do 5 squats like this.  Way too sore.  Good thing it's a rest day.
  • Day 5: Legs...so stiff...gonna have to take another day off.
  • Day 6: I dream of getting in and out of chairs without sounding like an angry boar.
  • Day 8: Okay.  Feeling better.  I got this.  So I guess I'll just have to pretend this is Day 5.  I'm feeling a little discouraged so I better look at some motivational quotes to get going:
Pinterest #5

"Fuck yeah! Let's do this!"

  • Day 12: Thankfully not feeling quite as sore, though getting in and out of chairs is still a bit difficult.  My main gripe is that I haven't seen ANY changes in my legs or butt...maybe they're a bit firmer?  I just can't tell.
  • Day 15: My knees hurt.
  • Day 17: Oh God my knees hurt.
  • Day 21: Had to take a day off and put some frozen peas on my knees.  Now I'm 4 days behind.  And I haven't seen any results.  Feeling discouraged.  Time for more motivational quotes:

"Ugh, how the hell does anyone actually look like that? Whatever, just keep going I guess..."

  • Day 22: Fuck this shit, I'm done.

And this is, for many people I know, how these challenges tend to go down.  But maybe not for those of you who start out a little less sedentary.  If you were exercising regularly before braving a challenge, you may complete the challenge just fine with little soreness involved.

And if you were proficient in squatting technique beforehand, maybe you'll never end up with aching knees.  Should you still do the challenge?

Reasons to do a 30 Day Squat Challenge:

  1. To build up some lower body muscular endurance
  2. Just for the hell of it

Yep, those are really about the only reasons I could think of.  Perhaps the best explanation as to why would be by explaining why you wouldn't want to do one.

Reasons NOT to do a 30 Day Squat Challenge:

  1. To "tone" your legs or butt
    As I went over in my muscle tone post, you'll be wanting to gain muscle and lose fat to achieve the "toned" look.  This workout accomplishes neither, really.  See point #3.
  2. To get stronger in the squat
    You'll get really good at doing over 200 squats in a row on this program, but you won't get really good at squatting heavier weight.
  3. To lose weight
    This may burn a few extra calories, but it isn't significant enough to make a big difference without diet changes as well. 

At the gym, we often joke when someone is doing 10+ barbell squats, that they're doing 'cardio squats' :

That's essentially how you can think of this program.

Here are some other reasons to pass up the next 30/60/90 Day Challenge your friends or coworkers start chatting about:

  • Not a well-balanced plan
    If you're doing a push-up challenge, do you ignore your legs?  If it's a butt challenge, do you ignore your upper body? Are you supposed to do these challenges on top of a regular workout routine?
  • Only one form of progression
    These challenges tend to only get harder in one way: by increasing reps.  While that's certainly one way of doing it, how do you keep improving?  Do you move all the way up to 1,000 reps a day?
  • Where do you go next?
    After you've completed the challenge, where do you go?  Do you move on to a push-up challenge and neglect your legs for a month?  Or do you go to another lower-body program that has you restart at 25 squats?
  • Not much is accomplished
    You're not building strength.  Not gaining muscle, not burning too many calories.  So in the end, what are you trying to accomplish?

I get the appeal of these kinds of challenges, I really do.  When you're not 100% sure what to do when it comes to fitness, having a solid plan written out by someone else is a huge relief.  It can even make working out more fun!  (I should know, I've paid someone to write my own personal workout program before, and I'm a trainer!)

As well, these challenges are stupid simple, don't usually require equipment (so they can be done alone at home), and promise you the world.  Plus, you'll get a real feeling of accomplishment after just 30 days.  Making real progress on your first pull-up or losing fat can leave you waiting a lot longer than that!

Moral

If they get you off the couch, challenges are fine!  If you're simply pushing yourself and keeping up with friends, they can be a ton of fun.

Just keep in mind they won't get you too much in the way of results.  For that, you'll need to eat at a caloric deficit and engage in some sort of strength-training program!

So you want Michelle Obama arms?

Let's Move! ...over to the weight room to work on them gunzz

Or maybe you'd prefer Heidi Klum's legs.

Whatever example you use, you just want an overall 'toned' body.

While their hard work is inspiring and admirable, you're not really looking for the kind of 'bulk' like female bodybuilders have.

The amazing Alex "Delts" O'Hanlon. Can you see where she got the nickname? (Delts = Shoulder muscles)

So it stands to reason that you need to work out differently, right?  Bodybuilders lift weights to get their physique, so you probably need to do something else.  What are the kinds of workouts that offer you the toned look you want?

It could be Pure Barre, whose entire business model is hinged on promising you the "long, lean look."

Or maybe you head over to the Health & Fitness board on Pinterest until you find a workout that claims to tighten, tone or firm the body part you find lacking. (You won't have to scroll for very long!)

Or hey, why not all three at once?!

Or hey, why not all three at once?!

In the end, what do you get?  Usually some assortment of 4-8 light bodyweight exercises that target a particular area for 15-25 reps each.  Maybe you'll do the circuit 3-5 times.

So, would workouts like these actually work?  To figure that out, we need to know exactly what muscle tone is.

Muscle tone is * comprised of two parts:

*(in the traditional sense, though the way we use it is actually a misuse of the physiological definition of the term.  No need to worry about that here, though)

What Muscle Tone IS

1) Having muscle!

Yes, most 'toning' workouts miss this point, but 'muscle tone' actually requires that you have some muscle.  If you barely have any, it's not going to really show through even a small amount of body fat.  I collected a few pictures for you to see what I mean:

MuscleTone1

All three of these girls are pretty lean and we go from one end of the spectrum (very little muscle) to the other (a lot of muscle).

So, if you're already fairly thin but still don't have the kind of muscle tone you'd like, (often referred to as being "skinny fat") then you need to build some muscle.

If image #2 is around the kind of look you have in mind, you're in luck.  It's going to be much easier for you to put on the bit of muscle it takes to get there than it would be to get to picture #3.

If you want some poppin' guns like the lovely lady in picture #3, you've got a lot of work ahead of you!

2) Having low enough body fat to see said muscles

If you're on the larger side and want to increase your muscle tone, you could certainly do that by building more muscle.  But if you're cool with the amount of muscle you have now and just want to, as they say, "tone up," then you'll need to lose some body fat.

Let's take a look at this through another visual, this time from  yours truly:

MuscleTone2

I didn't gain any muscle between those two pictures.  (In fact I would say I probably lost a fair amount.)  But I did lose about 20 pounds.  As you can see, it made a difference.  My muscles look more defined and a bit firmer just because I lost a bit of the fat that cushions them.

What Muscle Tone Is NOT

1) Building 'long and lean' muscle as opposed to 'bulky' muscle

Having 'toned' muscles doesn't mean building long & lean muscle, as opposed to bulky muscle.

Muscle is muscle.  It all looks the same.  Some reasons you might feel like you have 'bulky' muscle:

  • You have body fat that you may be confusing for muscle
  • You've got short, stocky limbs.  Draw of the cards, I'm afraid!
  • You have some muscle but also very low body fat, making said muscle appear more vascular and 'ripped' than you'd like. (see below for an example)
The same Alex O'Hanlon from above.  The only difference between picture #1 and #2 is 9 weeks and a bit of body fat.  What a difference!

The same Alex O'Hanlon from above. The only difference between picture #1 and #2 is 9 weeks and a bit of body fat. What a difference!

2) Something you can achieve with a couple of 'toning' workouts per week for a month

Losing fat and/or gaining muscle is a slow process.  The kinds of workouts in most DVDs or in magazines are not going to build very much muscle, especially if you're not a beginner.

The best they'll do is help you burn a few calories so you can lose some fat and help you preserve some muscle.  (Note: I am NOT trying to dissuade you from doing these kinds of workouts if you enjoy them. They definitely serve a purpose. By themselves, however, they may not get you the kind of results you're looking for) 

In any case, it's going to take more than a month of dedication, or a 60-day challenge, or whatever short-term results advertised.  As they say, it's a lifestyle change.

Your best bet is to train with actually challenging weights, doing total-body movements such as squats, push-ups, deadlifts, etc.

Moral:

So, in sum, the kind of workouts you'd do for increasing muscle tone involve what you'd generally think of for building muscle.  

Whether that's challenging bodyweight exercises like chin-ups, push-ups or dips; or adding some actual weight to a bench press or squat, you need something that is going to stimulate and challenge said muscles.  25 donkey kicks or a 30-day squat challenge won't cut it.

Muscle is good.  Even if you didn't lose a pound of fat, adding some muscle can help you appear more 'toned' if that's what you're going for.

But even if you already have a ton of muscle like the unbelievably strong Holly Mangold, if there is too much body fat surrounding it you won't see it.  (Though if you could clean & jerk over 300 pounds I doubt you'd care too much)

This is a fairly long, comprehensive guide to picking out a trainer.  It's over 2,000 words - but worth a read if you're considering getting a little help on your fitness journey.  Bookmark it and save it for when you're investigating a trainer or facility.

In many online fitness groups I'm a part of, the question of how to pick a personal trainer and how to go about doing so comes up a lot.  And sadly, as I'm sure many of my readers know, trying to figure out if someone is a good trainer or not is about as easy as figuring out if you're getting ripped off at the mechanic.  (...it's not just me who is always paranoid about that, is it?)

PersonalTrainerMistakes

Immediate red flags: 1) Checking self out in mirror during session. 2) Gratuitous use of Bosu Balls. 3) Being Tracy Anderson

But, today I want to use my industry know-how for good, and provide you with a comprehensive guide that you can use immediately.  So bring up the website of that trainer you're looking at and let's figure out if they're worth the investment.

When should I hire a personal trainer?

This is a question I don't think enough fitness-hopefuls ask themselves. It's not that there isn't all the information you could ever want to know about how to squat properly or eat right for free online.  Because it's there.  It's all at your fingertips.

But slashing through all of it and figuring out what exactly applies to you and what you need to do with that information - if anything - is going to take a damn long time and no small amount of effort.  And what are you supposed to Google first? "How to get fit"?  "How to lose weight"?  Because there are literally more than half a billion webpages looking to tell you how.

So, with all that in mind, is it still necessary to drop some big bucks on a trainer?  Here are some usual indications it may be worth your time:

  • You have absolutely no idea where to start.  Do you really need a gym membership?  Do you have to run?  You hate running.  Do those exercise DVDs work or not?  What's your first step?
  • You have a general idea of what you want to do.  You've got a strength routine, and you want to make sure that your form is correct.  (Good idea!)
  • You've been cleared to exercise by your doctor or physical therapist following an injury or procedure, but you want to make sure you don't hurt yourself again with bad form or incorrect exercises.
  • You have a specific condition such as high blood pressure, cardiac disease or diabetes and want to work out safely.  (For these, you may need to see a specialist.  Ask your doctor if you're clear to exercise or if there is a specialist facility he'd recommend instead)
  • You need accountability until exercise becomes a habit.  You want the comfort and stability of having exercise be an appointment in your schedule until you feel you'll definitely keep up with it on your own.
  • You want someone else to structure your workouts so you don't have to think about it.  (I've hired online trainers to write my workouts for me before for this very reason, and I'm a trainer myself!)
  • You want a small-group environment to push you, but don't want to be lost in the crowd like at a Zumba or spin class.

Finding a personal trainer that fits your needs

So, for whatever reason, you've decided you'd like to hire a trainer.  How do you begin to try and find one in your area or online? Essentially you have two options:

  1. Are you already a member of a gym?  If so, you may want to start your search there.  As with anything, you'll want to be cautious and not impulsively hire the first person you see.  Possibly ask to see the manager, tell them your goals and ask them to match you with a trainer.  From there, move on to the next section to see if they're a good fit.
  2. If you don't belong to a gym, decide if you want to do in-home training or travel to a facility.  Bear in mind, in-home training is typically going to cost a lot more.  To find trainers outside of the typical gym setting, use:

Google (Personal Trainers + Your Area.  Alternatively, you could search for online personal trainers) 

Thumbtack

Craigslist (typically under the 'beauty' services section)

:(

🙁

If you have specific goals, you can refine your search a bit.  I am a bit biased towards strength training, if you couldn't tell already.  So if I was to offer advice to someone looking to learn how to use free weights, I'd try something a little unorthodox:

  • Search for a facility with "Barbell" or "Strength & Conditioning" in the name.
  • Search for local strength events in your area - powerlifting competitions, Olympic lifting seminars, strongman competitions, etc.  Find whoever is running those events and ask them if they know of any good trainers for your needs.
  • If you want a coach for triathalons or endurance events, do something similar to the above.

Of course these strategies don't guarantee success, but you'll find somebody who walks the walk, as well as talks the talk.  That's one important component of a trainer - the others we'll go over a little further down.

What the hell are all these acronyms?*

*I am writing this from the perspective of someone in the United States.  The following may not apply to all countries.

There are roughly a billion certifications one could get to be technically considered a personal trainer.  There is no national certifying body - becoming a certified trainer with impressive-looking credentials isn't half as difficult as it is to become a doctor, or taxi driver.

"They said stability training was important during my certification course..." (Always looking for an excuse to post this photo.)

To be clear, a trainer is not in any way required by any sort of regulation to actually be certified.  Most gyms will require some type of certification, but you may find a contractor who either isn't certified or let their certification expire. (Not necessarily a bad thing) But, if you're wondering what some of the more 'reputable' certifications are, here is a short list:

  • ACSM - American College of Sports Medicine
  • NSCA - National Strength & Conditioning Association
  • ACE - American Council on Exercise
  • NASM - National Academy of Sports Medicine (yours truly has these four letters on her business card)
  • AFAA - Aerobics and Fitness Association of America
  • ISSA - International Sport Science Association

And there are many others.  The ACE website has a handy table comparing the features of many different popular certifications.  Here's are some other letters you might see:

  • CSCS - Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, a specialty certification from the NSCA.  Generally considered one of the better certifications to get, but I've seen terrible trainers with one and good trainers without, so take it with a grain of salt.
  • IFBB - International Federation of Bodybuilding.  Some trainers will tout that they have competed in an IFBB competition. (Basically saying they compete in bodybuilding or figure competitions)  Some may have an "IFBB pro card", which is pretty difficult to obtain.
  • ATC / LAT - Certified Athletic Trainer / Licensed Athletic Trainer.  I've known many athletic trainers who have gone on to become personal trainers.  Athletic trainers are trained in helping athletes rehabilitate injuries or prevent them from happening, among a myriad of other tasks.  If you see a trainer with this certification, they may know a bit more about anatomy and rehab than your typical trainer.

And a few additional fancy-looking words:

(I know, it's bad to hate on Crossfit, I just really really wanted to show those two videos)

Which personal training certification is the best?

There's no good answer to that question - there really isn't one.  No certification prepares a trainer completely.  I can say personally, my NASM certification (considered one of the higher-quality certifications) took minimal effort to pass, and encompasses maybe 1% of the things I do on a daily basis.

A certification I suppose shows a dedication to the craft.  They are a significant financial investment to obtain, even more so keep up with your continuing education credits.  Most private facilities require one on top of a degree in the field.

Regarding a degree in the field, I can also say personally my Bachelor's in Exercise and Sport Science in no way prepared me fully to be a trainer.  Contrary to what you would think, the degree covered very little about ACTUAL exercises or training.  While I can't speak for every school's program, I learned mostly about anatomy, physiology and biomechanics.  All of which are important, to be sure.  I value my knowledge in those areas.  But you're not taught how to coach a squat or what a lat pull-down is or how to regress a push-up.

So if certifications are meaningless, how can you tell if your trainer knows what they're talking about?  Glad you asked!

Schedule a Consultation

Most trainers, online or off, will have some sort of free consultation to get to know you a bit more before recommending a package.  While technically I'm supposed to let you, the potential client, do all the talking, you're going to want to use this time to interview your potential trainer!

"Please don't hurt me." (taken from nvmefitness.com)

In my entire career as a personal trainer, I have only ever had ONE client ask me questions about my credentials and why I would be qualified to train her.  It really ought to be more.

If I was looking hire a mechanic or a graphic designer, I would have no idea what kinds of questions to ask.  But I do know what I would ask a personal trainer.  For clients who have moved to other areas of the country, I've called up their potential new trainer and asked them some of these questions myself:

    1. Why are you qualified to be a trainer?
      If your potential new trainer isn't confident enough in their own abilities to answer this question, why should you be?  Ideally your trainer takes enough pride in their job to be able to rack off reasons why they're good at it.
    2. How did you get into personal training?
      This is a good opportunity to see how enthused your potential hire is about their job.  Do they answer with a dull "oh...well, I was an athlete in high school so...." or with a, "I loved the confidence I got from learning how to master my own body.  It changed my life and I've used that knowledge to help change the lives of my clients...it's a very rewarding experience"?  Get a sense for your trainer's real motivations.
    3. What's your training philosophy?
      There isn't a right or wrong answer to this question.  You'll just want to figure out if your trainer's style matches with your goals.  If you want to be a monster powerlifter, would you hire a trainer believes that distance running is the key to a clear head and happy life, or vice versa?
    4. How do you train yourself?
      If you're training for something specific, you'll want a trainer who has personal experience with that.  Want to get good a weightlifting?  Find a trainer who trains for powerlifting, bodybuilding, strongman, olympic lifting or just loves to hit the iron for fun.  Want to run triathalons?  Find a trainer who knows how to bike, swim and run well themselves.  They need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk!
    5. What is your biggest strength and biggest weakness as a trainer?
      This is a fun surprise question!  A trainer who takes their profession seriously will already know the answer to these questions, while a trainer who is just going through the motions will never have critically thought about how they can continue learning and progressing.
    6. I have <insert injury, medical condition, random condition here>.  What kind of exercises would you avoid having me do?  What kinds of exercises would you emphasize?
      Another great question to ask ahead of time.  You don't even have to know what the correct answers to this are to get a sense of if your trainer knows what they're talking about.  Turn on that BS detector and see if they're just rambling or if they're precisely answering your question.  Another acceptable answer is "I don't know, but I'm going to find out for you."
    7. If I can't do a squat/push-up/deadlift properly, how would you regress it so I could?
      Same as above.  Any trainer worth their salt should be able to answer this question.
    8. Do you have any current or past clients that I can talk to?
      One of the best things you can do to get an idea of what it will be like to work with your potential trainer.  Preferably ask for someone who worked with them for 6+ months.  Ask about attitude, results, injuries, enjoyment of sessions, etc.

Notice that this doesn't touch much on paper credentials.  This is all about if they practice what they preach, can answer questions with certainty and if they're confident enough in their abilities to let you speak to past clients.

So far, so good.  Your trainer has answered these questions to your satisfaction.  Even if you're not sure if they answered them correctly, you'll get a much better idea of their personality, background, and professionalism.

You pick a package, lay down that credit card info and get started on your quest to a bangin' body, 5 billion pound squat, being able to touch your toes, or whatever your goal is.  What's next?

After You Pick a Personal Trainer

Personal trainers never stop assessing and evaluating their clients.  Sure, there's usually an initial assessment to see if you can squeeze your butt cheeks together, but it doesn't end there.  Every session we're looking to see if your back stays relatively flat even as we keep adding the weight onto that deadlift, or if your ankle mobility is improving, or how you're handling the latest exercise we just threw at you.

In a similar vein, you should never stop evaluating your trainer.  Don't think that once you've bought a package you're committed to that trainer forever.  Ask yourself these questions during your sessions:

  1. Is my trainer attentive to my form during exercises?
  2. Does my trainer really listen to my questions and concerns?  Do they address them to my satisfaction?
  3. Do I ever feel brushed off, or not taken seriously?
  4. If I am unable to perform a certain exercise, does my trainer have an appropriate alternative ready, or am I forced to continue with bad form?
  5. Does my trainer push me when necessary but ease up when I really need it?
  6. Is my trainer pushing supplements or unwanted dietary dogma onto me?
  7. Am I making progress and seeing results?
  8. Am I enjoying the process?
  9. Do our personalities mix well?
  10. Is their cellphone very, very far away?  (I actually don't follow this one because I use it as a clock and timer...but you get the idea)

After ALL OF THAT, if you're satisfied, it sounds like you got yourself a kick-ass trainer.  You should probably shout their name from the rooftops, write a glowing testimonial and refer friends, family and complete strangers to them.

Seriously, finding a good trainer is hard.  Save your loved ones the time and effort.  At the very least, send them this comprehensive guide so they can find one that matches their goals and personality as well!

Did I leave anything out?  Have some other points you'd like me to address?  Let me know in the comments and I'll add it in.

Just as good as homeopathy, psychic surgery and faith healing.

While reading through one of the books I recommend at the end of the BS-Detection guide, (Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, seriously amazing read.  If you enjoy my work at all you'll love this book) I came across an interesting study on placebos.

(He even made a note saying that if you had a possible explanation for the results of this study, that you should write a blog post.  So...here we are!)

This is a good study to try and read into a little bit, even if you're not a statistician.  We may not be able to decide if their statistical analysis is any good (considering my 'C' grade in high school statistics, I'm gonna go ahead and put myself in the 'not expert' category on that one), but most of the study is in language any lay-person can understand.

Can the placebo effect improve the benefits of exercise?

Let's go over the structure of this study real quick:

What is the study trying to show?

In the first few paragraphs of this study, below the bolded abstract, the authors give us some interesting background on the surprising effects of placebos.  Their definition of 'the placebo effect' is:

The placebo effect is any effect that is not attributed to an actual pharmaceutical drug or remedy, but rather is attributed to the individual’s mind-set.

And that's a very accurate definition.  Let's expand on that a bit with an entertaining example from the wonderfully crude TV show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

In the episode "Manhunters," two of the main characters (Dee and Charlie) are persuaded by Dee's father, Frank, that they've accidentally eaten human flesh.  Over the course of the episode, Dee and Charlie experience increasing cravings for human flesh, culminating in them kidnapping a homeless man to bring back to their apartment and eat.

Thankfully, Frank informs them in time that it was actually raccoon meat, and he was just fucking with them the whole time.

This example was just an excuse to post this youtube clip.

But Dee and Charlie feel the cravings for human flesh so intensely, they are convinced Frank is lying, and go on to attempt to eat him instead.

So, placebo effect is thinking you've eaten human flesh, causing the effect of craving human flesh, even though you only ate raccoon meat.

Where were we?  Ah, right, so the researchers were trying to determine:

...the role of the placebo effect (the moderating role of mind-set) in the relationship between exercise and health. We hypothesized that the placebo effect plays a role in the health benefits of exercise: that one’s mind-set mediates the connection between exercise and one’s health.

In other words, does simply telling people about the benefits of their current exercise increase the benefits of said exercise without changing anything else about their lives?

How did they conduct the study?

Researchers took 84 maids from 7 different hotels.  About half went into a 'control' group, and the other half were referred to as the 'informed' group.

The paper details exactly how they picked the maids and how they controlled for confounding factors like age, ethnicity, socioeconomic standing, etc.  As well, they made sure that the maids from different groups didn't talk to eachother, to ensure the placebo effect didn't spread to the 'control' group.

A control group is standard in most all experiments.  A control group basically exists as a reference for the changes made in the experiment group.

For instance, in this study, if we had no control group, we would have no way of knowing whether any changes that occurred in the experiment group had anything to do with the actual experiment changes, or changes in say, the weather, or any other natural fluctuations.

What were they measuring?

Researchers measured:

  • How much exercise the women believed they got
  • How much of their job they thought counted as 'exercise'
  • Weight, body fat percentage (via one of these), and waist-to-hip ratio
  • Blood Pressure

They measured the first two bullet points by just surveying the workers.  This would give insight into how their mind-set changed over the course of the experiment.  The second two bullet points showed actual objective data to see if those changes in mind-set actually affected their measurable health levels.

What were the differences between the 'informed' group and the 'experiment' group?

Both groups were educated on their daily recommended amount of exercise, based on the Surgeon General's recommendations; about 200 calories worth per day.  They were given handouts and posters were put up in their work lounges to remind them.

However, the 'informed' group was told that their jobs more than fulfilled said recommendations.  The 'control' group was not told this.

So basically, the only difference was that the informed group had the peace of mind and satisfaction of knowing that they were surpassing the amount of exercise recommended for them to obtain and maintain good health, while the control group did not.

What were the results?

Four weeks later, the informed group had:

  • Much higher perceived amount of regular exercise
  • Regarded their job as contributing much more towards their exercise
  • Lower systolic (the first number in blood pressure readings) blood pressure by 10 points
  • Lost an average of 2 pounds
  • Lowered waist-to-hip ratio and body fat

These changes were not seen in the control group.  In fact, they felt that their jobs counted less as exercise than before the experiment!

Ever watch Hoarders? Cleaning up that mess definitely counts as exercise.

So can the placebo effect help me to lose weight?

Possibly.  But don't get too excited about the results yet.  First of all, the body fat and weight loss results could be erroneous.  The scale they used to measure body fat is highly inaccurate and very susceptible to changes from water content in the body.  As well, many people experience weight fluctuations of 2+ pounds on a day to day basis regularly.

However, it's harder to mess up a blood pressure reading.  With an average decrease of 10 points, something was definitely going on to improve the health of the ladies in the informed group.

The researchers stated that it doesn't appear that the ladies in the study changed their dietary habits.  Nor did they report exercising more.  So, did being informed that they were doing exercise magically cause these improvements in health?

I think what's probably going on here is some combination and waterfall effect of:

  • Realizing that they're not lazy people, and healthier than they thought
  • Figuring that maybe they've got a little bit more of their shit together than they realized
  • Perhaps having a little more fun with the job, potentially increasing their physical exertion without consciously registering it
  • Decrease in stress
  • Increase in duration and quality of sleep
  • Decrease in caloric intake due to stress reduction and increase in sleep, as well as because they think of themselves as healthier, fitter people than before.

These changes wouldn't have been a conscious decision by the ladies, so they wouldn't have reported any changes in their habits.

It's a bit of a stretch, I admit.  But it seems more likely than a simple change in mindset decreasing one's waist-to-hip ratio.  Those kinds of direct physical changes don't seem to be in the realm of placebo, kind of like how placebo can't re-grow limbs or alleviate paralysis.

What's the take-home?

Realize that exercise is ANY KIND of physical exertion.  If you work a physical job like walking dogs, construction, teaching, cleaning, whatever, then you are getting exercise.  If you enjoy playing frisbee with your dog, you are getting exercise. Exercise does not have to happen in a gym or even as a conscious effort.

As well, recognize the awesome power of a positive mind-set.  Trust me, I know that this is easier said than done.  I have not in any way accomplished this yet in my own life.  But just feeling like you're just a little more in control of your life, eliminating just one source of stress, or maybe thinking of yourself as a bit of a healthier person can have huge effects on your actions and motivations.

Interested in learning more about how awesome and interesting the placebo effect is?  Pick up Bad Science by Ben Goldacre.  Seriously.  This book is amazing.

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In our last segment we went over the introduction and first segment of a Cosmo UK spread telling us how to best get a beautiful bangin' bombshell bootylicious bikini bod in a mere two weeks.

Bangin' Burger Bikini Body

If that sounds too good to be true, it's because it is.  Let's delve into why in Part II of our investigation:

Get Jennifer Lopez's Abs

"Tracy says plain crunches won't work; some smarter moves are required..."

Here's the deal on exercising to get great abs:

You could be doing the best exercises for abdominal activation in the world, but it wouldn't matter if you don't lose the fat along with increasing the muscle.  Now, to be fair, the introduction to this article states you are to be eating 1,200 calories per day - anyone will lose weight on that.  (Not that I advocate eating that little) For most women, this would be enough to get closer to the abdominal muscles they want.

Tracy is also correct that plain crunches don't do a lot for your abdominals.

But, heavy squats and deadlifts activate various core muscles better than other bodyweight "ab" exercises like a sideplank.  (After all, your abs are a big player in keeping you upright during these lifts, as opposed to crumpling over that heavy weight on your back or in your hands) As well, doing certain exercises on an unstable surface doesn't seem to be doing us many favors either.

Here's an important question to ask yourself: What are you trying to accomplish with these ab exercises?

After all, 80 reps of any fancy ab exercise isn't going to build you much muscle.  And you're not going to spot-reduce away your belly fat.  So what are these abdominal exercises really accomplishing?

Maybe they're burning a few calories.  Maybe if you were completely sedentary before, 80 reps would build a little bit of muscle - but probably nothing that would cause a big visible difference.

Here are a few reasons to do abdominal-isolation exercises:

  1. To increase your core strength - so you'd want to stick on the lower end of repetitions if that was your goal.
  2. For aesthetics - if you're at a low body fat percentage already (or plan to be) and want bigger abdominal muscles.  You still wouldn't be doing 80 repetitions in a row for this.
  3. Physical therapy - many people who suffer from lower back pain go through a progression of core-strengthening exercises (most all of which involve your abdominals) to return to function.  Still not doing 80 reps in a row.

My advice for exercises to get better looking abs are to supplement heavy squats and deadlifts with abdominal isolation exercises that are difficult to complete in the 12-15 rep range.

In any case, there is nothing secret about the two moves presented here.  They're just a couple of exercises that activate your abdominals.  You could accomplish the same thing with a variety of other moves as well.

Gym Friend / Food Friend

Our gym friend is swimming and the treadmill.  Perhaps because you need to be at a caloric deficit to reveal your abs, and exercise can help accomplish that?  Don't see much of any other reason.

Our fridge friends are cherries, red grapes and blueberries.

"The chemicals responsible for their colouring are anthocyanins, which, according to research, can burn abdominal fat."

There have been a couple of studies showing that, in obese rats, fed either a very high-fat or very low-fat diet, consumption of blueberries or cherries appear to reduce markers for various metabolic diseases and a decrease in abdominal fat when compared to an equal-calorie control group.  (Well, the link about the blueberry study doesn't specify if the control group had an equal-calorie diet, but I'll assume they did.)

Unfortunately, rat metabolism can differ from human metabolism.  Truly all we know right now is put quite succinctly in the conclusion of one of the studies:

"In conclusion, in at-risk obese rats fed a high fat diet, physiologically relevant tart cherry consumption reduced several phenotypes of metabolic syndrome and reduced both systemic and local inflammation.  Tart cherries may reduce the degree or trajectory of metabolic syndrome, thereby reducing risk for the development of type 2 diabetes and heart disease."

So, eat cherries and blueberries if you like them - but I wouldn't count on it to make a large difference in your abdominal fat.  (But, on the other hand, it might - we really don't know one way or the other!)

Get Jennifer Aniston's Arms

"If I'm working with someone who needs to see some results fast, I will focus on their arms because they really don't take long to show results," Tracy says.

This can be true, especially if you have a client roster like Tracy's - people who are already pretty thin and lean.  For most women, the arms and upper body in general don't hold much fat relative to the lower body. (Minus the girls, of course.) So you're already 50% of the way to toned / firm / sculpted / shapely / whatever buzzword you want to use arms.  The other 50% is just adding some muscle.

Michelle Obama arms

How to get firmer arms: Step 1 - Have little bodyfat Step 2 - Have some muscle

Both of the moves Anderson gives work large muscle groups - exactly what she says will cause bulk.

"Tracy says using small weights in different rotations is the key to great arms."

The only key to 'great' (by which we are to understand, means small with low body fat) arms are Step 1 and Step 2 outlined above.  You could accomplish that with no weights and just do bodyweight resistance exercises like push-ups, or you could accomplish it with heavy bench or overhead press.  Doing 100 repetitions of overhead press with 3 pound dumbbells is essentially like doing cardio on an ergometer, except less shoulder-friendly.

Gym / Fridge Friend

Our gym friends are the rowing machine or arm bike (the ergometer like I linked above).  I'm surprised that Anderson is okay with these, considering she is often quoted as saying running will bulk your legs.  So wouldn't an arm bike bulk your arms by that same logic?

Anyway, if you're going at an easy pace, whether or not you use your arms in your cardio doesn't matter that much.  The only thing you're looking to accomplish here is burning overall calories - you can't spot reduce arm fat by using them during lifting or cardio.  If you're doing high-intensity intervals it's a little different, but for the most part just do what you enjoy if you're looking to get a little extra calorie burn in.  I'd suggest walking the dog or playing with the kids!

Our fridge friends are eggs, salmon and lean meat.

"Flabby arms can be due to low testosterone.  Good fats in eggs, organic salmon and lean meats can help."

If I'm reading this correctly, Cosmo is admitting that saturated fat is not a 'bad' fat like it has so often been labeled, which is awesome!  Yay!  (Chicken and eggs contain saturated fat)

Moving on to flabby arms being due to low testosterone - I'm uncertain what they are basing this off of, but my guess is it's off Charles Poliquin's Biosignature method.  (Which has a wonderful, in-depth critique here)

How hormones control fat distribution according to the Biosignature Method. (Which bear in mind has a ton of flaws)

In any case, there isn't much clear-cut evidence for low testosterone causing you to store an abnormal amount of fat on your arms.  Your best bet based on what we know now is to just lose overall bodyfat and gain muscle in your arms.

However, eating the 'fridge friends' above can absolutely help you with that - they're great sources of protein which can help you build lean muscle as well as keep your calories down.  And most importantly, they're delicious.

We'll finally conclude this in Part III.  I really only intended this to be one post, but apparently there's a lot to say on a simple two-page spread!

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Today we have a detailed review of a segment in the UK Cosmo magazine claiming to show you how to get a "Bombshell Body in 14 Days."

Ten-Second Marketing Segue

Before we dive into the content, I'd like to point it the two uses of ellipses (...) on the cover page.  You can find use of these three important little dots on so many sales copy pages it's ridiculous.

EllipsesEverywhere

I'm not sure why, but for some reason the use of those kind of annoy me.  I spent a little time trying to find all the reasons they're used in the majority of sales copies - and it's mostly just because they get you to keep reading.  Interesting how three dots in a row continue to pique our interest and motivate us to keep reading!

Anyway, let's get back on track and go over how we're supposed to get a totally new body in 14 days.

The opening statement

There's not very much that gives a greater appearance of credibility than celebrity endorsements - let alone when you can rattle them off in a list.  Being able to claim that you are personally responsible for the bodies our society covets gives Anderson more expert status than any level of education in exercise physiology or biomechanics (which she lacks) ever could.

So what better way to convince you she's the real deal than listing off the famous celebrities she trains?  Add a flattering image of Kim Kardashian on the cover and name all of your routines after celebrities and you've got a recipe for the perfect illusion of expertise.

...while you should always exercise your entire body, Tracy believes that everyone should workout slightly differently according to their shape.  "We're all like snowflakes, no one has the same body.  We all store weight in different areas dependent on where we are muscularly weak," Tracy explains.

...What?

Even if you have no experience or knowledge in fitness, you can figure out why that last sentence makes no sense.  We store weight dependent on where we are weak?  Most of us know that women have weak upper bodies relative to their lower bodies.  So if we stored fat where we were weak, wouldn't we be more prone to store fat on our arms, chest and back rather than hips, thighs and butt?

Not to mention Anderson doesn't advocate becoming strong.  She's rather well-known around the fitness community for frequently saying things like women shouldn't lift anything heavier than three pounds.

That's not to say you can't get strong with just your bodyweight - just think about how strong gynmasts are!  But if you're okay with women doing something like a push-up, plank or handstand (which would put more strain on your arms than 3lb dumbbells), why wouldn't you be okay with them lifting heavier weights?

Here's Anderson lifting something heavier than 3 pounds.

Anyway, I also find it amusing that Anderson says no two bodies are the same, but is here to provide you workouts to give you Kim Kardashian's butt, Jennifer Aniston's arms or Gwenyth Paltrow's legs.  She just said your body is not like theirs, so why are you going to  to achieve their identical body parts?

Her method works by strengthening the smaller muscle groups so these muscles can pull in the larger ones.

Specifically which 'smaller' muscle groups is she talking about?  Either way, your muscles don't really work that way.  You're going to have a really tough time using your gracilis without the rest of your larger thigh muscles working in tandem.

Plus, as we'll see below, most of the exercises she gives do work your 'larger' muscle groups.

The intoduction also gives us some basic rules - eating 1,200 calories a day, doing an extra 30 minutes of cardio everyday and building up to doing 80 reps of each exercise.  Obviously I don't advocate eating only 1,200 calories a day, but I do like the idea of people going for a nice 30 minute walk everyday.  As far as 80 reps...I think I'd lose count.

Get Kim Kardashian's Butt 

Let's go over the formatting of this article really quickly.  Each section gives two "secret" moves to work a certain body part.  Just know, there are no 'secrets' in this industry anymore, really.  An exercise either works a certain body part or it doesn't.  This move either activates your glutes or it doesn't.  You could google "glute exercises" and get hundreds of thousands of free results.  Hardly a secret.

Each section also gives a gym friend (some machine or exercise to help work the area) and a food friend - a specific food meant to help you shape the area...somehow.

Her first move is basically a donkey kick with a little extra flair that doesn't add too much to the exercise.  The second move is a version of a squat.  I'd like to mention that both of these moves would work large muscle groups.  The donkey kick uses your glutes, which aren't exactly small.  The squat would use your hamstrings, glutes and quads among other things.  Once again, all large muscle groups.

Is this enough evidence to show that her 'method' is completely made up?

Secondly, Kim Kardashian has the butt she has because that's where she tends to store fat.

If making a muscle stronger would cause you to store less fat (according to Anderson's logic in the introduction), why would you work that area if you wanted a Kardashian-esque butt?

The things Anderson says just don't add up.

Gym Friend / Food Friend

The gym-friend here is the cross-trainer (aka elliptical).  Why?  Honestly your guess is as good as mine.  I mean there's nothing wrong with it, but why it's given specifically for your butt, I have no idea.

Your food friend is bananas and mangoes.  Supposedly they're going to boost blood flow and thus lessen cellulite.

Let's forget about the blood flow claim for a second.  Cellulite simply has to do with the distribution of fat on your body.  Women have it much more often than men.  It's not a health concern.  There is only ONE proven 'treatment' for cellulite.  It's losing fat.

Massage to increase blood flow to the area, scrubbing, laser treatment - none of these have been proven to work in reducing the frequency and appearance of cellulite.

It's not that you shouldn't eat bananas and mangoes - hell they may help you lose weight, which would reduce the appearance of cellulite.  But you shouldn't eat them just because you hope they'll help you get rid of cottage-cheese thighs.

I was going to review this all in one go but this has gotten a tad bit long.  In Part II we'll go over the rest of this article!

Get the whole review of Jumpstart to Skinny in one easy location under the 'book reviews' tab at the top.

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I'll go ahead and preface this post by saying I don't have a lot of disagreements with Harper's exercise instruction.  It's better than I've seen from a lot of other trainers for sure.  I like to think that pre-The Biggest Loser, Harper was a wonderful trainer with integrity.  I suppose I can see how easy it is to compromise your morals when millions of dollars are on the line and it doesn't really seem like you're hurting anyone - even more so when hundreds of thousands of people tell you daily what a wonderful thing you're doing.

While I have few problems with his technique instruction or his form (only problem I have is with his kettlebell swing instruction), I do disagree with what he's asking of people on 800 calorie per day diets.

I much prefer people to do Russian swings over American (pictured above).

Your only goal on so little fuel should be to maintain your muscle mass - not to try and burn off what little fumes you may have left.  He provides 7 different workouts, some of which I like more than others.

Workout 1: 

  • 20 sit-ups
  • 15 squats
  • 10 push-ups
  • AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) in 20 minutes

This workout is decent - but I fear that 10 push-ups may not be feasible for many of the people reading this book, especially any beginner women.  As well, 20 minute AMRAPs for beginners is usually pretty tough.

But, I understand he is trying to make a semi-difficult workout for a wide variety of skill levels with minimum equipment.  That's a tall order.  AMRAPs are one way to try and take care of that problem - people who are less experienced would just go more slowly and complete fewer rounds than more seasoned workout veterans.

Unfortunately, there are going to be plenty of readers who can't do a proper squat or push-up - what about them?  I think it would have been a good idea to provide alternatives to commonly problematic exercises.  Maybe something like:

Workout 1 - Advanced Level

  • 15 Reverse Crunches (bring hips off floor)
  • 10 squats (3-8-x) Meaning, take 3 seconds to lower yourself to the bottom of the squat, hold for 8 seconds and come back up.
  • 10 push-ups
  • 3-5 rounds

Workout 2 - Beginner Level

  • 10 Reverse Crunches (keep hips on floor)
  • 10 chair squats
  • 3 push-up negatives
  • 3-5 rounds

Anyway, I appreciate that it is difficult to write programs suitable for whatever number of people is required to have your book become a New York Times bestseller.  But with just a tad more content, the most obvious problems can be rectified.  I'm sure Harper is a good enough trainer to know that, so I'm not sure why it's not included.

There are some workouts that I really have to question the intent of, however:

Workout 4:

  • 20 medicine ball push-ups
  • 20 medicine ball sit-ups
  • 20 medicine ball squats
  • 20 no-wall balls
  • 20 medicine ball burpees
  • One round for time

Now, I get that it's only one round, but just imagine: it's day 16 in a row of eating 800 calories.  You've already done 12 exhausting workouts and you're sore, famished and completely exhausted.  It's all you can do to walk up the stairs without getting light-headed.  What would be the best thing to do?  Apparently push-ups and burpees on an unstable surface!  Brilliant!

Not the training effect we're going for

Not to mention this workout is very unsuitable for a beginner.  It's unsuitable even for people with a couple months of basic training under their belts.  To be fair, he does state on the burpees and push-ups that if it's too difficult to do with a medicine ball you can go without.  I think that this would be another good time for an Advanced / Beginner split.

Burpees are hard.  Burpees are really hard when you're light-headed from only eating 800 calories per day.  Burpees are really really hard when you're only eating 800 calories a day and you just did a bunch of other exercises that make the blood rush to your head.  (Push-ups / Squats / Wall balls (involve squatting))

Moral:  Generally the main gripe I have is just that it's unrealistic and miserable for a half-starved person to be given high-intensity crossfit-esque workouts.  You need the proper fuel to even get anything out of it.

Again, the best you should hope for on this steep of a deficit is to maintain your muscle mass if you want this to be a little bit less of an awful experience.

Review

Again, you can find all the segments of Jumpstart to Skinny's review under the "book reviews" tab at the top.  You'll find all the segments of The Skinny Rules there as well.

As far as a final word on this book, I have to say that I'm greatly saddened by what's in here.  I'm sad because so many people read this book and think that quick weight loss is something attainable, normal and even desirable.  I'm sad because there is not a single peep from Harper about the drawbacks to following a crash diet.  I'm sad because there are probably thousands of people who bought this book with high hopes only to find themselves facing failure after being unable to keep up with unreasonable restrictions and rules.

This book, and The Skinny Rules, will give the impression to people who try it that weight loss simply must not be for them.  If these rules are non-negotiable and necessary to lose weight, while at the same time being unsustainable, then what's the point?  Why even try?

If you tried to follow the rules in this book and came up short, it's not your fault.  Harper mentions his 'expert' status several times in this book - no true expert in healthy weight loss would give out these suggestions.  You are being misled.

If you want to lose weight, here's a more realistic plan:

  1. Manage your expectations.  You do not need to lose 20 pounds in 3 weeks to have a good time at your reunion, wedding or vacation.  If you want to lose weight, recognize that to do so and keep it off it necessitates a long, slow process.
  2. Maintain a small deficit.  If you're counting calories, try something small and barely noticeable, like 200-300 calories.  If you're not counting, try just eating 80% of what you're eating now.  One less spoonful of potatoes at dinner.  Half of a normal piece of toast at breakfast.  Manageable stuff.
  3. Strength train in a way that makes you happy to maintain your muscle mass.  This could be doing bodyweight exercises, training with weights, hiking, pole dancing, whatever.

When you're just starting out, that is seriously all you need.  Could you do more?  Sure.  But if you've been hopping from one diet to the next for years with no lasting results, why not try something a little more manageable?