Getting More Out of Your Gym Routine

February 24, 2014

   When I planned to write this post back in December, I had envisioned it would be raining in Cambria this week. Envisioning. Hoping. Praying. And I'll bet everyone in SLO county has been, too. Well, it worked!  We have a 50 percent chance for rain on Wednesday, 80 percent on Friday, and 50 percent on Saturday. Let's keep our fingers crossed the weather forecast is wrong and it will rain all week. So here is how I had planned to start this post:

   The rainy season means plenty of time in the gym. I find myself sometimes getting into a routine and going through the motions. All the exercises are good, don't get me wrong, but am I getting the optimum benefit from them?

   I talked to a couple of fellow instructors to find out what they do to walk out of the gym feeling renewed.

   Terri Harrington, personal trainer and yoga instructor at GymOne, says it's not about the specific routine or weights but your awareness and mind-body connection to yourself. "Connect breath to movement," she points out.  "Be there, in your body whether you're spinning, lifting weights or stretching. Connect to your body's intuition for health and well being."

   I love the perspective Terri brings because I wasn't even seeing it that way. It reminds me of what Wayne Dyer says about being thankful for your body and even the parts, like your liver or your feet.

   At Cambria Community Fitness, personal trainer Scott Barrett warns that we need to do our own exercises and not something "off the rack." In other words, a routine needs adjustments for each individual. "If there is any pain or discomfort with any exercise," he cautions, "then you are not doing it correctly or it is not right for you."

Some Exercises

   I do have a few favorites when I'm at the gym and here are four of them you might want to add to your routine. Don't feel intimidated by all the names of the muscles. We all have them! Information is power.

Helicopter Squat
   Squats are a total lower body workout, working out most of the major muscle groups of the butt, hips and thighs. Arm movements get the glutes working more during the squat.
   With your arms pointed to the left, drop into a squat. As you drop down, bring your arms in front of you and to the right side of your body when you are finally down in the squatted position. Then, rise up bringing your arms back to the right side of your body. Switch sides. Start in the standing position with your arms pointed right and squat while bringing your arms to the left side, and back again to the right as you rise. Repeat this several times alternating your arm direction.

Incline Bench Press
   This is a great exercise for the chest and shoulders. The incline bench press uses the pectoralis major and anterior deltoid muscles.
   Lie on your back, weights at your chest with palms facing up. Inhale. Press the weights up to the ceiling, exhaling as you press up and inhaling as you come down.

Overhead Pulldown, Wide Grip

   The pulldown exercises the latissimus dorsi in the back. It also involves the biceps brachii, brachialis and brachioradialis muscles as well as muscles connected to the scapulae: the lower trapezius and the pectoralis minor muscles.
   Position the thigh support in a snug position with feet on the ground. Choose your weight and take a grip equal to twice your shoulder length with the long bar at its highest position. Lean back slightly from the hips while contracting the abdominal muscles. As you pull down, stick your chest out while keeping your elbows wide. Pull the bar down to your collarbone maintaining posture alignment. Do not rest until all your repetitions are completed for the set.

Captain's Chair Knee Raise
   The knee raise works the lower abdominals.
   Support yourself by your forearms on a captain's chair. Inhale. Then lift your knees towards your midsection. Exhale on the way up. Use your abs to pull your legs up. Rotate your pelvis forward to really crunch your abs. Inhale as you bring your legs back down. You can also perform this exercise with your legs straight out which will make it a more challenging movement.

The HF Connection to Heart Health

February 17, 2014

   During this American Heart Month it's been good even for me to take a moment and consider my own health as I write these blogs and post to Facebook. I love finding a new recipe or a new angle on fitness to promote heart health. But there does come a time to be reminded of the reason for lifestyle changes and that is to avoid heart failure, the number one cause of death in the United States.

   I like Wikipedia's entry on heart failure and I quote the definition in the first paragraph which defines it pretty well:
"Heart failure or HF (often called congestive heart failure, CHF, or congestive cardiac failure, CCF) occurs when the heart is unable to provide sufficient pump action to maintain blood flow to meet the needs of the body. Heart failure can cause a number of symptoms including shortness of breath, leg swelling, and exercise intolerance. The condition is diagnosed with a physical examination by your physician and confirmed with an echocardiogram."
There are a number of causes of heart failure and here are the most common ones:
  • Coronary artery disease, a narrowing of the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart weakening the heart over time or suddenly

  • High blood pressure leading to problems with stiffness or eventually leading to the heart weakening

  • Heart valves that are leaky or narrowed
  • Infection that weakens the heart muscle
  • Congenital Heart Disease, the most common kind of heart birth defect

Here are a number of lifestyle changes that can make a difference to avoid heart failure:
  • Exercise. Heart healthy exercises include things like handcycling, rowing, walking, hiking, swimming, spinning, aerobics, Zumba, basketball, jump rope, stair or elliptical training, cross country skiing, Nordic walking, inline skating, cycling, etc. See your doctor and begin a program of exercising within your target heart rate.
  • Eat heart healthy foods. Vegetables and fruits are powerful allies in keeping your heart healthy.
  • Lower your salt intake. It can make a significant difference and I think it's the easiest change to make. Sodium helps the body to  hold excess fluid creating an added burden on the heart. The recommended daily allowance is 1500 mg daily. Purchasing fruits and vegetables at your local farmers market and cooking things yourself helps you control sodium intake.
  • Lower your sugar intake. There's a high degree of connection between too much sugar consumption and cardiovascular diseases. Careful choices about the processed foods you eat, sodas and desserts can make a big difference.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking increases blood pressure, decreases HDL (good cholesterol), decreases exercise tolerance and increases the tendency for blood to clot. Smoking also increases the risk of recurrent coronary heart disease after bypass surgery.
  • Cut down on alcohol. Heavy alcohol consumption has detrimental effects on blood pressure.

  • Lose weight. If you're overweight then weight loss can make it easier on your heart. Your heart pumps blood through your veins and arteries. Your lungs take in oxygen and send it to your blood. The stronger your heart is, the more easily it pumps more blood throughout your body. If your heart is weak it has to work harder to provide you with fresh blood and oxygen.

  • Lower your cholesterol. Like small tumors, plaques of cholesterol and other substances form in the artery walls and eventually the passageway for blood becomes clogged. Less blood flow means less oxygen for the heart muscle. Chest pain (angina) occurs, usually following exercise or excitement. When the blood supply is completely cut off, a part of the heart muscle dies—this is a heart attack.
  • Get plenty of rest. Our lives have become so busy and full that we forget to take time out to sit quietly and rest. And we often don't get enough sleep. Our hearts need time for rejuvenation. If we want it to last it needs to rest.

6 Ways to Lower Sugar Intake and Take Care of Your Heart

February 8, 2014

   A report in The Journal of the American Medical Association just a few days ago showed that over consumption of sugar is bad for the heart. The good news is reducing your intake of sugar doesn't have to be painful.

   I'm a big believer that fitness and health changes almost always result in the feeling of getting some years back. And cutting down on a high sugar intake is one of the biggies in terms of impact. I'm also a believer that it's best to make small permanent changes than attempting something radical. Here are my top 6 ways a person can wean themselves off of sugary foods.

[1] Take it Slowly

   Don't delete everything on the first day. Eat half a dessert, put half the amount of jelly you'd normally have on toast, cut the sugar in your coffee in half.

   Mix sweetened and unsweetened foods together like soy milk (which is sweetened) with unsweetened soy milk. Mixing like that is a great way to cut down on your intake. Start half and half, and over time decrease the amount of the sugared food and increase the unsugared.

   Give yourself time, like a month or two, to let these changes become how you simply do things. Your taste buds will acclimate to less and less sweetness. Choosing fresh fruit over a piece of cake will be a no-brainer.

[2] Drink Water

   Drinking water, especially in the morning, is a healthy thing to do. And when it comes to warding off sugar cravings, water is one of your best friends. The body can confuse thirst with a sugar craving so it's easy to down a candy bar when, in fact, your body actually wanted water. Stay hydrated throughout the day and fire a preemptive strike at sugar cravings.

[3] Make Your Own

   You may feel you don't have the time to make food but if heart health is important enough to you, you'll find you are able to make lifestyle changes and wonder why you never did it earlier. If you have a sweet tooth, learning to cook could be one of the best lifestyle changes you could make. Recipes for low and no sugar pies, cakes and desserts like these are all over the Internet.

   One great way to wean yourself off sodas is to switch to ice tea which you make yourself. Don't feel guilty about sugaring it in the beginning but cut back on the amount you add over time. Your taste buds will adjust.

   Making your own also enables you to stay away from processed foods which often have a surprisingly high amount of sugar added. Avoid all that and, for example, make your own spaghetti sauce or your own salad dressing from olive and balsamic vinegar. Incorporate these heart healthy foods into your diet to replace those processed foods.

[4] Eradicate One Big Source of Sugar

   Okay, I wrote "take it slowly" earlier but in this case targeting one big villain, like candy, ice cream or soda can give you a sense of a great head start. Let's say ice cream is the target. Make it off limits. Have a bad breakup, before suffering a literal heart break, and never go back. The next time you're in the grocery store and you pass by the ice cream, instead of looking at it wishing you could take some home, see it as something you used to know but it just didn't work - been there done that, you've moved on.

[5] Eat Breakfast

   Often times the desire for sugar throughout the day is a result of not having enough fuel in the morning. Eat a healthy breakfast full of whole grains (especially oatmeal) and fruits, and it will help you turn down candy and sugary energy bars later in the day.

[6] Exercise

   An exercise program can help you feel more invested in making healthy food changes like reducing sugar. And if you're putting in the miles walking, running, hiking, swimming or cycling you'll get the benefits of a chemical that rivals sugar (and a lot better for you) in terms of how it makes you feel: endorphins. When your body releases endorphins it gives you a good mood lift to help quell the withdrawal symptoms of sugar reduction.

American Heart Month: 14 Powerful Heart Healthy Foods

February 4, 2014

   By now it should be common knowledge that heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. All this month I will be sharing great ideas here on my blog and at my Facebook page on how to get fit and eat right for your heart.

   Here is a chart of 14 of the most powerful heart healthy foods you can eat which are easy to start including into a regular diet. There are other great foods, too, so when we made the chart we had to draw the line somewhere. There are two excellent websites to get more information at the American Heart Association and the Center for Disease Control. I encourage you to explore these sites for literally a wealth of life changing information.

L-Arginine: A Beneficial Supplement to Boost Energy and the Immune System

January 27, 2014

To be clear at the outset, I am not one to suggest taking a supplement without doing your due diligence. There is good information on the Internet to help you. But ultimately, I strongly encourage anyone who wants to try a supplement to consult their doctor first.

A couple of years ago when I was training for a marathon I found myself short on energy. I tried a change in diet. It helped but it wasn’t enough. Then I came across L-Arginine and read about its benefits. I talked with my doctor who told me the supplement would be okay. He said that people with heart conditions should not take L-Arginine and since heart disease is not prevalent in my family history I was given a green light.

It worked for me. I got the energy I needed to train for my marathon. Because L-Arginine is not good to take on a daily basis for long periods of time, I take it when I’m training or help to boost my immune system. But I also lay off of it for a month or two as well. I have a very middle ground attitude about supplements. I believe the evidence shows that vitamin and mineral supplements work, but I also think they aren’t magical. Additionally, a good diet should supply the core of a person’s nutritional needs.

L-Arginine Benefits

L-Arginine was first isolated in 1886 by Ernst Schultze, a Swiss chemist, from lupin seedlings. We now know it to be one of a number of common amino acids which are basic building blocks in the body. Early on it was discovered that it detoxified ammonia and aided in the making of creatine. 

The body needs L-Arginine to stimulate protein production. A healthy diet usually supplies plenty of it for basic nutrition from foods like dairy, fish, poultry and red meat. But in some circumstances that isn't enough and a supplement is needed.

As I wrote earlier, it helps to increase energy and bolster the immune system. Here’s a checklist of other benefits:

  • Stimulates release of insulin
  • Improves insulin sensitivity to aid in normalizing blood sugar
  • Helps improve blood flow to muscles
  • Stimulates growth hormones for anti aging
  • Addresses erectile dysfunction, high blood pressure and coronary artery disease

Cambria Art & Wine Festival Cycling Tour

January 20, 2014

   I know what you might be thinking: a Cambria wine tour bike ride? Why didn't I know about this?

   There is no organized bike ride but it occurs to me, with the Cambria Art and Wine Festival just around the corner, the three popular rides around Cambria could constitute an amazing wine country cycling trail. Whether you ride north to Piedras Blancas Light Station, south to Cayucos, or east on Santa Rosa Creek Road you will encounter vineyards and wineries in spectacular settings. You couldn't ask for a better place to get on your bike. So, if you have never ridden these roads before here are some helpful insights. And although I love wine, on my bike I prefer to enjoy the scenery of vineyards and come back later to taste.

Piedras Blancas Light Station

Distance: 31 miles out & back, north on U.S. 1

   The best time to go is in the morning when U.S. 1 is relatively empty of cars. If you head out after 11:00 am, traffic and headwinds can make this beautiful trip a nightmare. Headwinds are strongest in March and April, and some times in early summer there is early morning fog. The road is in great condition because it has been recently repaved. With the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Santa Lucia Mountains on the other, it's easy to understand why some European cyclists consider the California coast to be the best place in the world for bike touring.

   In the pastures below Hearst Castle you might see Zebras grazing, especially in February and March. They are descendents of the animals that William Randolph Hearst imported to stock his private zoo in the 1930s. In San Simeon, historic Sebastian's General Store serves up great sandwiches using fresh local ingredients. Sometimes I like to stop here on my way back from the light station to take a relaxing lunch break. The Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room is also in Sebastian's.

   Further up the road is the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery. The newborn seals are on the beach this time of year and are a lot of fun to watch. They can be viewed every day (even without having to get off your bike) and there is no admission fee. The Piedras Blancas Light Station is still a working lighthouse, a historical park and wildlife sanctuary offering tours and sight seeing.


Distance: 29 miles out & back, south on U.S. 1

   There's a big hill about 6 miles into the ride but aside from that it's fairly flat until you get back to Cambria for a final uphill approach. Like the ride north, the ride south on U.S. 1 is best done in the morning before too many motorists are out on the roads. When Cambria and Morro Bay are fogged in, this stretch of road is often clear because of the headlands. And temperatures are usually a bit warmer on this ride compared to the north.

   I love the scenery of small farms dotting the headlands and the artsy community of Harmony, population 18 (according to the sign). Harmony Cellars is here, too.

   When the road opens up to a sudden view of the ocean you're approaching Cayucos. In town you have a number of choices to stop for lunch. I like Duckie's, a great mid-priced chowder house. It's right at the pier and has outdoor seating on the sidewalk. Before heading back, you might want to do a relaxing pedal around town to see the murals which the Cayucos Mural Society has sponsored for the past 20 years.

Santa Rosa Creek Road

Distance: 20 miles out & back for a relaxing ride; 32 miles out & back or in a loop for experienced cyclists.

   James Taylor could have been thinking of Santa Rosa Creek Road when he sang "I could feel it on a country road." Rolling hills, grazing cattle, chickens, produce farms, and ranches await you without much traffic. But keep your eyes open for deer, coyotes and even a mountain lion if you're lucky. The lovely Santa Rosa Creek accompanies you most of the way. Stolo Family Winery is just outside of Cambria and Linn's Original Farmstore, 5 miles out, is a perfect place for coffee and pie, and pleasant conversation. I like to stop in on the return trip.

   When the coastal highway is foggy or chilly, Santa Rosa Creek Road is often sunny and warm. This is a ride I take easy so I usually only go about 10 miles out. But that doesn't mean it's not challenging. If you ride all the way to Highway 46 you'll have some serious elevation to contend with. Some expert cyclists favor leaving Cambria south on U.S. 1, then east on 46, and then riding down Santa Rosa Creek Road. I would strongly suggest driving the road first before attempting it on a bicycle. The road is narrow and steep with a stomach turning steep switchback -- probably not what James Taylor had in mind.

Restaurant Month: SLO and Cambria Serves Up Healthy Fare

January 13, 2014

   There used to be a time when a quality American sit-down restaurant meal was, at minimum, a large piece of meat in the center of the plate, a well-cooked vegetable, and an endless supply of bread rolls and butter. Afterward you would waddle home.

   But here in California during the 1970s that began to change. Alice Waters helped to shift our definition of a truly great restaurant dish toward fresh organic ingredients from locally sourced farmers, fishermen and ranchers. Maybe you've had the privilege of an evening at her world famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

   Today in San Luis Obispo County including Cambria we are in a foodie's paradise. There is fresh healthy fare wherever you look. And January is a great time to look. Happening now is the 7th Annual Restaurant Month in SLO and many wonderful restaurants are participating by serving 3-course dinners for only $30. I checked that price and found it hasn't changed since at least 2008. What a deal! You still have the rest of the month to check out most of the participating restaurants.

   A few of my old favorites are Thomas Hill Organics in Paso Robles, Big Sky Cafe in SLO, and Robin's Restaurant in Cambria. Shanny Covey who owns and runs Robin's feels it's her duty to serve to her guests fresh healthy foods which she gets from local markets. "Food has the most nutrients and most flavor when picked at it's prime," she told me. "Eating this way makes sense, who wouldn't want to eat the freshest produce available?"

   Shanny points out it's not a fad, it's a lifestyle. I agree and it's here to stay. She added, "In just the past three years I've noticed many more restaurants in SLO embracing this philosophy and it's refreshing. People have more healthy choices from fast foods to fine dining. As a consumer we can eat out and know that we are feeding our bodies well."

   If you're like me, there is probably a restaurant on the list you've been meaning to try. Mine is the Black Cat Bistro in Cambria which reopens this week from its holiday break. I'm looking forward to it! Yum. I love that they list the farmers who supply the ingredients for their menus.

   Click on these links: Robin's and Black Cat Bistro for menus being served as part of Restaurant Month.

4 Motivation Tips to Achieve Your New Year's Resolutions

January 6, 2014

   The conventional wisdom seems to be that writing New Year's resolutions is a "fun" annual ritual of jotting down our personal wish lists -- but not to be taken too seriously because by February they will be forgotten. The reality is resolution-making is a powerful tool we can use to bring about healthy lifestyle changes.

   A study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors a couple of decades ago examined how successfully people achieved their New Year's resolutions. The top resolution, unsurprisingly, was weight loss cited by 38% of the study's participants. Smoking cessation was 2nd at 30%. Half of the people (55%) in the study dropped out after just one month. And it might be easy to assume the other half failed after two months. But that wasn't the case. Most of the remaining resolution makers (40%) were still on the path to their goals 6 months later! I like seeing the glass half full rather than half empty so I think that's remarkable.

   As a fitness trainer it tells me that making a New Year's resolution is a very worthwhile strategy. It's motivating to know, statistically, you have nearly a 50/50 chance of success right out of the gate. But I'd like to increase those odds so I asked a few experts for some tips to stay motivated throughout the year to fulfill your resolutions. Not every motivational technique will work for everyone. I hope one of these tips resonates with you.

[1] Pursue Small Easy-to-Fulfill Goals

   I find this very effective for my clients. Instead of trying to accomplish one big goal, break it down into a series of smaller ones. If you want to incorporate walking into your lifestyle, such as taking a 2-mile walk five times a week, don't start by forcing yourself to walk a mile every day. True, you might be able to do it but chances are you won't actually like it. It's better to begin by taking a 15 minute walk three days a week. In so doing, you will set yourself up to be successful. And nothing breeds success like achievement, each step of the way toward your larger goal.

[2] Take It One Day at a Time
- Trainer Jane Howard

   It's easy to think, "one day at a time... well, I already knew that." True, it's probably the oldest technique in the book. But if you really take it to heart, it's also one of the most powerful, which is why so many 12-step recovery programs have adopted it.

   Jane Howard is a fitness trainer in Cambria and she echoes this. "We all tend to become overwhelmed sometimes when the task at hand like losing weight or becoming fit can seem so large and looming over us," she told me. "This becomes too much for any of us. Stay with one day at a time. If you mess up, that’s okay, get back on track the next day. Don't beat yourself up. You are human!"

[3] Moderate Behaviors - Coach Dennis White

   You know when changes have really taken hold when they become a part of your lifestyle. That's when, for example, a bike ride is no longer just a planned exercise activity but something you look forward to for fun.

   Dennis White, who has coached Coast Union High School's volleyball team in Cambria, feels that moderation is a key way to evolve a change into becoming a part of your lifestyle. "If you're trying to cut calories," he offers (I love this one), "eat sandwiches with just one piece of bread." Do the math: if you eat five sandwiches a week, you'll avoid eating a loaf of bread each month without feeling deprived.

   A similar thing goes for alcohol. Limiting yourself to wine or beer on the weekends is a great way to cut out a lot of calories from your diet. And you can easily add some exercise to your day, too. The next time you go shopping, relish the availability of the open parking spaces further from the store and get a nice walk in. Dennis says it's for a good cause. "Taking care of ourselves will ensure we have an active retirement with minimal limitations. Good health will ensure quality time with our children and grandchildren."

[4] Minimize Distractions - Marlena Tanner, RD

   Sometimes it's not enough to get motivated, but rather tackle those things which can demotivate us. A busy schedule poses a major challenge for most people. Recently, I read about a woman who wanted to exercise in the morning but rarely did because in the first minutes of rising from bed, her head was quickly filled with an overwhelming list of things she had to do. So she started going to bed in her exercise clothes and woke up ready for her work out. Great idea!

   The media also can be a diversion. "In today's American culture we tend to get distracted by technology and by constant visual stimulus including the images of what we should look like or the things we should strive to own and achieve," says Marlena Tanner, a dietitian in Cambria who serves the Central Coast as well as guest lectures at Cal Poly. Whether it's buying into unrealistic images of what Madison Avenue says we should look like or having to be always-on for every email and tweet that comes our way, turning it down or even off can be surprisingly effective.

   "Taking care of our selves involves not only our physical, but also our mental, emotional and spiritual being. Becoming more connected to our own bodies will allow us to eat better, move more efficiently and understand our selves better."