Using Breaks to Overcome Fitness Plateaus

Bear in a Basket by Ucumari

Even bears know the importance of taking a break once in a while.

Sometimes you just hit a wall in your progress.

It happens to everyone – it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been training, how well constructed your program is, how perfect your diet, sleep patterns and recovery are – at some point you’re going to plateau. Often times it’s extremely frustrating because it feels like you’re doing everything right, but you still can’t make any progress.

The natural response for most people is to try to power through it. They up the intensity, super fine tune their diet, obsess over every little thing and about kill themselves to push as hard as they possibly can in each workout. The problem is this is the wrong response. So how do we get back to progressing?

Simple. Take a break.

Why Have a Deload Week?

For some people it’s puzzling why I would recommend taking a week off or switching to something lighter (deloading) for people who are stuck and want to get stronger. The problem is that they’re not looking at the big picture and still think exercise makes you stronger. It doesn’t.

Recovery makes you stronger.

Essentially while all the hard work in the gym is necessary to provide the stimulus to start the process of muscle growth the actual muscle growth itself doesn’t happen in the gym, it happens over the next few days and while you’re sleeping.

Exercise is the ignition switch that starts up the engine, but recovery is the engine itself – it’s what really does the work you want in the end.

Sometimes after a while it gets to a point where you’ve just done too much intentional damage to your system and haven’t given it or aren’t giving it enough time to recover. That can translate to putting in a lot of work, but not seeing any results. When something like this happens the best course of action is to provide your body with enough rest to recover fully so you can get back to work. How do you do that?

Take a break.

How to Deload

For some people, wrapping their head around not training for a week can be painful. I used to feel that way too. Once you see the benefit a well-timed deload week can have though you’ll see why I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m not suggesting that you just drop everything and spend the week lying around on the couch eating ice cream either, when you take a break to help push through a plateau it should be an active, intentional break. Here’s a few options if you have no idea how to do that.

  • The Traditional Deload Week – Generally when people in the lifting world talk about a deload week they mean a week with a 40% or so reduction in training intensity. So that means on higher rep lifts a reduction in reps by around 40% (e.g., 12 reps instead of 20) and for low rep high weight lifts a reduction in weight by 40% (e.g., 180 lb. squat instead of a 300 lb. squat).

    Why specifically 40%? To be honest I’m not sure other than that historically it has always worked well. As to whether there have been any rigorous scientific studies to back that 40% up as the ideal amount I’ve been unable to find any. You could certainly reduce by a different percentage, but just know that the 40% deload has been used often and with lots of success.

  • The Active Recovery Week – Instead of a traditional deload week, you can always go for an active recovery week. An active recovery week differs from a more traditional deload in that here you don’t necessarily do the same exercises as your normal training program. Instead you focus on different related exercises and things that get you moving but aren’t nearly as intense as your standard routine.

    Spending some steady time on the rowing machine, focusing on mobility work, checking out some yoga classes, switching to a bodyweight routine or doing assistance exercise to your core lifts at a lower intensity all fall under the category of active recovery.

  • The Play Week – Another option if neither of those sound interesting is just to take a week and focus entirely on playing. Go have fun, climb some things, give parkour a try, play some football/baseball/hopscotch/whatever, go hiking, you get the point.

    Play is a big part of alive and happy so go do it. Make the whole point of the week to be up and moving as much as possible but in a relaxed, fun, playful way. By the end of the week not only will you feel better physically, you’ll probably be a lot less stressed and more happy on top of it.

A Note on Nutrition

Just because you’re taking a break from your standard exercise schedule doesn’t mean you should necessarily take a break from your normal nutritional plan. Depending on how you’re eating one cheat day in there may be fine if you have them normally and they’re a part of your program, but don’t take the week off as an excuse to go into some Bacchanalian feast mode and nom your way through three tons of junk food.

Instead, if you’re going to change your dietary habits at all during your break, eat lots of meat. Protein is your very bestest friend during recovery time, so go nuts. If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, well… you have my sympathy.

Have you had success breaking through a sticking point in your fitness by using a break or a deload week? Tell us about it in the comments! If you’ve got any other good ideas for how to relax and recover properly, be sure to share those too.

Photo Credit: Ucumari

Easy Ways to Maximize Limited Language Learning Time

Hangul by Chita21

It’s a fact of life – most people are busy.

You’ve got a full time job or school to worry about, possibly a family to take care of, and countless other responsibilities. Not everyone wants to spend their downtime studying either, you need a little time to relax and have fun too.

When you add all of that up, there isn’t always a lot of time left for learning a new language. If you’re living in a country that primarily speaks the language you’re learning it’s not as much of an obstacle, but not everyone has that luxury. Thankfully there are some tips and tactics you can use to get the most out of both the limited time you can dedicate to practice and all the downtime you’ve got throughout the day.

Optimizing Learning Time

First we’ll look at some things you can do to optimize the time you can specifically devote to studying your target language. A lot of these have to do with making sure you’re as focused and productive as possible.

  • Have A Plan – Don’t go into a study session not really knowing what your goal is for that session. Studying without a goal almost always leads to aimless screwing around and that’s almost never productive. Instead, go into each study session with a plan not only for what your specific goal for that study session is but also with a game plan for how you’re going to work toward or reach that goal during that session. It can be as simple as ‘Memorize these 20 new words’ or as complicated as ‘Be able to write a poem in my target language’, the important thing is to have a goal.
  • Eliminate Distractions – If you have an hour set aside to study, use that entire hour to study. Do not check Facebook, do not watch TV, do not listen to music, do not get distracted by texts from friends or check your RSS or go read blogs (even this one). You can use a program like Rescue Time or Freedom to shut off your Internet temporarily if you’re not using it to access your materials. If you have to just download everything you need or print it out then turn your phone off and rip out your modem – you’ve dedicated this time to studying and damnit, you’re going to spend that time studying.
  • Take Controlled Breaks – I know, I know I just told you to buckle down and study for the time you allotted, and you should, but you should also take a controlled five minute break every 20 minutes or so. It turns out we tend to remember things better the closer they are to the beginning and ending of our study sessions. By taking a very short break every 20 minutes or so you can maximize your recall from the study session much more than if you sat there and studied for an hour straight. This is not free license to give into distractions and goof off. Your breaks should be no more than 5 minutes and they should be something that you’re not going to get sucked into. That means yes to getting up and stretching, walking around or doing some push ups and no to checking Facebook, your e-mail or just about anything online.

Optimizing Downtime

So now you know how to get the most out of your structured study sessions, but what if you don’t have the time to have structured study sessions. My first question would be ‘How much time do spend watching TV every night?’. Even excluding that, there are thousands of little moments of downtime each day, times when you’re waiting on something or not doing anything, that you can add up into a substantial amount of study time.

  • Master Passive Learning – Just because you can’t go live in a country that speaks your target language doesn’t mean you can’t master passive, immersive learning by building your own language bubble. When you’re in the car, at the gym or anywhere else you can have your headphones in or music playing listen to dialogues in your target language that you’ve selected or listen to music in your target language. Label everything in your house in your target language using sticky notes. Use your relaxing TV time to watch TV in your target language. Essentially every time you can be exposed to input in your target language make sure you’re getting it.
  • Use In-Between Moments – There are countless moments in your day when you just sit there waiting for something. Maybe you’re waiting for an elevator, for a website to load, for the microwave to finish, for your turn to order at a restaurant – frequently with the proliferation of smartphones people use this time to check in on Facebook and Twitter. Instead, use them to practice a phrase or grammar structure you’re working on or to flip through some flashcards of new vocab.
  • Talk To Yourself – It doesn’t have to be loudly, particularly if you’re at work or on the subway or something (although muttering to yourself in a foreign language might guarantee people give you a little space to get comfortable), but talking to yourself in your target language is not only a good way to reinforce what you’ve learned and solidify it in your memory – it’s also a good way to develop the muscle memory for speaking. Speaking a language is a skill, and just like other skills the muscle you use to practice that skill (your mouth and related bits in this case) need to build up the motor pathways from repeated practice to make the skill feel most natural. The more you chat to yourself, even if you just move your lips and don’t vocalize, the more used to speaking that language you’ll get.

With all of these tactics you really have no excuse for being too busy to learn a language – so go get started! If you have any other helpful ways to pack more practice and study into limited share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Chita21

The 5 Minute Morning Bodyweight Workout

Watch the Watch by Nicolasnova

Only 5 minutes every morning to be healthier, happier and feel better all day long.

There are some days when getting yourself to the gym is a huge struggle. It’s understandable, sometimes you’re really just not feeling it. The worst part is then you feel like crap the next day because you’re full of regret for skipping a lifting day.

Rather than let that get you down, why not take 5 minutes every morning to run through a light workout? Sure, it’s no replacement for heavy lifting, but putting in 5 minutes every morning will ensure that even on days when you skip your regularly scheduled workout you’ll still have done something.

What’s even better is exercise in the morning helps energize you for the rest of the day, so getting in one of these quick 5 minute workouts will help pump you up and make you less likely to want to skip that proper workout anyway. On top of that some research suggests that a quick fasted workout in the mornings helps increase your metabolism for the rest of the day.

You do have 5 minutes to spare when you crawl out of bed right? Come on. No excuses. Pick one of these and do them every morning as soon as your feet hit the floor and you’ll feel much, much better through the rest of your day.

Basic Workout

This basic body weight circuit will get you moving and shake the sleep off of you but isn’t intended to be a full workout. This is something you can do in the morning everyday when you wake up – even on days when you’re going to lift heavy later.

  • 10 Burpees – To do a burpee squat down until your hands are touching the ground, then kick your legs back into the top of a push up position. Lower yourself to the floor and then reverse the motion doing a push up, then kicking your legs back under you and standing up. That’s one.
  • 25 Squats – Each squat should go as low as possible with your heels staying planted on the ground and your back staying straight. If you need to put your hands out in front of you and stabilize yourself with a bed or the back of a chair that’s no problem as long as you’re going through the full range of motion.
  • 25 Inverted Rows – These will require a good sturdy table or desk. Most kitchen tables work just fine. You want to lay halfway underneath the table holding on to the edge with both hands. Pull yourself up so your chest touches the edge of the table and then lower yourself back down for one rep.
  • 25 Push Ups – These should be good solid form push ups through a full range of motion. If you’re not sure you can do a good push up try one of these push up variations.

Starting out you can do just one round of the circuit every morning. As you get more used to it you can add rounds up to the point where you’re going through the whole circuit three times.

In general I wouldn’t recommend running through the circuit more than three times in the morning – the idea here isn’t to get a heavy workout just to wake you up and get the blood flowing and get your muscles primed for the rest of the day.

Intermediate Workout

If you barely break a sweat doing three rounds of the basic workout give this slightly more advanced version a try. Just like the basic version start out at one round and work your way up to three.

  • 15 Burpees
  • 20 Split-Squats – Place one foot behind you up on a chair or bed so that just your instep is up on the support. Putting most of your weight on your front leg lower yourself down so that your back leg forms a 90 degree angle with the ground and then press yourself back up. Do 20 on each side.
  • 15 Pull Up Negatives – Negatives mean just the part of the movement that is aided by gravity. In the case of pull ups that means the part where you’re lowering yourself back down. Get to the top of the pull up position by jumping into it and then lower yourself back down in as slow and controlled a manner as possible for one rep.
  • 25 Decline Push Ups – These are the same as regular push ups except you put your feet on an elevated surface like a bed or chair. The higher your feet in relation to your hands the more difficult they become.

Lastly, if this workout is just too easy for you give the advanced version a try.

Advanced Workout

If you’re looking for more of a challenge than give this workout a try. For most people each of these movements are a good workout on their own.

  • 25 Burpees
  • 15 One Legged Squats / Pistols – Hold one leg out in front of you, do a full squat on the leg you’re still standing on for one rep. Do 15 on each side.
  • 10 Pull Ups
  • 20 One Armed Push Ups – The same as a standard push up except performed on only one arm with legs spread wider than normal. Do 20 on each side.

So there you go. One of these will fit pretty much everyone’s level, so pick one and start doing it each morning. I’ll admit, depending on rest times if you’re going for 3 rounds it may be more like 15 minutes – but you should have 5 to 15 minutes to spare every morning to be healthier, feel better and be happier through the day. Like I said before, no excuses.

If you’re interested in more in depth calisthenics workouts you can also find other systems like Bar Brothers that might suit your needs.

Have you tried any of these out yet? What do you think? Have another morning warm up workout you particularly love? Share it with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Nicolasnova

365 Small Steps to Incredible

Interview Schedule by Wenzday01

Are a little better today at something than you were yesterday?

You can be incredible.

I mean that. You can be incredible. You can be the kind of person where people say, “Wow, I have no idea how he/she does it. I wish I could do that.” You can close your eyes at the end of each day reassured that you’re just a little better than you were the day before.

The best part? It’s easy to do and it only takes a few minutes a day.

The Power of Little Changes

Over enough time very small changes will accumulate into very, very big changes. You can see the evidence of that principle everywhere, a tiny bit of erosion every day over millions of years and you have the Grand Canyon. Through tiny, incremental changes single cell organisms diversified into the billions of species we know of and the even larger billions of species that’ve gone extinct before our time.

Lots of little changes add up to a big difference.

When you look at it through that lens, becoming incredible doesn’t look like such a daunting task – it just takes time. Unless you’re undead or some manner of cyborg you probably haven’t got eons to work with, but a year is a pretty long time on the scale of human life so let’s start there.

A Commitment to Improvement

You’ve got 365 days to play with in an average year. That’s 365 opportunities to become just a tiny bit better at something. 365 chances for you to improve yourself which, when added together, can make you incredible.

Imagine if you wanted to get good at playing guitar. Don’t you think you’d be pretty good if you got just a little better 365 times? Don’t you think you’d be pretty fit if you got just a little bit stronger or lost just a little bit of weight 365 times? Even a tenth of a pound of fat loss everyday (less than the 1.5 pound per week average) for a year adds up to 36.5 pounds of weight gone. That’s a big change.

The key is to make a promise to yourself to get just a little better at something every single day. Complete your run a second faster, write one more sentence, lift one more pound, learn one more word, meet one more person, spend one more minute meditating, practice one more parkour technique, whatever. Never ever settle for stagnation.

Paradoxically this is simultaneously easy and difficult. It’s easy because it generally only requires a few minutes per day – it’s not that painful to do just a bit more each day. It’s difficult because as a species we tend to be pretty lazy. We like to do the bare minimum to get by, so reminding yourself to go just that little bit further can get forgotten or ignored.

The best way to get around that is to write your goals down or put up reminders where you know you’ll find them. Stick notes up all over, put alarms and reminders on your phone, tell a friend to punch you in the face if you don’t do it – whatever works for you.

Don’t Worry About the Jones’

The goal here is to be incredible, sure. That definitely comes with a bit of egotism, but your primary drive shouldn’t be to be better than everyone else. That just gets frustrating. Instead you should worry about competing with yourself. If you’re better today than you were yesterday then that’s what’s important, not if you’re better than someone else.

If you stick to your commitment and improve every day – even if by a minuscule measure – by the end of the year you will have made an incredible improvement from where you were 365 days prior.

Are you committed to making yourself a little bit better every day? Do you think all this self-improvement stuff is a bunch of crap? Have any other tips to share to become incredible via incremental improvements? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Wenzday01

Shut Up and Do Something

The Gnome in Somebody's Front Yard by B Tal

Please don’t be an Underpants Gnome.

This may come across a bit as a personal rant, so I apologize in advance, but I’m sick to death of people who whine about their situation or talk about improving it but never actually do anything.

I call them Underpants Collectors – inspired both by Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness’s excellent article and the hilarious South Park episode that inspired it. Underpants Collectors are people who want to accomplish something, lose weight, learn a new language or maybe start a business and quit their 9 to 5 but never actually do anything to get there. These people feel like they’re working hard, but they never actually reach their goal.

If this sounds like you, keep reading – we can fix it.

Two Examples of Voracious Underpants Collectors

Here are two examples, pulled from real people I know whose names have been changed to avoid embarrassment. Keeping with our South Park inspiration, let’s call them Stan and Kyle. Stan and Kyle are Underpants Collectors – people who, like the gnomes in the episode, have a starting point and an ending point but nothing in between so they just sit at step 1.

Stan is severely overweight. I’m talking obese. He knows it too, he’s been trying to lose weight for years. He picks a plan he likes or starts an exercise routine and sticks to it for a little while then quits. He talks about how he knows he needs to eat better while simultaneously cramming a fast food burger into his mouth. Stan gives every impression of knowing what he needs to do, and he knows that he has the knowledge to lose the weight, but he’s never successful.

After a while Stan starts to get whiny. It’s so hard to lose weight, he’s been trying for so long. Nothing ever seems to work. He talks at length about how great it would be to lose weight and how much he wants it, then skips his scheduled workout to catch American Idol. Internally Stan’s started to cast himself as a victim in all this and is steadily building an enormous collection of underpants.

Kyle is in a similar boat. He really wants to quit his job and start his own business. He has dreams of being self-sufficient, maybe not independently wealthy but able to make a comfortable living while setting his own hours and working from home.

Kyle talks endlessly of this goal. He obsesses over every scrap of information on starting your own business or making money online. He recommends get rich quick (and slow) books to all of his friends and family. Hour after hour of every day are devoted to reading and researching and learning about starting a business – and that’s it.

His obsession with figuring out what the best thing is to do means that he never actually does anything. His days are spent pouring over blog posts and growing a formidable pile of underpants.

Embracing Action

Do you see what the shared problem is between Stan and Kyle?

Both of them need to shut up and do something! They need to stop worrying about getting everything perfect or talking about what they need to do and just do it. Sometimes this is also called paralysis by analysis, but what it’s called doesn’t matter – it’s a waste of time and will never get you anywhere.

The fact is when it comes to accomplishing something, anything at all, the person who does something completely wrong is still going to get farther than the person who does nothing at all. I don’t care if you’re doing something as moronic as the Shake Weight – that’s still better than doing absolutely nothing.

Even if you fail it’s better than inaction. I love to fail. Failing is probably the single best learning experience you can have and if you never try you can never have the opportunity to experience it.

So if this sounds like you, if you’re the kind of person who reads tons of books and blogs and tutorials on how to do something and you talk about your goals all the time but never actually do anything about them – shut up and do something. Don’t collect underpants, go accomplish something.

Have any other advice for Underpants Collectors? Are you a former time-waster who’s taken charge and actually gotten things done? Think I’m being too mean to the whiners who never actually do what they want to do? Share it in the comments!

Photo Credit: B Tal

Why You’re Stupid (and What You Can Do About It)

Most Studious Senior Superlatives by North Carolina Digital Heritage Center

You’re stupid.

Don’t take that the wrong way though, I’m stupid too. We’re all stupid. It’s not insulting, it’s not even something to be upset about, and best of all it’s something we can all work on fixing.

No one knows everything. Regardless of who you are there is some area of life in which you’re completely stupid. You don’t know the first thing about it. I know there are tons of things I’m completely stupid about, from complex things like astrophysics to relatively mundane things like the rules of cricket. In general I’m ok with that. Being stupid in certain areas doesn’t bother me.

You may at this point be saying, “Wait, you mean to say everyone’s ignorant not stupid. There’s a difference.”

I don’t make a distinction between the two, because I honestly don’t see a difference. I think everyone has the same capacity for learning (including those with learning disabilities, though it may be more challenging) so if you don’t know about something than you’re stupid when it comes to that topic. If it makes you feel better, go ahead and read ‘ignorant’ every time the word ‘stupid’ comes up.

So we’ve established that there are tons of things that I, you and everyone else are completely stupid about. Isn’t that kind of a downer? Now what?

You Can’t Know Everything

You could certainly see it as depressing, but you shouldn’t. The scope of knowledge is infinite, or near enough as makes no difference, so no one can be reasonably expected to ever know everything – we’re only human. Being stupid about things isn’t in and of itself a bad thing it’s just a part of the human condition. There will never come a time when you aren’t stupid about something.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on becoming less stupid.

Sure, you can just accept that there are lots of things you’re stupid about. You can own it, internalize it and move on. If that’s the way you feel about things, you’re on the wrong site. Go watch cat videos on YouTube.

We only get so much time here, and I’m not inclined to waste any of it. I always want to be improving myself and I think you should want to improve yourself too. I recognize that I’ll never know everything, but that doesn’t matter – as long as I learn something new everyday then I’m a little less stupid. That’s progress.

Becoming Less Stupid

The best way to start becoming less stupid is to make a commitment to learn one new thing everyday. It doesn’t have to be anything big – I don’t expect you to wake up tomorrow morning and memorize Pi to 30 digits – just something new. Everyday take a little bit of time to reflect on what things you are completely stupid about and go learn a little something about one of them.

It’s better to start with things you have a little bit of interest in.

The point here is to make a commitment, a real solid commitment, to improve your knowledge just a little bit every single day. Go watch a short educational video. Go read an article about a topic you don’t know very much about. Go learn a new skill. If you’re reading this I know you have Internet access and, while the Internet can at times be a dark and perilous place, it can also be an infinite resource for expanding your understanding of the universe and everything in it.

So which will you choose? Do you want to knowingly remain stupid – or do you want to work just a little each day in order to be just a little better, a little smarter, than you were yesterday? I know my choice.

Think I’ve got it right? Annoyed I called you stupid? Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Photo Credit: North Carolina Digital Heritage Center

6 Easy Things You Can Do Today to Live a Longer, Happier Life

Laughing with me by Ucumari

Making a point of smiling more may extend the number of years you have to do it.

Just about everyone wants to live a long, happy life (if you don’t, it may be time to sit down with someone and talk about that).

Thankfully, on the side of things we can control, there are a lot of small, easy changes we can make immediately that will have a huge effect on not only improving our lives in the present, but also ensuring that we have lots of fulfilled years ahead of us. Whether you’re 7 years old or 70 here are six things that you can start doing today that will have a lasting effect on your life.

1. Eat Less Junk

The average diet in the U.S. is atrocious – so statistically speaking yours probably is too. It’s not your fault. Between the oftentimes conflicting, poorly researched and questionably funded dietary recommendations put out by the USDA and media and the aggressive marketing of products as ‘healthy’ it can be difficult to sort out the good from the bad. That’s unfortunate, because choosing the proper diet is probably the most substantial thing you can do to improve your health.

The easiest way to start is by ditching all the processed foods you normally eat. A good general rule is if it comes in a box or with a label, you probably shouldn’t eat it. There are exceptions of course, but food that’s really good for you almost never needs to come with nutritional info – think unprocessed meats, fresh veggies and fruit. For extra credit you can ditch the grains and eat a little more like humans used to.

2. Move More

Stillness is death.

Even beyond the philosophical justification that movement is one of the few unifying properties all life shares – everything that’s alive moves – a sedentary lifestyle really does correlate to higher mortality rates. The top severe medical conditions in the U.S., heart disease, cancer, hypertension and diabetes, are all substantially reduced in people who are more active. In simpler terms, if you spend most of your life on a couch or in an office chair it’s probably not going to be a very long one.

So what can you do to fix it? Move around more! A leisurely 30 minute walk everyday isn’t going to give you a six pack and make you an athlete, but it is enough to lower your blood pressure and extend your life. It’s even a good way to relive stress which will go a long way in and of itself to make your time here longer and happier. If 30 minutes a day is too much time to invest, try 8 minutes a week of high intensity interval training instead.

3. Sit Less

This ties in with moving more. Most people nowadays spend the majority of their time sitting. We spend at the first 18 years of our life sitting at school desk for 8 to 10 hours a day, then graduate to an office desk. After spending all day at work planted at a desk, we sit in the car for an hour on the commute home, walk in the front door and plop down at the couch, computer or dinner table. It’s a lot of sitting.

That might not sound so bad at first, but the fact is sitting down so much is killing you.

If you can, put together a standing desk. Even if it’s just a pile of books you prop your monitor on, getting yourself up out of that chair can be huge. If you’re concerned about getting weird looks, set a timer on your phone or watch to go off every 30 minutes and spend 5 minutes standing up and walking around when it does. Even this little bit can make a big difference – so long as you don’t spend that 5 minutes walking to the break room for a doughnut.

4. Smile More

Being unhappy can have a profound effect on your overall health, not just from a psychological standpoint but from the physical and chemical changes caused in your brain by negative emotions. Stress, depression and unhappiness can genuinely damage your brain.

Now before you get all stressed out or depressed about that, there is something you can do to help. Smile!

It turns out even if you don’t actually have anything to smile about, there’s a feedback loop between the muscles responsible for forming a smile and the release of positive chemicals like serotonin that make you feel happy. When you force yourself to smile your brain releases the hormones that cheer you up, giving you something to genuinely smile about. Doing this even makes other people smile back, which gives you one more reason to be happy.

5. Relax

Of all the things that can really destroy us internally, cortisol is a big one. Cortisol is a stress hormone that’s vital for us to function properly, it wakes us up in the morning and it’s a key player in the fight or flight response, the problem is the more stressed we are the more cortisol gets produced. Given that modern life is excessively stressful most people wind up with severely elevated cortisol levels all the time.

This causes a whole host of problems. The two most common are trouble sleeping and excessive weight gain specifically around the belly and midsection. Sound familiar? Cortisol also directly contributes to the aging process. A quick look at any photographs of past U.S. presidents is a good visual example – in four years they tend to pack in 10 to 15 years of aging.

What’s the best way to fight it? Fixing your diet helps, as does getting the exercise we talked about. Another good option is to start meditating. Even five minutes a day devoted to meditation can begin to cause positive chemical changes in your brain to relieve some stress and improve your focus.

6. Go Play

I firmly support the maxim that we don’t stop playing when we get old, we get old when we stop playing.

Devoting time to play is something everyone of every age should be doing. I’m not talking three hours in front of the XBox or Wii either, I mean getting up and going out to play. Play a sport, play tag, do parkour, race someone, whatever. When we get up and play it hits almost all of the areas we talked about simultaneously. Playing relieves stress, makes you smile, it’s fun and social, it gets you up out of your chair and moving around and it relieves stress. Throw a healthy snack in there and you’ve got the whole package.

These are just a handful of things you can easily do today that’ll have a lasting effect on the length and quality of your life. There are tons more, but the important thing to remember is that every single choice you make in some way or another effects the rest of your life – are you making the choices that are going to improve it or destroy it?

What do you think about these changes? Can you think of any other easy things people can do right now to start living longer, happier and healthier lives? Share them! The more the better.

Photo Credit: Ucumari

Thanksgiving Day Dietary Damage Control

Maple Bourbon Pumpkin Pie by Djwtwo

This doesn’t have to fill you with dread this Thanksgiving.

With Thanksgiving day right around the corner a lot of people’s thoughts are inevitably turning to food, feasting and fat. Whether you’ve been struggling with weight loss for a while or are already fit and dreading the extra fat you expect to be saddled with, Thanksgiving Day generally marks the start of a holiday season characterized by complete dietary hedonism followed by shame fueled resolution making on January 1st.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Here are some things you can do before, on and after Thanksgiving day to mitigate the damage.

Before Thanksgiving Day

The first thing to understand before T-Day gets here is that you need to keep your expectations realistic. These tactics aren’t designed to allow you to feast without putting on a single pound – that’s just not going to happen. If you’re determined to not put on any weight this Thanksgiving it might be easier just to not celebrate it.

Instead, all of these tactics are designed to offer some damage control. Following these guidelines it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get through Thanksgiving without a single pound added, but it’ll be minimal and won’t stick around very long.

  • Have a Good Foundation – While you should be eating cleanly all the time, it’s especially important to eat right in the immediate week preceding your giant Thanksgiving Day feast. It’s equally important to be sticking to your fitness plan through that week. If you’re already coming into Thanksgiving with a net surplus in calories for the week then anything you do on that day is going to be too little, too late.

  • Plan Your Calories in Advance – Weight loss and gain isn’t quite as simple as calories in / calories out, but it’s a good place to start. If you’re expecting to eat a ton, then dial back your caloric budget on the preceding days to make up for it. If you expect to eat 10,000 Calories on T-day (around 30 pieces of pumpkin pie or so) than plan accordingly. You should already know about what your maintenance calories are and from there it’s just a bit of division.

  • Alternate Your Macro-nutrients – While protein should always make up the most substantial part of your caloric budget, if you’re not already you should alternate for a few days between higher intake of carbohydrates and higher intake of fats prior to the big feast. It’s nearly impossible to completely avoid carbs or fat in a standard Thanksgiving meal, and if you’ve been avoiding carbs or fat for a while (particularly carbs) and suddenly binge on them you’re probably going to be a bloated, groggy mess for a day or two afterward. By cycling between days of higher carb and fat intake before the big meal you get your system used to it.

On Thanksgiving Day

On Thanksgiving Day our tactics fall into one of two categories, mental and physical. The mental side is all about avoiding as much of the worst foods as you can and the physical is all about prepping your body so you’re in the best possible state to handle the feast.

  • Deplete Your Glycogen Stores – In general terms when glycogen stores are full (probably most of the time if you work a desk job) then carbohydrates will tend to be stored by the body as fat. When glycogen stores are low then instead of storing them as fat your body will tend to prefer refilling your glycogen stores with those carbs. This is one of the reasons we recommend getting the majority of your daily calories immediately post workout and why carb heavy meals only come after lifting.

    Since carbohydrates are almost more of a Thanksgiving staple than turkey, it’s a good idea to go into that meal with your glycogen stores depleted as well so that as much of that meal goes to your muscles as possible instead of to your waistline. The easiest way to do this is to hit the gym for a heavy lifting session right before you head off to your Thanksgiving dinner. If you’re strapped for time, do a few rounds of HIIT sprints, get a quick shower and go eat.

  • Eat Right on Thanksgiving Morning – Now a lot of people advise not to go into your Thanksgiving Day feast in a fasted state since you’re going to be too starving to exercise any self-control. While I somewhat agree with this, I also think it’s crazy to waste calories and refill your glycogen stores right before tackling ten pounds of pie.

    A good compromise is to do a mild protein sparing fast. Have a little bit of food that morning but keep it under 500 Calories or so and keep it as heavily weighted toward protein as possible. If you can a couple protein shakes is a good way to go. This sets your body up to be in an ideal condition to pig out while minimizing the damage.

  • Drink a Lot of Water – Chances are your massive binge is going to result in you holding onto a lot of water. This is the biggest factor in bringing on that nasty bloated feeling post-meal (and sometimes for several days after) that makes you feel like your stomach is about to explode. The best way to reduce effects of the water retention is to prime yourself the morning before you dig in. You should be drinking enough water anyway, but particularly on Thanksgiving morning shoot for downing a full gallon of water (not all at once though, please). That’s around 3.78 liters or about 7.5 water bottles. Sure you may have to run to the bathroom a few times, but it’ll be worth it to avoid feeling like a balloon.

  • Pick High Value Foods – Don’t fill up your plate with stuff you can have all year long. Thanksgiving is a one day a year feast and you should treat it like one. It’s a waste to spend all those calories on stuff you can have whenever so don’t do it. Instead focus on the things that you don’t normally get to eat.

    Also keep in mind the general guidelines you eat by during the rest of the year. Don’t feel guilty if you want to dig into the pie, that’s a rare treat, but you might as well avoid the rolls. For your staples stick to your meats and vegetables so you can have more of the treats that you only get on that day.

  • Don’t Drink All Your Calories – Be mindful of the fact that if you eat your weight in dessert and then drown yourself in liquid bread – I mean, beer – you can easily hit that 10,000 Calorie mark we talked about earlier. I’m not saying you should swear off all the alcohol this Thanksgiving, but be aware of the fact that those drinks add up. If you’re trying to keep things a little lighter, stick to higher value drinks or focus on the clear stuff.

After Thanksgiving Day

After Thanksgiving Day your strategy turns to fixing what damage was done and making sure that it doesn’t bleed over and continue to destroy your diet until January.

  • Keep Thanksgiving to One Day – Thanksgiving Day is only one day. That’s it. This year it falls on Thursday the 22nd and that is where it ends. Do not fall into the trap of eating Thanksgiving Day leftovers almost all the way until Christmas and destroying your diet completely. Give those leftovers to family and friends who need them or who just don’t care as much as you about being fit. It’s much, much better to gorge yourself on Thanksgiving Day and finish everything than it is to restrain yourself and eat pie for half of December.

  • Eat at a Solid Deficit for a Few Days – For a few days after the feast you should eat at a solid caloric deficit for a few days to help shed the few pounds you’ve inevitably put on. By solid I’m suggesting something around the neighborhood of 1,000 – 1,500 Calories below maintenance per day. Make protein comprise the majority of your calories, keep drinking as much water as possible and keep taking your fish oil (about 5g per day). If you stick to this for two to three days, maybe until Monday at most, you can remove most of the fat you put on at Thanksgiving.

  • Don’t Work Out Too Hard – This sounds counter-intuitive, but after that big of a carb heavy binge you’re going to bloated, may be dealing with some inflammation or dehydration depending on your alcohol consumption and your immune system may well be shot since you probably won’t have slept much on account of the Black Friday madness and you may also be stressed out of your mind from travel or family. Top all of this with the caloric deficit you should be hitting for a few days and you’re really in no state to be doing heavy lifting.

    Instead, do some light bodyweight exercises, take some long walks and relax a little. Take this time to do light activities, get plenty of sleep and recover. Once you’re feeling back to 100% you can hit the barbells and the hill sprints again.

These are just a handful of tips to help mitigate some of the damage most people dread from their giant Thanksgiving feasts. The most important thing is to not stress out so much over gaining a few pounds that you miss out on the chance to enjoy quality time with loved ones and to reflect on all the things you have in life to be thankful for.

Do you have any tips you like to use to keep the weight off during Thanksgiving or any other holidays? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: DJWTwo

What You’re Probably Doing Right Now That’s Killing You

Two New Bottles by Brother O' Mara

Not all things that kill you are so clearly labeled.

There’s something you’re doing that’s making your life shorter. This is something that most of our U.S. readers do on average for at least 11 hours each day. It’s even something that I would bet you’re probably doing right now as you read this. Ready for the big revelation? Are you sitting down? Well then stand back up because that’s what’s killing you – sitting.

Yes, you heard me right. The more you sit in a day the sooner you are likely to die.

The Slow Seated Death

So what’s the big deal? Can sitting really be killing me?

As it turns out, yes, it can. More and more studies are being done and they all confirm that, even after correcting for other lifestyle choices such as diet, physical activity and whether or not participants smoked, people who sat 11 hours or more per day were 40% more likely to die within the next three years than those who sat less than 4 hours per day.

Another study showed that those who sat for greater than 6 hours but still exercise were 37% more likely to die than those who spent less than 3 hours seated and exercised. When you compare the groups that exercise with sample groups who didn’t, you find the people who sat for 6 hours and didn’t exercise were 94% more likely to die and those who sat for 3 hours were 48% more likely to die than the group that sat the least and exercised.

For the statistically inclined the studies in question came up with P-values of <0.00001. For the non-statistically inclined this means that the correlation between sitting and increased mortality would not occur simply at random 99.999% of the time. In other words, the studies here are statistically significant. They also showed a strong dose-response association which means that the bigger the dose (the longer you sit) the bigger the response (the more likely you are to die).

Even more concerning is the fact that these studies indicate that the effect of exercise done around the long blocks of sitting don’t cause a very large statistical difference in the mortality rates for those who sit a lot. That means that while it’s still important to be exercising you can’t fully out-exercise the negative results of spending all day planted in a chair, at a desk or on the couch.

While it may not sound like a big deal compared to the increased chance of death, sitting all day also drastically stretches and extends your glutes (your butt muscles) and shortens and tightens your hip flexors (the muscles that you use to take a step forward).

When you place a muscle in its weakened, stretched position and leave it there for long periods of time the muscle itself becomes weaker and inactivated. That means it can’t produce as much force. Conversely, when you hold a muscle in a shortened position it becomes tight and overactive.

This imbalance in the force-couple relationship between your glutes and hip flexors causes a whole host of problems ranging from severely limiting your range of motion on exercises like the squat to causing the knee to bend medially to causing lower back pain and predisposing you to ACL tears. All of these are very bad.

Fixing The Problem

The first step in making this right is to recognize just how much you sit in a day. If you’re like the average office worker or student it’s probably a lot – particularly if you get home and chase it with couch time. The first step is going to be taking active measures to reduce the total time on your tush.

One of the ways to do that is to work at a standing desk. Now it should be noted that other studies have shown spending an excessive amount of time standing in one spot without moving around can be fairly detrimental to your health as well, so a standing desk is no panacea. As long as you recognize that you need to take occasional breaks to move around, stretch, walk some laps or do a little mobility work the standing desk will make a huge difference. Some people have even go so far as to create treadmill desks so they can walk slowly while they work.

If you’re not ready for that kind of change or don’t want to be the only person in your office with a weird desk, find some way to set a reminder to get up for at least 5 minutes every half hour. Set an alarm on your computer or watch or buy a $2 egg timer if you have to, but obey what it tells you and get up for 5 minutes twice every hour.

You don’t have to go sprint or anything, just getting up and walking around to break up the long blocks of sitting has been shown to have a real positive effect on people’s health.

Lastly, if you’re ready to start restoring power to your inactive glutes and stretching out those tight hip flexors start spending a few minutes each day in a proper squat stretch or indigenous squat and in the couch stretch. These two alone don’t take very long and when done for a few minutes daily will go a long way to correcting the mobility issues created by years of sitting. Doing some foam rolling on your glutes, TFL and adductors wouldn’t hurt either.

In our office we have a standing desk set up with three positions so that we can work standing, work while in a full squat or work sitting on the floor in full lotus or seiza. All these options, coupled with the fact that I’ve made hourly breaks an unbreakable habit, mean I’m never stuck in one position for too long and can still get all my work done.

All these are just some of the options for correcting the issues, the important thing is to be aware how profound of a negative effect being stuck in a chair all day can have and begin taking steps to fixing the problem. Have any other suggestions or a unique way you keep out of chairs all day? Share it with us in the comments, we’d love to hear it.

I’d also like to leave you with this infographic from Medical Billing and Coding because I think it sums everything up in a well-presented way.

How Sitting is Killing You

Photo Credit: Brother O’ Mara

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