May 31, 2011

Don't blame your trainer for poor results:

I recently turned down a prospective client who wanted to switch trainers.  She was unhappy with her current trainer, because after 6 months of training twice a week, she had not lost weight.  She did admit to shaving a few points off her blood pressure and cholesterol, but blamed her lack of weight loss on her trainer.  After some delicate questioning I learned that she did not work out on her own, and despite her trainer’s recommendation, she had not changed her eating habits at all.  I tried to be diplomatic, but she got angry when I suggested she stick with her trainer and listen to his advice to see a nutritionist and to work out additional days  
You may not want to hear it, but no matter what you do with a trainer, if you do not change your eating habits you are unlikely to lose any significant weight.  You also probably need to work out on your own, unless you can afford a trainer 6 days a week.  This is not new information, but it still seems we want easy fixes.  To lose weight, exercise alone will not do it, especially if it is only two or three days a week.  Exercise is the most important thing you can do to maintain weight loss, but you would need to do an incredible amount of exercise each day to lose weight from exercise alone. 
To lose weight and keep it off most people need nutritional help.  If you can afford it hire a Registered Dietician for some guidance. Make sure to check credentials; in most states anyone can call him or herself a nutritionist, but a RD must pass a national registration exam.  (This site will help you find a RD:   A less expensive option is Weight Watchers: (
 This is one of the most effective weight loss programs for the long term.  Weight Watchers teaches you to eat right when you have lost the weight.  Most people find keeping weight off is as hard as losing it, so programs with liquid diets, lopsided nutrition or fake foods are ineffective in the long run.  With Weight Watchers you can chose to go to meetings where you will get guidance and support, or you can sign up for their online program.  If you have struggled with weight issues for years I also recommend Overeaters Anonymous ( another effective organization that works on the buddy system to help you find your way.
Someday we will probably have magic pills for weight loss, but until then I am afraid a realistic diet combined with exercise is still the only way to get results.

May 22, 2011

Which is better; free weights or machines?

It is another enduring fitness question: which is better, machines or free weights?  My unequivocal answer is….. it depends.
Free weight exercises include dumbbells, cables, barbells and resistance bands.  Machines are devices that have fixed lever arms and weight stacks that you can change by moving a pin.  
The major advantages with machines are their ease of use and their support.  For those new to exercise, machines are less intimidating than dumbbells and barbells.  The support of a machine can help you work around injuries or a weak joint, and eliminates the need for a spotter.  You can isolate a muscle without involving other muscle groups.  If you are in a hurry, it is much easier to move a pin than to load a barbell.
These advantages can also be disadvantages.  The support of the machine eliminates the work of other muscle groups.  This means you burn fewer calories, and the exercises do not mimic movements you do in “real life”.  In addition, if you are very large or small there is a good chance the machine will not fit right.  You are limited in the movements you can do, which can cause mental and physical boredom.  You may also get a false sense of safety and lift a weight that is too heavy.  Free weights can help with balance, and they build whole body strength.  However, they can be hard to learn, and the risk of injury is greater; it is easier to carry out an exercise with poor form when using free weights.
How do you know which is best for you? Research has supported the superiority of free weights for improving balance, coordination and muscle strength (1).  However, if you are new to resistance training or injured, machines may be your best bet, especially if you work out alone.  If your goal is pure strength either will work; your muscles respond to load regardless of the source.  Whichever you choose you can make the most of your gym time by working at an appropriate level of intensity: If you soar through your workouts with no sweat neither will give you results.   It is fine to choose both, mixing it up make it more interesting, but once you get past the beginner stage, free weights should make up the bulk of your resistance workout.


May 15, 2011

Osteoporosis: What your doctor may not tell you:

If you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, your physician probably prescribed medication and advised you to take calcium, vitamin D, and to exercise.  However, there is a good chance that he or she did not tell you which exercises to do, and more importantly, which ones to avoid.  High impact activities such as running, sports with explosive twisting such as golf or tennis, as well as certain resistance exercises can put you at increased risk for a fracture.
Bone is living tissue and the stress from weight bearing exercise helps improve bone density. However, walking, biking and swimming do not have enough impact to cause stress to the bone.  So how do you get around this catch 22 of avoiding impact while strengthening the bones?  One solution is to walk with a weighted vest; this will increase the stress on the bones, without risks of high impact. (The vest has the additional benefit of increasing your calorie burn).  Step aerobics, incline treadmill walking, and elliptical trainers may also be beneficial to the bones without increasing your fracture risk.
Weight training is another effective way to help build bone (or at least slow the rate of bone loss), but several exercises are considered risky for those with osteoporosis.   Squats with heavy weights, forward flexion and twisting motions may increase the risk of fracture (especially with osteoporosis of the spine) so these exercises should be avoided or modified.  This includes traditional abdominal exercises such as crunches, so see the posts from November 2010 on some safe ways to work your abs.
Balance training (see post from April 1, 2011) is another important component of your fitness program.  Reducing your risk of falling will decrease your chance of a bone fracture.  Speak to your physician about exercise specifics, but you may need to see an osteoporosis specialist to find someone who is really on top of exercise details.  Exercise is an essential part in maintaining bone health, a diagnosis of osteoporosis should not be an excuse to stop.

May 5, 2011

Which comes first?

It is the fitness industry’s chicken or egg question: which to do first; aerobics or weight training?  In an ideal world, we would all have the time to do our aerobic and resistance training on separate days, but most of us are lucky to squeeze both into one session.  So is it better to do the aerobics or weight training first?
Most fitness experts suggest performing what is most important first. For example, if your goal is bodybuilding; lift weights first, if you are training for a race; the aerobics come first.  However, if your goal is to improve your health or lose weight, where should you start?
The research seems to point to doing the aerobic workout first.  The EPOC (excess post exercise oxygen consumption) is greatest when aerobics are done before resistance training.  The key, as usual, is intensity.  It seems the test subjects could maintain a higher intensity when they did their aerobic activity before lifting weights.  Therefore, they could burn more calories during and after exercise.  If you prefer a circuit or interval type workout where you alternate bouts of aerobics with weight training exercises, the research has shown a similar boost in EPOC if the workout is intense.
However, there is not an extreme difference between any of the sequences.  Variety and enjoyment are key to sticking with a fitness program, so feel free to change up the sequence and find what works best for you.

Drummond, M.J., Vehrs, P.R., Schaalje, G.B. and Parcell, A.C. (2005). Aerobic and resistance exercise sequence affects excess post exercise oxygen consumption. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19, 2, 332-337.

Chtara, M., et al. (2008). Effect of concurrent endurance and circuit resistance training sequence on muscular strength and power development. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22, 4, 1037-1045.