Don’t take bad habits on holiday: Three tips to keep vacations good for your health

Don't take bad habits on holiday: Three tips to keep vacations good for your health

I remember being at an airport a couple of years ago and seeing a sign that made me laugh and think. “Vacation calories don’t count!” it exclaimed. For so many of us, vacations are a break from the routine. This doesn’t just include work but can extend to diet and exercise. We can see vacations as a free-for-all, a magical time period where calories don’t count and exercise is an inconvenience.

I get it. When on vacation, you want to indulge in the things that you normally wouldn’t touch when you’re at home. So how can you find a healthy balance? Here are three things you can do to make the most of your vacation while staying committed to maintaining your health goals:

Avoid the buffet — if possible

Whether you’re at an all-inclusive, on a cruise, or at a hotel, the lure of the buffet is an on-going temptation. Because of the choices on offer, it can be easy to go back and overindulge. But the days of the 99-cent buffet are long gone.  Today, buffets can be just as expensive as eating in a proper restaurant.

If a buffet is your only option, use smaller plates and focus on the foods you will really enjoy. Don’t look at a buffet as a FOMO experience — much of the same food will be available the following day. While there may be slight variations, by day two or three, you will know your buffet’s offerings by heart. Also, take advantage of the chefs to prepare fresh choices.

Eat local

As our world becomes increasingly commercial, it’s not surprising to see a familiar restaurant chain on the main street of your vacation destination. Instead of gravitating towards what you know, a holiday can be the opportunity to try something different and local. Find those little restaurants and eat like a local. This may require venturing off the resort, so get a recommendation from your hotel. People are eager to share their regional cuisine and culture. One of the best Chinese meals I ever had was in Cuba.

Eating local also means eating at different times of day. When in Spain, head out for dinner at 10 PM and don’t be afraid to ask questions as you peruse the menu. Eating is an adventure and while you might not like everything, you’ll definitely come home with one or two unexpected new dishes that you’ll be excited to incorporate into your routine.

Keep active

While you may not want to spend 30 minutes of your vacation on the treadmill at the hotel fitness centre, there are many ways to stay active on vacations. If you’re on a city break, walk as much as you can. You’ll see more and uncover hidden gems that you never thought you would experience. Walking immerses you in a new place and slows you down to take in your surroundings.

The same goes for exploring nature. Hiking, rock-climbing, zip-lining, discovering ruins, or paddling a canoe lets you experience different environments and landscapes — and reminds us all why we need to protect these places.

If you’re on a beach vacation, swimming can get your heart rate up. We’re not talking about mindless laps in the pool while dodging an unruly game of Marco Polo. Snorkelling can introduce you to a beautiful undersea world and the strange creatures that live there. Even walking along the beach provides resistance which can turn a leisurely stroll into an activity that raises your heart rate.

A vacation can be a break but it’s not an excuse to return to bad habits and destroy all your good work. By making sure that each indulgence is deliberate and taking the time to get some well-needed rest, you can come back home reinvigorated and ready to commit to yourself.  

Forget dancercise comparisons: appreciating barre for its isometric benefits

Barre exercise / Image source: Yoga journal
Barre exercise / Image source: Yoga journal

Forget dancercise comparisons: appreciating barre for its isometric benefits

Barre studios are springing up as quickly as spin studios were a couple of years ago. With strange socks with jelly grips and unitards that send you into Flashdance flashbacks, is this new fitness-dance hybrid for you? Will you have to learn difficult combinations and wear a tutu? What exactly is a barre class?

Barre classes combine strength training and cardio by focusing on small, isometric exercises. Isometric exercises are contractions of a particular muscle or group of muscles. During isometric exercises, the muscle doesn’t noticeably change length and the affected joint doesn’t move. Isometric exercises help maintain strength.

The barre is the primary prop used to balance while performing these isometric exercises. Depending on the class and instructor, you will also use very light weights (1 to 4 lbs), a strap, weighted balls, and those squishy exercise balls that only seem to exist in fitness studios.

Each class begins in the centre of the room and moves through a specific set of poses. You start with core (planks, modified push-ups), then move on to arms (small biceps curls, tricep extensions). Following this, you will find a place at a ballet bar and perform exercises that target your legs and glutes. Each exercise focuses on small pulses movements — you will hear “up an inch, down an inch” so many times — and works to fatigue.

There are a number of benefits to barre classes. It’s a challenging workout that focuses on tiny movements. You can be a fitness novice or an expert and still find yourself tired by the end of the hour class. The class is also good for joints as there are no high-impact components. Each studio seems to follow its own flow so once you have taken one class, you will have some idea what to expect. Of course, different instructors will change and modify based on preference and experience.

While barre classes do boast benefits like improved posture, muscle definition, weight loss, increased flexibility, and reduced stress, they really are no different from any enjoyable group exercise, yoga, or pilates class. The techniques are ballet-like but they won’t give you a dancer’s body. You will feel taller and stronger, more aware of your core and posture, but you won’t be asked to dance lead by the National Ballet of Canada. There are also a lot of squats, or pliés to use the correct ballet term — so if you suffer from knee issues this class may not be for you.

Like many group exercise classes, barre studios can be expensive and may require a monthly or class number payment commitment. Fortunately, the first class is often free so you can try out the class and determine if it’s a right fit. ClassPass (link to Committing to a class blog) also includes a number of barre studios and classes options to make this group fitness class more affordable.

And barre isn’t just for women. Like many lower impact studio classes, barre classes seem to predominantly attract women. However, all of us can benefit from an hour of tiny, exhausting movements, and being reminded how our abs work.

Assembling your care team: do you need bodywork specialists to supplement your personal trainer?

Massage therapist doing body work / image source: babymoonlex.com
Massage therapist doing body work / image source: babymoonlex.com

Assembling your care team: do you need bodywork specialists to supplement your personal trainer?

When you are assembling a care team, your personal trainer is at the center. They can assess your overall wellness holistically and your one-on-one work together can be complemented by other individuals with different skills and experience.

I find myself guiding my clients routinely to two specialists: a chiropractor and a massage therapist. Most personal trainers will have relationships with other bodywork specialists and can recommend them, if asked.

Why Chiropractors?

Chiropractors manipulate the spine. They believe that proper alignment of the body’s musculoskeletal structure will enable the body to heal itself. Manipulation is used to restore mobility to joints restricted by tissue injury or repetitive stress.

Following an initial assessment, a chiropractor will work with you over a period of time to address immediate issues. They recommend monthly assessments to proactively prevent issues from returning.

Why Massage?

Massage is a general term for pressing, rubbing and manipulating your skin, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Massage may range from light stroking to deep pressure. Studies of the benefits of massage demonstrate that it is an effective treatment for reducing stress, pain, and muscle tension.

There are many different kinds of massage from deep tissue to hot stone to reflexology. It may take time to find the right type of massage and the right therapist. Every therapist has their own specialty so see what feels best for you and your body. Some practitioners have a variety of massages they offer so learn what is in your therapists’ skill set.

Both massage and chiropractic work can be covered by workplace benefit plans. Like visits to most specialists, your initial appointment will be longer and potentially more expensive. In this assessment, be clear about why you were referred and even demonstrate some of the exercises your trainer has shown you. Like any relationship, working with a chiropractor or massage therapist relies on honesty. Your therapist will look for cues of discomfort during your treatment but nothing replaces clear feedback.

From craniosacral therapy to osteopathy, I feel it’s essential to explore bodywork specialties and try them out myself. This way, I can provide you with an unbiased recommendation and we can discuss whether or not this would be a beneficial addition to your regular care routine. It can be easy to start making appointments with multiple therapists but research and recommendations can help you avoid adding too many people to your wellness payroll.

Video: Joseph Cipriano, DC

Chaga mushrooms: the newest superfood?

Chaga mushroom / Image source: Medical News Today
Chaga mushroom / Image source: Medical News Today

Chaga mushrooms: the newest superfood?

It feels like a new superfood is celebrated every three months. From Acai berries to celery juice, superfoods come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges. It can be hard to keep track of the benefits of these exalted products — and separating the hype from the healing benefits.

Chaga, a type of mushroom, feels like 2019’s new entry into the superfood cycle. It  is believed to open blood vessels, lower blood pressure, enhance healing, and reduce diabetic blood-sugar levels. Chaga is naturally anti-fungal, anti-viral, and anti-Candida, which helps to keep foreign bacteria and microorganisms in check while promoting healthy flora and intestinal health. Increasingly, researchers are examining the possibility that chaga mushrooms may be able to prevent cancer and slow its growth.

Although chaga consumption does not commonly produce adverse side effects, there are still some precautions you should take. There is some uncertainty in how it interacts with prescription medication. Chaga may affect blood-thinning drugs (such as aspirin) due to its unique properties — slowing down blood clotting due to its blood-thinning characteristics. Another drug that can react negatively with chaga is insulin. Because chaga lowers blood sugar, it can be dangerous for people taking insulin and other blood-sugar-lowering medications.

Chaga mushroom is available as a supplement and in herbal teas. We always recommend moderation when introducing any new food into your diet — even one with so many healthy properties. You just don’t know how you will react, and everyone has different sensitivities.

If you are curious, you can purchase chaga from your trusted health food store or online retailer. Just make sure that you are using a reliable source. A buying guide to chaga is available here:  https://chaga101.com/chaga-buying-guide/.

Measuring your progress means finding the right way to measure

Don't let the scale be the only measure of your progress. / Image source: Pixabay
The way your clothes fit you can be a great measure of progress. / Image source: pixabay.com

Measuring your progress means finding the right way to measure

You step on the scale … and the results are enough to reinforce all that negative self-talk.

It feels like you will never reach your goals. You don’t see enough progress and get frustrated. Is it time to throw in the towel and give up? Do you need another pep talk about how you aren’t working hard enough, how you don’t have will power, and aren’t committed to achieving what you’ve promised yourself?

But the scale doesn’t tell the whole story.

It’s impossible for those numbers to tell you that you’re losing the right kind of weight in the right kind of places. There are so many other aspects to consider, including how you look, feel, and where the weight loss is coming from — your muscles or your stored fat.  

If you count out the scale, how else can you measure your progress? What are the markers you can use to ensure that you’re moving in the right direction?

  1. Use Measurements

Scales don’t track muscle or fat. Even those body-fat calibration scales aren’t entirely accurate. If you are interested in seeing how your body composition has changed, take measurements over time. Using a tape measure to capture your waist, hips, chest, biceps, thighs, or calves can demonstrate how you are reshaping your body.

  1. Take photos

Everyone loves a good before and after photo. If you don’t mind posing for the camera, get a friend or loved one to take a picture of you in the same outfit over time. You can see how these items of clothing fit differently and how your body composition shifts over time. Being committed to a photo shoot every month can help you see the results that those numbers on the scale gloss over.

  1. Small Activity goals

By gradually increasing your reps, your weights, or your endurance, you will be able to experience your progress. If you were lifting 10 lbs with one arm and your trainer moves you up to 15 lbs, how can you not be getting stronger? If you are using a running app like Couch to 10K and you find yourself running more than walking, how is this not progress? It’s hard when we’re in our own bodies to assess how far we’ve come, so take a moment to realize how much you’ve accomplished … and then set your next goal.  

  1. Know your numbers

At your next physical, get your key markers of heart health like blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and waist circumference. These numbers are key to understanding what your healthy lifestyle is doing in your body. More important than the number of your size tag, these heart health numbers can help you refine how you eat and exercise. This is the real reward for all your hard work — living longer in a body you deserve.

While I don’t necessarily recommend throwing out the scale, it’s essential that it’s not the only way we measure success. If you must weigh yourself, I recommend stepping on the scale only once a week at the most.

Our bodies are complicated machines and always in flux. There are other ways to calibrate success rather than these numbers that may undo all your good work.

Jesus and the Apostles didn’t binge at the Last Supper, and neither should you

Repeat after me: Jesus did not binge. / Image source: glittergraphics.org
Repeat after me: Jesus did not binge. / Image source: glittergraphics.org

Jesus and the Apostles didn't binge at the Last Supper, and neither should you

Have you ever decided to start a diet on a Monday and spent the entire weekend indulging in everything that you will not be able to eat once the diet begins? It’s not surprising that if you are about to embark on a restrictive diet, you want to eat all the foods that will be off limits. From a string of chocolate bars to stuffing ourselves at a family gathering, we promise once the diet begins we will say goodbye to the sugar, fats, carbs, and processed treats that we love so much.

But this sabotages our diets before they begin.

Last Supper Syndrome is part of the vicious dieting cycle. If you are going to experience famine, why wouldn’t you feast? This knowledge drives you to eat as if you will never be able to eat these special treats again. And we begin our new diet with feelings of guilt, punishment, and fear.

We know we shouldn’t feel that eating healthy is something negative. But if we focus on deprivation and dividing food up into positives and negatives, we are stuck in a constant cycle:

  1. Start the diet feeling unhappy and scared, focusing on forbidden foods
  2. Break down and eat something that isn’t permitted by the diet
  3. Feeling guilty about failing
  4. Make a plan to diet even harder the next time.
  5. Go back to step 1.

By falsely associating the foods we love with relaxation and happiness (and associating diet with the hard work and effort), we fool ourselves on a regular basis. If we are going to succeed, we need to create a healthy relationship with food.

Foods aren’t good or bad — those are just the labels that we put on them. By making your special forbidden foods part of your regular diet, they will lose their appeal. After all, how many times do you swear off pasta and find yourself thinking of pasta…all the time? These associations that come with deprivation only build a bigger mystique and entice us to break our commitment to clean eating.

Developing a healthy relationship with food can be a lifelong challenge. From comfort to reward to a signifier of celebration and companionship, detangling nourishment from emotions is a difficult process. By thinking about how we view food and examining its hold on our emotions, we can start one meal (or even one snack) at a time to evaluate this relationship.

Being healthy isn’t about consuming as much as possible before an arbitrary start date. It’s about being kind to your body and your mind and untangling ourselves from the constant diet cycle.

With weight training, it’s not how much you lift, but how well you lift it

Weight training / image source: Isabella Mendez / pexels.com
Weight training / image source: Isabella Mendez / pexels.com

With weight training, it's not how much you lift, but how well you lift it

No matter if you are a beginner or a pro, the benefits of weight training are far reaching and long-lasting. We’ve debunked the myth that weight training makes you bulky  and have emphasized its importance as part of a balanced fitness regime.

You might learn weight training techniques by watching friends or others in the gym, but sometimes what you see isn’t safe. Incorrect weight training technique can lead to sprains, strains, fractures and other painful injuries that may hamper your weight-training efforts.

Proper form matters — and this starts from the moment you take your weight from the rack. The better your form, the better your results. If you find your neck kicking in when you should be using your arms, decrease the weight or the number of repetitions.

If you’re new to weight training, work with a personal trainer who can introduce you to the basics of proper technique. They will be able to instruct you on good form and even provide modifications to accommodate any injuries.

If you are using classes like Body Pump or another group barbell workout to introduce you to weight training, start with light weights. This way you can focus on the instructor’s (or virtual instructor’s) technique. Your instructor will demonstrate good form and give you many verbal cues throughout the workout. Once you’ve conquered the mechanics, you can move on to heavier, more challenging weights.

If you’ve been using weights for a while, consider scheduling time with a trainer to double-check your technique and identify any changes you may need to make. We all get into patterns and our bodies can compensate for weaknesses. This can result in incorrect technique and potential damage. Even trainers can use a check-in with another professional to correct bad habits and assess technique. There are always small adjustments that can be made to improve alignment and efficiency.

By prioritizing good form over heaviness of weight or amount of repetition, you will get more out of your weight training workout. You will protect yourself from injury and build a foundation for future success.

What happens when the whole idea of exercise triggers anxiety?

Is there a link between exercise and anxiety? / Image source: 3steplifestyle.com
Is there a link between exercise and anxiety? / Image source: 3steplifestyle.com

What happens when the whole idea of exercise triggers anxiety?

It’s difficult not to be anxious in these turbulent times. Just turning on the news can trigger any number of emotional events. For those of us who suffer from anxiety, the outside world can be a scary place when matched with our internal predisposition for catastrophic thinking.

Recent studies have found that exercise can significantly help you reduce anxiety. Scientists believe regular aerobic exercise decreases overall levels of tension, elevates and stabilizes mood, improves sleep, and elevates self-esteem. While there’s no one single reason why exercise helps, we know it increases endorphins. These natural painkillers reduce stress and make us feel good about ourselves.

But what if the idea of exercise causes anxiety?

Being afraid to start something new or even getting back into exercise can be a source of anxiety. We judge and compare ourselves to others who effortlessly pick up moves or look like they were born to be at the front of the class. We can’t even imagine that these people were ever crippled by self-doubt as they approach the gym like a second home. Insecurity matched with our personal narratives about fitness can create more fear. A vicious cycle keeps you from engaging and your brain reinforces these negative relationships.

The best advice is to start off small. Instead of turning to rigorous routines that get your heart rate up, look into activities that you may enjoy. You might benefit from a calming environment instead of a competitive one. Activities like spin, with darkened rooms and loud music, can provide overstimulation for some people — while others will take comfort in the darkness  and the way the class relies on predictable routines. Hot yoga can feel claustrophobic with soaring temperatures — but many classes follow a set sequence of poses which can alleviate the worry of what comes next.

Your first step in using exercise to help alleviate anxiety is to find a routine that works for you. Routine removes surprises and putting yourself in uncomfortable situations. Try to exercise frequently for smaller amounts of time so you don’t feel overwhelmed. Then focus… concentrate on every movement you make, your breath, and being fully present. Even if you are just going to a walk, make every step count.

Using exercise to combat anxiety doesn’t need to make you feel more anxious. If you are working with a personal trainer, open up and let them know what you’re dealing with. They can modify your workout to improve both your mental and physical well-being.

Top 5 things to look for in food tracking apps

food tracking app / image source: damnripped.com
food tracking app / image source: damnripped.com

Top 5 things to look for in a food-tracking app

There are countless fitness apps that promise to make tracking your diet and exercise fast and easy. Some boast five star reviews and testimonials while others appear with nothing less than a brief description. Like many of you, I’ve downloaded an app or two (or twelve…) only to find it unsuited to my needs. Lack of instructions, a small food database, unintuitive interfaces, and ads can all turn your new fitness companion into something that is quickly uploaded to the cloud and forgotten.

The goal of any fitness app should be that it is something you want to actually use. Tracking a meal should take no more than five minutes. Otherwise, it’s a hindrance and not a help.

Here are five things to look for when deciding which app is right for you:

  1. It is has scanning functionality. This is probably the most important element you want in your tracking app. By allowing the app to connect with your camera, it can quickly scan and input nutritional information directly from labels. You won’t have to complete the fields of calories, fats, carbohydrates, and protein. Scanning makes it simple to enter your meal.
  2. It’s been around for a while. A more established app will have a greater database of food to choose from. Many popular apps allow users to add new items to an aggregated database so there’s more chance a barcode or restaurant item is recognized in the future.
  3. It remembers your favourite and previous meals. When we start making more conscious diet choices, there’s a strong chance we are going to be eating the same things more frequently. Apps that allow you to save your favourite foods, recognize previous meals, or allow you group commonly used items will save you time.
  4. It fits your goals. Whether you’re calories counting or just tracking to figure out what food gives you heartburn, there’s an app for that. With so many specific dietary choices, you want to find the right app for you. This means there’s no point downloading a keto-specific app if you are practicing intuitive eating. If you like to share and get support from a community, many apps highlight this. Others will never prompt you to share with virtual friends. Do your research about the features of different apps to understand what makes them special.
  5. It is clear about its payment structure. It may say “free” in the little bubble next to the download button but does that mean you’ll be bombarded with ads that will prevent you from getting to the next screen? Some apps will give you initial access to a full version of the app for a limited time before it locks you into a monthly payment plan or a lite free version. There are plenty of free apps that may fit your needs but there are also paid upgrades that are more aligned with your goals. This decision is yours to make so don’t be fooled into paying for automatic fees or subscriptions if it’s not valuable.

It may take a while to sift through the many food tracking apps out there but there is one out there that’s perfect for you.

What food tracking apps have you benefited from—and which ones would you recommend against? Let us know so we can compile a list and get others on the right tracking track!

Economics 101: is joining a gym worth the investment?

Is a gym membership worth the investment? / Image credit: Victor Freitas
Is a gym membership worth the investment? / Image credit: Victor Freitas

Economics 101: is joining a gym worth the investment?

Thinking of joining a gym?

Last week, we talked about how to make New Year’s resolutions that last longer than February 1st. If you’ve taken my advice, you’ve focused on a single resolution with small, realistic changes. We’ve also discussed setting SMART goals and how having a measurable goal makes it easier to keep track of your progress.

If your resolution is to train for that 5K, lose 20 pounds, or take a new fitness class, you might be thinking of joining one of the big box gyms that are found on almost every main intersection. They are convenient and provide you with both cardio and weight machines. They also offer a range of classes from boxing to dance. For some people, the gym is a one-stop-shop for everything fitness. For most, they are a terrible investment.

While membership fees vary, the industry-wide average falls in at $58 per month, or $696 per year. On top of the monthly fee, some gyms often tack on an “annual fee” (paid at the start of each new membership cycle), and an “initiation fee” (a one-time fee that can run as high as $250, due upon signing).

If you were to use the gym seven times a week, every week, you would be getting a great deal. However, a study run by UC Berkeley economists found that while members anticipate visiting a gym 9.5 times per month, they only end up going 4.17 times per month. That works out to 50 visits per year.

If you are serious about achieving your goals but don’t want to pay for something that you don’t use, think about the role the gym will play in your workout schedule. What does it offer that you currently need? Will you be joining just for a place to run while the weather is cold, or do you want the guided instruction of classes?

If it’s to take a specialized class, are there other studios dedicated to this activities that can fill the gap (e.g., spin, crossfit box, or yoga studio)? These places don’t have monthly maintenance fees and work on different payment schedules. You can find group fitness classes to fit your budget and figure out which studio or activity best fits your goals.

If you are looking for a place to run and lift weights on your own, there are several contract-free gyms in Toronto. With low monthly fees and no perks, you might miss your scented towels, but you will have a basic gym with well-maintained equipment.

Finally, consider building your own home gym. If you have the space, you can turn that spare room — or even spare corner — into your perfect gym. Investing in durable pieces of gym equipment may feel like an initial expense, but once you add up the payments, it’s a great investment. And if you don’t want to commit to purchasing a cardio machine, free weights from Winners or Canadian Tire are a good starting point. There are many apps (free and paid) that can take you through heart-pounding workouts and require minimal equipment. Buy a wall-mount bracket for your tablet so you don’t have to keep checking your phone during a workout. You can also use this during your cardio sessions to replace those gym televisions which always have poor reception or shows you can’t change.

Joining a gym gives you a place to work out, but is it your best fitness investment? The truth is that it may be. You might like the convenience, classes, and services. However, for many people, being stuck in a contract will result in overall frustration. Figure out what role the gym will play before you give them access to your bank account.