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What is Fitness Success?

business-idea-1240830_1920What is success? Long-term success means different things to different people, but I will share what my idea of fitness success looks like.

A measurable form of fitness success is that you’ve achieved a reasonable goal and maintained it for at least a year. I hate to break this to you, but maintenance can be the most challenging part of your fitness journey. Maintaining your results is truly believing that you deserve to feel great. It is making the conscious decision not abuse your body with food and inactivity (or excessive exercise) when you’re feeling upset or stressed. Success is that your physical and mental health are at the top of your priority list.

Success is continuing on your journey with contentment and not beating yourself up over the small stuff. Nobody feels motivated to exercise every day all the time. We all experience those cold, rainy days when you’re snuggled up on the couch or in bed and nothing in the world feels better. Or work has been wearing you down and all you want is to put on your pjs and binge watch tv. Whether or not you take that day off is irrelevant. One day off is not going to make or break your journey. It’s whether or not you get back on track tomorrow and the next day that will define your success.

Success is also not being terrified to go off track for fear of never making it back. While you should not allow peer pressure to determine whether or not you go off of your program, you should be able to deviate every once in a while if you choose to do so. Success is having the confidence that you can go off plan for a brief period of time and be able to come back and continue on your journey with focus and strength. Going off course should be a planned deviation entirely by your choice and entirely under your control.

Success is not allowing external influences to derail you. Whether you have kids, pets, work in an office, work from home, spouse, travel, we all have excuses and reasons to not exercise or eat well. We all have social events with great food and friends that push alcoholic drinks making it difficult to not over indulge. The difference between individuals that are successful on their fitness journeys and those that are not is a decision to stay the course. Repetitive decisions to stay committed slowly become second nature. Second nature then becomes a lifestyle. Choose to be successful, and you will be 🙂

Ashley Brodeur, MS, CPT
Owner, Active Lifestyle Fitness, LLC

Importance of a Warm Up

leg-swingLet’s get to it already! might be what you’re thinking as you run in from work ready to burn off some stress – or drag through the door ready to get it over with. The warm up might seem unnecessary or redundant in this mindset. I challenge you to approach your workout and your warm up with a different mindset: peace, focus, and preparation.

I find that if a strain or sprain occurs, it’s usually at the beginning of a workout. A lot of people run in from work after sitting in traffic anxious, annoyed, stressed, etc. The stress of the day (or thinking of the day ahead) sits on their shoulders and tightens their muscles. Tight, stressed muscles and joints are injured easily, and this is a reason why the warm up is extremely important to set the tone of the workout. Use your warm up as time to settle your mind and focus on being present in every movement.

During a warm up, you are also shifting blood flow to your muscles in order to enhance the delivery system of what they will need to perform your workout. Your blood carries special “packages” of nutrients and water that your muscle needs in order to contract and move your body. If the special packages haven’t arrived when needed, your muscular system can’t function properly and injury can occur. This can also happen if you’re not getting the proper nutrients in your daily food intake (if there isn’t enough in your system, it’s certainly not being delivered), but that’s another topic for another day!

Your warm up should be about 5-10 minutes long. It takes longer to warm up the body with age and in cold temperatures, so also take those variables into consideration. Your warm up should consist of exercises or movements that you are already familiar with – this is not the time to do new and crazy things. This is 5-10 minutes for your mind and body to connect. This is a time to shift blood flow to the areas you will need it and move your joints through full range of motion after they’ve been stiff all day/night. This is a time for you to leave your problems at the door and “check in” to your workout. Never skip your warm up!

Why you need to stretch after barre class!

figure-4-stretchLife is busy. We are often trying to cram our workouts in between errands and work just to get everything done that we need to do. It may seem that stretching at the end of your workout ranks low on your list of priorities and can easily be skipped, but I would strongly encourage you not to. Here are some reasons why:

1) Barre class is high repetition work, making the muscles short and tight. It’s important to spend a few minutes encouraging those muscles to return to resting length. Walking around with short, tight muscles WILL lead to injury.

2) Stretching promotes blood flow to the muscles. Barre training is intense muscle work, and we need nutrients to quickly return to those muscles to begin repair. If you’re looking to shape and sculpt your body, you need to assist in the repair process!

3) Stretching brings your heart rate and blood pressure down. Too many of us suffer from anxiety and stress that raises cortisol levels, leading to illness, injury, and making it difficult to build muscle and lose body fat. Taking a few minutes and “reset” your mind and body after your workout will benefit you today AND tomorrow.

4) You are supporting the people around you in completing the “journey” of your class. It’s important to end an intense class in a “zen” place, and by stretching at the end of class, you are enhancing the positive energy in the room and supporting your class members in their journey. Your class members will appreciate you completing the experience with them!

These are just a few of MANY reasons why stretching is important after your barre class (or any exercise session). Stretching has a lot to do with getting the results you want for your body. It may feel unproductive compared to the intense muscle burn during barre class, but stretching will benefit you in many other ways. And if you don’t do it for you, do it for those around you to encourage the “zen” of the space and the essence of teamwork!

Muscle vs Fat Myths

musclevsfatweb-300x300In the quest for good health and fitness, it’s important to understand what your body is actually doing while you’re watching it change. There are a few myths regarding muscle and fat that are still circulating. Here is some info about these common myths:

1) Does muscle weigh more than fat? I always answer this question with a question. What weighs more: a ton of bricks or a ton of feathers? Answer: they weigh the same. Which takes up more space: a ton of bricks or a ton of feathers? Answer: a ton of feathers. Muscle, like bricks, are more dense and take up less space. If you gain 5lbs of muscle and lose 5lbs of fat, you will weigh the same, but your body will be smaller!

2) When you lift weights, you turn fat into muscle. Fat and muscle are two entirely different tissues, so there is no converting one into the other. When you first start a resistance training program, you are building muscle and losing fat simultaneously, which causes the change you see in your body shape.

3) I just want to “tone” my muscles. The word “tone” when used in reference to exercise is a marketing term to sell fitness programs to women that are scared of looking like a bodybuilder in a magazine. “Toning muscle” by that definition is not an action that your body can perform. You can build muscle and lose fat to get visible muscle definition, which is usually the look women want when they use the word tone. And, it takes years of focus and dedication to look like a bodybuilder in a magazine. It doesn’t happen to anyone by accident!

Why Exercise Isn’t Making You Skinny

bigstock-Tired-Woman-Sweating-After-Run-52155052-1How many times have you had a particularly active day and said to yourself, “Well, I walked a lot today, so I can eat this burger and fries.” Do you go on bike rides in the summer and the end goal is the ice cream stand? Have you run 3 miles or more, and then indulged in the pizza you’ve been craving? I hate to rain on your parade, but, you will only gain fat with this behavior.

You’re not burning as many calories as you think you are. Calm down with that calorie counter on your wrist – it’s usually lying to you. A common misconception is that, because you feel exhausted after a workout, you burned a lot of calories and need a big re-feed. This is not usually the case.

You’re eating back more calories than you actually burned. Let’s say, in reality, you burned 350 calories running a 5k race. One small slice of pizza will add back about the same number of calories… but did you really eat just one small slice of pizza?

All “calories” are not created equal. I wish fat loss was as simple as calories in, calories out, but it’s not. By eating junk at the end of your workout, you’re putting an immediate halt on your fat burning process. Your body is looking for specific nutrients at that time to repair and restore. Feed it quality calories, and your metabolism will reap the benefits later.

In summary, please remove any thoughts from your mind that equate exercise with junk food! It’s not about “how much exercise do I have to do so I can eat this?” It’s about how you can most effectively build your metabolism and optimize your body functions. This process starts with a mindset of exercise as a benefit, not a justification!

The dumbest thing I’ve done

Many fitness professionals have a difficult time looking at their own bodies as objectively as they do with clients. I have fallen into this category on several occasions. We have the knowledge, we put together a plan, we do corrective exercises, and we push beyond our limits. But, like 16 year olds with license to drive, we think we are invincible… until our bodies remind us that we are human, just like everyone else. To date, one of the dumbest things I’ve done to my body as a fitness professional was that I stopped deadlifting when I started running. If you are a runner that battles with cross-training, you will understand my case.

deadliftI had never been interested in distance running, but I decided to start training for 5ks about 3 years ago. I didn’t want to be sore or in recovery from a workout when I had to run, but I knew it was neglectful to cut my lower body training, so I put some “maintenance leg work” in my weekly workouts. I didn’t know at the time that my 1″ leg length discrepancy with this type of training program would result in sacroiliac joint dysfunction, which led me to 3 years of lower back pain.

In 2009, before I started running, I had my best deadlift PR at 305lbs. I spent a little over a year training for that and I loved every minute of it. My body and my mind love deadlifting. In hindsight, when I was deadlifting regularly, the muscles surrounding my SI joints were strong and capable of stabilizing my pelvis. When I finally figured out this new non-deadlift training program was causing me damage, and hours of sitting at a desk in grad school exacerbated the issue, I was stuck in a cycle of back pain I couldn’t get out of. It has taken 2 months after graduation to finally report that my back pain is gone and I started deadlifting again. I had spent a lot of time on my Rumble Roller, stretching, getting deep tissue massages, and seeing the chiropractor over those 2 months.

The moral of this story is not to tell you not to run, or that you have to deadlift. The moral of this story is that everyone’s body is different, and each body has its own quirks and kinks. Your body will tell you what it likes and what it doesn’t like, and you should always listen! I do not believe we are all built to be runners, nor do I believe we are all built to be weight lifters, for example. If you are doing something that your body is not responding positively to, stop doing it. Just because Jane Smith loves her xyz workout doesn’t mean it’s going to make your body happy. Find what your mind and body agree on, and love your workouts!

Muscular Endurance vs Strength

Workout programming can be based on muscular endurance or muscular strength (or segments of both). Incorporating both into your weekly routine can help you build and maintain a well-rounded body. Some workouts are meant to be performed at a fast pace for longer durations with minimal resistance (endurance) while some are meant to be performed at a slow pace for shorter durations with greater resistance (strength). Before we break it down a bit further, here are some examples of endurance and strength training at Active Lifestyle Fitness:

Muscular Endurance:
Indoor Cycling
Boot Camp

Muscular Strength:
Guts & Butts/Guns
Small Group*

*(sometimes also includes segments of muscular endurance training)

Booty BarreMuscular endurance is defined as the ability to sustain a muscular effort for an extended period of time (1). This type of training can be beneficial to you in every day life performing tasks such as raking leaves, shoveling snow, and climbing stairs. Success in a Cycling class, for instance, is being able to maintain the RPMs recommended by the instructor at a given resistance. The resistance will be different for everyone, but if it’s causing a decrease in your RPMs, you should lower the gear. Similarly, success in a barre class is being able to to do all of the repetitions to the beat of the music. The arm segment has added resistance (dumbbells and bands), but if you’re not able to perform all of the repetitions to the beat of the music, you should lighten the resistance.

Muscular strength is defined as the maximal force a muscle or muscle group can generate (1). This type of training can be beneficial to you in every day life performing tasks such as moving boxes or furniture and picking up your children. There are many ways to design a strength training program so it’s important to consult with your instructor, but generally speaking, you should feel a struggle to complete the reps at the end of a set while maintaining proper form. If your resistance is not high enough to feel this struggle, your strength will not increase. Also, if you are trying to fly through a strength workout without adequate rest in between sets, you are not allowing enough time for your energy supply to re-generate (ATP) and will not be getting the most out of your workout.

It is important to understand the purpose of your workout as well as how to perform it properly. Your instructor will be able to help you gauge proper resistance, pace, and rest periods for each workout. All workouts do not have the same purpose. It may not be appropriate to use as much resistance as you can or to move as quickly as you can because our bodies have different types of muscle fibers that we train in different ways. It’s a good idea to take advantage of both muscular endurance and muscular strength training while making sure to follow the instructor’s guidelines for each!

(1) Boone, T. (2014). Introduction to Exercise Physiology. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, LLC.

Sciatica!… Or is it?

SciaticaSciatica is a catchy term often used when referring to low back pain that shoots into the hip or back of the leg… but is it really “sciatica”? Your first step should be to visit your doctor and have some tests done to determine what is causing the pain. A disc problem or other issue with the spine may be causing the nerve irritation and may need to be addressed by a specialist. If everything looks normal with your spine and you walk away without an answer, it may not be an issue with the nerve itself, but an issue with the muscles around the nerve.

Each of our muscles have a “job” and they work together to execute a movement. If one muscle isn’t doing its job, the result is usually pain. A muscle not doing its job is usually due to lack of strength and/or inhibition. When I meet with a client that reports sciatica-like symptoms and received no answers from the doctor, I almost always find weakness in the glutes and muscles of the hip. A tight muscle is compressing the nerve while another is not doing its job. We can often resolve this by correcting the imbalance, increasing range of motion, and performing myofascial release with a foam roller or working with a massage therapist.

Screen shot 2015-05-22 at 12.39.30 PMSacroiliac joint dysfunction is also often mistaken for sciatica. This is an issue related to the bones shifting in the back of the pelvis. Strengthening the abdominal muscles and muscles of the hips and low back can help to support the area, alleviate pain, and prevent subluxation. Stretching and myofascial release will also help in cases of SI joint dysfuction.

Often times we don’t think of exercise as a treatment for pain, but if you spend some time with a physical therapist or exercise specialist that is familiar with your issue, you may find that you are able to resolve the issue fairly easily. All exercise is not created equal, however, so it’s important to understand how your therapist or trainer is planning to resolve your pain. You will also find quicker and longer lasting recovery by combining exercise training (strength/flexibility) with massage therapy and/or chiropractic care.

How to Choose a Personal Trainer

The process through which some of the general public selects a personal trainer is faulty. Just like any service that you are paying for, you should choose someone who has the proper credentials and the proper experience to get you to your goal. Because many people aren’t sure what questions to ask (or are too intimidated to ask questions), they end up not seeing results and become skeptical of working with personal trainers. The only way to match up dedicated clients with GOOD trainers is to educate individuals outside of the fitness field about what qualifies us to do what we do.

General view of Personal Trainers 7/7/2013Personal Training Companies within a “gym”: beware of training companies who chase you around at the gym or “require” you to meet with them when you sign up. Many of these companies have become the “fast food” of personal training. The “menu” of exercises never changes, the service is poor, and you’re just a number in a line of clients. Ask these questions:

1) Will you always have the same trainer? If the answer is NOT “yes, absolutely” – move along. If you have 10 different trainers over the next 6 months, how are you supposed to make any progress?

2) Do you have to sign a contract? If you are unsure about whether or not you will like the trainer or the system, ask if you can purchase some trial sessions before you commit. Never sign yourself into a contract without having a good understanding of what you’re buying.

3) Ask to speak with the trainer you will be working with before you buy sessions (see below about questions to ask). If you’re not allowed to do that, move along.

4) Lastly, if you feel like you’re being pushed into buying training, move along. A good trainer will never pressure you into anything because we understand that you will ONLY see results when you are READY to commit.

The GOOD training companies are usually led by an experienced personal trainer that is selective about the trainers who work for him/her. This person will be more than happy to answer any questions you have and likely appreciative that you are doing research to make the best decision for you. You will often find these companies set up as independent training studios or privately owned gyms.

If you have found a trainer you might like to work with, here is what to look for:

1) Most importantly, do you LIKE the person? It sounds like a silly question but you will be spending a fair amount of time with this person and probably sharing some things about yourself that you might not share with other people. You want to make sure you can build a relationship based on trust with your trainer. Just like friends and co-workers, you won’t like every trainer you come across, even if they are well qualified.

2) Does this person sound like he/she is willing to work with your needs? Does the trainer seem distracted or flighty? Is the trainer asking you a lot of questions, listening to and understanding you… or is the trainer just talking AT you? You will NOT reach your goal by hiring a trainer that does not listen to you.

3) What are the trainer’s credentials? There are nationally accredited personal training certifications… and then there are certifications you can get in a cracker jack box. Some of the certifications I like and am familiar with are: ACSM, NSCA, ACE, NETA, WITS. This is not a complete list, but it’s important to be aware of whether your trainer has valid credentials.

4) How long have they been training? Would you hire a mechanic that just started working on cars last week? I would hope not, but, we all have to start somewhere. If the trainer has been in the field for less than 2 years and they are working within a good training company being mentored by an experienced trainer, you’re likely in good hands.

5) Are they experienced with clients similar to yourself and do they have testimonials and/or references? If you have a specific health issue or are training for a specific event, you can seek someone who has experience in that area though most trainers are versatile. A good trainer will be glad to give you references and/or VALID testimonials.

6) What’s the plan? You’re paying for it, so what is it?! A good trainer will be able to give you a general idea of how they will progress you toward your goal. Also, how will they track the progress? There must be a system in place.

7) Is the trainer trying to sell you on some kind of “miracle plan” pyramid scheme that consists of special supplements and a “lose weight fast” type of program? There is no replacement for hard work and healthful eating habits. If this is not the trainer’s belief system, move along. He/She is just trying to get you to empty your wallet exchange for short term results.

8) And lastly, and perhaps most obvious, if the fitness trainer is not “fit”, do not hire that person! Your trainer doesn’t have to look like a fitness model, but trainers must look like they practice what they preach!

Do not be shy about asking questions – it’s YOUR money and YOUR time! All personal trainers are NOT made equal. If something doesn’t feel right with one trainer, look for another. Make sure you choose the trainer that is right for you because it’s the difference between wasting money and achieving your goal!

Variety vs Muscle Confusion

muscleconfusionMuscle confusion suggests that by constantly changing the exercises and structure of your workouts, you will build muscle and lose fat.  Let me start with a brief explanation of the motor programming in our brain.  Our brain functions much like a computer.  A computer programmer will design a program to execute different functions, and those functions are always executed the same way.  For instance, if you double click on an icon on your desktop, it will always open your “finder” window because that’s the way the program is designed.  When we teach children to walk, we teach one foot in front of the other.  We help them to develop the “program” in their brains for walking.  As they continue to repeat the action of one foot in front of the other every time, the program becomes solidified and then they can build on that foundation with running, dancing, jumping, etc.  But what if we applied the concept of “muscle confusion” to teaching our children how to walk?  And instead of one foot in front of the other every time, we tried to teach them to run one day, dance another, and jump the third, expecting that this scattered “training program” will result in the child walking.  I’m guessing this would not only be a frustrating experience for both parent and child, but it would take the child much longer than necessary to learn how to walk.  This is because repetition builds the programming and muscle response necessary to optimally perform an action.

We are like children as adults except that we have developed more motor programs.  This doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t have to go through the same steps as children to develop new programs.  Think of how you first learned to do push ups.  Did you learn how to do them by doing shoulder presses and back rows?  Probably not, because only the repetitive motion of push ups with minor corrections over a period of time helped to develop the “push up programming” in your mind and muscle.  In summary, the concept of “confusing” your muscles does nothing to improve motor programming and, thus, muscle strength.

Please do not confuse the concept of muscle confusion with variety, however.  Shoulder presses and back rows will help to strengthen the muscles of your upper body which, in turn, will improve your push up form and strength.  But if that is all you do for your workouts, your strength development will plateau quickly.  You should not continue the same workout program with the same exercises for longer than 6-8 weeks.  At this point, your body has adapted and a change is needed.

Variety supports your strength in functional movement and basic fitness movements (such as squats, push ups, etc).  Variety also adds new challenges and keeps your workouts interesting.  I can find holes in any popular workout program where you are missing an important piece of training.  In other words, if you are only doing one type of exercise such as barre, yoga, CrossFit, cycling, running, etc, you are missing something that your body needs to stay balanced and strong!

Good fitness programming will have a combination of variety and repetitive exercises.  Do what you like as your core workout program and keep building strength in those movements, but don’t forget to add variety to keep your body balanced and strong.  And, variety is not confusion – confusion is just confusing!