6 Swaps for More Efficient Workouts

Try This Instead of That!

  — By Jen Mueller, Certified Personal Trainer
Life is busy for most of us, and finding time for a workout can be challenging. When you do find that time, you want to make sure you’re getting the most ”bang for your buck,” meaning you’re being as efficient as possible with your workout program. By making some small changes to your current routine, you can increase your calorie burn, improve your fitness level and make your health-related goals even more attainable! Here are some ideas to get you started.

INSTEAD OF: Stationary biking 
TRY: Spinning
Stationary biking can be a great workout that’s low-impact and easy on your joints. But it can also be easy to get distracted by the TV show you’re watching or magazine you’re reading while pedaling. Before you know it, 15 minutes have gone by–and you’re not pushing nearly as hard or fast as you’d intended.

Spinning classes are a good option for staying focused and pushing yourself harder. It’s easy to dig deeper and keep going when you’re surrounded by other class participants, and it’s motivating to have an instructor calling out what to do and when to do it. There’s usually upbeat music to keep you moving, and it’s less tempting to cut your workout short when you’re in a room full of people. Plus, you’ll torch major calories–one study (sponsored by the American Council on Exercise) found the heart rates of each participant in an indoor cycling class to be between 75 percent and 96 percent of age-predicted heart-rate maximum, with the majority of the time spent on the higher end of the range. Although these classes might be too intense for a beginning exerciser, they are a good alternative for someone in a regular routine that’s looking for a challenge.

INSTEAD OF: The elliptical machine
TRY: The stair climber
The elliptical machine is designed to mimic a running motion in a low-impact way. This is a popular gym machine because it can be a challenging workout that’s easy on your joints. Many models allow you to change the incline and resistance, which can create a more intense workout. But it can be tempting to leave the resistance on a low setting and allow momentum to take over as you pedal as fast as you can.

Although the elliptical machine can give you a great workout when used appropriately, you might want to try the stair climber to bump up your intensity a notch. Stair climbers are more challenging than they look! You can’t let momentum take over on a stair climber since you have to make the effort to take each step. If you don’t hold the side rails, this can also be a great workout for your core as you work to maintain your balance. Although both the elliptical and stair climber are primarily lower body workouts, they use your muscles in different ways. So if you switch to this machine, you might notice the workout is more challenging than you expected, and your body could take some time to adapt.

INSTEAD OF: Walking at a constant pace
TRY: Walking intervals
Walking is a great form of cardiovascular exercise for a variety of reasons: It’s easy on your joints and easily accessible—plus, there’s no equipment or training needed! Walking also helps strengthen your heart, bones and joints. Starting with a consistent pace and slowly building up your distance and speed is a great way to challenge yourself and improve your fitness level. To get started, you can find a list of comprehensive resources in SparkPeople’s Walking Guide.

After getting comfortable in a regular walking routine, you might find it’s time to turn up the intensity.  Interval training is a great way to break out of your comfort zone and burn more calories. During one of these sessions, you’ll alternate between shorter, fast-paced walking intervals and longer, slower-paced recovery periods. When you vary your effort by mixing periods of high and low intensities during your workout, your fitness will improve faster and more dramatically—and your workouts will be less boring.  As you become fitter, you can slowly increase the fast-paced intervals and decrease the slow-paced intervals to give you an even greater calorie burn!

INSTEAD OF: Jogging in place
TRY: Jumping rope
Jogging in place is a convenient and easily accessible alternative when you don’t have other cardio options available. It won’t burn as many calories as regular jogging (since you don’t have to propel yourself forward with each step), but it’s certainly better than nothing in a pinch.

If you’re short on options and space, consider jumping rope instead.  Jumping rope has a huge calorie burn advantage over jogging in place. It is estimated that 10 minutes of jumping rope (at 120 turns per minute) has the same benefit as jogging for 30 minutes. Jump ropes are inexpensive, easy to store, and an easy way to add some challenging variety to your routine.

INSTEAD OF: Crunches
TRY: Planks
Crunches are a popular abdominal exercise, but it turns out they aren’t the most effective exercise for strengthening your core. The traditional crunch only targets your upper abdominal area, leaving out the obliques and lower abdominals. Crunches also go against the natural curve of your lumbar spine, which can end up causing back pain.

Planks not only strengthen all of your abdominal muscles, but also your shoulders and hips. Since the abdominal muscles are responsible for stopping motions (vs. starting motions) the plank is a more functional way to train these muscles, as it works them isometrically. There are a number of variations on the traditional plank which can help build functional strength in new and challenging ways.

INSTEAD OF: High reps, low weight
TRY: Low reps, high weight
When it comes to strength training, ”high reps, low weight” is a popular recommendation. The idea is to use a lighter weight so that you can perform a large number of repetitions of each exercise. While this can help build endurance, it’s not the most effective way to build muscle and strength. If you can do 100 squats or lunges, for example, it’s time to find a way to increase the intensity and decrease the number of reps.

Building muscle and strength doesn’t necessarily mean you want to look like a bodybuilder (which is very difficult to do without a lot of concentrated effort). A more effective use of your time is to decrease the number of repetitions and increase the weight. The general recommendation is 8-12 repetitions per set, with the final rep being the last one you can do with proper form. If you can easily keep going after finishing a set, it’s time to increase the amount of weight you’re using.

No matter what kind of workout you choose, make sure it’s something you enjoy! You’ll be much more likely to stick with your routine if you can look forward to your exercise sessions. Also keep in mind that after about 4-6 weeks of doing the same routine, your body starts to adapt to it. It’s important to change your workout routine regularly to avoid both fitness and weight-loss plateaus. Don’t be afraid to try something new!


American Council on Exercise. ”Indoor Cycling, America’s Hottest Fitness Craze, Geared for the Conditioned, New Study Finds,” accessed October 2014. www.acefitness.org.

American Council on Exercise. ”Reality Check: Are Planks Really the Best Core Exercise?” accessed October 2014. www.acefitness.org.

Original Article on SparkPeople.com

7 Times It’s OK to Skip a Workout

Stop Feeling Guilty When You Need a Break

  — By Erin Whitehead, Health and Fitness Writer
Sometimes when we miss a workout, we know full well that we are just making “the dog ate my homework” types of excuses that wouldn’t fool anyone—not even you! But then there are the times when we have a valid reason for skipping a workout. Sometimes life really does get in the way. Sometimes you really do have to skip a workout, and don’t need the extra guilt for doing so. You shouldn’t beat yourself up for missing a day or even a week (or more) of workouts if you have a legitimate reason to opt out. But you should check in with yourself so you know whether it’s a valid excuse or whether you should be a little tougher on yourself. To help you tell the difference, we’ve come up with a list of times you can totally pass on a workout—without feeling an ounce of guilt.

7 Justifiable Reasons to Miss a Workout
1. You just had a baby.
Having a baby is maybe the most valid reason for not working out. It’s typically recommended that you wait six weeks after giving birth before you work out and even longer if you’ve had a C-section. Your body is recovering from a major physical even and not only should you cut yourself some slack, but it can be dangerous to exercise too soon. Postpartum bleeding, called lochia, can continue well past the four-week mark, and overdoing anything can cause bleeding to increase. So heed your doctor’s advice and enjoy the baby. Don’t rush getting back into fitness until your body feels ready to take it on (and you have your doc’s OK). There will be plenty of time to work out once you’ve recovered!

2. You’re injured.
It’s not only important to skip your workouts when you’re injured, but it’s a necessity if you want to feel better! Giving your injury a break is essential to letting it recuperate so you’re able to get back on the horse again soon. Putting more strain on an injury is just a recipe to get sidelined for good. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist to find out what activities you can do with your injury. It might be possible to modify exercises so you can still work out, but there might be exercises to avoid, too. Being injured can be a positive in some ways, though. Nothing makes you miss working out more than not being able to do it, and this type of setback can also push you to discover new workouts you enjoy. If you can’t run because of a knee injury, you might be able to try Pilates. If you have a stress fracture, you could fall in love with the bike or rowing machine or try a low-impact class.

3. You had surgery (or the doctor told you to lay off exercise).
In the case of a major surgery–or even a minor one–you can skip the sweat session sans guilt. The last thing your body needs after a major medical event is to work harder: It’s working hard enough on recovering and feeling better. Work with your doctor to find out when you can safely work out again, and heed his or her advice. The last thing you want is to pass out while you’re on the treadmill.

4. You chronically get too little sleep.
Sleep is more important for your health than working out. If you didn’t sleep well (or at all), are jet-lagged or are adjusting to a new schedule, rest up before hitting the gym again. Chronically skipping sleep to exercise doesn’t do a body (or mind) a lot of good. If you’re just feeling a little tired after a night or two of poor sleep, exercise might actually give you an energy boost. But it’s up to you to know the difference between a little fatigue and the exhaustion that comes from true sleep deprivation. Odds are, if you could fall asleep at 7 p.m. for the night, it’s probably a good idea to skip the gym that day.

5. You’re sick.
The general rule is that if your illness is above the neck (e.g., runny nose, sore throat) you can safely workout. If your illness is below the neck (e.g., stomach issues, lungs, full-body aches) it’s best to rest. But in the early stages of a really bad cold, we still say it’s totally fine to skip the gym. When your body isn’t feeling it, you know it–and it’s OK to hit the couch for a couple of days instead so you can let your body focus on expending extra energy toward fighting off illness. The last thing you want is to spread the germs to others or to pick up something else during cold and flu season!

6. You just completed a major athletic/endurance event.
Just ran a marathon? Slogged through a Tough Mudder? Competed in your box’s CrossFit competition? You’re entitled to a day off from your usual workout. After a big event, you might want to go on a walk and do some mild stretching to help alleviate any soreness, but it’s probably a good idea to give yourself a break so you can properly recover.

7. You’re actually too busy.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, intentions or desires, life really does get in the way of working out. You had a dentist appointment, worked all day, hauled your kids to soccer practice, baked a cake for a birthday party at work, made dinner, paid the bills, and now it’s 9 p.m.–and you didn’t get your workout in. That’s fine! If you’re genuinely too busy, you’ll know it. But if this is always the case, try to find a plan to work more exercise into your hectic schedule, even in small bursts. Remember, too, that exercise is great stress relief and much-needed “me” time for many people; it can make all of those busy tasks seem more manageable!

You don’t have to feel guilty for skipping a workout when you genuinely have a good reason to do so. Just watch for those excuses when you know that you could have gotten to the gym or fit in a quick at-home sweat session–and then make a plan to do it the next day!

Original Post on SparkPeople.com




Health(ier) Holiday Favorites

Your Favorite Recipes Get a Healthy Makeover

  — By Megan Patrick, Staff Writer
It’s easy to get off track when it comes to eating during the holidays. Although the traditional holiday table can be filled with high calorie and high fat foods, there are ways to save calories without sacrificing taste. Here we share healthy makeovers of some of your favorite dishes.

Apple and Fennel Stuffing
Whole wheat bread gives this side staying power. The fruits and veggies bulk up the dish, so a little goes a long way. A bit of turkey bacon adds another layer of flavor without adding many calories.

Green Bean Casserole
No one will miss the fat because of all the flavor in this light version of a classic Thanksgiving side dish.

Mashed “Potatoes”
No one will complain that this dish is actually potato-free. The delicate flavor of the cauliflower melds perfectly with a small amount of sour cream and cream cheese to make a scrumptious side.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Browned Garlic
If you think you hate Brussels sprouts, try this version before you completely give up on this healthy vegetable. Roasting the sprouts in the oven brings out a delightful nutty flavor that gets lost when they’re boiled.

Holiday Spice Cookies
These tasty treats get a nutrition boost from whole wheat flour and a ton of flavor from cinnamon, ginger and allspice.

Healthy Egg Nog
You won’t miss the fat in this holiday beverage since it packs plenty of taste with warm cinnamon and nutmeg and a hint of vanilla.

Faux-Tato Pancakes

You don’t have to celebrate Hanukkah to appreciate these delicious latkes made with butternut squash and whole wheat flour.

Homemade Apple Sauce
This healthy sauce is perfect with potato pancakes! It also makes a great topping for breakfast pancakes or vanilla frozen yogurt.

This traditional braided bread is as full of symbolism as it is of flavor. Learn more about the Jewish faith while you bake and then enjoy this bread with friends and family.

Cheese Blintz
Whole wheat flour and non-fat yogurt turn this traditional treat into a healthier choice for the holidays.

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Original Post on SparkPeople.com

8 Foods That Strengthen Your Immune System

Give Your Body an All-Natural Booster Shot
  — By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian
Surely you’ve heard the old saying, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  While a daily apple is a better strategy than nothing, it’ll actually take a much stronger plan to really boost your immune system. Almost every year, we hear that this cold and flu season is predicted to be a doozy, and we’re cautioned to be proactive to fight against germs. The best weapons in germ warfare are adequate sleep, regular exercise and appropriate hand washing.  But don’t stop there: Give your immune system an all-natural “booster shot” by eating more of these readily-available, budget-friendly foods.

Foods That Fight Colds & the Flu


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Sweet Potatoes do double-duty when it comes to fighting off infection. They’re filled with beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant that transforms into vitamin A, another antioxidant that keeps your skin strong and elastic, which helps keep those harmful bacteria and viruses out of your body.

Try It: Spicy Baked Sweet Potato Fries

Swap It: Other foods rich in these antioxidants include carrots, acorn squash, butternut squash and pumpkin.

Grapefruit is an excellent source of vitamin C, an antioxidant shown to attack free radicals and fight infection. Vitamin C it can lessen the time it takes your body to fight off a cold.

Try It: Grapefruit Salad

Swap It: Other vitamin C-rich foods to try are oranges, tangerines, kiwis, bell peppers, papaya, strawberries and broccoli.<pagebreak>

Almonds contain healthy omega-3 fats, as well as vitamin E, the fat-soluble vitamin that protects cells against oxidation and damage. Strong, healthy cells are definitely a boon to your immune system and can help your body defend itself against germs.

Try It: Maple Almond Granola

Swap It: Try peanut butter, olive oil, whole grains and seeds to get your vitamin E and healthy fats.

Salmon is a rich source of the mineral selenium, which works its magic as an antioxidant along with vitamin E. Together this duo protects cells from damage and stress that can make you susceptible to illness.

Try It: Pistachio-Crusted Salmon

Swap It: If salmon’s not your thing, you’ll get the same benefits from other seafood, meats and whole grains.

Roast beef is filled with zinc, which keeps your disease-fighting cells strong and healthy. This mineral is all about immune-system activation since it also promotes cell reproduction, growth and repair.

Try It: Beef and Broccoli

Swap It: Get your zinc on with wheat germ, pork, seafood or tofu.

Yogurt is friendly for your gastrointestinal system—a key player in a healthy immune system. Your gut houses 25% of the immune cells in your body and provides 50% of your immune response. Plus it is home to more than 100 trillion helpful bacteria (also called probiotics). The live and active bacterial cultures found in yogurt gives these friendly bugs a boost, which can activate cells that kill viruses, fight colds and the flu, and decrease sick days. Tip: To keep these friendly bugs thriving, they need to be fed—fruits, veggies, beans and whole grains are some of their favorites.

Try It: Tzatziki (Yogurt Dip)

Swap It: Non-dairy yogurts made of coconut milk, soy milk or other ingredients will also do the trick; just make sure they contain the live and active cultures you’re seeking. If yogurt isn’t your favorite, try other fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut or miso.

Garlic not only adds amazing flavor to your foods but also gives your body allicin, an infection-fighting antioxidant that’s been shown to help prevent cold and flu symptoms. Sautéed, roasted, grilled or raw—garlic can enhance your immunity.

Try It: Garlic-Spiked Broccoli and Mushrooms with Rosemary

Swap It: Onions, leeks and shallots are also members of the Allium family, along with garlic. They contain smaller amounts of allicin.

Broccoli is an excellent source of folate, which plays an essential role in making new body cells—especially lymphocytes that search out and destroy harmful germs that invade your body.

Try It: Chicken and Broccoli Casserole

Swap It: If broccoli makes you cringe, get folate from spinach, Brussels sprouts, navy beans, avocado, oranges or peanuts. <pagebreak>

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