5 Exercises You Should Never Do

Do You Avoid These Danger Zones?
  — By Dean Anderson, Certified Personal Trainer
Most people believe that all exercises are good, safe and effective. After all it’s exercise—and that has to count for something, doesn’t it?

The truth is that some common exercises aren’t safe at all (especially for people who have muscle, joint, and health problems). Certain exercises require a bit more know-how than the average person possesses. And other exercises are downright wastes of your time.

But before we examine some of the most controversial exercises, I want to make it clear that every exercise on this list isn’t always unsafe or ineffective for everyone. What you should do—or avoid—depends on your goals, fitness level, health history, workout schedule, and other personal issues. An article like this can’t replace your own efforts to identify your goals and needs. That requires you to do some research on your own, talk to your medical professional about any pain or physical limitations you have, and learn how to exercise with proper form and technique.

So what makes an exercise risky? Here are a few red flags to look out for:

  • Any unusual or “unnatural” movement pattern in the exercise
  • Any movement that causes pain or discomfort in any way
  • Any movement that enhances muscular imbalances that are already present
  • Any movement that requires joint flexibility that is above and beyond your range of motion
  • Any exercise with risks of injury that outweigh the potential benefit of the exercise itself

That said, the following exercises pose high risks and are generally considered controversial by reputable fitness organizations and experts.

Think Twice Before Trying These 5 Moves

1. Behind-the-Head Lat Pull-Downs
In the old days, people were actually taught to pull the bar behind their heads when doing a lat pull-down exercise–and many people still do that today. Bad idea.

The problem? Pulling the bar behind the neck puts far too much stress on the shoulder joint, explains Michele Olson, PhD, an ACSM fellow and NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialist.

“The amount of outward rotation on the humerus combined with pulling it downward has a very un-stabilizing effect on the shoulder joint. The top of the humerus is actually pushing outward and away from the joint, overstretching the tendons and ligaments on the front of the shoulder,” she explains, which can lead to injury. In addition, almost anyone who spends their days deskbound is likely to have rounded shoulders or poor posture—a symptom of poor shoulder flexibility (among other things). Pulling the bar behind your neck only accentuates this misalignment, making this exercise a no-no.

The Alternative: You can still work your lats without the risk of behind-the-head pull-downs by pulling the bar down in front of you. Sit with your spine straight, abs pulled in, and then lean your torso back slightly, keeping your spine straight. Pull the bar down towards your chest, but not below your collar bone.

<pagebreak> 2. Hovering Leg Lifts
Boot camps, yoga classes and sometimes even your old P.E. class or sports coach probably led you to do this common move: Lie on your back (with your head and shoulders either down on the ground or “crunched” up like the picture shows) and lift your straight legs right off the ground to hover just a few inches from the floor in order to work your abs.

The problem? Sure this engages your abs, but lifting your extended legs straight off the ground “puts an incredible amount of stress on the lower back and can lead to injury,” warns Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, and exercise physiologist and author of Beat the Gym (Williams Morrow, 2011). “The cost-benefit of this move is simply too high,” he says,” and there are numerous better ways to work the abdominals without the risk.”

The Alternatives: Work your abs without straining your lower back by starting with your legs up in the air (not lifting them from the ground) in line with the hips. Then lower your straight legs down to about a 45-degree angle—or only as far as you can lower the legs without feeling any strain in the back and without changing the position of your back (don’t arch or flatten). See a demo of these straight-leg lowers here. You can make this movement even safer if you have back issues by doing it with bent knees. Or work your abs doing standard bicycle crunches or plank exercises.

3. Seated Knee Extensions
This is a very popular exercise for targeting the muscles on the front of your thighs (quadriceps).

The Problem? This exercise poses major risks to the knees when the weight is heavy and when the knees are fully extended. Lifting heavy weights in this position (with all the resistance focused at your ankles) is not what the knee was designed to do. If you have any kind of knee problem, or use a too much resistance during this exercise, you can easily run into big trouble. Here’s why. Fully straightening the knees against this type of resistance “puts an extreme amount of shear stress on the knee joint, which can strain the tendons and overly compress the knee’s cartilage,” says Olson.

The Alternatives: Simple squats and lunges (known as closed chain exercises) with or without added weight, will work your thigh muscles naturally, safely and effectively. If you want to expand on these exercises (to develop explosive force for sports like soccer, basketball, or volleyball, for example), try sport-specific plyometrics. If you can’t do lunges and squats because you lack the leg strength, start with simple ball squats or modified “mini” lunges, and only lower yourself part way, gradually increasing your range of motion as you get stronger.

Olson also suggests that you can modify this exercise to make it safer. Simply lift the weight (extend the knees) just halfway versus all the way up to straight legs. This also gives the quads some direct isolation work while minimizing knee stress. She also suggests lifting a weight that isn’t too heavy—you should be able to do about 18 reps on this exercise. If you can’t do that many, the weight is too heavy to be safe.

4. Inner and Outer Thigh Machine Exercises
These machines are pretty popular in most gyms. Both involve sitting with your knees bent in front of you. The adduction machine is designed to target the muscles of the inner thighs, and the abduction machine helps target the outer thigh muscles.

The Problem? Using your inner and outer thighs to lift weight while in a seated position puts you at risk of straining these relatively small muscles and aggravating lower back and hip problems. In addition, your inner and outer thigh muscles are designed to support movement, not to be prime movers like they are in these types of exercises.

The Alternatives: The best way to target these muscles safely is with body weight exercises, such as standing adduction, standing abduction, lying adduction and abduction exercises, Pilates exercises, or similar movements that use resistance bands or the cable cross machines. Always start with a weight you know you can handle, and add resistance gradually.

5. Upright Rows
In this exercise, you stand holding a barbell or weight in the center, with hands close together, and bring your hands up under your chin.

The Problem? Upright rows are controversial because they cause the upper arm bone (humerus) to bang up against the AC (acromion process) joint, according to Olson, which can compress the nerves in the shoulder area and damage the cartilage in the AC joint, which can lead to arthritis.

The Alternatives: The purpose of this exercise is to work the shoulders (deltoids) and upper traps. So instead of standing to perform an upright row, try bent-over rows, bending forward 90 degrees at the hip, holding weight down beneath your shoulders with hands slightly more than shoulder width apart, then lift weight straight up towards your chest until elbows and shoulders form a straight line. You can also try front or lateral shoulder raises, using a modest weight, so that you don’t need to lean back or use momentum for assistance.
Olson also suggests a row variation that keeps the humerus moving behind the AC joint but still targets the desired muscles. This safe variation with a resistance band shows the movement, but you can also perform this exercise standing upright and/or holding dumbbells, palms facing the body.

Original Post on SParkPeople.com

4 Signs It’s Time to Step Off the Scale

Does Weight Weigh Heavily on Your Mind?
  — By Jason Anderson, Certified Personal Trainer
It cannot talk yet it speaks to you. Some days it makes you giddy with delight. Other days it puts you into a deep depression. It judges you on a superficial level. The thought of it is enough to worry even the most optimistic person. What am I talking about? The notorious bathroom scale.

What is with this obsession we have with the scale? For most people, the scale can be an adversary or an ally, depending on the day. We often hate what it says or argue with it, but we still feel the desire to use it. When used properly and taken for what it is, it can actually be a very useful tool for weight management. But for many, the scale does more than measure the total weight of all your various parts. It somehow defines who you are as a person. And sadly, it can determine your own self-worth. We read way too much into this single-purposed tool.

Here are four signs that you might put too much weight on weighing in:

1. You constantly worry about weighing in.
When you’re trying to lose weight, it’s normal to experience some hesitation when it’s time for your weekly weigh in. After all, you want to see the numbers go down as confirmation that all of your hard work has paid off. We all want to be rewarded for our efforts, and it can be discouraging when you have done everything right and things still don’t pan out. However, if you find yourself preoccupied with worrisome thoughts of what the scale is going to say tomorrow or the next day, then you might be a little too obsessed with the scale.

2. You weigh in more than once per day.
SparkPeople recommends weighing in once a week (or even less). Ever wonder why it’s not a good idea to do it more often? Your body weight can and will fluctuate from day to day, and change throughout a single day, too. There is no sense in putting yourself on that roller coaster of ups and downs. In the war on weight, if you become so concerned that you weigh yourself daily or several times a day, you are fighting a losing battle and you will be discouraged. If you feel like you can’t control yourself or stop yourself from weighing in each day, then you could be headed for trouble.

3. You can recite your weight to the nearest fraction at all times.
This is a sure sign that you are relying too heavily on the scale. Anyone who can tell you not only how much she weighs each day, but measures her weight loss to the nearest quarter of a pound is probably weighing in too often. There is nothing wrong with wanting to see a lower number on the scale, even if it’s a quarter pound lower, but remember that weighing in is more about trends (an average decrease or consistency in weight over time).

4. The scale determines how you feel about yourself for the day.
When the number is down, you step off the scale singing and have a jump in your step all day. When the number goes up (or stays the same when you expected a loss), you feel like Charlie Brown walking around with a rain cloud above your head. To me, this is the saddest situation of all—to let the scale dictate how you should feel. How would you feel about yourself if you hadn’t weighed in that day? What other ways would you determine your self-worth if weight didn’t exist?

If one (or all) of these situations sound familiar to you, it’s time to step away from the scale. Go cold turkey. Or at the very least, weigh in less often. But what’s a “compulsive weigher” to do?

Instead letting the scale alone determine whether you’re a success or failure, use more reliable measures to determine your progress. My philosophy is that weight loss is not a goal, but the result of healthy habits like a better diet and regular exercise. When you do step on the scale and don’t see the reading you had hoped for, ask yourself these questions: Am I doing what I am supposed to be doing? Am I making healthy food choices most of the time? Am I exercising consistently? If you are, then rust that your body is making positive changes, and the results will come. If you are not, then resolve to be consistent in healthy behaviors to see the results you want.

Weighing yourself is definitely helpful and it has its place. Just make sure you don’t go overboard and give too much credence to this one measurement! After all, other measures (like how much energy you have, how much easier it is to climb a flight of stairs, or how well your clothes fit) might not be as precise or scientific, but they’re sure to make you feel happier and more successful than a scale ever can.

Stop and Chew Your Dinner

The Benefits of Slowing Down & Chewing More
  — By Liza Barnes, Health Educator
In this era of fast-paced everything, even the act of eating a meal has become something we can do on the run. Breakfast comes in bars, lunch can be eaten while speeding down the highway, and dinner is merely an accompaniment to the evening news, squeezed in between other pressing activities. Invariably, when eating plays second string to everything else, every meal becomes “fast food,” as in eaten-very-fast food. If you find yourself wolfing down your meals in a hurry, you’re actually shortchanging yourself in more ways than you might think.

It turns out there’s a reason food tastes so good. You’re supposed to enjoy it—slow down and savor it, not just get it to your stomach as quickly as possible. Chewing your food thoroughly is actually the first step in the complex process of digestion, and if you glaze over it, just chewing the minimum amount of times necessary to get the food down your esophagus, you’re actually compromising this process. And it’s a mistake many people make.

If you try to imagine swallowing a whole piece of pizza, it’s easy to see why chewing is necessary. But besides breaking up your food into manageable chunks, there’s another good reason to put in the effort and chew. The saliva that coats your food as you chew actually contains digestive enzymes that begin to digest your food before you even swallow it. The enzymes alpha-amylase and lingual lipase begin digesting carbohydrates and fats, reducing the amount of work for which the stomach will be responsible. And it isn’t just a nice gesture. If food fragments are swallowed un-chewed, not only do nutrients remain locked in the fragments, but these fragments create an environment in the colon that is conducive to digestive distress—bacterial overgrowth, gas, and bloating. <pagebreak>

For food particles to even leave your stomach though, the “gates” of the stomach, the pyloric sphincter, must open. Conveniently, chewing also aids in this process, signaling this event. And speaking of signals, just seeing your food causes your brain to send signals to the pancreas and stomach to secrete digestive acids and enzymes that are essential to digestion. And the longer your food has contact with your taste and smell receptors—the longer you chew each bite—the stronger these signals become. Strong signals mean more digestive molecules, less indigestion, less acid reflux, and superior nutrient absorption.

Chewing your food thoroughly and eating your meals more slowly has another benefit. It might shrink your waistline—and not just because you’ll have less bloating and indigestion. Eating more slowly gives your body a chance to tell your mind that it’s full, so that you stop eating before you go overboard. In a preliminary study presented at the North American Association for the Study of Obesity’s Annual Scientific Meeting in 2004, study subjects ate less when they were instructed to eat more slowly.

Here are some practical tips for chewing more thoroughly and eating more slowly:

  • Give yourself enough time to eat—at least 20-30 minutes just to eat the meal, plus additional time to prepare it.
  • Don’t eat amidst distractions, like the TV, computer, or while driving.
  • Be fully present while you eat. Notice the smell, temperature, texture, color, and subtle flavor differences of each food you consume.
  • Take smaller portions, taking a break before refilling.
  • Put your fork down after each bite.
  • Eat mindfully, chewing each bite as many times as necessary to pulverize any texture.
  • If you’re eating in a group, be aware of the speed at which others are eating. Challenge yourself to be the last to finish.

Besides all of the physical benefits, perhaps the most pleasant benefit of all is that, if you allow yourself to slow down and chew, you’ll enjoy your food much more.

Original Post on SparkPeople.com

3 Simple Ways to Build Consistency

Because Consistency is the Key to Success!
  — By Dean Anderson, Fitness & Behavior Expert
You don’t have to be an expert to figure out that consistency is pretty essential to successfully change your life, your health, and your weight. But it’s also pretty clear that building a consistent routine of regular exercise and healthy eating is not an easy thing to do.

You start off the day with the best intentions—to exercise, track all your food, and make healthy choices. But then life happens. One of the kids is sick, the babysitter is late, the snowplow blocked your driveway, the boss asks you to work overtime, or any one of a hundred other surprises that can really wreck your day. Before you know it, your plan is in trouble and your prospects for “sticking to it” aren’t looking very good. In fact, things are probably going to get worse as the day goes on. By the end of the day, you have no energy left for exercise, and the task of preparing a healthy meal feels like a big burden when what you really want is a break. Something has to give.

More often than not, “what gives” is your plan to exercise and eat right. When it’s hard to do everything, the things most likely to go undone are those that don’t affect or involve anyone but you—especially if those things aren’t exactly your favorite things to do anyway.

So how do you change this pattern? With the three rules for building consistency.

These three simple rules, when followed faithfully, will make it easier for you to be consistent with your healthy lifestyle habits—even on the toughest days.

Rule #1: Never tell yourself “I’m not motivated.”
That’s not the real problem, unless you really don’t want to lose weight or live a healthy lifestyle. As long as you do want these things, you have all the motivation you need.

It may be true that sometimes you don’t want to exercise, or that you really want to stop and get fast food rather than cooking dinner. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t mean you’re not motivated. It just means that you want two different and opposing things, and you have to make a decision. Telling yourself that you lack motivation is just a way of denying that you really do have a choice. It makes the problem seem mysterious and out of your control, and it makes you feel less powerful than you really are, because you lack something (the motivation) you need. Not true!

In the long run you’ll do better if you acknowledge that the choice is yours to make. You can choose either option, without making excuses or inventing a theory like “lack of motivation” to justify it. Then, pay attention to how you feel about the choice you made, and decide whether that is how you want to feel most of the time.

Being consistent does not mean being perfect. (There are going to be days when you decide to do something other than stick to your exercise and diet routine, and that’s fine.) But becoming consistent does mean giving yourself the power to choose.

Rule #2: Build momentum one step at a time.
It’s never easy to change old habits or start new routines. Studies show that it takes anywhere from 21 to 40 days to really turn a new behavior into a persistent habit. And during that time, you’re going to have to work at it pretty diligently—even when you don’t feel like it.

The key to long term consistency is building momentum. The hardest part is always getting things started. But once you’re moving, staying in motion and picking up speed becomes a lot easier. There are a lot of ways you can gradually build momentum during those first few weeks. Here are some examples:

  • Start with something that’s pretty easy to manage and build up from there. Set a goal of one 10-minute exercise session per week. Then increase it to two 10-minute sessions. Gradually add minutes to each workout (and eventually add one or more additional workouts to your week), until you’re exercising as long and as frequently as you should in order to reach your goals. The simple act of setting aside some time for exercise every day, no matter how little, and sticking to it is enough to start building the habit.
  • Find an accountability buddy—someone who knows about your plan and is willing to give you a push when you feel like slacking off.
  • Join a Team or Challenge here at SparkPeople. It’s always harder to let someone else down than it is to let yourself off the hook.
  • Employ an excuse buster. Find a friend, family member, or SparkPeople member whose judgment and opinion you respect. Each time you find yourself thinking about skipping an exercise session or blowing your meal plan, write down the reason for your choice. Share this reason with your excuse buster and get her honest opinion about whether the reason for your choice is reasonable or just an excuse. You’ll probably find that this makes it a lot harder for you to believe your own rationalizations.

Rule #3: Always have a plan B.
Because life is unpredictable and complicated, you need to have plan B ready—even before you actually need it. Plan B is an alternative way to stay consistent with your goals when your regular routine (or something else) doesn’t work out as planned. Obviously, you can’t foresee every single problem that might come up. But most of the time, the things that get in your way are things that happen fairly often—like kids getting sick, extra hours at work, or days when you just don’t feel very energetic. Those surprises won’t throw you off track if you plan ahead. For example, have a friend or family member lined up to stay with your kids so you can make it to the gym; stock your freezer with some healthy meals when you’re short on time; stash your exercise clothes at the office for a quick workout when you can’t get away.

Put a little time into identifying the most common problems that disrupt your healthy routine, and plan (in advance) what you can do to handle these problems without sacrificing your diet and exercise routine. Then all you’ll have to do is put your plan B into action.

Following these three simple rules will help you overcome some common obstacles while building the momentum you need to stay consistent. At the very least, you’ll be able to take all those lemons that life hands you, and make some good (and diet-friendly) lemonade out of them.

Original Post on SparkPeople.com

69% of Buyers are Wrong About Down Payment Needs

69% of Buyers are Wrong About Down Payment Needs | MyKCM

According to a recent survey conducted by Genworth Financial Inc. at the Annual Mortgage Bankers’ Association Secondary Market Conference, mortgage professionals say that first-time buyers still believe a 20% down payment is necessary to buy in today’s market.

Nearly 40% of mortgage industry professionals surveyed believe that a lack of knowledge about the home-buying process is keeping potential buyers on the sidelines. Saving for a down payment is often cited as a huge barrier for first-time homebuyers to make the leap into homeownership.

If homeowners believe that they need a 20% down payment to enter the market, they also believe that they will have to wait years (in some markets) to come up with the necessary funds to buy their dream homes.

The greatest source of confusion cited in the survey results centered around down payments. The results are broken down in the chart below:

69% of Buyers are Wrong About Down Payment Needs | MyKCM

Rohit Gupta, CEO of Genworth Mortgage Insurance had this to say,

“While first-time homebuyers continue to drive the purchase market, we believe many are staying on the sidelines due to the misconception that a 20 percent down payment is required to secure a mortgage.

There are various low down payment options available today that allow prospective homebuyers to reach their dreams of homeownership sooner. It is crucial that, as an industry, we proactively educate eligible borrowers about solutions that will enable them to buy a home when they’re ready.”

Bottom Line

Don’t let a lack of understanding of the home-buying process keep you and your family out of the housing market. Let’s get together to discuss your options!

The 5 Greatest Benefits of Homeownership

The 5 Greatest Benefits of Homeownership | MyKCM

Recently, Freddie Mac reported on the benefits of homeownership. According to their report, here are the five benefits that “should be at the top of everyone’s list.”

  1. Homeownership can help you build equity over time.
  2. Your monthly payments will remain stable.
  3. You may have some tax benefits.
  4. You can take pride in ownership.
  5. Homeownership improves your community.

Let’s expand on each of Freddie Mac’s points:

Homeownership can help you build equity over time.

Every three years, the Federal Reserve conducts a Survey of Consumer Finances in which they collect data across all economic and social groups. The latest survey, which includes data from 2010-2013, reports that a homeowner’s net worth is 36 times greater than that of a renter ($194,500 vs. $5,400).

In a Forbes article, the National Association of Realtors’ (NAR) Chief Economist Lawrence Yun reported that now the net worth gap is 45 times greater.

Your monthly payments will remain stable.

When you purchase a home with a fixed rate mortgage, the majority of the payment (principle and interest) remain constant. On the other hand, rents continue to skyrocket. Your housing expense is much more stable if you own instead of rent.

You may have some tax benefits.

According to the Tax Policy Center’s Briefing Book -“A citizen’s guide to the fascinating (though often complex) elements of the federal Tax System” – there are several tax advantages to homeownership.

Here are four items from the Briefing Book:

  • Mortgage Interest Deduction
  • Property Tax Deduction
  • Imputed Rent
  • Profits from Home Sale

You can take pride in ownership.

Most surveys show that a major factor in purchasing a home is the freedom you have to design the home the way you want. From paint colors to yard accessories, you don’t need a landlord’s permission to make the house feel like a home.

Homeownership improves your community.

The National Association of Realtors recently released a study titled ‘Social Benefits of Homeownership and Stable Housing.’ The study explained:

“Homeownership does create social capital and provide residents with a platform from which to connect and interact with neighbors…Owning a home means owning part of a neighborhood, and a homeowner’s feelings of commitment to the home can arouse feelings of commitment to the neighborhood, which, in turn, can produce interactions with neighbors.”

Bottom Line

There are many benefits to homeownership. That is why it is still a critical piece of the American Dream.

9 Simple Tricks to Eat Less

Cut Calories, Not Satisfaction
  — By Sarah Haan, Registered Dietitian and Nicole Nichols, Health Educator
Setting a goal (such as losing weight) and implementing steps to reach it (like portion control) are two very different things. When it comes to eating healthier—or eating less for that matter—it isn’t always as simple as “just eating less.” Why? Because what and how much we eat is influenced by so many factors—the environment in which we’re eating (relaxed at home or at a party), how much food is served (a portion-controlled meal at home or a super-sized restaurant meal), and how hungry we are (just a little or famished)—mindfulness, speed, emotional state. The list could go on and on.

The good news is that YOU can control many of these factors; it’s just a matter of bringing them to the forefront of your mind until they become habits. Here are nine proven tricks you can use to help yourself eat less and keep your calories in check. Over time, they’ll become second nature—and your weight loss will be second to none!

1. Enjoy every bite.
Do you take time to smell the flowers? How about taking time to enjoy every meal and snack you eat? There is truth in the benefit of slowing down and appreciating the world around you, food included. Focusing on every bite can help you practice mindful eating, which has been shown to cut down on calorie intake. Slowing down between bites allows you to recognize your feelings of hunger and satiety so you have a chance to realize when you’ve had enough—then stop before you clean your plate and later regret it. Eating at a relaxed pace also means you’ll chew your food more thoroughly, thus experiencing fewer digestive issues and less intestinal upset. This may take some practice. The hustle and bustle of daily life often catches up with us and sometimes it takes a conscious effort to take it easy and give your brain a chance to enjoy the food and tell you when you’re full. Until you get in the habit, try leaving a note or motivational saying on your dinner table. ACTION TIP: Set a timer. Start by finding out how quickly you currently eat your meals. You may be surprised to find out that breakfast or lunch at your computer is over within 5 or 10 minutes. Then, work on adding time to your meals, aiming for each meal to take AT LEAST 20 minutes.

2. Use smaller plates, cups and bowls.
Your mother was right about some things: Your eyes really can be bigger than your stomach. Research has shown that when people use large bowls, plates and serving utensils, they serve themselves more and consume more food. In a 2006 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 85 nutrition professionals were asked to serve themselves a bowl of ice cream. Researchers provided a variety of bowl and spoon sizes. Subjects with larger bowls served themselves 31% more ice cream; when they used a large spoon, they dished 14.5% more into their bowls. Although the super-sized plates may look slick, put those away for special occasions. When you see a large canvas, you want to fill it! ACTION TIP: Eat from smaller salad plates and small bowls for daily use. Without even realizing it, you’ll serve and eat less. If your dinnerware is oversized, it might be time for new dishes that won’t dwarf your properly portioned meals.

3. Pre-portion your foods.
How often do you eat straight from the bag of crackers or chips? How is it possible to track your food or know how much you eat without measuring it? That’s just one reason you should never eat directly from a box or bag that contains multiple servings of a food. Grab your measuring cups and a small bowl (see #2 above) to keep your calories in check. Why? Because it’s easy to overeat when you’re reaching into a bottomless bag of food. ACTION TIP: Instead of reaching into the chip bag or a big bowl of chips at a party, pre-portion your snacks into a smaller container (or plate) so you know exactly how much you’re eating. Then, put the big bag away (or walk away from the chip bowl). You are much less likely to overeat enjoy the smaller portion you served yourself. So dish it up, put the rest away, and taste every bite (see #1 above).

4. Know your pitfalls.
We all have food weaknesses. That food that you can’t resist. The food you can’t stop eating once you started. The food you have trouble saying no to, even if you’re not hungry. The food you think about even when it’s not in the vicinity. Maybe you’ll never shake the grip this food has you on, but the first step is recognizing it. Take a minute to think about your food weaknesses. Once you know what they are, you can take extra measures to prevent overeating these particular foods, whether you avoid repeated exposure to this food or plan the rest of your day’s intake planning to enjoy a bit of this favorite food. ACTION TIP: Make a list of your food weaknesses and the places you encounter them. Come up with solutions to avoid those encounters, like not venturing down the snack food aisle in the grocery store or choosing a different route to bypass the co-worker who always offers free doughnuts. Stick with your plan of avoidance until you build up the strength to face that food without giving up your control.

5. Keep a food journal.
Keeping a food diary is the best weight-loss tool. Several studies have confirmed this, and most SparkPeople members would agree, too. One recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that dieters who kept track of their food lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t. Writing down what you eat will encourage you to think about your food choices all day, and consider what you’ve already eaten and what you plan to eat later. This means you’ll make conscious choices more often and usually curb your calorie intake as a result. Whether you jot foods down on a sticky note, keep a small paper pad in your purse or use SparkPeople’s free Nutrition Tracker, writing down everything you eat will keep your calories in check. ACTION TIP: If you don’t’ already, start tracking your food. Even if you don’t list all the calories, fat or carbs you eat, even a simple list can make a big difference. Don’t forget to include beverages, sauces, condiments, and other small “tastes” in your log! Extra calories can be hiding in these items.

6. Use the proper plate method.
Most meals we eat at home or in restaurants are backwards: big portions of meat and carbs and very few (if any) vegetables. If your plates put veggies in a supporting role, you’re probably consuming too many calories and hurting your weight-loss efforts. Using a perfectly portioned plate can help! ACTION TIP: Fill half your plate with disease-fighting vegetables, a quarter with lean protein and a quarter with your whole grains. This method automatically piles your plate full of filling, low-calorie veggies that also provide fiber, vitamins and minerals to fight disease. It also helps control portions of starches and protein, which can sometimes become larger than necessary. Keep in mind that using a smaller dish still helps, even when using the proper plate method.

7. Pack in the protein.
Studies show that protein plays a key role in regulating food intake and appetite; people who consistently consume protein regain less weight after a significant weight loss, too. Protein helps increase feelings of fullness because it takes longer to digest. When you skip protein in your meals and snacks, those pesky hunger pangs might encourage overeating! So get into the habit of consuming protein at each meal and snack. ACTION TIP: Stick to lean sources of protein: Beans, hummus, egg whites, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products (cottage cheese, yogurt, cheese, and milk) can all give you muscle-building proteins without added fat.

8. Doggy bag it.
Portions served at most restaurants set you up for overeating. Sure, we want a good deal for our money, but it often comes at the price—our health. A full meal can contain more than 1,200 calories at some eateries, and that’s before dessert. Even if you have the best intentions to eat only half of your meal when it arrives, it can be hard to stop or know when you’ve reached the halfway point—especially if you’re distracted while talking with friends and family. ACTION TIP: Take your good intentions one step further. Ask your server to pack up half of your meal before it hits the table. That way, you’ll stop when you’re halfway done and still have leftovers for tomorrow. It works because it’s a clear “stop sign” in your meal (like #3 above) and most people aren’t likely to dig into their doggy bag or take-out box before leaving the restaurant.

9. Eat breakfast.
People say breakfast is the most important meal of the day for good reason. Studies show that people who eat breakfast have a lower BMI (body mass index) and consume fewer total calories each day than people who skip breakfast altogether. A professor at the University of Texas found that eating earlier in the day leads to lower total intake throughout the day. A common explanation is that eating breakfast allows a person to feel less hungry throughout the day. Another is that those who skip breakfast allow for “extra calories” later in the day because they skipped a meal, but in reality end up overshooting their energy goal. Whatever the reason, eating breakfast IS part of a healthy lifestyle and an important factor in healthy weight maintenance. ACTION TIP: Many people simply don’t “feel hungry” in the morning or don’t like how breakfast makes them feel. Start small. You CAN retrain your body to feel hungry and enjoy breakfast. Soon, you’ll wonder how you ever skipped breakfast in the first place! Start with these quick and healthy breakfast ideas.

With these tools as your defense, you’ll be on your way to a healthy weight in no time! Jot them down in your journal or keep them on a small sticky note to refer to when you’re out. With a little practice, you’ll finally be able to control your calorie intake without feeling deprived—or hungry!

Selected Sources
De Castro, John. “When, how much and what foods are eaten are related to total daily food intake.” Br J Nutr. 2009 Aug (4): 1-10.

Westerterp-Plantenga MS. “The significance of protein in food intake and body weight regulation.” Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. 2003 Nov (6): 635 – 8.

Wansink B, Van Ittersum K, Painter JE. “Ice cream illusions: bowls, spoons and self-served portion sizes.” American Journal of Preventitve Medicine. 2006 Sep 31 (3): 240-3

Original Post on SparkPeople.com

50 Non-Food Rewards for Fitness and Weight Loss

Healthy Ways to Celebrate Success!
  — By Megan Patrick, Staff Writer
Losing weight and maintaining healthy habits are both challenging, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t also be rewarding. Besides the intrinsic benefits that come from feeling better and reaching new goals, rewarding yourself for your healthy efforts will reinforce your new habits and inspire you to continue your journey.

There are lots of effective and motivating ways to reward yourself (both large and small), but first you need to come up with a system. One easy solution is to tie rewards to SparkPoints or fitness minutes rather than weight loss alone. Start by choosing a target that is challenging but not unreachable. For example, give yourself a reward if you reach 600 fitness minutes in a month or each time you earn 500 SparkPoints.

Before I discovered SparkPeople, I created my own reward system that had two components: one to reward healthy behaviors, which are the only things you can truly control, and another to mark weight-loss progress. It’s very similar to earning SparkPoints, which you can add up by doing healthy tasks such as tracking your food, exercising or utilizing the supportive Community. But if you have some specific behaviors that SparkPoints don’t cover, you can use this list for ideas and customize it however you wish to fit your own goals.

My Healthy Choices Reward System
1 star for going to the gym
1 star for going to the gym three times in one week
1 star for walking at least 30 minutes
1 star for walking outside in temperatures below 20 or above 80
1 star for drinking at least six cups of water per day
2 stars for drinking eight or more cups of water per day
2 stars for staying below my daily carb range
1 star for meeting my daily calorie goal
2 stars for not weighing myself more than once a week
100 stars = I got a reward from my list

To mark my weight-loss progress, I bought an old-fashioned silver charm bracelet and added a new charm for every 10 pounds I lost. I chose charms with symbolic meaning to remind me of my journey and all my hard work. For example, because walking helped me drop the first 10 pounds, I chose a silver sneaker. When I got halfway to my goal weight, I chose a tiny pair of scissors.

50 Non-Food Reward Ideas
Almost anything can work as a reward as long as it fits into your budget and doesn’t undermine your efforts. Food does undermine your efforts, so always choose ways to reward yourself that don’t involve eating. What works as a reward should be inspiring to you; otherwise, it won’t compel you to stick to your program. Here are 50 ideas to get you started (arranged from least expensive or time-consuming to most):

  1. Give yourself permission to take a nap.
  2. Visit the library or bookstore all by yourself.
  3. Have a guilt-free home spa afternoon.
  4. Sleep in!
  5. Take a selfie to celebrate your progress.
  6. Spend an hour away from your phone or computer.
  7. Eat lunch outside or at least away from your desk.
  8. Clean out your closet and donate all your too-big clothes to charity.
  9. Post your progress on social media (or SparkPeople) so your friends can celebrate with you.
  10. Take a bubble bath.
  11. Drive to a beautiful neighborhood or park to walk instead of taking your usual walking route.
  12. Use smiley face or star stickers to note milestones on a wall calendar hung in a prominent place.
  13. Make your own ribbon or trophy.
  14. Make or buy a refrigerator magnet with a motivational quote.
  15. Take a vacation day from work to do whatever you want!
  16. Unwind with a movie of your choice.
  17. Plan a night out with your friends.
  18. Buy a lottery ticket.
  19. Subscribe to a fitness or healthy cooking magazine.
  20. Get a new driver’s license photo. (Don’t lie about your weight.)
  21. Download a new fitness app for your phone.
  22. Buy a new workout song.
  23. Get yourself a bottle of fancy shower gel or lotion.
  24. Pick up a new plant for your garden.
  25. Invest in some moisture-wicking workout socks.
  26. Get fitted for a new sports bra.
  27. Try a new shade of nail polish.
  28. Get some new shades for outdoor exercise.
  29. Come home with a bouquet of flowers.
  30. Try a fresh hair color.
  31. Buy a small personal blender for smoothies and protein shakes.
  32. Order a pair of high-end wireless headphones.
  33. Invest is a fitness tracker to motivate you even more.
  34. Sign up for a charity walk or running event.
  35. Splurge on some nice yoga pants.
  36. Go for a mani/pedi.
  37. Treat yourself to a massage!
  38. Take a cooking class to up your game.
  39. Get a new hairstyle.
  40. Get fitted for workout shoes at a running store.
  41. Go for a flashy piercing or tattoo!
  42. Start a charm bracelet.
  43. Get your rings resized to fit your smaller fingers.
  44. Plan a weekend getaway with your significant other.
  45. Adopt a dog so you’ll always have a walking buddy.
  46. Hire someone to clean your house so you have more time to hit the gym.
  47. Try a fun exercise class like Zumba or pole fitness.
  48. Book a session with a personal trainer.
  49. Schedule a professional portrait shoot.
  50. Two words: Dream vacation!

There are countless ways to reward yourself, and while it may seem trivial, research shows that rewards that are personal to us do in fact help us stay motivated and establish long-term habits. It’s worth the time to come up with a system and a list of rewards for your own milestones!

What are your favorite ways to reward yourself for healthy habits or weight loss?

Original Post on SparkPeople.com