Finding Exercise Motivation When You’re Depressed

How to Get Moving When You’re Low on Energy
  — By Dean Anderson, Behavioral Psychology Expert
I know exercise is supposed to help me fight depression, but how can I find the motivation to work out when I’m depressed?

Depression definitely can make it hard to find the motivation for exercise (among other things) because loss of interest in normal activities, along with the ability to enjoy them, is often one of the main symptoms of depression. But what does that mean in practical terms?

It definitely doesn’t mean that you’ll have to wait until your depression has cleared up before you’ll be able to start building up a regular exercise routine. In fact, it probably means just the opposite. You might need to stop looking for your motivation or waiting for it to appear before you start working out.  Instead, recognize that feeling unmotivated is part of the illness and that starting a regular exercise routine is an important part of the cure. It’s a lot like getting out of bed in the morning on a low day—you might not feel like it; but you know that if you don’t do it, things are only going to go downhill from there.

The good news is that actually starting an effective exercise routine isn’t as unpleasant or difficult as it seems. Just because you’re depressed doesn’t mean you’ll to have to spend weeks or months forcing yourself to do something you don’t feel like doing; you just have to start by taking the first few steps on faith. That’s because motivation is actually a mental muscle that works a lot like your other muscles—the more you use it, the stronger it gets. And just like there are good (and bad) ways to train your other muscles effectively, there are good ways to train your motivation so it gets stronger as you go along, and makes it easier for you to establish and maintain a good exercise habit. Here are a few good motivation muscle training tips to get you started.

Start with where you are today, and move forward from there. Exercise doesn’t have to mean 60 minutes of heart-pounding, heavy-breathing activity that leaves you sweaty, sore and exhausted. And you don’t need any special equipment or a gym membership to get started. You can start with something as simple as a walk around the block, going up and down your stairs a couple of times, or just taking some time to stretch your muscles while you’re watching TV. The important thing at first is to make a deal with yourself that you’ll do something every day rather than nothing. Once you’ve established a good streak of doing some activity every day, you can take the next step of trying to do a little more today than you did yesterday, and setting yourself some realistic goals or physical challenges that will keep things interesting.

Pay attention to how your efforts make you feel.
One of the chief benefits of exercise, especially if you’re dealing with depression, is the way it stimulates the release of endorphins and neurotransmitters in your brain. These are your body’s natural feel-good chemicals, and they can provide a significant mood boost at the same time they’re helping you generate some motivation to keep moving. You can make it easier for your endorphins to do all this for you if you pay attention to how your exercise makes you feel.

Notice how you’re feeling before, during, and after your exercise. Did your energy level pick up once you got started? Did you feel better afterward than you did before you started? How do you feel after you decide to skip your workouts, and how does that compare to how you feel when you decide to just do it? On days when you find yourself struggling to get started with exercise, take a moment to ask yourself how you’d rather feel today and which choice seems most likely to help you make that happen?

Be aware though, that exercise isn’t a substitute for other forms of treatment you might  also need when you’re dealing with a clinical depression. Rather, it’s a way you can help increase the positive effects of those treatments.

Reward yourself for successes, small and large.
One of the best ways to turn one good decision into a string of good decisions is to reward yourself. Earlier I mentioned starting a streak of days on which you decide to do some kind of physical activity rather than none. You can help yourself achieve this goal by setting a specific and reasonable target of consecutive days (let’s say seven) and then setting up a reward you can earn by achieving that goal. Maybe there’s a book you think you might enjoy or a movie you’d like to see, or maybe it’s been a while since you’ve gone out for dinner with a friend. It can be anything, really, as long as it won’t bust your budget or add any stress to your life. And if you can pick a reward that involves something you used to enjoy before becoming depressed, all the better.

Once you’ve achieved your first goal, set another one that’s a bit more challenging, like working your way up to 30 minutes of exercise, and find a new reward. Keep your goals specific, relatively short-term, and reasonable, and always keep in mind that progress doesn’t require perfection. If you miss a day of exercise that doesn’t end this whole project—it just means you start counting your seven days over at one again.

Share your efforts with someone else in the same boat.
One of the factors that can make depression especially difficult to beat is that people who haven’t been depressed often don’t seem to understand what you’re going through. Often, they seem to think (and will be happy to tell you) that you just need to snap out of it or pull yourself together. That’s not true, any more than someone with diabetes or pneumonia just needs to snap out of it; and it’s not helpful. One thing that does seem pretty clear is that people do a lot better at overcoming depression when they have the support and company of people who do know what you’re dealing with—because they’re also trying to do the same thing. So if you’re struggling to establish a regular exercise routine, find others in the same boat.

Most communities have in-person support groups focused on depression recovery, and there are many online resources that include social communities—like right here on SparkPeople. You can find active message board threads and exercise challenges, as well as online exercise buddies and accountability partners you can hook up with if you think that would be helpful. There’s nothing like the feeling of not wanting to let your exercise partner down to get you up and moving when you might otherwise not. There are also SparkTeams of members dealing with depression that can give you a place to go when you need to talk about what’s going on for you, or find someone you can help out when you want to get your mind off your own problems for a little while.

Mayo Clinic. “Depression and Anxiety: Exercise Eases Symptoms,” accessed February 25, 2013.

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Dealing with Hunger and Food Cravings

Eat Better and Manage Your Weight without Deprivation
  — By Sarah Haan, Registered Dietitian
There’s more to healthy eating and weight loss than simply tracking your food. How you think about food and respond to hunger, eating cues, and cravings also affect your diet and overall health.

As babies, we ate intuitively: We fussed when we were hungry and stopped eating when we were full. As we grew older, the world around us began influencing what, when and how much we chose to eat. After years of advertising, imposed meal times, cafeteria offerings, holiday meals, grandma’s comfort foods, and yo-yo diets, many of us have completely lost touch with our real hunger and satiety signals. We confuse cravings with hunger and end up overeating—or emotionally eating—as a result.

But hunger and cravings are very different, and by learning to distinguish the two, you can be more satisfied with your meals and reduce your calories without feeling the urge to continue eating. Here’s what you need to know to get back to your intuitive eating roots and manage your weight.

Hunger: Your Need for Food
By definition, hunger is “the painful sensation or state of weakness caused by the need of food.” Simply put, hunger is a signal from your body that it needs food for energy. When you’re truly hungry, your stomach, brain, or both will give you cues to tell you to eat. Signals from your stomach may be growling, an empty, hollow feeling, or hunger pangs. Your brain may send signals such as a headache, trouble concentrating, irritability or fogginess. Some people even experience physical fatigue when they are hungry. Hunger does not go away over time—it only gets worse. And any food will satisfy your hunger and take the hunger signals away. <pagebreak>

If you’ve fallen into the habit of ignoring hunger cues (eating when the clock says it’s “lunch time” or eating when you are not even hungry), tune back in to your body. Keep a journal to track your hunger and satiety before and after eating. (You can also use the Nutrition Notes section on your Nutrition Tracker to record these sensations.) When assessing your hunger level, use the following scale to rank how your body feels in terms of hunger or fullness (also called satiety).

Hunger Level Sensations and Symptoms
1 Starving, weak, dizzy
2 Very hungry, cranky, low energy, a lot of stomach growling
3 Pretty hungry, stomach is growling a little
4 Starting to feel a little hungry
5 Satisfied, neither hungry nor full
6 A little full, pleasantly full
7 A little uncomfortable
8 Feeling stuffed
9 Very uncomfortable, stomach hurts
10 So full you feel sick

Once you begin paying attention to how you’re feeling before and after you eat, you can start to make changes in what and how much you eat according to your hunger. It’s best to eat when your hunger level is at a 3 or 4. Once you wait until you’re at a 1 or 2 and are feeling very, very hungry, you are more likely to overeat or choose less healthful foods. (Remember: Any food will quell hunger, so we often reach for whatever is easy and convenient when we’re feeling desperate to eat.) At a level 3 or 4, when you’re just starting to feel some hunger signals, you can make a conscious decision to eat the right amount of healthful and tasty foods. It’s important, too, to be aware of how much you eat. It’s best to stop eating at level 6 before you feel uncomfortably full (7-10). Your brain registers the signals that you’re full slowly, and learning to eat to satisfaction without overeating will take some attention and practice.

Another important strategy, as you become aware of your hunger signals, is to eliminate all distractions and make food the main attraction of your meal. Watching TV, reading, using the computer or paying bills while eating can reduce your ability to recognize satiety. <pagebreak>

Appetite: Your Interest in Food
We talk a lot about appetite: “My son has a huge appetite!” or “I worked up an appetite at the gym.” Appetite is not the same thing as hunger; it actually refers to an interest in food. It’s often said that someone’s appetite can override their hunger and fullness. When some people feel stressed, they could lose their appetite and choose to ignore feelings of hunger. (Others respond the opposite way, eating in response to stress or negative emotions despite a lack of hunger or strong feelings of fullness.) And how many times have you sat down to a delicious meal and continued eating even though you were experiencing sensations of fullness? That, too, is an example of appetite overriding the signals from your body. As you start becoming more aware of hunger signals, do not confuse appetite with physical signs of hunger.

Cravings: Your Desire for Specific Foods
Cravings are very different than hunger, yet somewhat similar to appetite. Look up “crave” in the dictionary and you will see “to long for; want greatly; desire eagerly.” Usually, the foods you crave are not a necessity, nor do they serve a life-sustaining need. Cravings, unlike hunger signals, will change over time, even over a period of 10 minutes. They are usually triggered by emotions (stress, boredom, sadness, etc.), an attachment or fondness for a certain food, or proximity to appetizing food. Unlike hunger, where any food will quell the sensation, only one specific food will satisfy a craving.

Keep in mind that when you have a craving but are not physically hungry, you must look deeper into why that craving is there. Are you bored? Did you have a stressful day at home or work? Did doughnuts appear in the cafeteria and now all you can think about is eating one (a thought that previously hadn’t even crossed your mind)? Dig into the reason behind your longing for a certain food. If it’s an emotional need, deal with the emotion. If it’s a proximity craving (you see appetizing food and therefore want it), try a distraction technique.

Certainly, it’s important to take pleasure from food and get satisfaction from the foods you eat. Cravings are normal and have a place in a healthy balanced diet. But learning to satisfy them in a controlled manner will keep your relationship with food in balance. Constantly giving in to your cravings—or confusing them with hunger—can lead to overeating and an unbalanced diet, especially since many of the foods we crave are high in fat, salt, sugar, or a combination of the three.

This makes it even more important to stop and examine why you want to eat something. Many healthy eaters have come up with delicious and crave-worthy recipes that can satisfy their longings for a particular food without going overboard. Other times, you may simply choose to eat the food you’re craving. Both situations are OK as long as you are making conscious decisions and practicing moderation.

When you stop to think about your hunger and fullness levels, your appetite and cravings (both the triggers and your response), the more in-control you’ll be around food, which can help you return to an intuitive way of eating that helps you manage your weight without ever going hungry or feeling deprived. Now that’s a recipe for good health and weight-management!

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Curbing Cravings video from

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10 Habits of Unsuccessful Dieters

Bad Habits That Are Preventing You from Losing Weight
  — By Nicole Nichols, Certified Personal Trainer
What could be more frustrating than not seeing the scale drop despite days or weeks of doing everything right? After all that hard work—all the cookies you didn’t eat, all the willpower you maintained, all the time you logged at the gym—how could you not have lost any weight? It’s enough to make even the most determined person throw in the towel.

Before you swear off exercise and declare yourself as someone who “will never lose weight,” stop, take a deep breath, and remember this:  Weight-loss may seem simple (eat fewer calories than you burn), but often, there’s a lot more going on than a simple calorie equation. Our bodies aren’t calculators after all!

What’s more likely is that you’ve made some innocent mistakes in your quest to lose weight. Don’t feel bad about it—it’s extremely common. These bad habits may be preventing you from getting the results you want. Instead of giving up, make some of the smart changes outlined below, and you’ll see that scale drop in no time!

Why Am I Not Losing Weight? 10 Habits of Unsuccessful Dieters

Bad Habit #1: Going “on a diet” in the first place.
Since when did the word “diet” refer to something good? The word itself implies restriction, limitation, and a short-lived effort to get some quick results and then return to a “normal” way of eating. SparkPeople’s surveys have shown that people who consider themselves to be “dieting” lose less weight and encounter more problems (such as plateaus and a lack of motivation) than people who are trying to lose weight by creating a lasting healthy lifestyle. Plus diets usually mean giving things up: favorite foods, dining out, desserts—even your social life. You don’t have to be a psychology expert to know that when you tell yourself you can’t have something, you usually want it more. This way of thinking could directly be sabotaging your efforts.

Smart Fix: Ditch the diets for good and focus on creating a healthy lifestyle based on nutritious foods and small, realistic changes that you can live with for the long term.

Bad Habit #2: Overhauling your eating habits overnight.
How many times have you gone crazy eating all the “bad” foods you know you shouldn’t, only to promise to swear them off starting next week or next month or next year? How often have you decided to suddenly clean out your kitchen, throw away all the “junk” and then shop for only healthy food?

How’s that working for you? No one can expect to change a lifetime of eating habits overnight—and no one should have to! To lose weight successfully and keep it off, you have to adopt a way of eating that you can stick with for the rest of your life.

Smart Fix: Eating healthy isn’t about taking food away; it’s about eating MORE of the things that are good for you. To be successful, you have to implement small and realistic changes to your diet. Next week, swap that 2% milk for 1%, and switch out your usual bread for a healthy whole-grain variety. Once you get used to that, you can set a small goal like eating one serving of fresh fruits or vegetables each day. The point is to start small with changes that fit into your lifestyle. Here are more tips on how to start eating a healthier diet.

Bad Habit #3: Giving up certain foods altogether.
We’ve already touched on the idea that labeling certain foods as diet no-no’s can make you crave them even more. Whether you feel out of control when you’re around certain foods or you’ve read about a certain diet plan that promises results if you were to just cut out wheat, gluten, carbs, sugar, or dairy, a lot of people think that to lose weight they have to give up specific things—including foods that they love.

A truly healthy diet that you can stick with forever will include all the foods you love. Unless you plan to give up ice cream or bread forever, then don’t cut anything out temporarily. Generally, people can give up foods like that for a while and see some weight loss success (usually because they’re eating fewer calories, not because anything about that specific food causes weight problems). But as soon as that food is let back into your life, the weight tends to come back with it.

Smart Fix: All things in moderation. Instead of focusing on the foods you can’t have, set goals to eat more of the foods that you know are good for you. This is a much more positive way to think about your goals and get results. Plus, allowing yourself portion-controlled servings of the food you’re thinking about banning will keep you happy and content, but also prevent crazed binges that can occur when you’re feeling weak. <pagebreak>

Bad Habit #4 Only caring about calories.
Calories are key to weight loss. In fact, balancing your calorie equation (what you eat and what you burn) is what results in successful weight management. However, there is more to weight loss and a healthy lifestyle than calories alone. Some foods that may be higher in calories per serving are actually healthier for you than foods that may be lower in calories (think a heart-healthy avocado vs. a processed 100-calorie pack of pretzels). So while calories count, nutrition matters, too.

Smart Fix: While tracking your calories, don’t forget to look at other key nutrients like protein and healthy fats (both of which can keep you full) and key vitamins and minerals that are important for your overall health. Luckily, SparkPeople’s Nutrition Tracker allows you to track all of these nutrients. Ideally, you want to use a little trial and error to balance not only your calorie equation, but make the kinds of choices that meet your protein, fat, carbohydrate and micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) goals.

Bad Habit #5: Focusing on the scale.
You want to lose weight, so you weigh yourself, right? Yes…and no. Weight is an easy way to measure your progress, but it doesn’t tell you the whole story. Even if the scale isn’t budging, that does not mean that you’re not making major progress toward losing weight and getting healthier. You can lose inches, get fitter, gain lean muscle mass, drop body fat, become better hydrated, look better and feel more energized without the pounds budging at all.

Smart Fix: Remember that the scale tells you only one thing: the total mass of all your body parts at a given moment. Don’t put too much stock into it. Weigh yourself less frequently (about once every 1-2 weeks), and track all the other signs that amazing changes are happening in your body even if the scale doesn’t move. This is the best way to stay motivated for the long haul.

Bad Habit #6: Only dieting and not exercising.
This may be one of the most common reasons your weight loss is stalling. Yes, you can lose weight through diet alone, but it will be a lot harder. You can only cut so many calories without feeling overly hungry, lethargic or miserable. Yet by exercising along with making dietary changes, you can eat more (and feel more satisfied) and still lose weight. Plus, you’ll get all the amazing physical and mental benefits that come from exercising, including improved appearance, better muscle tone and a healthier body overall.

Smart Fix: Add exercise to your weight-loss plan. It doesn’t have to be boring, strenuous, or time-consuming either. Even 10 minutes a day can make a huge difference in your results. For tons of fun, easy and effective workout ideas, check out our Fitness Resources. You’re sure to find something that you enjoy!

Bad Habit #7: Trying to eat as little as possible.
If cutting calories is good for weight loss, then eating as little as possible is better, right? Wrong (especially if you’re also trying to fuel your body for regular workouts). You need to eat a certain calorie level to function optimally and get all its essential nutrients your body needs to stay healthy. Eating much less than that can cause serious problems in the long term and damage your metabolism, making weight loss even harder.

Smart Fix: Don’t just guess how many calories you need, and don’t eat what someone else eats either. Your SparkPeople free Nutrition Tracker has a recommended calorie range that is personalized for you and your goals. Eating within that range (even at the very top of it) will help you reach your weight loss goal. There is no reason to go below it. Remember: You have to eat to lose! <pagebreak>

Bad Habit #8: Giving up too easily.  
No person who ever lost weight successfully reached that goal because they were perfect all the time. Setbacks happen to everyone, even the most successful people. We’ve all had days where we made a poor food decision during a meal—or even for an entire day. We’ve all missed workouts, forgot the lunch we packed, or been too busy to cook a diet-friendly meal at home. But those who continue dropping the pounds pick themselves up, forgive themselves from their mistakes, learn from their slipups, and just keep right on going.

Smart Fix: Remember that perfection has no place in a weight loss plan. When you do make a mistake or feel like you’re not making enough progress, don’t give up. Change requires time and old habits die hard. When you feel yourself ready to give up, reach out for some support, and don’t wait until next week or next month to get back on the wagon. Here are 25 ways to get back on track today.

Bad Habit #9: Confusing “healthy” with “low-calorie.”
Research shows that when shoppers see “healthy” buzz words or claims on food packages (think: gluten-free, organic, all-natural, sugar-free, low-fat, etc.), they automatically assume the food is low in calories. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Food manufacturers will plaster all sorts of enticing lingo onto their packages, knowing that you’ll think exactly that. But none of these words really tell you much about the healthfulness of a product; and none of them actually have any affect on a food’s calories.

Smart Fix: Read front-of-package labels with a discerning eye, and always turn over the package and look at the nutrition facts (and ingredients) to get a full picture of what a food is really like. This goes for restaurant menus, too. Don’t let healthy-sounding words make you think a food is actually low in calories. Know your menu watch words or look up nutrition facts before you place your order.

Bad Habit #10: Unrealistic expectations.
These days with news stories, weight-loss advertisements and reality shows alike touting fast and extreme weight loss as the norm, it can be easy to think that you are capable of those kinds of results, too. But in truth, these are extreme and abnormal results that most people cannot expect to replicate. If you’re expecting to drop a lot of weight fast—and to do so consistently—these unrealistic expectations could be setting you up for failure. There’s nothing worse than expecting to lose 10 pounds in your first week, but to only lose one.

Smart Fix: Change your expectations and your mindset. If you expect to lose 10 pounds in one week, then losing 1 pound is a major letdown. But if you expect to lose 1 pound and you did, you feel successful and inspired to keep working toward your goals. Losing 1-2 pounds per week—even half a pound—is major progress that should be commended. This is a healthy and realistic rate of weight loss that you can expect if you’re sticking to your nutrition and fitness goals.


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6 Ways to Relax Before Bed

Take the Stress Out of Sleep
  — By Liz Noelcke, Staff Writer

Sleep is something that every body craves. So why does everyone struggle with it periodically? You’ve tried to do it right – you skip caffeine late in the day; you don’t eat a heavy meal right before bed; you make sure the lights are off; you try to follow a consistent bedtime schedule each day. Yet, as you lay in bed sleepless, frustration creeping in, none of this seems to matter. When insomnia hits, you could spend hours stressing, instead of doing a few easy things to slip gently into sleep.

Difficulty falling (and staying) asleep is a common problem. As an important source of fuel for the body, sleep is a valuable commodity. If you have been lying in bed for a while and can’t sleep, get up. Don’t stay in bed, worrying about not having enough energy for tomorrow. Do something to encourage a more rapid appearance by the Sandman.

1. Go for a soak
Relax in the bathtub. This soothes both body and mind. Try adding some sleep inducing scents into the tub like lavender oil. Caution: Don’t take a shower. This can awaken your body. Opt for a warm bath instead. Add some candles and calm music for heightened relaxation. A second hint: Sprinkle a few drops of lavender oil on your pillow to pacify you in bed, too.

2. The old wives tale works
Have a glass of warm milk. You thought this was just an old wives’ tale, but it actually works! Warm milk has a tranquilizing effect on the body that can calm you down and prepare you for sleep. The same amino acid (triptophane) that gives turkey its reputation for causing drowsiness is also found in milk, and it causes more serotonin to be released in the body. Can’t stand the idea of warm milk? Add a drop or two of vanilla extract. Still not sounding tempting? Try some chamomile tea. A number of people think an alcoholic drink right before bed does the trick. Although this might initially make you sleepy, it doesn’t prep you for sound sleep. Chances are, you’ll toss and turn during the night.

3. Find an activity
Do something relaxing out of the bed. Try reading (pass on the action thriller, though). Watch something a little boring on television at low volume (think the Learning or Home Shopping Channels). Don’t watch anything that will wind you back up. Looking for other ideas? Sew, scrapbook, or write a letter. This activity should be easy, nothing that will key your nervous system back up. Once your eyes get droopy again, hit the sack.

4. De-stress
One of the worst things that you can do is to sit in bed and think about what you didn’t get done today, and all of the work you have tomorrow. Worrying about it won’t get any of it done, so let it leave your mind. If it helps, make a to-do list so that you don’t forget the next day. But leave it at that; once it is on the paper, forget about it. Another trick is to turn the clocks away from your bed so you cannot count the passing minutes. If you focus on the fact that you are not sleeping, you’ll make the problem worse.

5. Add some noise
Wait a second. . . your bedroom should be as quiet as possible, right? Up to a point, yes. The darker and quieter the room is, the more deeply you’ll sleep, even if you don’t realize it. But, adding “white noise” into the background can actually help you slumber. These steady, quiet sounds will block out other, more disturbing noises that might keep you awake. Plus, once you are asleep, you’ll be less likely to wake up from other noises. Try keeping a fan blowing at night – a cool bedroom is more conducive to sleep anyway. Or, try putting some relaxing music or natural sounds, especially something that can be set on a timer. You can buy CD’s that play gentle rain, waterfalls, or wind noises.

6. Listen to your body
Could it be your body is too tense for sleep? Try a relaxation tape that guides you through loosening up and relaxing each muscle group. Start at your feet, tensing and untensing your muscles, and move up your body. Work on some deep breathing exercises, which mimic your respiration pattern while asleep and can help convince your body that it is time to drift off.

And in the future…
Exercise! Consistent fitness and nutrition is directly linked to improved sleep. Of course, if you are lying in bed restless, it might be a little late. But, start tomorrow and you’ll sleep better in nights to come. If (and when) you do exercise, make sure it’s not right before bedtime, which can interfere with your body’s ability to relax and nod off.

Make going to bed a routine. Around the same time every night, even on weekends, start your routine. This could mean taking a bath and some light reading. It could simply mean changing into your pajamas and brushing your teeth. Do something consistently that your body will learn as signals to settle down for the night. Wake up refreshed the next day.

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5 Habits for a Better Early Morning Workout

5 Habits for a Better Early Morning Workout

Usually things go one of two ways when your alarm clock buzzes loudly and wakes you from your deep sleep.

  1. You spring out of bed ready to dominate the day.
  2. You hit snooze and prioritize a few extra minutes of sleep above all else.

If you look forward to working out in the morning, that first scenario might sound familiar (and consider yourself lucky). But if you dread the thought of trudging to the gym before the sun rises, these five steps could ease you into a more effective early morning workout.


If you’re the average American, you sleep about 6.8 hours per night, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. That’s a lot of time to go without drinking. You lose water with every exhale, so you’re slightly dehydrated when you wake up.

Studies show dehydration of as little as 2% of your body weight (that’s less than 3 pounds for a 140-pound person) can reduce exercise performance. To get the most out of your workout, consume plenty of water immediately upon waking and before exercise.


You’ll likely have gone more than seven hours without eating anything, so make sure to prime your workout with a breakfast or snack that’s rich in protein and carbohydrates. This will stabilize blood sugar and provide your muscles with the ideal fuel for intense exercise.

Carbs are your body’s favorite energy source for working out. Slow-digesting carbs like oatmeal, whole-grain toast or certain fruits (like apples, cherries and grapefruit) give your body a steady source of glucose, the simplified sugar that your muscles love.

Protein helps keep blood-sugar levels steady so you don’t crash during your workout and keeps you full. Eggs, Greek yogurt and whey protein shakes are convenient early morning choices.

(As for the third macronutrient — fat — choose carefully and don’t overdo it. A small handful of almonds or some sliced avocado is fine, whereas a greasy breakfast sandwich may send you sprinting to the bathroom between sets.)


Your body temperature drops slightly during sleep, so take a few extra minutes to raise your inner thermostat before working out. That’s where a thorough warmup routine that includes foam rolling, muscle activation and dynamic stretching comes in. As you raise your core temperature, you’ll increase blood flow to your muscles, lubricate your joints and spark the metabolic processes that deliver oxygen and energy substrates.

If time allows, you could also take a hot shower before leaving the house. Dress in layers on the way to the gym, and crank the heat in your car during fall and winter months.


If you wake up with a stiff back, you’re not alone. The discs between your vertebrae absorb fluid while you sleep, which can make your back feel tighter in the morning. A proper lower-back warmup is essential to help you move better and reduce the chance of injury, especially if you plan on doing squats, deadlifts or similar exercises that load the spine.

A healthy back needs a blend of mobility and stability. This starts with a strong core and mobile hips. A few yoga-inspired breathing exercises along with dynamic stretches for the glutes, quads, groin and hamstrings can help relieve tension in your back.

Try this sample lower-body warmup before your early bird workout:

  1.   90/90 Hip Lift: 5 deep breaths (make sure to inhale and exhale fully)
  2.   Kneeling Glute Mobilization: 10 reps per side
  3.   Lateral Lunge with Overhead Reach: 5 reps per side
  4.   Walking Spiderman: 5 reps per side


There’s an old saying: “If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.” This holds true for fitness because without a solid plan, you’ll struggle to make and measure your progress.

Before each workout, take a look over your plan and focus on your daily goal. Keep a workout notebook where you write down the exercises, sets, reps and weights you use. That way, you can make sure you do a little more each time to set foot in the gym.

Don’t head into the gym without a purpose. If you haven’t already, check out one of the many workouts featured on the blog.

READ MORE > Improve Your Fitness Fast with This 30-Day Dumbbell Plan


If all else fails, remember this: Few feelings are as satisfying as finishing a workout before most people even wake up.


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7 Workout Rules You Can Totally Ignore

7 Workout Rules You Can Totally Ignore

There are few feelings better than the one you get after conquering a solid workout. And while you might feel great and have been slaying it in the gym even harder than Kylie Jenner on Instagram, there’s one teensy issue—you’re not seeing the rad results you were hoping for. It happens, and it sucks.

There are a few non-negotiables when it comes to making fitness gains: you have to do some sort of training (on a semi-regular basis) and you need to keep up a healthy, balanced diet. But if you’re looking to maximize your next training session, here are seven workout “rules” you can totally ignore:

Rule #1: You should never eat before a morning workout.

Fact: Your body needs fuel to function. “People think they’ll burn more fat in the morning if they don’t eat before a workout,” says Jessica King, head coach at Peloton Cycle. “If you’re going to wake up and do an intense workout, try eating Ezekiel toast (it’s made with sprouted grains) with almond butter, a hardboiled egg, or a smoothie.” Eating something with carbs and protein will make sure your body has enough energy to power through your routine. Here’s what a registered dietitian recommends eating before (and after) a workout.

Rule #2: You should only stick to one type of workout.

Fact: There’s always more than one way to get where you want to go. “If you’re looking to gain muscle, one of the best things you can do is change up your routine,” says wellness and fitness expert Adam Rosante, author of The 30 Second Body: Eat Clean, Train Dirty & Live Hard. “The body is incredibly proficient at adapting to stress. So, if you’ve been doing the standard 3 sets of 12 reps for a while, switching things up will lead to really impressive gains.”

Rule #3: You shouldn’t do anything that resembles a workout on your rest day.

Fact: Rest days are about giving your body time to recover and your muscles the opportunity to repair. Everyone defines rest differently. YOU DO YOU! So that doesn’t have to mean sitting on the couch all day (no judging if you want to though!). A rest day can involve some light walking, restorative yoga, and a whole lot of foam rolling.

Rule #4: Logging miles on the treadmill is the best way to burn calories.

Fact: First things first, typical cardio workouts are important, especially if you’re training for an endurance event. But, if you want to mix things up, circuit routines that involve lifting weights or moving through bodyweight exercises at a quick pace are also great for building strength and burning fat. And building muscle is important for calorie burn—while cardio burns more calories per minute, lifting weights can help you burn more calories after the workout ends. Read more about which is better for weight loss, strength or cardio, here.

Rule #5: You have to be sore after a workout.

Fact: If you’re not seeing progress you may think that you need to go harder—so hard you feel the burn for days after your workout. But soreness is not an indicator of results, explains Rosante. Your level of post-workout soreness can be a direct result of a slew of factors, ranging from the types of exercise you’re doing to your quality of recovery. Sure, you’ll want to step things up, but don’t feel like you need to push your body to an extreme in order to see gains.

Rule #6: When performing a squat, never let your knees go past your toes.

Fact: You’ve heard it time and time again. But according to Holly Perkins, CSCS, creator of The GLUTES Project, following this “golden rule” could actually be detrimental to your form and limiting your mobility for a perfect squat or lunge. And remember, proper form leads to better results. Some people are just built differently and the truth is, at the very bottom of a squat, your knees can go slightly beyond your toes, says Perkins. “The key here is not to let your knees extend so far forward that you put undo pressure on them, so there is a small range that is acceptable.” So while your knees are important, focus on really pushing your butt back and down and keeping your weight in your heels throughout the movement.

Rule #7: You should never exercise at night.

Fact: Many people think that exercising in the evening will make it difficult to fall asleep. While it does increase your energy levels, it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be able to turn off once your head hits the pillow. “I have clients that prefer to work out at night because it is their way to unwind after a stressful day. If anything, the workout will help him/her sleep better,” says Perkins. “And a yoga session at night could be exactly what an insomniac needs, or a long run might be the outlet of stress that you need in order to sleep well.” Ultimately, timing is important when it comes to seeing better results, because the best workout is the workout you actually get to (consistently). If you’re not a morning person, evening workouts are perfect.

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How Your Workout Buddy Impacts Your Performance

How Your Workout Buddy Impacts Your Performance

According to pervading wisdom, your workout buddy can totally make a or break a sweat session. Choose well, and a workout buddy can hit all the right cheerleader/drill sergeant notes you need to keep you motivated. Choose poorly, and they might end up being a complete hinderance, leaving you spending more time chatting than doing crunches. (At least, that’s how we thought this common gym philosophy worked.)

However, a recent study from the University of Oxford suggests that how our workout buddy impacts our performance might not actually be quite that simple.

Workout Friend or Foe?

For the study, researchers wanted to dig into how others’ performance impacts our own performance and motivation using a mix of behavioral experiments. They started with two games and 24 players. In the first game, each participant had to perform a simple task: either assess the colors of shapes or estimate how much time had elapsed. Easy enough, but there was one catch. Each participant was told they had two competitors. After the first round, the participants were given feedback on their performance and that of their competitors and then were asked to rate everyone’s expected performance for round 2.

In their findings, published in the journal Neuron, they discovered that when participants were told they were competing against rock stars, they evaluated themselves more negatively, but when they were told they were going up against average Joes, they tended to perform better.

Competitive Spirit: Helpful or Hurtful?

The researchers were also looking at something else during the trials — namely how competitive versus cooperative contexts would impact players’ performance. While some participants were told they were playing against two other players in each round, another set of participants were told they were playing with them. Turns out teamwork made a big difference in how well they ultimately performed. In the team-player situations, participants experienced opposite performance effects from the competition scenario: Playing with other rock stars made them raise their game, while playing with low performers tended to drag them down.

What It Means For You

The findings have major implications for your workout routine — and specifically how you strategize who you sign up with for Saturday a.m. spin classes. If you tend to get competitive about your sweat sessions, tagging along with your triathlete friend may not be as motivating as you might think.

Unless of course you take the element of competition out of it. Rather than trying to outdo your gym buddy, adopt the teamwork mentality and think of yourselves as training for the same team — the better she does, the better you do and vice versa.

Think of it this way: If you both encourage each other to hit your spin class goals, you can feel extra good about hitting brunch afterward.


Why Muscles Shake During a Tough Workout

By Cristina Goyanes


Why Muscles Shake During a Tough Workout

You’ve probably felt your muscles shake at some point during a hard workout. At first, it can be alarming — you’re literally vibrating like a bell that’s ringing for you to halt whatever it is that you’re doing.

You might wonder: Is it normal for my muscles to momentarily quiver out of control while holding this plank? Is my infrastructure in danger of collapse?

The short answer is no, you’re good.

While you may crumple to the mat, you’re likely not destroying your foundation but rather reinforcing it. That little muscle quake is generally a good sign that you’re pushing yourself and getting stronger for it.

“If somebody is doing a challenging new activity — say a weighted split squat — it’s not uncommon to see them shake,” explains Trevor Rappa, a doctor of physical therapy and co-founder of Resilient Performance Physical Therapy in NYC. “The reason behind that is our brains have these motor patterns that execute on command, like walking. When we introduce something new, the brain needs to figure out how to do it. Some muscles may not know how to work in conjunction with others to perform something new, which can cause some of the shakeup.”

This doesn’t just apply to people who are upping the ante in their fitness routine. If you’ve taken a hiatus from the gym (long or short), reintroducing exercise to the body can be jarring. “For someone who hasn’t trained in a while, exercise really disturbs their homeostasis,” Rappa says. “Any disruption to that baseline is going to be a shock to the system, so it’s not abnormal to have that shaking response.”

Another factor that may add an extra twitch (or 20) is fatigue. If you’re on your third set of minute-long planks, it makes sense that you’d be feeling wobbly. “When the muscles get really tired and heavy that’s often due to an accumulation of hydrogen ions, making muscles more acidic,” Rappa says. “That sends signals to the brain that the muscles are in pain or have a lot of discomfort, which then prompts the brain to tell the body to stop.”

The good news: Your body’s involuntary mid-exercise convulsions will eventually subside as you grow accustomed to the moves and develop your strength and conditioning, says trainer Noam Tamir, founder and program director of TS Fitness studio in Manhattan. In other words, getting in shape may delay the onset of this fatigue. “More conditioned people usually have better nerve recruitment so they don’t lose control as quickly,” Tamir says.

There is a balance, however, of knowing when to push through versus when to hold back, like when you feel the tremors rising. “Shaking isn’t dangerous, but it could be if you are holding weights that you can’t control and put force on muscles and joints that have lost their power,” Tamir warns.

Rappa agrees but emphasizes that context matters. For example, if you’re feeling unstable doing lunges, adding a light weight might help you feel more grounded and allow you to regain balance, he says. However, if the weight is too heavy, it could throw you off balance, which could lead to injury.

One way to safely work through muscle quakes is to keep breathing. Holding your breath while planking will only add stress to the body and make you shake more, Rappa says. Instead you want to encourage the body to relax, which you can do by exhaling and inhaling at somewhat of a normal rhythm. “Reset your breathing cycling, and you may stop shaking,” he says.

After your workout, make sure to replenish your glycogen stores with muscle-building foods (such as these tasty options) within the recovery window of 30 minutes after completing the activity. Adequate post-workout recovery will help you come back fresher and stronger next time.


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5 Simple Stretches to Soothe Sore Shoulders

  — By Melissa Rudy, Staff Writer

Sometimes it feels like we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders—or, at the very least, the weight of groceries, children and barbell presses. When shoulder pain strikes, it makes those burdens even more difficult, and sometimes downright impossible, to bear.

Although not as widespread as back pain or knee pain, shoulder pain is relatively common. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, approximately 7.5 million people were treated for shoulder problems in 2006.

One of the most complex joints in the body, the shoulder is made up of three bones: The humerus (upper-arm bone), scapula (shoulder blade) and clavicle (collarbone). The humerus connects to a socket in the shoulder blade, held in place by the muscles, tendons and ligaments that make up the rotator cuff. Anytime you move your arm, all of these components work together to perform the action, whether it’s reaching for something on a high shelf, pitching a softball or doing rows at the gym.

What Causes Shoulder Pain?

Because it’s less stable than other major joints, the shoulder is more susceptible to injury. “The shoulder socket is very shallow and not round,” says Dr. Hythem P. Shadid at Genesis Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in St. Charles, Illinois. “This means the shoulder depends on the soft tissue envelope, which includes the capsule, muscle, tendons and ligaments, to maintain its stability.” The shoulder also requires a much wider range of motion than other major muscle joints, making it more vulnerable.

Sometimes the cause of shoulder pain is an obvious trauma, such as a car accident or a collision during a high-impact sport. But in most cases, pain flares up seemingly out of nowhere as a result of day-to-day overuse. “The most common causes of shoulder pain are repetitive overhead activities that increase wear on the joint,” says Dr. Shadid. “This can result in a condition called arthropathy, which is the progressive decay of the mechanisms within a joint. As we age, the shoulder becomes more susceptible to injury.”

Matt Likins, an orthopedic physical therapist and partner at 1st Choice Physical Therapy, says that most of the shoulder issues he treats are caused by a lack of balance between strength and flexibility. “It’s important to remember that whenever you work a muscle on one side of a joint, you must work the opposing muscle as well,” he says. “For instance, if you spend all your time doing chest work, such as pushups and bench presses, you should also work the rhomboids, latissimus and posterior deltoids.”

5 Effective Exercises for Shoulder Pain

To soothe shoulder pain, Dr. Shadid recommends performing these exercises five or six times per week for maximum improvement.

1. Arm-Across-Chest Stretch: Hold your right hand out in front of you. Reach your left hand behind your right elbow, pulling your right arm to the left and across your chest. If you feel pain in your shoulder, lower your arm until the pain subsides. The goal is to be able to pull your right arm across your chest without feeling any pain. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then relax and repeat with your left arm. Repeat for three to five sets.


2. Neck Release: Sit or stand up straight, then slowly bring your chin toward your chest until you feel the stretch in the back of your neck. Try leaning your head to the left to stretch your right shoulder or to the right to stretch your left shoulder. Hold the stretches for up to one minute in each direction, breathing deeply as you concentrate on relaxing. For a deeper stretch, you can very gently use your hand to pull your right ear closer to your right shoulder, and vice versa.  Another option is to elevate the engaged arm to the height of your shoulder as you pull it across your chest. Repeat three to five times on each side.

3. Chest Expansion: Clasp your hands behind your back. (Optionally, you can grasp a resistance band, rope or strap behind your back with both hands.) Draw your shoulder blades toward each other and gently lift your chin toward the ceiling. Breathe deeply for 10 to 15 seconds and release. Repeat three to five times. To deepen the stretch, move your hands closer together on the strap.

Image via 42 Yogis 

4. Seated Twist: Sit straight up in a chair with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Twist your torso to the right, placing your left hand on the outside of your right thigh. Relax your shoulders as you look toward your right, gently pushing on your right thigh. Breathe deeply for 10 to 15 seconds and release. Repeat on your right side. Repeat for three to five sets.

Image via Yoga Online Tips

5. The 90-90 Shoulder Stretch: Stand in a doorway, holding your arms up so your elbows are at 90-degree angles and your arms form a 90-degree angle to your body at the shoulder. Place each hand on one of the sides of the door frame, placing one foot forward as you stand up straight aligning your neck with your spine. Lean forward with your back straight as you brace yourself against the door frame. Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat two to three times.

Image via

In addition to performing regular stretching exercises like the ones above, Dr. Shadid recommends avoiding any activities that may aggravate the shoulder injury. If persistent shoulder pain isn’t relieved by several days of rest, ice, massage and elevation, contact a doctor. More severe cases may require pain-relieving injections or surgery to repair structural injuries.

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