My thoughts and perspectives on health, science, and logic… Keep an open mind!

Archive for the ‘Getting Started’ Category

Health vs. Fitness???


As is the case with many fields, the world of fitness sees many words used interchangeably when they probably shouldn’t.  Trainers with any experience have probably encountered times when two people used the same word to mean different things or vice-versa.  While I could harp on plenty of these disconnects in language (and I likely will in the future), today I’d like to look at two words that are at the core of what we do:

HEALTH… and FITNESS

So what do they really mean?  To many, that’s open to interpretation.  A lot of people might think it’s silly to give it much thought in the first place, as we all know what these words mean, right?  Well I’ll suggest that it’s never a bad idea to double-check these ideas before moving forward.  After all, if these are words we use to describe our goals — and our goals will determine everything we do in the gym — then shouldn’t we be COMPLETELY sure that we’re using them as accurately as possible?

abc_gma_health_3_101006_wg

For decades, Jack LaLanne served as an example of someone who focused on health AND fitness — performing countless incredible feats of strength and endurance over the years as well as living to the ripe age of 96 (image taken from abcnews.go.com)

 

If we’re to paraphrase the Merriam-Webster definition, good health could be described as the mental and physical condition whereby we are free from illness, injury, and pain.  Sounds reasonable enough, yes?  You could also describe it as a state of metabolic efficiency (all of the body’s processes are in good, working order).  So basically, a health-oriented goal would be focused on ensuring that our biological machinery is working well and that we’re not malfunctioning in any way.  And if you think about it, that’s indeed what a lot of people are going for when they exercise.  Lowering blood pressure and resting heart rate, reducing the risk of cancer, recovering from a sprained ankle so we can walk properly again — these are all attempts to preserve or improve our body’s basic ability to function.

But what about fitness?  The most appropriate definition I’ve been able to find is something along the lines of: the state of being adapted to a particular task or goal (being “fit”) — in exercise, this would mean being fit for a specific type of exercise-related or performance-oriented task.  So if we take this approach, we see that physical fitness could be demonstrated in a number of ways.  We can have a certain ability to run fast, jump high, be flexible, demonstrate motor coordination, etc.  It varies depending on the goal.

So we can see that — if you accept these definitions — fitness and health are NOT the same thing.  While health is a sort of baseline quality of someone’s biological function (are all the parts in good working order?), fitness is more about the way we can perform a particular task (how much endurance do we have, how strong am I, etc.?).

It’s certainly possible to be healthy but not particularly fit.  Just think about someone who goes into doctor’s office for a yearly checkup and has every test come back “normal” (healthy), but he/she doesn’t necessarily exercise and isn’t able to perform at a high level in any sort of athletic capacity (not really “physically fit” for those tasks).  Conversely, there are plenty of cases of extremely high-performing athletes who can run extremely fast or lift incredible amounts of weight (high physical fitness), but their cholesterol levels or blood pressure might not be very good (not extremely healthy).

fast car slow car

A Smart Car fresh off the lot will have all of its parts in good working order (“healthy”), but it obviously won’t perform the same as something designed for more speed.

 

So why am I mentioning all of this?  Because I think it’s important for us to realize that, while many of the improvements we make through exercise can aid in both goals (improved cardiovascular health will also aid in fitness tasks relating to endurance, etc.), it’s not always the case.  Sometimes, we can confuse one thing for another.  Just because someone looks great or can move well doesn’t mean he/she is as healthy as appearances might suggest.  Keep that in mind before chasing that next marathon, adding more weight to the bar, or insisting on taking aggressive measures to lose weight.  You can perform well, but don’t compromise your own health in the process!

 

More to come.  Cheers

 

-G

Advertisements

I Wanna Be FLEXIBLE!!! (Part 2) —


So I left off a while back having discussed the MAIN STRUCTURAL COMPONENTS responsible for flexibility (bones, ligaments, etc.) to give some idea of the hard limits that we have to our total joint range.  But as most of us realize, that’s not the whole picture.  After all, it’s not usually our skeleton that’s restricting us in day-to-day activities.

Where do we typically feel “tight” instead?  In our muscles!  And that brings me to the major focus of this blog entry — the NEUROMUSCULAR SYSTEM!!!

You see, the primary job (mechanically speaking) that our muscles have is, simply put, managing joints.  Put another way, they’re primarily responsible for making sure that the bones can actually maintain proper contact with each other, can move (or not move) properly, and that force can be distributed throughout our bodies in an appropriate way.  If our muscles are working well, then we’re having a good time.  If not, then we start to see dysfunction — in the form of pain, arthritis, weakness, poor performance, coordination issues, and all sorts of other not-so-fun stuff.

 

A less-than-optimal neuromuscular system often leads to pain and other issues -- from www.treatingpain.com

A less-than-optimal neuromuscular system often leads to pain and other issues — from http://www.treatingpain.com

 

So to illustrate how some of this works, we have to break down the actual structure of a muscle and the “stuff” it interacts with.  Note that this will be PRETTY basic, but there’s still some science ahead.  So saddle up!

Muscles are, at least in my opinion, some of the coolest things ever devised by nature.  They consist of tons of tightly packed subcellular machinery that allows our bodies to convert the chemical energy of our food and the products of food breakdown into actual mechanical energy (FORCE)!  This is no small feat.  I won’t get into the metabolic pathways and mechanisms that govern this right now, but just know that there’s a lot of stuff that has to happen for your muscles to work!  So let’s talk a little about their structure (feel free to skip this portion if you’re already familiar with basic muscle structure):

 

— BEGINNING OF SCIENCE!!! —

 

***Keep in mind that this post is going to talk about skeletal muscle.  This is the stuff that attaches to our bones and helps us move.  There are two other types of muscle — cardiac (heart muscle) and smooth (which operates in our organs and around blood vessels) — but this isn’t immediately relevant to us.  So I’ll stick to skeletal muscle today.***

 

First off, I want you to look at the structure of a typical muscle.  Notice that it’s a big hunk of tissue that’s attached to a bone by something called a TENDON.  But when we break it down, we see that the whole muscle is actually comprised of a bunch of chunks of  muscle units called “fascicles.”  The word “fasciculus” actually means “bundle” in Latin.  This makes perfect sense, as you can see that each fascicle is really a bundle of individual muscle fibers.  I sometimes like to think of it as a bundle of straws wrapped in a thin sheet of tissue.  And all of those bundles come together to make the whole muscle.  Also– in muscles, a “fiber” is the same thing as a “cell.”  So keep that in mind if you see it anywhere else.  Again, FIBER = CELL.

 

Skeletal_Muscle_Fibers

Muscles have a really cool structure — notice how muscle fibers (cells) are bundled together into fascicles, and then THOSE are bundled together again. It all packs together into what we know as a whole muscle — Taken from http://www.medicalook.com

 

This gives a good basic overview of how our muscles are organized on a larger scale.  Now let’s look a little closer at a single muscle cell (one of the straws) to see how it’s put together:

 

So we see that, even on a smaller scale, things are bundled up in a similar fashion.  Inside a single cell, we see these individual cylinders called "myofibrils" that have their own components within THEM -- from www.24manuals.com

Smaller bundles of “straws” within each of the ones from the previous diagram — from http://www.24manuals.com

 

So we see that, even on a smaller scale, things are bundled up in a similar fashion. Inside a single cell, we see these individual cylinders called “myofibrils” that have their own components within THEM.  It is within these myofibrils that the smallest functional unit of a muscle is found — THE SARCOMERE.  I won’t get too deep into how this little guy works, but suffice it to say, these are where the magic really happens.  Here’s one last picture to help you visualize things on this microscopic level:

 

A diagram of the basic structure of a SARCOMERE -- from www.studyblue.com

A diagram of the basic structure of a SARCOMERE — from http://www.studyblue.com

 

So all you really need to know about sarcomeres is this — tiny little proteins (filaments or myofilaments) inside the sarcomere attach and “crawl” over each other so that each end (the Z-disc or Z-line) is pulled toward the middle.  Now all of these sarcomeres are attached end-to-end (in “series” as it is known).  If we zoom back out a bit, we can imagine how the whole muscle will shorten as each individual subunit shortens.  Here’s a neat way to visualize this:

Imagine you and nine friends are all side-by-side, and you each represent a single sarcomere.  You each have your arms outstretched and are holding hands with the person next to you.  Now imagine that, while doing this, you’re sitting on a REALLY slick surface so you can pull all of the people on either side of you closer to your position.  If you pull your arms in (“contract” like a sarcomere), you get “thinner” and the people on either side of you will slide in towards you.  The overall length of the system (all 10 people) will get a LITTLE BIT shorter.  Now imagine if ALL TEN of you do the same thing.  Every person pulls the people they’re holding hands with closer to them.  As you might imagine, the whole chain will get MUCH shorter, as everyone is pulling their arms in at the same time.  This is what happens within a myofibril, and within a whole muscle on a larger scale.  The whole muscle shortens, because TONS OF INDIVIDUAL SARCOMERES SHORTEN.

I mentioned earlier that muscles generally attach to our bones at what is called a tendon.  While they don’t generate force directly, healthy tendons are absolutely vital for allowing us to transmit that force from our muscles to the bones (or vice-versa) and do all of the things that we ask our bodies to do.  If a tendon fails, then the muscle can’t do its job.  This is important to keep in mind, as these structures are often overlooked when we talk about building strength and power and developing our physiques.  We’ll look at tendons and how they are involved in stretching a little more later.

 

— END OF SCIENCE!!! —

 

So from all of this, we can see that there’s an intricate structure that contributes to the way our muscles do their jobs.  Millions of tiny units work together to create the large-scale movements that we see and use every day.

I needed to go into the structure of muscles a bit so you have a basic understanding of the pieces that make up the whole.  Muscles are an intricate (and WAY COOL) system of components that come together beautifully to allow us to perform all of the actions of daily living that we take for granted.  Without muscles, there is no controlled movement.  So now that you know a little bit more about how muscles are put together, what about the effects of stretching?  How does attempting to move into extreme ranges affect these tissues?  I’ll describe this in the next entry 🙂

 

Back in the Saddle: Perspective is KEY!


Hello readers (it SHOULD be plural, right?)

First I want to say that I’ve been away from blogging for far too long.  It wasn’t really by choice.  I had a number of job-related issues come up that took all of my attention for the past few weeks.  But you don’t want to hear about all that, and it’s not why I’m writing anyway.

Aside from finally having some time to write, I decided that today was a good day to put up a new post partly due to an unsettling trend I’ve noticed.  Namely, it’s the new trend of being an online health expert.  What do I mean by this?

Dog Expert 1

I have to admit, some of us fake it well…

I’m sure we all have a friend or two (or in my case, dozens) who think that they are in a position to dole out advice on everything from how weight lifting makes women look manly to why this organic supplement will keep you trim.  While these people usually have the best of intentions — and I say “usually” since there are always the ones who try to peddle some supplement line or training DVD — they are not qualified to give even the most BASIC advice.  Is your aunt in any way educated on human physiology?  Could your buddy in the gym describe the shape of a hip joint, much less explain in detail how it functions?

Maybe I have high standards, but it seems a little idiotic to listen to the “facts” (read: misinformed opinions) of people with little to no education in exercise and nutrition!  But we do it all the time.  Someone is attractive or somehow has a persuasive manner about them, and we let them tell us whatever we want to hear.  We choose to listen to talking points and sound bites instead of doing our own research or asking the person to further explain their point of view.  But we must understand that, unless we do this, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

Now I would hope that anyone reading this is intelligent enough to know better than to buy a product just because it contains some impossible-to-find, homeopathic, all-natural, prestige, gourmet, mother-approved, tax-deductible extract made from a baboon’s ear wax!  Many claims are obviously bogus.  But others are far more insidious and may pass as legitimate to the casual observer.  I won’t go on a rant today pointing these out (though that might be a good idea for a future blog), but just realize that there are more too-good-to-be-true schemes out there than you can possibly imagine.

I’m gonna be saying this A LOT…

So how can an average person sort out all of the B.S. from the facts?  While there are no sure-fire ways to catch them all, I CAN offer a few guidelines:

   1.) If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. — Of course I’d put this at the top.  This will help to wake up your inner skeptic before things get out of hand.

   2.) Fad diets/exercises come and go, but scientific progress tends to show more consistency. — This doesn’t mean science isn’t wrong at times.  It means that we only have the existing body of research to help us to figure out what might really be effective (versus some new product that will just make a guy a quick buck).

   3.) If we want to badly enough, we’ll believe anything! — We all like to think we’re beyond this, but reality seems to suggest otherwise.  Most people are very susceptible to the power of suggestion, whether that comes from themselves or someone else, and we need to be aware of this fact and temper our decisions accordingly.

   4.) Nutritional supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA! — Essentially, this means that product manufacturers aren’t required to list everything that is in their supplements.  Moreover, they can make outrageous claims about the effectiveness of their products without much fear of reprisal, since there isn’t a massive agency actively investigating them.

   5.) Learn to do your own research.— It may not be sexy or glamorous, but sometimes the only sure way to get the answer you seek is by digging through some research articles.  Barring that, though, you can still get a good bit of info by consulting a number of experts in relevant fields and reading from major health/fitness organizations (CAUTION — even the big groups get it wrong sometimes!)

   6.) Be wary of any “expert” who doesn’t do #5!— Anyone who’s trying to convince you of something should be able to back up the claims that they make.  This means actually citing scientific research and logic instead of their own beliefs.  We live in a world filled with gym science, prejudices, misconceptions and half-truths.  If we’re to make any sense of it, we have to start dealing in facts without letting our feelings get in the way.  Which brings me to…

   7.) Bias is EVERYWHERE!!!— Most of the exercise “rules” that you’ve probably heard, particularly if they have come from a source other than someone who is very educated in the field, are the result of bias.  Sometimes it’s subconscious, and sometimes it’s not.  But to some degree, many of the decisions we make are largely the result of emotional attachments or aversions instead of reason.  The next time you hear advice from someone, try to figure out if they are basing guidance on their knowledge or their feelings.  I’ll explore this more in the future.

I could rant on about this, but I’ve already probably bored you to tears.  So let me wrap up by simply saying that the world is full of lies and misconceptions.  And the sad truth is, there usually won’t be anyone around to help you sort it all out.  The best tool you have is between your ears, and you’re gonna have to use it a lot if you want to avoid falling into the traps that so many people do.  That’s a big motivator for me as I write this blog.  Namely, to dispel what myths I can and shed a little light on things for anyone kind enough to read.  So until next time, keep learning and keep your eyes open.

Take care!

— Geoff

Sweet Dreams!


I know plenty of people who feel as though they are doing all of the right things to get fit, yet they aren’t quite seeing the results they were expecting.  This could be for a number of reasons.  First off, those expectations could just be unrealistic.  But assuming that is not the case, there must be some other issue.  The single most common factor that I see is that these people burn the candle at both ends.

The human body is a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong.  But it needs time to recover!  Think of progressive exercise as a sort of race between the forces that break your body down and those that build it back up.  When we work out, we cause a number of physical and physiological stresses that our body must respond to and recover from.  Those stresses initially have the upper hand, and the period after a significant workout is when we are more susceptible to injury.  Proper nutrition and rest periods for the affected tissues are key to overcoming these stresses (and actually getting stronger).  Unfortunately, too many of my friends figure they’ll just skip sleep, load up on coffee and energy drinks and attack their workouts with as much intensity as possible.

This works great… for about a week.

It is a FACT that repeatedly exposing your body to hard exercise without proper rest can lead to overtraining syndrome and injuries.  Your mood can take a turn for the worse, your appetite can go haywire, and your overall energy levels tend to plummet.  So listen to your body, and get some rest!  And just as importantly, you must put decent gas in the tank.  Eating cleaner foods will tend to give you more restful sleep.  Overloading on sodium, refined sugars, overly greasy foods and preservatives tends to give many people more difficulty with achieving restful sleep in the first place.

Here’s an article highlighting sleep as an important ingredient in longevity.  While specific scientific studies aren’t cited in the article, it does illustrate some trends in people who live to see 100.  They tend to sleep more than many people today, and they tend to eat a little better (along with staying somewhat active and staying involved with family, etc.).  Give it a look-see, and think about your own sleep habits.  There are probably areas where we can all improve.

Yahoo! — Want to Live to 100?  SLEEP!!!

Cheers,

– Geoff

Work Hard, but Work Smart!


As I slowly creaked my way out of bed today, a thought that has passed through my mind a thousand times before visited me again.  Specifically, “How much is too much?”

While in my particular case the thought was pertaining to my recent jump back into regular gym time and martial arts practice, that question could be applied to anything.  We all “know” that exercise is supposed to be good for us.  Properly applied, regular (or even irregular) exercise can have a huge range of positive effects on us physically, psychologically, and spiritually.  But, as humans often do with many things, we take this to extremes.  Some is good, so more must be better.  That is true to a point.

We’ve all done it. But does that mean we HAVE to?

I said that I “creaked” as I got out of bed today, but luckily I know that most of these pains are simply DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).  It’s often normal to feel some stiffness or pain upon starting or resuming an exercise program.  But logic should tell us that there is a limit to how much pain we should feel.  If you’re a little bit achy after that run, there’s probably nothing to worry about.  But if your workout was four days ago, and youSTILL can’t walk up a flight of stairs — you may want to reevaluate how much intensity you’re bringing to your program.  Here’s a good rule of thumb I like to use:

If you’re too sore to do what you did yesterday again today, then you probably overdid it!

We have been conditioned to “love the pain” (or at least that’s what we hear from so many fit people), so we figure the more we hurt, the better job we must be doing.  Right?  WRONG!  We must remember that every time we exercise with any significant load or intensity, we’re causing some degree of trauma to our body’s systems.  There’s a lot of crazy physiological stuff going on that I won’t get into in this post, but just remember that we are exercising to be stronger and more fit.  So stress your body, but don’t OVER-stress it.  As Lee Haney is known for saying: Stimulate, don’t ANNIHILATE!

You see, our bodies are wonderful at recovering from and adjusting to the idiotic things we do to them.  We have mechanisms in place that allow us to get stronger, faster, circulate blood more efficiently, and even digest food with greater effectiveness.  But even the best machine breaks down.  So when it comes to soreness, especially when it’s excessive, ask yourself a question —  Am I really smarter than millions of years of evolution?

The human body is, in my mind, an incredible and awe-inspiring creation that has spent eons developing the ability to adapt and respond to the dangers and stresses of life and the world around us.  It gives us all sorts of information all of the time, and it’s funny how we choose to ignore the bits we just don’t want to listen to.  If our bodies are doing their job when they tell us to drink some water or go to the bathroom, perhaps they are also be onto something when they tell us, “Hey, this thing hurts so don’t be so rough with it!”

So to close, just pay attention to what you feel.  While dedication to a fitness goal and enthusiasm are great, more is not always better.  Moderation is a great philosophy in all areas of life.  And moreover, it’s not a race.  You can slow down and still get where you want to go.  But you’ll probably be a lot safer when you get there, and you might get to see a little more scenery on the way!

Cheers as always,

Geoff

Getting up and around


Whether we are trying to gear up for next month’s Judo competition or simply trying to stay as generally fit this year as we did last year, staying in some kind of sustainable routine is a must.  You’ve probably heard experts and gurus spout off about how awesome it is to work out in the morning.  They insist that you “Start the day off right!!!”

Anybody who knows me is aware that I am absolutely NOT a morning person.  I never go to the gym before about 1:30 in the afternoon unless I don’t have a choice.  However, with that said, I will lend some credence to what these proponents of first-thing-in-the-morning workouts are saying.  That is to say, I believe that it IS a good idea to do SOMETHING shortly after waking up in the morning (or afternoon as some of my days have had it lately).  Does that mean you have to do an hour-long P90X routine before you even have breakfast?  Absolutely not.  But there is evidence to support the notion that opening the curtains to let in some light and getting a little movement and resistance in can help to kick your metabolism into a higher gear.

A few of these, and you should be all set to tackle your day 😉

Personally, I find the morning to be a great time to assess whatever abuse I have inflicted on my body from the day before.  After doing some initial recovery from a (hopefully) good night’s sleep, there may be some areas that are a little stiff or achy.  Within reason, this is normal.  I find I’ve learned to listen to my body well enough to figure out a few light exercises that may help with some of those aches and pains.  Now the key is to TAKE YOUR TIME!  Morning exercises, in my mind are not for explosive intensity.  Think instead of a slow, controlled warm-up for your day.  Whether you’re doing some body weight squats, crunches, lunges, push ups, or anything else to get yourself in gear, it would be a good idea to move at around 50-75% of your normal speed.  This is a very general guideline, obviously, and the most important thing is that every movement feels comfortable and doesn’t violate the signals your body gives you.

Another thing that I find helpful is thinking about keeping constant tension in the appropriate muscles as you go through a morning routine.  What I mean, very simply, is that this is a great opportunity to work on stability.  During a squat, slowly lowering and raising your body while mentally focusing on tightening your glutes and abs (don’t worry about sucking your belly button toward your spine so much as just keeping them tight and see how that feels) is a good way to handle this.  I will see if I can get a video uploaded soon to better explain what I’m talking about, but the basic point remains.  The name of the game is control.  While they are good just for kick-starting metabolic activity, my morning exercises also serve as a sort of system check to make sure that everything is functioning properly.  It gives me a chance to finish waking up while identifying any problem areas BEFORE I jump on the track to do sprints.

Stretching is a whole other issue that I haven’t tackled here.  That was intentional, as I generally do very little (especially when I’m just getting moving in the morning).  I’ll be writing a separate post to explain my views on what stretches I feel may or may not be appropriate, and at what times.  In the meantime, drop any comments or questions!

Cheers!

– Geoff

A First Step


As I sit here in the wee hours of the morning, it occurs to me that it might be a good idea to drop off some quick advice before retiring for the night.  I mentioned in my introductory post that I receive a lot of questions from friends and loved ones over how they should approach their exercise goals.  While there certainly is no one-size-fits-all answer to ANY scenario, I can contribute one tidbit that should always be the first step.  So here goes:  ACTUALLY KNOW YOUR GOAL!

“Okay, he’s being silly, right?  Of COURSE I know what I want!”

I didn’t mean to insult your intelligence by making that statement.  But it needed to be said!  So try this simple trick that they teach us in Kinesiology and personal training courses.  It’s not perfect, but it gets the idea across.  It’s called the S.M.A.R.T. principle.  Simply put, you do not have a properly constructed fitness goal if is is not:  Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-oriented.

Now to be fair, I’ve seen the “R” stand for other warm-and-fuzzy terms like “Relevant” and “Rewarding,” but you get the point.  Make sure that whatever you want is something that you can realistically pursue and measure.  For example — “I’d love to have Beyonce’s body!” is NOT a proper goal.  It gives no idea of what specific changes you want to try to make to your body.  Now I’d ASSUME you’d perhaps be wanting to lose a little weight around the midsection, firm things up, and strengthen your arms and legs… because if you’re 4’10” and Japanese, you’re probably not going to have quite her stature or skin tone!  Now as ridiculous as that example was, it illustrates my point.  You have got to make it clear!  Only after you know exactly how you want to look/feel/perform can you start putting together a diet and exercise plan that will take you there.  Sure, there are lots of great general lifestyle habits you can develop, but you can’t wish your way into a specific kind of shape.  You have to make it happen!

So think about what your actual objective is.  Do you want to lose 15 pounds by the time school starts up in August?  Do you want to add 50 pounds to your squat max over the next 4-6 months?  Or would you perhaps like to be able to dance with your son/daughter at their upcoming wedding without getting tired?  Ask yourself these questions, make sure it’s something you can measure and be accountable for, and THEN you’ll be ready to get shakin’ 🙂

More to come!

-Geoff