Sick for the Gym

Having just spent a long weekend battling this season’s offering of the flu, I thought it would be fitting to talk about when it is appropriate, or even safe, to train when you are feeling under the weather.

We’ve all been there, once you are in the habit of your gym schedule, nothing can stop you from getting through your workouts in the right order and on the right day.  This is a good thing, it means you have incorporated healthy habits into your lifestyle which is not easy.  However, there are situations where what is best for the body is taking a break and allowing for adequate recovery time.

Advice on this topic is mixed.  You are either instructed to stay as far away from the gym and any physical activity as humanly possible, or to continue your fitness routine as planned and to “sweat it out.”  Other advice will recommend you “listen to your body” which continues to beg the question as to whether or not you should exercise.

The first thing to consider is the type of sickness you are dealing with here.  Of course, if you are fighting something like pneumonia, bronchitis or strep throat you should 100% stay home and allow your body (and most likely some antibiotics from your doctor) to do its job of recovering.  Fever, body aches and excessive fatigue are all signs from your body to take a break.

Something like the common cold, on the other hand, may leave you with a little bit more energy to move around.  If you are questioning whether or not to work out, it is likely that you are in this “grey area.” To be more specific these are strictly “above the neck symptoms,” “such as a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing or minor sore throat” (Laskowski, 2017).

In this case, a bit of light exercise may be beneficial, helping to clear out nasal passageways to promote ease of breathing.  The key here is light exercise.  This could be a brisk walk or bike ride, preferably outdoors so you can get some fresh air as well.  These activities “aren’t intense enough to create serious immune-compromising stress on the body” (Andrews, 2018).

This gives some credence to the “sweat it out” theory, however, it is important to consider the type of workout you are trying to do.  If you are headed to the gym for heavy weight training, or high-intensity intervals your body is going to prioritize recovery of the immune system before it begins recovery for the muscles you are breaking down in your workout.  So at the end of the day, you should consider whether it will be time well spent.

Another point to consider is whether you are contagious or not.  We’ve all seen someone coughing and sneezing all over the most popular equipment.  The last thing you want to be is “that guy,” potentially putting fellow gym-goers in the same position you are in now.  At the very least, if you do head to the gym, be sure to wash your hands before hitting the floor and wipe down all equipment after you’re done using it!

Heavier resistance training may also weaken your immune system (especially in males), due in part to the effects weight training has on testosterone levels.  The reasons why are not entirely clear, however immune responses to infections such as influenza have been known to be weaker in men than they are in women (Goldman, 2013).  Because heavy strength training has also been shown to boost testosterone levels, it would stand to reason that workouts of this nature would not be recommended while one is sick.

Finally, if you have been working hard in the gym, you may be worried that all your hard earned muscle is going to start melting away if you miss a day or two.  Fortunately, evidence shows that it takes about three weeks before muscle mass begins to atrophy and that taking a little break may actually put you at a greater advantage when you return (Fisher, et al, 2013).

If a visual check of your body makes you think you have lost muscle after just a few days of being sick, it is most likely due to changes in hydration and muscle glycogen levels.  You can combat this by trying to stick to your nutrition goals as closely as possible. Remember, just because you can’t make it to the gym doesn’t mean you should throw your whole diet out the window!

There is nothing worse than starting to feel better, overdoing it and then winding up sick again the next day.  Take things slow and hopefully after a few days you will be fully recovered and ready to continue with your progress in the gym.  Listen to your body, if you start with 10-15 minutes of light cardio and feel overly fatigued, that is your body signalling for more rest.  If you have given your body the time it needs to recover, you should be back to your normal strength and endurance in no time!

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The Importance of Home Cooking

People nowadays are spending less and less time cooking at home.  This is connected with a decrease in the nutritional value of one’s meals week to week.  Not only are home cooked meals healthier for you and your family, but they are also easier on your budget.

A snapshot of my semi-stocked pantry.

Home cooking is a win-win, as the Director of University of Washington’s Center for Public Health Nutrition states, “by cooking more often at home, you have a better diet at no significant cost increase, while if you go out more, you have a less healthy diet at a higher cost” (University of Washington, 2017), yet less of our meals are cooked at home.  

Dining out adds novelty and excitement to eating.  A lot of people may think that their skill at cooking is limited to only a few dishes which, repeated week after week, do not seem so appealing.  Dining out gives you the option to eat cuisines and dishes that are unfamiliar and exotic.

Skill, therefore, prevents a lot of us from cooking at home.  Many recipes are overwhelming and contain so many ingredients to wrap your head around.  Not to mention the difficulty in finding some of those ingredients and, once purchased, finding other uses for them.

Time presents another hurdle to home cooking.  One 2013 study found that on average, Americans are only willing to spend about an hour a day on cooking (Smith, Ng, Popkin, 2013).  After dedicating a large portion of your day to work and getting a workout in, the last thing you want to do is spend an additional hour or two “working” in the kitchen.  Not to mention the cleanup.  Having to do the dishes after cooking a meal is the worst!

Skill and time may keep a lot of us out of the kitchen, but the benefits of becoming a confident home cook outweigh the challenges.  

When you cook something yourself, you can add anything to it you want and cater it to your exact tastes.  The more you cook a particular dish, the more it becomes your own as you are able to add your twist to it, making small changes each time.  Once you become confident cooking for yourself, you can start sharing your food with others. For me, there is nothing more rewarding than sharing food with someone and having them be as excited about it as I am.

Cooking at home is easier on your wallet and your waistline.  Consider the average cost of a meal at a restaurant. A 4-6 ounce hamburger with a handful of fries or a side salad will usually come out to around $12.  Yet a pound (16 ounces) of ground beef at the store is around $4.99, that could make two burgers (at least). Plus a $2 pack of eight buns, various toppings (that get more than one use out of them).  Add a potato or two for $1 and you’re looking at less than $12 to feed the whole family.

The health benefits can be seen as twofold.  Without even trying, home-cooked meals are associated with diets lower in calories, sugar and fat (University of Washington, 2017).  Foods that are eaten at restaurants often contain a lot of “hidden” calories for the sake of increasing flavor. For example, there is probably butter on the bun, mayonnaise sauce and the burger itself could be cooked in a pan with vegetable oil.  All of these unnecessary additions skyrocket the fat content.

Additionally, cooking at home gives you the opportunity to completely tailor your meals to your dieting goals.  If you have ever attempted to track your macros and calories using an app such as MyFitnessPal, you already know how hard it is to estimate the calories in a restaurant meal.  When cooking at home, you know EXACTLY what you are putting into your food, and what you are putting into your body.

In the kitchen, I challenge myself to make great tasting food without unnecessary “cheat” ingredients such as extra oil or sugar.  This usually requires a little creative problem solving but the benefits are well worth it.

There is also another benefit that a lot of people do not consider.  Once you become comfortable in the kitchen (and maybe find someone to clean up for you…) cooking can also be very therapeutic.  For me, after working in stressful restaurant kitchens for years, I didn’t think I would be able to find cooking relaxing. Yet you can really lose yourself in your cooking once you become passionate about it.  Besides, how many other tasks yield immediate benefits. After 20 to 30 minutes in the kitchen, you have a tangible, delicious meal in front of you.

So how do you start?  If you have never cooked before, I would suggest starting small.  Buy a pack of chicken breast and a few dry spices. To use them as a marinade, simply mix with a little salt.  Basil and oregano for a classic Italian combo, paprika and cumin for latin flare or ginger and a soy sauce for an Asian touch.  Let the flavors set in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight.  Dry spices add little to no calories and offer near infinite combinations so they are a great way to start.  

For vegetables, the oven and grill are your best friends.  Start with asparagus, as this requires the least amount of preparation.  Break off the lighter green ends and toss in a little fat-free cooking spray or olive oil, salt and pepper and throw on the grill until charred and tender.  Don’t have a grill? No problem!  Simply utilize your ovens “broil” setting.  This can be done with pretty much any vegetable, and whenever I prepare vegetables this way for a crowd, everyone wants to know what the secret is.  Sometimes keeping it simple brings out the best flavor!

Another good thing to master is the art of making rice.  It may sound simple, but you’d be surprised at how many professional cooks I have trained who can’t make a good pot of rice, so if you can get this down it is no small feat!  The trick is rinsing the rice a few times to remove the excess starch. You can do this over a fine mesh sieve or simply fill the pot with water, swirl it around and then carefully pour the water off.  Follow the water to rice ratio on the package as it can vary by style.  I would suggest making at least 2-3 cups and saving the leftovers for later!

To help you all on your cooking journeys, I hope to continue sharing and promoting healthy recipes with the goal of demystifying specific recipes and cooking in general.  The best advice I can give is to put care into whatever you make. You can cook a two-ingredient recipe with care and it will taste better than anything else.  Fitness and food are intricately linked, and gaining the ability to cook the meals your body needs for quality fuel will help you reach your goals faster than any other factor.  

For our easy to follow healthy recipes, click here!

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Three Holiday Health Tips

Its that time of year again.  A time to take a break from the day to day.  To spend time with family and friends. To take a vacation, maybe?

This is also a time when many of us are pressured to indulge.  Maybe you have been good about eating and getting enough exercise for the last few months.  Whether or not this is the case, holiday parties can seem like a minefield of bad choices we must face, and sometimes avoiding the bad choices we are confronted with becomes punishment in and of itself.

Cookies and cakes are the food we typically associate with the holidays

The month of December has other stressors as well.  You might happen to be one of the 107.3 million other Americans who will travel for the holidays (USA Today, 2018).  Travelling makes it extremely difficult to balance out healthy meals and to find the time for exercise. If you’re stuck with a four hour layover, your healthy options are limited to just about none.  It is just as difficult to bring your own food if it is not properly packaged. Who wants to take the time preparing meals for a day of travel, just to have them end up in the TSA office trash bin.

There are ways to combat the flood of unhealthy options that surround us.  Below I have three tips that I try to keep in mind throughout the year and especially during the holidays.  Think of it as altitude training:  If you can stick to these rules during the holidays, the rest of the year will be a breeze!

•  Rethink holiday food.  For most, the holidays offer an excuse to indulge, but we all know better.  It is time to move away from the typical spread of cookies and chocolate and start bringing healthier dishes to the table.  Do you have a famous french onion dip that everyone will be expecting? Swap out the sour cream for fat free greek yogurt! I’ve found grilled or broiled vegetables are always an unexpected hit.   Simply drizzle with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and cook until tender and a little charred. You would be amazed at how many people I have turned on to brussels sprouts with this simple preparation.  You may be surprised at how many people you can turn on to the healthy alternatives you bring to the table as well.

Roasted brussels sprouts with almonds and lemon zest

Another piece of advice I think really works:  when you’re at a holiday party, hang out near the veggie platter.  That way, when you are tempted to munch, your closest option will be much healthier, which should also help fill you up to avoid some of the more tempting sweets.

•  Stay Active.  Whether you like to jog, ski or lift weights, whatever keeps you active during the winter, stick to it!  As it gets colder and darker it gets that much easier to resign ourselves to stay indoors where it’s nice and warm.  However, getting in those workouts will balance out that one cookie or that extra slice of cheese you might sneak during the holiday party.

Exercise can also be hard while travelling, and many gyms will have different hours during the holidays.  For this reason it is a great idea to have an outdoor activity you enjoy doing, or a workout you can do in your home with minimal equipment (hoping to post some workouts this week!).  If you are travelling try to stretch in between flights, especially the lower and upper back, hamstrings and hip flexors as these are typically most affected by extended periods of sitting.

•  Don’t wait until New Years Day to start your resolution.  We’ve all been there.  On December 20th you decide you are going to make healthier decisions for the new year.  Now you have a free pass until the 1st, right? Wrong! Start now and you will feel much better throughout the holiday.  Start making it to the gym, cut out sodas and high calorie drinks. Theses small changes will put you ahead of the game when the new year rolls around and you will be ready to conquer.  You might even be able to recruit some friends or family to join you!

The holidays should be an enjoyable time with family and friends.  If these habits are adopted not just for the holidays, but every day, you might find your willpower is a lot stronger than you  thought. Give yourself more credit! Once these small tricks become habits of daily living, healthy choices become second nature.

Happy Holidays!

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