Fitness editor Jen Sinkler asks the experts what counts as a refined carb, if housework qualifies as exercise, how to break a fitness slump, and how to heal abdominal separation.
Q1: What Counts as a Refined Carb?
Is Ezekiel sprouted-grain bread considered an unrefined carb? I eat one to two slices every morning, but I’m trying to lower my body fat. Would you recommend ditching bread altogether?
A. Given the recent debate about the potential downside of eating grains, your confusion is understandable. “Are Ezekiel breads less refined than most breads? Yes. They contain mostly whole, sprouted grains and legumes,” says Ryan D. Andrews, MS, RD, CSCS, coach at Precision Nutrition and author of Drop the Fat Act and Live Lean (Book Publishing Company, 2012). But many also contain added wheat gluten. So, “if you want 100 percent unrefined grains,” continues Andrews, “have steel-cut oats, brown rice or quinoa.” (I’d contend that you probably don’t even need a breakfast carb source beyond some sautéed spinach, which, alongside a couple of whole eggs, can make for a healthy, satisfying breakfast.)
As for your body composition: If your biggest transgression is a slice of Ezekiel toast with breakfast, your nutrition is probably already stellar. Still, “tapering grain consumption can be a useful first step to lowering body fat,” Andrews says. Not because most of us are eating too much whole-kernel, sprouted-grain bread, he notes, “but because we tend to consume high amounts of grains that have been ground up, denatured and mixed with processed fats, sweeteners and artificial ingredients before finally being extruded and fried into submission (think crackers, muffins, cookies, pastas, processed breads and cereals).
“If these foods make up a substantial portion of your intake, you’d probably benefit from swapping them for something less processed.”
If you’re allergic or intolerant to gluten, you’ll experience even bigger body improvements from removing all gluten-containing grains from your diet. (For more, search for “Gluten: The Whole Story” and “The Truth About Grains: Whole and Refined.”)
Q2: Housework as Exercise?
Do household chores like vacuuming, dusting, laundry and gardening count as fitness activities?
A. They sure do — especially if you make a conscious choice to do it with energy and intensity, according to Debbie Mandel, MA, author of Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul (Busy Bee, 2003).
“Household chores and gardening provide people with a great opportunity to work out while ticking off necessary tasks.”
Think about how many chores inherently include foundational fitness activities such as squatting, pressing, lunging, deadlifting and carrying. If you execute these sorts of strength-building movements properly, with full intention and awareness, you can get a pretty respectable workout.
For instance, brace your abdominal muscles during any type of exertion and you’ll strengthen your core — and protect your back. Squat a bit more deeply than you have to while weeding and lifting bags of soil. Rake and dig vigorously to create a high-intensity cardio activity. (And never mind the looks you get from neighbors, says Mandel, who notes that gardeners tend not to get osteoporosis.) You can pick up the pace inside, too: Waiting for the spin cycle to finish? Do calf raises and leg lifts, or turn on the music and dance.
And remember that each task also provides an opportunity for moving meditation and mind-body fitness.
Q3: Breaking a Fitness Slump?
I’ve been making no progress in the gym lately. How can I get back on track with my fitness goals?
A. Anyone who trains regularly is destined to stall out from time to time. “With exercise, your heart, lungs and muscles adapt to the harsher conditions you impose upon them, and voilà, you’re in better shape,” says Matt Perryman, CSCS, strength coach and founder of the fitness site Myosynthesis.com. “Despite this, you’ll notice spells when you’re doing all the right things and nothing seems to happen.”
Assuming you have actually been working out at the gym, not just hanging around the juice bar, your body has probably just hit a sticking point, and has stopped reacting to certain stimuli and exercise patterns. While a bad day here and there isn’t cause for alarm, if you’ve been experiencing disappointing results from your training for two weeks or more, it’s definitely time for a change. “Often, plateaus occur because people try to go 100 percent all the time. They’re using too much intensity and not enough variety,” says Perryman.
The solution? “It’s the opposite of what most people are going to want to do,” says Perryman. “Simply ease back for a little while.” Give your body a chance to reset and experience a break from the status quo. Try a new style of workout, or play around with new activities for a few weeks. Then, ease back into your routine and you’ll find that you’re capable of more than when you left off — or you will be soon enough.
Fitness Fix: Heal Your Abs
Diastasis recti, also known as abdominal separation, is a common post-pregnancy condition, but it happens for other reasons, too. Here’s how to close the gap.
The separation of the abdominal muscles into left and right sections, called diastasis recti, is a condition common not just in post-pregnancy women (who may experience an overloading of the connective tissue between muscle segments), but also in people of both genders who have extra belly weight and carry themselves with their hips and ribs too far forward.
This particular posture, along with the continued inactivity of an important core muscle, the transverse abdominis (TA), can create a split and also prevent one from reconnecting. “The tissue can’t grow back together unless you change how you carry your body and use your muscles,” says Katy Bowman, MS, director of the Restorative Exercise Institute in Ventura, Calif., and creator of the Aligned and Well DVD series.
And make no mistake, it’s worth figuring out a way to close the gap. “Leaving it open can lead to chronic lower-back pain, digestive issues, incontinence, distended abs, a prolapsed uterus or a herniation,” says Bethany Learn, founder of Fit2B Studio, an online fitness portal that provides workout videos for families and specializes in diastasis-focused fitness. The first step, she counsels, is to reactivate your TA (known as nature’s corset). Here’s how:
- Lie on your back, knees bent.
- Every time you exhale, press your lower back into the floor.
- Do two to three sets of 10 to 12 reps and hold them longer each day.
- Sit in a relaxed position.
- Every time you inhale, inflate and feel your belly expanding gently.
- Deflate it, pulling your navel toward your spine, on the exhale. This further awakens your TA.
Do some extra-deep body-weight squats. These will safely work your TA, provided you keep your hips neutral while consciously drawing your navel in, like tightening a seat belt.
Avoid aggravating your condition. “Because posture affects intra-abdominal pressure, sit and stand in ways that take pressure off your split,” says Learn. Skip ab exercises that create a bulge in that area (like planks, crunches and sit-ups). “Avoid moves for your obliques that pull one side harder than the other,” Bowman adds.
Focus your core work on strengthening your TA until your split closes; then you can add whatever else you like. If you still don’t see a difference, seek out an exercise specialist who is well versed in this condition for a more individualized plan.