Your Qs: Ditching the Scale and More

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Jen Sinkler, our fitness editor, wrangles leading experts to address your most perplexing workout quandaries and conundrums. Email ’em to askjen@ experiencelife.com

Ditching the Scale

Q1: I’m a 30-year-old woman who started circuit training five times a week four months ago. Since then I’ve gained 5 pounds. I’m in better shape, and I like the way I look (lean and muscular), but is the weight thing normal?

A. It sounds like your program is working exactly as it should — you feel good and you’re into the way your body is looking! Having a “goal weight” is definitely not the best measure of your progress, says Sarah Walls, CSCS, president of Student-Athlete and Adult Performance Training in Fairfax, Va. The numbers on the scale don’t tell you anything about what your body looks like, or what it’s made of.

It can be tough to make yourself step off the scale, but Walls suggests four much-more reliable strategies you can employ to keep yourself motivated while still receiving tangible feedback.

1.  Get your body fat measured. Once you know where you stand, you can get retested every four to six weeks.

2. Use a tape measure. Measure your waist, hips, upper legs, calves and upper arms. This is a quick DIY way to ensure your body is developing the way you want it to.

3. Lift more weight. To keep progressing, it’s imperative you push yourself, and, in part, that means increasing your training loads. It’s a myth that strong women are bulky — the truth is that strong women have bodies that are lean and laden with metabolically active tissue (in other words, muscle). So, start tracking the amount of weight you lift — and celebrate improvements.

4. Implement a mirror check. If you like what you see, then you’re on the right path. If not, make some adjustments.

The Definition of Cardio

Q2: Hoping you can help settle a friendly debate: What counts as “cardio”?

A: When people say “cardio,” they’re typically talking about logging time running, biking, cycling, swimming, rowing, skiing or elliptical-ing for extended periods of time at a steady pace — in other words, doing traditional aerobic conditioning that raises the heart rate and gets you breathing hard. But the fact is, it’s possible to challenge your heart and lungs doing almost any kind of activity, including resistance training.

“The critical distinction is that all aerobics are cardio, but not all cardio is aerobic,” says Mike Wunsch, CSCS, program design specialist for Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif. Meaning, if you ratchet the intensity way up, you enter into anaerobic territory. You still get all the benefits of cardio (arguably, even more) — you just can’t sustain that level of effort for as long. (This means your workout won’t take as long — yay!)

Two anaerobic methods of doing cardio include circuit training with weights and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) — both include only brief rest periods so you don’t allow your heart rate to drop much. “Our clients are looking to lose fat and build muscle in a short amount of time, so we use circuit training as our primary form of ‘cardio.’ It has a positive effect on lean body mass and basal metabolic rate,” says Wunsch. “My advice is to do at least two to three days of circuit training and one to two days of HIIT training. If you want to do a fifth day, do some sort of low-impact aerobic conditioning.” In other words, traditional cardio rates third on his list of preferences, so it’s definitely worth expanding the definition.

Preventing Fishy Burps

Q3: I know that taking fish oil supports my health and fitness, but I can’t stand the fish burps! Any way to prevent this from happening? 

A:Gross, and entirely relatable — I can’t believe how often this topic comes up! First, taking the fish oil supplement with a meal and 8 to 12 ounces of water may prevent the fishy aftertaste, says Chuck Rudolph, MEd, RD, founder of Balance Nutrition, a nutrition consulting firm in Aliso Viejo, Calif. Digestive enzymes can help, and so can freezing your capsules (thus slowing the breakdown of fish oil in the stomach). Most important, however, select a high-quality omega-3-fatty-acid product from a trusted manufacturer, so you can be assured the product isn’t rancid. (Open the bottle or pop a capsule and take a whiff. If it smells stale, bitter or especially fishy, chances are it has oxidized.) Counterintuitively, more fish (rather than filler ingredients) is another factor that can help prevent fish breath. “Standard brands include just 180 mg of EPA and 120 mg of DHA (two types of fatty acids) per 1,000 mg serving, but I’ve seen others that have 400 mg of EPA and 300 mg of DHA per 1,000 mg serving,” says Rudolph. “Go for the higher ratio.” Finally, keep in mind that the occasional fishy burp is a small drawback compared with benefits such as reduced pain and inflammation, better recovery from exercise, optimal cardiovascular health, supple skin, better immunity, and improved brain function.

Fitness Fix: Working Out With Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is a real drag. Even getting a diagnosis can be tough — there are six different categories of low thyroid function, symptoms vary, and treatments range from holistic to hardcore pharmaceutical. And sometimes stress- or food-related autoimmune disorders masquerade as thyroid problems.

“The average person takes more than three years to get a diagnosis,” says Kathleen Barnes, author of User’s Guide to Thyroid Disorders (Basic Health Publications, 2006). “During that arduous process, exercise tends to grind to a halt — it’s unlikely you’re exercising at all, and certainly not at a high intensity level. You simply won’t have the energy.”

This is understandable, given that your thyroid is producing insufficient quantities of the hormones that fuel your metabolism. Fatigue, depression and weight gain are all common symptoms. And exercise can help offset them all.

“While exercise alone will not ‘cure’ hypothyroidism, it can be an important part of a treatment plan to help you come back from those doldrums, boost stamina, and improve strength once you’ve been diagnosed and treated,” says Barnes. “Any exercise that makes you feel good is acceptable. You may feel tired and uninspired, but once you start a routine, the endorphins will kick in and you’ll feel more energized.”

Specifically, Barnes recommends yoga and a moderate-to-brisk walking routine for starters, adding in 10 to 15 minutes of strength training two to three times a week. Work with your health professional to create a treatment plan that includes exercise, increasing intensity as you’re physically and psychologically able to handle it.

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