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Happier, Healthier and Fitter: 10 Simple Things You Can Do NOW

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 9:35 AM
 
“We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” – Nelson Mandela
 
Here are ten simple strategies you can employ this week to “do right” and make yourself healthier and fitter. These are research supported things you can do immediately to get healthier, have more energy, lose fat, build muscle, develop stamina, run faster, and get rid of chronic pain.
 
1)     Take a Probiotic
Probiotics are awesome. They are tiny bacteria that naturally occur in the gastrointestinal tract and are commonly found in dairy products such as yogurt. But research shows that yogurt and dairy-based foods alone may not be effective at providing the numerous legitimate health benefits of good gut bacteria, meaning you should take a probiotic that has its potency guaranteed through the expiration date.
 
Probiotics aid digestion and absorption of nutrients in the gut. A healthy, clean intestine is essential for keeping you lean, and energized, with optimal brain function. Not only do probiotics ensure your body can absorb vitamins, minerals, and protein from food, but they also affect the production of neurotransmitters in the brain. A little known gem for cognitive health and happiness is that more than half of the chemicals that are involved in brain function and mood are made in the gut. Take a probiotic and you’ll support a lean physique—probiotic treatment has been shown to induce fat loss in a variety of populations—have more energy, think and feel better.
 
2)    Read Your Supplement Labels: Check for Vitamin A and Iron
Read all of your supplement labels and check for nutrients you are allergic to or that you are getting too much of. Avoiding nutrient deficiencies is essential, but some nutrients are toxic in large quantities, meaning if you get too much of things like vitamin A or iron, you may be making yourself unhealthy!
 
Check the supplements you’re already taking, and make it a habit to always read ingredients before starting a new product. Look for anything you might be allergic to or that you may already be consuming a lot of. Be aware of the amount of sugar you’re ingesting from protein and carbohydrate powders. Check for what kind of omega fatty acids are in your fish oil. You want to take omega-3s in a much larger quantity than omega-6s, and opt for more DHA than EHA. In fact, most people don’t need to take extra omega-6s because they are typically abundant in modern diets.
 
In the case of vitamin A, you only need a little bit daily, and deficiency in this vitamin is generally only a problem in malnourished individuals in developing countries. If you get too much, it can damage the liver and cause fatigue, depression, and illness. Also, excess vitamin A can hinder vitamin D’s beneficial effects, and taking too much A has been linked to bone toxicity and an increase in hip fractures.
 
Be aware that some foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash (notice, all orange vegetables) contain large amounts of vitamin A. Some supplements, particularly multivitamins, are packed with vitamin A as well, meaning that if you just happen to take more than one supplement with extra A you could be overdosing.
 
Iron in high doses is another problem, and only specific populations need to get extra iron. Women of reproductive age, pregnant women, people with chronic diseases, and possibly vegetarians or people who donate blood regularly are at risk of low iron. The rest of us probably don’t need to take supplemental iron.
 
3)    Do Split Squats
Split squats are an essential exercise to improve leg strength and size. They are also critical for fixing structural imbalances that can cause chronic pain and injury. Split squats are so good because they help you balance your agonist/antagonist muscle pairs (such as hamstrings and quadriceps) and the pairs of limbs (right and left legs). It’s not enough just to have the appropriate strength ratio between the hamstrings and quadriceps; to achieve structural balance, the strength of the quadriceps and hamstrings on the right leg should be equal to the strength of those of the left.
 
Split squats with heavy weights will help you gain serious strength in the lower body, but they also require you to activate the trunk, making them a useful “core” exercise (keep the trunk erect by contracting the abdominal muscles, and avoid anteriorally tilting the pelvis). Another benefit is that split squats can decrease patellofemoral pain.
 
A study from the University of Plymouth, England, found that split squats require the optimal ratio of muscle activation between the vastus medialis oblique and the vastus lateralis, the two principle muscles that stabilize the patella during knee extension. Be aware that imbalances among the quad muscles can lead to the patella tracking incorrectly, which creates pain and degeneration of irreplaceable cartilage.
 
Everyone should do split squats, but if you’re a more advanced lifter, you can also benefit from walking and jumping lunges. Just be sure you have achieved appropriate structural balance first, otherwise you will just make current imbalances worse and probably injure yourself.
 
4)    Eat Breakfast
Please, eat breakfast! This is one of the easiest and healthiest things you can do to improve your life. If you’re not eating breakfast, then you’re not serious about fitness and being lean, let alone being the best athlete possible. As I mentioned in the tip about taking a probiotic, more than half of your neurotransmitters are made in the gut, meaning the first thing you ingest in the morning will set up your brain and body for the day. Eating breakfast increases your metabolism from fasting overnight, creating a greater calorie burn than if you don’t eat anything. There’s significant evidence breakfast eaters are leaner, eat more protein, vitamins, and minerals, and have better insulin health.
 
Research shows breakfast eaters are less depressed and have a better all-around quality of life. All I have to do is mention the Meat and Nut Breakfast and people feel happier! The meat and nut breakfast is an excellent way to get a ton of usable protein, and the nuts will slow digestion and the release of sugar into the blood stream, to keep you energized and productive for longer.
 
5)    Lift Heavier Weights
How often do you bump your weights up? I know some of you are regularly making strength gains and reaping the rewards of carefully periodized training programs, and this tip may not apply. Consider it though, and the rest of you who are stuck on the same weight since before the summer, I challenge you, especially all you ladies out there, to lift heavier weights. It’s fun! Take one day, or even just one exercise per training session, and lift heavier weights. It is fine to perform fewer reps if you are challenged by heavier weights, and the best way to do this and maintain (better yet, increase) your volume is to perform more sets.
 
An easy place to start is the bench press, deadlift, or lat pulldown. Bump your weights up by 5 or 10 percent and decrease your reps per set—if you’re typically lifting 12 reps for 3 sets, drop your reps down to 7 or 8 but perform 5 sets. If you usually lift 8 reps for 5 sets, drop your reps down to 6 and lift 6 or 8 sets. You don’t need to lift heavier every session, but try a weight that really challenges you. You’ll be amazed with strength gains—this is because heavier weights will recruit more motor units and you’ll work more type II fibers, meaning you’ll likely trigger some hypertrophy as well.
 
6)    Stop Static Stretching Before Workouts
Don’t do static stretching as part of a warmup, ever. Static stretching, or stretching a muscling in an elongated position for any length of time will make you immediately weaker, less powerful, and it has not been proven to prevent injury. If you enjoy stretching or want to improve flexibility, static stretching is fine after you work out. Or you can stretch as a session completely separate from a workout (as long as it’s at least 6 hours before you exercise), or on off days. But, it’s been well established that stretching is not good pre-exercise.
 
Static stretching will make you less powerful and it can modify the ideal ratio between opposing muscles, even if you stretch both the agonist and antagonist. A modified strength ratio from static stretching in the quadriceps and hamstrings has been shown to more than double rate of injury. Dynamic moving “stretches” are fine as part of a warmup. For example, bodyweight lunges or using just the bar for squats (assuming you’re going to put plates on that bar for the workout) are options, as are other movements that warm up the muscles, raise the heart rate and prime the stretch-shortening cycle instead of stunting it with static muscle lengthening.
 
7)    Make A Fruit and Vegetable Diet Goal Daily
Eating fruits and vegetables for better health is not an earth-shaking idea, but I bet that a lot of you—especially the men—don’t eat near the recommended 9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. If you don’t, start eating more by setting a daily goal that you will eat a certain amount of each a day. If these health-promoting foods are seriously lacking in your diet (none to two a day), start conservatively by committing to eat four servings total. For those of you who are a bit healthier, bump up your intake moderately each week.
 
Try to eat at least an equal amount of vegetables and fruit, or possibly more vegetables. And go for dark leafy greens, broccoli, and avocado for veggies. Berries, cherries, and mangoes are some of the best fruits, but research shows that even diets that prefer apples, pears, citrus, and tomatoes can support a leaner physique, prevent heart disease, and lead to better insulin health.  One study of Brazilians and Spanish participants found that those who ate more plant-based foods were leaner, had lower cholesterol, and less chronic inflammation. Men reported eating significantly fewer fruits and vegetables than women in the study, and since men tend to have greater risk of belly fat gain and heart disease, this evidence makes this tip all the more relevant to the male population.
 
8)    Add Eccentric Training To Your Workout
Add eccentric training to your workout, even if you only perform it once a week or for a few exercises. Eccentric training will help you get stronger and overcome plateaus. The simplest way to add eccentric training is to use a slow tempo for the eccentric portion of  a lift followed by a faster concentric motion. For example, you can do the split squats I suggest in number 3 eccentrically but slowing the down motion so that it takes 4 seconds rather than 1 or 2. Lower yourself on a 4 count, pause for 1 second in the down position, and then come up as quickly as you can. This can also be done with the lowering phase of the squat, the bench press, or the deadlift.
 
To get a stronger back, perform the down phase of a chin up eccentrically by lowering yourself as slowly as possible. If you’re not able to lift your whole body weight yet, only perform the down motion. Otherwise, simply perform the down motion with a slower tempo than the up.
 
Eccentric training makes you stronger and builds muscle because it causes greater muscle damage than concentric training. It will lead to greater delayed onset muscle soreness and fatigue, meaning you don’t want to train this way every day and always need to allow proper recovery time.
 
9)    Attend Your Abs: Dos and Don’ts
Work your abs by almost eliminating abdominal exercises. Performing ab exercises is practically useless, according to ample research. The best way to work the abs is to perform lots of heavy dead lifts, squats, and Olympic lifts.
Research shows one of the best exercises for the obliques is Olympic lifting. The snatch and clean provide a strenuous overload to the fast-twitch abdominal fibers, which will help you build nicely sculpted abs. The abdominal and lower back stabilizers are also targeted with the catch portion of the snatch and clean—the push press and jerk are good too.
 
For less advanced lifters, training your whole body is better for strong abs than doing ab isolation exercises.  A recent study from Southern Illinois University found that performing a robust group of seven ab exercises for six weeks had no effect on body weight, body fat, belly fat, or waist circumference—pretty useless! It’s fine to throw in a leg lowering or low cable supine pull- exercise, but programs that work your whole body and require you to stabilize through the trunk—remember split squats—will be more effective.
 
Also, ditch your weight belt. Unless you’re hanging weight plates off it to do weighted full-range chin ups, you’ll be stronger and healthier if you lift without a weight belt. Research shows that training with a belt can put you at greater risk for an injury. There may be a time and place for weight belts, but if you use one regularly, consider mixing it up and lifting without it.
 
10)  Sleep Better: Magnesium and Darkness
Magnesium is a lesser known bit of sleep-inducing magic. It’s surprising how few people know about the importance of magnesium for good sleep since it is so effective. It works because magnesium has a calming effect on the nervous system, and if you’re deficient in magnesium, which almost everyone is, you’ll have altered brain function and an elevated sympathetic nervous system.
 
Research supports taking magnesium for sleep. By adding magnesium to the diets of people who suffered from poor sleep, the participants slept significantly better, and they had a decrease in sympathetic nervous activity, which is an indicator of stress and arousal. A second study of people who were chronically sleep restricted found that they had low magnesium levels. The more deficient they were, the more exhausted they were, and the higher their sympathetic nervous activity was.
 
Don’t buy a cheap magnesium because it won’t work, won’t be absorbed, and will likely give you diarrhea. Naturally, I suggest my Topical Mag or Uber Mag to begin to bring your magnesium levels up.
 
You also need to turn off all lights, screens, and light-emitting devices in your bedroom for good sleep. This should be a no brainer, but I’m always surprised how many people have light in their bedrooms and they don’t even realize it. This applies to clock lights, screen lights, internet router lights, night lights, and outside lights. Turn ‘em all off, and get blinds or curtains that keep the outside lights out. You should also get rid of all electrical fields in your room. Turn your computer and phone off, and if you need an alarm clock, get a battery operated one because they don’t emit the same electrical fields even if they do emit light. I’d even suggest going so far as to turn off the breaker responsible for your room, but obviously that may be too much of a hassle. You’ll be amazed how much better you’ll sleep just by making your room as dark and electric-free as possible.
 

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