Friday, April 29, 2011

The End of the Beginner's Guide... and Cake Pops Take 2.

I had a big post planned for today.  It's the last day of my week of Beginner's Guides, and I was planning to give you the Beginner's Guide to "Putting It Together."  (This is cute only if you're a fan of Sunday in the Park with George, which is also the origin of my blog name.)

I was going to tell you all about how you have to be patient with yourself, because not every day is going to be perfect, not every choice is going to be the healthiest, not every weigh-in will show you the numbers you're hoping for.

I was going to tell you that the most important thing in this whole process is to learn how to pick up, brush off, start again.  It can't be a built on self-punishment or self-loathing, because the second you step outside of your plan - which you will, because we're all human - you'll spend your energy flagellating yourself instead of on making the next good choice.  Each day is a new day, but even more potently, each moment is a new moment.

I was going to tell you that the best thing you can do for yourself is to love yourself, thoroughly and completely.  Knowing your flaws.  Accepting where you've been.  And believing in where you can go.  Because YOU CAN DO THIS.

But then I got a call from my doctor.  Yesterday I had received what I thought was good news.  There was a magic pill to make my current illness go away.  Today they're rethinking it, and it looks like I might have to have surgery soon.

I immediately felt blue.  I want to feel better.  I wanted that damn magic pill!  My anemia affected me so much that I could hardly make it through class last night.  It makes me feel scattered and low.  On the ride back from the pharmacy, where I had gotten the call, we passed a pie shop.  My stomach said, "oh, I should eat some pie."  And my brain responded "what the heck are you thinking? You don't even like that pie shop.  It isn't even good pie."  And my heart chimed in, "you're just feeling sad."

So I passed right on by.  And then I thought... why should I tell you all of these things I'd planned to tell you about "putting it together," when I can show you, instead?

So instead of eating pie, instead of lashing out at myself for even thinking of pie... instead of laying in bed all day trying to avoid anything... I'm going to show you how I can pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.  I'm going to eat a healthy lunch.  I'm going to paint my toenails a shimmery coral.  I'm going to skip the last list-style edition of the Beginner's Guide.  I'm going to teach by example.

And then I'm going to show you how to make some more cake pops.  We made it this far together, and it's time to practice a little moderate indulgence.  This new recipe I've worked on, outing #2 on Cake Pop Quest 2011, is a resounding favorite, both with family (for whom I made these when I was in Indianapolis) and with friends (for whom I made these for Easter.)

They're moist, tender, and surprisingly low-calorie for something that tastes like such a treat.  And the secret, my friends, is pumpkin.

All I'm using is the Trader Joe's chocolate cake mix, 1/4 of the frosting mix
with 1/4 of the required butter, plus pumpkin. (And candy coating, but that's minimal.)

The recipes I'd found for using pumpkin as a cake binder called for
18.5 ounces of mix, and the Trader Joe's box comes in 28 oz,
so I first measured out the mix by weight.

Then I combined the mix with 15 oz of canned pumpkin (plain, not pie filling.)

It will be much gooier than the usual cake batter.
You'll have to use a spatula to get it all off your spatula - that's how thick.

Pop it into a 9x13 pan, and follow the baking time/temp directions on the box.

As always cool overnight, and then crumble it up with forks. 
Because the texture is so chewy, you'll need to to a little extra work on the corners.

Measure out 1/4 of the frosting mix, and add 1/4 of the required butter.  (This picture is of a double-batch)

Mix the frosting mix and butter together first.  It will seem clumpy, even if the butter is room temperature.

Then add 1 tb of hot water.  DO NOT ADD MORE until you see if you need it, and then only
add an extra 1/2 tb water. It's surprising how little hot water is needed to make the dry/butter mix creamy.

Then mix the frosting in with the cake crumbs.

Moosh it together until it's a thick past-like consistency.

Then use a tablespoon truffle scoop (or melon-baller) to dole out the batter and roll into balls with your hands.
Then spear each cake ball with a lollipop stick, and freeze for at least a few hours.

Alas I don't have pictures of the dipped product - but you melt the candy coating with a double-boiler, and dip each cake ball.  And here's a new tip... push the stick into dry florist's foam to dry and display.  (I totally should've taken a picture of both rounds... the first one I did as a flower garden, the second one I did as Easter eggs in a basket.  I'll learn to keep the camera with me at all times, one of these days.)

The magical part of this recipe?  They are only 100 calories a piece.  And they're far more satisfying than some little bag of 100-calorie dry cookie crumbles.  Make sure you share your batch, though!  One is a perfect serving of sweet, but don't forget your moderation.

OK.  I'm off to keep taking care of me.  You take care of you, too.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Beginner's Guide to a Healthy Kitchen, plus an unexpected guest

It is a gorgeous day in Los Angeles, but I find myself with about as much energy as a stuffed Garfield hanging on a 1980s minivan window.  Which is to say, none.

I haven't talked much about it here, but I've been suffering some lady-parts trouble for the last few months.  Consecutively.  If you follow my meaning.  So I'm back to the same level of anemia I had in December.  At that point, I could hardly lift my arms for exhaustion.  I'm certainly better off than I was then, thanks to all of the exercise and healthy food... but I am really, REALLY looking forward to fixing all of this.  (I just made a circling-my-abdomen gesture that, in hindsight, I'm pretty sure Liz Lemon would also make in this situation.)  Here's hoping that my doctor appointment this afternoon will help!

In the meanwhile, I'm going to give you a shorter update today, with the fourth part of my week-long series... a healthy kitchen!

Yesterday's guide to healthy food includes only a part of what you can do to help improve the way you eat.  There's a lot you can do to make your kitchen a haven for you and your body.  (And also your spirit, but the more I am actually using my body, the more I see how closely the two can be connected.

When you're starting down the path to a healthier life, there's one thing you should do first.  (Well, other than talk to your doctor.)  Step into your kitchen, and...

Clean it out.

I don't mean with a mop and a broom, although the nicer you make your kitchen, the nicer it is to be there. 
I mean get rid of the stuff.  Get rid of the stuff that haunts you in the wee hours of the morning.  Get rid of the stuff that is there for your No Good, Very Bad Days.  Get rid of the stuff that you stuff your face with when you're bored.  Unless you're working very hard on your moderation (which is important, but can be easier to do after you get used to your new healthy choices), there's a good chance that if it's in there, you'll eat it. So whatever you put in your kitchen should be something that you consciously, mindfully want to put in your mouth.  That brings us to...

Stock it up.

When the last carton of Chunky Monkey (or the last block of Velveeta) is gone from your fridge, you need to put good things in it so that they're ready for you to eat as soon as you need them.  

I'd say there's probably a pretty good chance you're not eating enough vegetables.  Find a place that sells what you like,  and get munching.  Raw veggies are great for snacking on.  I especially love them with a little hummus, honey mustard, or - you guessed it - greek yogurt (with a little herbs or seasonings mixed in.)

It helps to have readily-available protein, too.  I love chicken tenders - I grill a batch early in the week and enjoy them in salads and sandwich wraps.  I don't go a day without enjoying single-serving cheeses.  At any given time, I have string cheese, or Trader Joe's Brie Bites or Goat Cheese Medallions in the fridge.  The latter come in one-ounce packages (with six or so in a bag) - and the pre-defined single-serving really helps me avoid the Just Another Tiny Slice phenomenon (you know the one... you're slicing cheese, and you eat a little, and then you eat a little more, and then before you know it, half of the package is gone.)

Most of all, stock it up with healthy things that are things you like.  If you buy healthy food but you hate what you're buying, you'll have a harder time eating it.  You may even be tempted to go out for something different than what's in your fridge.  This used to happen to us all the time, but now our well-stocked fridge keeps us right on track.
Measure it out & pack it in.

There are a few supplies that I find helpful in the quest to balance our meals.  Some of these things also prevent the items in our stuffed-to-the-gills fridge from becoming green, fuzzy, and nameable. (Thank you, Dawn Summers.)

a - We pack up our chopped raw veggies, our roasted red peppers, and our grilled chicken in resusable storage containers like these ones by Glasslock.  One great thing about the Glasslock products is that neither their glass, their plastic, nor their lids contain BPA.  Women in particular should avoid BPA, for hormonal purposes.  You can read more about that in this Glamour article, which was written by an acquaintance from college.  (Thanks, Aimee, for the link!)

b - And before you can store 'em, you'll need to chop 'em on a sturdy cutting board, like these pretty green numbers by ArchiTEC.  Make sure you wash your cutting boards carefully, and avoid cutting raw meat on boards you use for other food (this is where multiple shades or sizes can come in handy.)

c - We are very careful to measure our portions, and one of our best tools for this is the liquid measuring cup by Pyrex.  Won't break, but is super-strong.  We've had ours for a very, very long time.

d - For veggies that are quick to spoil, like berries, we use these Debbie Meyer GreenBags, and they're terrific.  In our fridge, strawberries in their original container last about five days before they start to get a little wilty, and a full week before they're fuzzy.  With GreenBags, we've seen them last up to 10 days without wilt or fuzz (but mostly, our new menu planning means we eat them within seven days, so we don't see as much fridge slime as we used to.)

e - Meat and produce comes in a variety of sizes, so the best way to know exactly what you're eating is to use a food scale like this one by Newline.  It can also really help with baking, because flour settles, so a cup can differ in mass considerably.

f - For sauces & fats, a little bit can go a long way (and a long way towards throwing off your calories for the day.)  We own a couple of different sets of measuring spoons - like this set by OXO - so that we always have the right ones handy, even if we're behind on the dishes.

We try to stay up on the dishes pretty regularly, now, though.  We cook so often that if we don't have all of our pots, pans, dishes & utensils available, we have to wash them by hand as we cook.  Plus, it means we're ready for unexpected company... like this lizard who came to visit this week.

He first appeared on the outside of our screen door Monday. 
We opened the glass to get a better look at him, and when our very curious
kitten Greta lifted her paw slowly to him, he jumped straight into the air,
freaking all four of us (cat, lizard, Tom, me) out.

We thought he was gone for good, but on Tuesday, he was back nestled by our succulent planter.

He kept curling back out of the sun, and in the process, posed for a portrait.

In trying to figure out what kind of lizard he was, we stumbled upon the Lost Lizards of Los Angeles project, through the Natural History Museum of LA.  Fascinating!  They're tracking what lizards live in what areas of the city.  Our Mr. Lizard turns out to be a Southern Alligator Lizard, which are apparently very common in SoCal.

Eventually it got too sunny for him and he crawled underneath the planter.  We're not sure if he's still there (he seems to have eaten all of the slugs that drifted toward our succulents after recent rainfall, so he probably has no reason to be.)  But we'll be on the lookout for our reptilian roommate!  I hope he's taking good care of himself.  And I hope you are, too!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Beginner's Guide to Healthy Food, plus Adventure Wednesday

Happy Adventure Wednesday, everyone! Did you include a little adventure in your day?  We'll get to today's exploration a in a little bit - but we're going to start with...

...healthy food!

What do you think of, when you think of healthy food?  Does it bring to mind things you associate with hippies from the seventies, like lettuce and bean sprouts and tofu?  Do the two words in juxtaposition make you cringe? If so, I have a challenge for you.  I challenge you to adjust your perspective on what it means for food to be "healthy."  In fact, I believe that almost any food in its natural state can be healthy, when enjoyed in moderation, and in balance with other foods.  There is no specific food or food group that I avoid.  (Cheese?  I eat it every day.  Potatoes? At least once a week.  Sourdough bread?  I might die without it.  Chocolate?  It's not my favorite, but I do eat it from time to time.)  The trick is moderation.

Our experience with food this year has been a surprising one.  Before January, Tom and I both thought we ate relatively well.  (Outside of the occasional emotional or stress-based binge on my part.)  We even logged calories... when we felt like it.  And when we weren't ordering delivery, or going out to a restaurant. Or when I grabbed fast food on the way back from a long shift.  It turns out that some of those not-logged meals were the ones that were topping 2,000 or even 3,000 calories.  It sounds terrible, I know.  A healthy person who's not trying to lose weight should typically consume around 2,000 calories per day.  If you're eating that much in one meal, there's a good chance that you're going to be consuming more than your metabolism can burn.

And if you're not looking at what goes into your food, it's not always easy to tell that you're consuming that much.  This week, The Daily Meal released a list of the 10 fattiest meals at chain restaurants.  Not fast-food restaurants, mind you.  Burgers & fries are a good way to gain weight, but they don't even begin to compete with... chicken & broccoli pasta.  Chicken & broccoli pasta?  If you were looking at a menu, given a choice between a burger and fries, or chicken and broccoli pasta, wouldn't you guess that the burger was the less-healthy option?  No.  That pasta dish has 1564 calories, which means that a regular Big Mac value meal (with medium fries and a medium coke) is a whopping 434 calories less than the pasta.  Not that we should run out and grab a Big Mac for dinner today, but this is just the beginning of my #1 tip for you today: 

Know what you're eating.

Just because it sounds good for you, it doesn't mean that it is.  Oooh, a veggie burger at a health food restaurant, with avocado and all-natural sauce!  That sounds great.  Except that it's loaded with more fat than our bodies need.

When you know what you're eating, when you keep yourself in touch with your food habits, you're less likely to lose track of how many calories you're consuming.

There's a lot of very simple ways to do this.  The simplest is to just start a food log - a diary of what you eat each day.  Talk to you doctor about how many calories you should be consuming in order to maintain, lose, gain... whatever your goals are.  And then start aiming for it.  There are lots of different ways to log food, though.  Join Weight Watchers.  Download an app.  There are all kinds of handy things out there to help you eat mindfully, and it's really worth it to try them and see what works best.

I use a couple of different methods of food logging.  I am a big fan of the nutritional information available on's Daily Plate.  It has brand-specific information, easily adjustable serving sizes, and an array of graphs and charts that show you how you're doing with vitamins, balance, and overall consistency.  It even lets you enter your own recipes or meals, so that if you make something regularly, you can enter it once and add it quickly again later.  I also use Richard Simmons' FoodMover system to make sure I'm staying in balance.  I could write a very long entry on FoodMover and how best to use it... and I probably will do so later, but it's too long to pack in today.  The short story is that Food Mover helps me make sure I'm eating the right serving sizes - and the right number of servings - per day.  And what a difference that makes!

Serving sizes are tricky little beasts.  Aside from all of the ridiculously huge portions we're served at restaurants, even figuring out how much we should be eating can be a challenge.  If you look at two brands of rice, right next to each other on the grocery shelf, one might tell you a serving size is a 1/3 of a cup, and the other might tell you that a serving size is a cup.  It doesn't sound like much of a difference, right?  Except that 1/3 of a cup of cooked brown rice is 72 calories, whereas 1 cup is 218 calories.  If you're working with a certain amount of calories, that's a pretty big difference.  And is that listed serving size for dry or cooked rice?  Fortunately, with FoodMover, you get to ignore all of the listed serving sizes on the boxes, and follow a single source of information.  It comes with a booklet that covers almost all kinds of food serving sizes.  After about two weeks of looking up my every morsel, it became pretty much ingrained.  (According to FoodMover, 1 serving of rice is 1/3 of a cup cooked.)

Number of servings, that's tough, too.  Depending on how many calories you're eating, how much of each food group should you be eating?  Again, that's up to you and your doctor or nutritionist.  My personal intake is about 1400 calories daily (though I'm flexible if I need to be, especially if I become overly hungry.)  And my balance breakdown goes roughly like this:

Breakfast: 1 serving dairy, 1 serving fruit, 1 serving carb, 1 serving protein
Lunch: 1 serving dairy, 1 serving fruit, 2 serving carb, 2 serving protein, 2-3 servings vegetables, 1 serving fat
Dinner: 1 serving fruit, 2 serving carb, 2 serving protein, 2-3 servings vegetable, 2 serving fat

And those serving sizes are roughly 1 oz of protein, 8 oz dairy, 1 piece of fruit, 1 teaspoon of fat, 1/3 cup or 2 oz carb.

If that seems like a lot to consider... well, I won't lie to you.  It is.  There's really only one way I'm able to swing this every day.  And that is my #2 tip for the day...

Plan what you're eating.

We have a food routine that we follow each and every week. Every Sunday, we plan a menu for every meal that week - including scheduling any restaurant or social gatherings that we'll need to plan around.  Then we make a list of everything we're going to need for that menu.  And then we go to the store, and we buy what's on the list.  And nothing else.  (And we don't go shopping without eating healthfully first.)

Once we're home, we put everything away, and - if we're following our schedule perfectly, which we don't always but we try to - we prep the foods we'll need for the week.  Peel and store carrots.  Chop celery.  Roast peppers.  Grill chicken.  Whatever we can do in advance... saves us time when we're making our meals later.  I know that whenever we're not working from home, we'll also need to make big batches of meals that can be stored for eating later in the week (and/or frozen for eating later on.)

Does it take time?  Yes, it takes time.  Not much more than sitting at a restaurant, or waiting for your food delivery to arrive, or listening to an episode of The Simpsons in the background. And, like I keep saying, like I'm going to keep saying, even when you're sick of me saying it...  you are worth it.

The great thing about planning ahead is that I never need to worry the specific calorie counts too much.  I don't have to obsess over what I might possibly be eating next.  I can walk to the fridge and look at our weekly menu, and I know exactly what it will be.  And if you're planning ahead, you can tweak recipes so that they work better for you.  Which brings me to my #3 tip...

Swap what you're eating.

If you, like me, are working with a restricted number of calories, there are different ways you can go about it.  You could eat a couple pieces of bacon, and some steak, and some cheese, and a corn muffin... and then be hungry for the rest of the day.  Or you could go my way.  You could eat primarily vegetables, supplemented with healthy proteins, fruits, and grains.  And you could feel as full - or possibly fuller - than you did when you were eating restaurant portions.

The more that you replace an unhealthy version of something with a healthier counterpart, the more calories you have to play with.  And the same goes for adding in things that are flavorful but not high-calorie - the more you entice your palate, the less likely you'll be to crave something else.  And so far, we've come up with all kinds of swaps to make, inspired by tips from Hungry Girl and other food bloggers or cookbooks.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Fat free Greek yogurt.  This variety, which is strained to remove whey, is lusciously thick and creamy... but it has about twice the protein as regular yogurt. If you're a regular reader, you probably already know this is my favorite swap ingredient.  I use it for tuna salad, for potato salad, for deviled eggs, for baked goods, for sour cream or mayonnaise in any recipe. At this point I'd feel confident betting you that I can work Greek yogurt into any recipe and make it better and healthier.
  • Smaller/Low-Carb tortillas.  I probably eat a wrap sandwich daily, and I'm able to fit more protein and veggies into it if I use a wrap.  My favorite is Mission brand.  Technically, corn tortillas are lower in calories than flour, but I'm a sucker for the flour.
  • Spray oil.  We used to follow recipes to the letter, but they often ask for large amounts of olive oil.  I only eat about 3 teaspoons of fat (outside of meat, dairy, beans etc) per day, so when we started FoodMover, we started using Pam for stir frying, roasting, and most of our other oil needs. I really don't miss the oil at all.
  • Whole grains.  We used to eat white pasta, white rice, white bread... on a regular basis (and in large portions.)  It took a little getting used to, but we now eat a majority of our grains whole.  We eat whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, light wheat bread, and some more unusual whole grains like quinoa and barley.  Give it a try - give it some patience - and see if you can include one new whole grain this week.
  • Vinegar and lemons.  I'm a sour fiend, so I've been using these to spruce up veggies or salad in place of oil.  I love a squeeze of lemon on my broccoli (sometimes with a few capers for extra flavor.)  Vinegar on good salad greens is simple and delicious.
  • Herbs, spices, onions, garlic, and scallions.  These aromatics add far more flavor to food than anything else.  Try a little dill on your cottage cheese, a little rosemary on some roasted potatoes, a little garlic in your chicken soup.  If you keep shaking it up, you won't get bored... and one of the most frequent causes of diet-crashing is boredom.
  • Turnips.  Holy crap, I love turnips.  We slice them up like fries and bake them so that they're crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.  One cup of turnip fries is 34 calories.  One cup of McDonald's fries is 740 calories.
  • Roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes.  Available commercially packed in water (or home-roasted, like we do) these low-calorie flavor boosters bring an lovely note to any sandwich or salad.
  • Bananas.  When I need a frozen treat, and we don't have any homemade sorbet around, all I do is slice up a banana and pop it in the freezer.  When they're icy, you can blend them up in the blender to make ice cream, eat them plain (they melt creamy!) or dip them in a little bit of chocolate.  I also use half a frozen banana in my pre-Slimmons fuel smoothie.
  • Pumpkin.  Whether hidden in mac & cheese, used as a filling for lasagna, or snuck in as a secret ingredient for chocolate cake pops (entry coming soon!) pumpkin is a perfect food.
  • Kabocha squash.  Most squash is sweet enough to count as a carbohydrate, not a squash.  Kabocha has only 30 calories per cup, and is terrific in Tom's Thai squash recipe.
 Yes, that Thai squash is yummy.  And if we weren't on this weight loss journey, I doubt we'd have tried it, because the final tip for today is...

Play with your food.

No, really.  It's time to get playful.  It's time to look up recipes for the things you order at restaurants, and see if there's a way to switch them up at home.  It's time to start a quest for the tastiest possible cake pops for the lowest possible calories.  It's time to venture out to an ethnic food store.  And that's just what we did today, for Adventure Wednesday!

Yesterday after writing about the wonders of exercise, we skipped class.  Well, technically we were driving to class when our car started shuddering, so we drove to the mechanic instead, and walked home.  We're sans wheels for the next few days, so this morning we hit the bus stop...

The sky was incredibly blue.

...on our way to India Sweets & Spices, so that we could find some ingredients for our upcoming Indian Feast.

 They have both a market and a restaurant at the location in Atwater Village.

Tom wonders if this is code for "where vegetarians come to die."

We spent most of our time in the market, where they sell all kinds of things.

Including statues of the Hindu god, Ganesh

And incense.  Lots and lots of incense.

But mostly they sell food products.

We've been making a lot of our own Indian food, because restaurant food of any kind is harder to estimate in terms of calories.  And since they aren't out to adjust the recipes for maximum health factor, they sometimes use ingredients like these...

Meet ghee. Clarified butter.  The starting point of almost any Indian dish.  We cook without ghee.

They also sell all manner of Indian snack foods, much of which
wouldn't fit into our food plan, cute names notwithstanding.

We do sometimes enjoy a bit of jam, and if we ever run out of my dad's homemade preserves,
I'll be sure to pick up some passion fruit jam, here. But what the heck is woodapple?

Here is lime pickle, which seemed like an interesting condiment,
low calorie and presumably flavorful. I'd like to try it sometime.

They carry brown basmati rice! I didn't realize that all shapes/types of rice come in the brown variety,
but Tom reminded me that of course they'd have to - it's just unprocessed rice.

I'd never heard of coconut vinegar, but since I love both things,
I'm looking forward to figuring out how to use this someday.

The market specializes in all kinds of Indian spices. Lots and lots and lots of them!

Garam Masala is a very popular blend of spices, and I thought we might purchase some today. Tom would
like to try making our own out of some of the spices we have in our well-stocked cupboard, first.

I thought that these were very small coconuts, but they were marked as very large dried lychees!

I that the Mukhwas was beautiful - it's a digestive aid and breath freshener
made from a blend of seeds with sugar and essential oil

The fennel candy was also bright and cheerful-looking.

I was grossed out by the Dieter's Delight slim tea, which came with the warning
"if you experience stomach cramps or diarrhea, you should stop drinking this tea." 
Or perhaps not start drinking it.

I usually visit ethnic food stores to learn more about the culture, not to laugh at it.  But I couldn't help but laugh when we found Indian foods made by American brands that you wouldn't usually expect.

Uncle Ben's Korma. "Perfect every time!"

Nothin' says lovin' like samosa from the oven.

The only down-side to Adventure Wednesday was that I had forgotten to eat breakfast before we left the house, so I had to look at and smell all of these lovely things while feeling rumbly in the tumbly.  Little successes, though, right?  We bought the Darjeeling and the cardamom pods for my chai recipe, but I was able to hold out and not buy any barfi, a dessert made of sweetened condensed milk and sugar.

And in this case, also pistachio. Ah well, I will have the picture forever.

What can you do to add more adventure to your food?

My friend David (who blogs about his journey at tries to buy one different food he's never tried before, every week.  Maybe you could join him!

Or perhaps you could venture out to a new grocery store, or a farmer's market, and see what they have to offer!  Or you could pick up a cookbook of your favorite kind of cuisine, and see what you can do to adjust and make it healthier!

What are your tips for healthy food, be they about adventure, moderation, or mindfulness?

All right, that's it for today, but I hope you'll come back tomorrow, when I come armed with tips on how to make your kitchen friendly for the new, healthy you.  Until then, take care of you!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Beginner's Guide to Exercise, plus weigh-in Tuesday

Hello and a warm welcome to new guests and old friends!  Just one quick Weigh-In Tuesday update, and then I'll jump right in to part two of my new series.

Today I'm down another pound!  That brings my total to 42 pounds since January.  Do I wish it were more?  Sure, but I have enough friends on a plateau to know that a pound lost is a lot to be proud of.

And now, for...


I may have made a lot of changes this year, but there's something about me that just hasn't changed.  I hate to exercise.

Yes, that's the truth.  I HATE EXERCISE.  I don't like the smell of the gym, I don't like the fees, I don't like the smugness of extremely fit people, I don't like waiting for a machine or a lane, and I really, really don't like to sweat.

But I have to tell you something else that's true.  I love the way I feel after exercise.  It is possibly the most important thing I can do for my body. It helps me control my weight, but beyond that, it does so much more.

Why should you exercise?
  • Are you anxious or blue?  Exercise is proven to reduce stress, and, thanks to the endorphins that are released during physical activity, can improve your mood. 
  • Worried about your health?  Increasing your activity level helps combat chronic disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and all kinds of other issues.
  • When you get out of bed in the morning, do you feel like a mastadon stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits?  Working out ups your energy level.
  • Not thinking straight?  Feed your brain! The increased blood flow from exercise is proven to improve cognitive function.
  • Missing that spark?  Not only can exercise increase libido, it can affect your agility, flexibility, and stamina.  
  • Having trouble carrying your grocery bags?  It's amazing how much exercise can build strength.  I used to have difficulty lugging heavy, wet laundry up the stairs.  Now I'm surprised every time I pick up a new load... it isn't a challenge anymore.

You've probably already heard about much of this.  If you're not working out - unless you have a physical ailment preventing you - the real challenge of working out is probably how hard it is to get started, not to mention how hard it can be to keep it up.  Now, I can't drag you out the door and lug you to your gym (though your accountability buddy might have to sometimes.)  But I can give you several different tips and ideas for integrating activity into your life.  And I'll start with the biggest, most important tip I can share.

Make it fun.

The only way I can get myself - and keep myself - exercising is to do whatever I can to trick myself into thinking that I'm having a ball.

I'm lucky in that I live in Los Angeles, home of the world's foremost fun-maker of exercise: my (formerly imaginary and now very real) friend, Richard Simmons.

There he is, dressed as a fluffy yellow chick for his day-before-Easter "Hopping at the Disco" class.  And there I am, in my green tank top, behind his shoulder on the right.  I dare you not to smile at how cute this is.

And here we are again, on this week's episode of Khloe & Lamar.  My apologies for bringing the Kardashians into all of this, but it's kind of amusing to be in the background of a show on E! - since the only E! show we ever watch is The Soup, known for ragging on its own network.

I go to classes at Richard's gym, Slimmons, three times a week.  For 90 minutes every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I get to punch, kick, and scream... and get screamed at by a national icon.  (Screamed at with love, that is.)  If you're anywhere near Los Angeles, why aren't you working out here?  It's $12 per class (with some package deals that can discount the price), and every penny is worth it.  And, like I was saying yesterday, YOU are worth it.

Seriously. Grab a water bottle, a towel, some crazy gold lame leggings, and your sense of humor.  And come out and join us.  It's so entertaining that you forget you're working out, plus it will make you fierce, fit, fabulous.  And the crew of regulars are, bar none, the kindest and most supportive exercise pals you'll ever meet.  The positive attitude filters down from the top, and no one leaves a class without smiling... even if, as Richard threatens, you are so sore that you have to drive home with your lips.

(For full disclosure, you should know that I am a scholarship recipient to Slimmons, but they have in no way paid me to endorse the gym.  I just really love it.)

Richard's an expert at making a workout fun, so here are some tricks I've learned from him that you can use even if you're nowhere near Los Angeles.

  • Work out with friends.  A room full of friends is great, but even just one helps ease the anxiety of crossing that gym threshold (or that door threshold!)  You'll have someone to check in with, someone to challenge you, someone to complain to when you don't feel like your arms can lift so much as a cereal bowl.  And someone to be accountable to - if you cancel an exercise date with yourself, it's just you in a little bubble.  If you cancel an exercise date with a friend, you'll let them down just as much as you're letting yourself down. 
  • Shake it up.  You can't do just one kind of exercise and call it a day.  It gets boring, plus your body gets too used to it.  Do some aerobic exercise, but then move on to weights.  If you want to stay at home, free weights are a terrific way to gradually strengthen your arms and core.  Use the resistance of your own body to make it stronger - try crunches, push-ups, and bicycle kicks to challenge yourself in a new way.  Believe me, your body WILL respond to the challenges.
  • Be patient with yourself.  It may be hard to do something at first.  I only made it through 20 minutes of my first Slimmons class before my heart was pounding, and I started to feel hot and nauseous.  The Slimmons team ushered me to a chair, where other chair-bound exercisers taught me how to do the workout seated.  Over the course of a month, I worked out standing as long as I could, and then I pushed myself while sitting.  And soon I was standing for full classes.  If you're just starting out, you have a long way to go.  It's not a race, so remember that and keep a close eye on how your heart and body responds.
  • Turn up the tunes.  Nothing will get your legs moving quite like an awesome playlist.  Richard does a different theme class every Saturday, during which he plays a carefully-selected collection of music from a particular era, artist, or topic.  I've discovered that the oldies classes get my feet moving best, but others love the days with all new music.  Try on a bunch of different songs for size, and see what works for you.
  • When all else fails, laugh. At those theme classes, Richard dresses up in a costume that reflects his music choices.  For the "sexy" Saturday, he was dressed as a sex kitten (cat ears and all.)  For "rock" Saturday, he was in full KISS makeup and gear.  He's forever trying to make us all laugh, and when I don't think I can lift my knees or do another crunch, he makes some joke that has me in stitches, and forgetting how little I want to be doing these damn push-ups.

I try to shake it up between Slimmons classes, too.  I have been trying all different kinds of exercise, discovering the things I like best.  It's not hard to do a little research on classes, gyms, and other kinds of fitness.  I encourage you to vary your routine, so that you're always growing and never getting bored.

For instance... consider swimming!  Outside of Slimmons, it's my very favorite form of exercise.  Because of the water resistance, you can actually burn more calories while doing laps than almost any other form of exercise.  (Even running!)  Plus it's low-impact, so your joints will thank you for it.

Don't know where your nearest pool is?  Check out Swimmers Guide, a database of pools all over the world, including public parks and gyms.  This is an especially valuable tool for vacationers.

Swimming can be a little bit of a production, so I've created a shopping guide of my favorite products that help me "just keep swimming, just keep swimming."  All links are to Amazon listings; none of these companies have paid me to promote, they're my personal recommendations.

A - Staying underwater for prolonged periods of time can lead to a condition called Swimmer's Ear, an infection which, trust me, you do not want (and I did not enjoy.)  I prevent this when doing laps by wearing earplugsThis pair from Speedo works quite well, and withstands the horrors of chlorine and ear wax.

B - Growing up, I always thought that swim caps prevented hair from getting wet, but in fact, they are there to protect the water from your hair (and your hair from your goggles.)  Before getting a cap, I frequently had strand breakage right along my goggle line, so now I always wear one of these stretchy lycra Speedo swim caps.

C- Gym showers - even in our uber-clean Hollywood YMCA - are not my favorite, but they're a necessary evil.  To prevent any hitchhiking fungus, I recommend purchasing a gym-only pair of flip-flops to keep in your gym bag.  My favorite pair is by Havianias: comfortable, washable, and they've lasted me for five years with heavy use!

D - Since I posted about it a few weeks ago, I've been swimming with the Speedo snorkel and I LOVE it! If you have any trouble breathing, or wish to focus on your stroke instead of breaking for breath, I highly recommend trying it out.

 E - It's important to track your fitness so you understand how much energy you've spent, and so that you can gauge how much stronger you're becoming.  While in the pool, I use a lap-counting ring, by SportCount, to count my laps. It is really easy to use, and works well underwater. Adjustable, too.

F - The swim aftermath products are as important as the during-swim ones.  Chlorine can build up quickly in hair.  It's important to cleanse it thoroughly with a chlorine-neutralizing shampoo, so you can avoid brittle (and green!) strands.  I've been using Barracuda's Aquia Swim Shampoo-Conditioner to help rid me of chlorine - so far, so good.  (UltraSwim works too.)

G - Finally, a even a little swimming without proper moisturizing will likely turn you into an alligator.   Origins' grapefruit Gloomaway lotion is what I use to rehydrate my skin.  I rarely ever get dry skin unless chlorine is involved, and this always does the trick.  It's very creamy, and the fresh citrus scent helps combat the eau de pool that is otherwise my new signature fragrance.

I hope that this guide will help move you towards movin' it.  You owe it to yourself... to the little you who couldn't wait to be a grown-up.  To the elderly you, who needs you to get strong now, and stay strong for the future.  And you can do it.

That's it for today, but be sure to come back tomorrow for some fun with food.  Your mom may have told you not to play with it... but it turns out that's the best way to have a healthy relationship with it!

Until then, keep taking care of you and have an excellent day.