5 Protein Myths—Debunked

Of the three macronutrients that make up our diet (carbs, protein, and fats), protein often gets all the glory.

And, yeah, it’s pretty magical. Protein is a part of all cell structures (like our organs and muscles), and it helps us build enzymes and hormones, support our immune system, and feel full, says Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. All important things—especially if you’re physically active!

But that doesn’t mean you need to eat chicken breast for every meal of the day. Get your head straight about these protein myths to make sure you’re getting the most benefit out of this muscle-building macro.

Myth #1: More protein is always better.

Exactly how much protein you need per day depends on a few things, like your size, sex, and activity level. But generally, the most you really need is about a gram per pound of lean body mass per day (if you’re working out really hard), says Albert Matheny, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab. The key here is lean body mass. So if you weigh 200 pounds and 175 of that is lean mass, you’d need 175 grams of protein per day. (Most gyms or trainers can help you estimate your lean body mass.)

When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into molecules called amino acids, which are then sent to your muscles and tissues where needed. “The body can use about 25 to 30 grams of protein at a time for things like muscle growth and repair,” says Harris-Pincus. For example, a smaller woman who trains a few times can probably utilize about 20 grams at a time, while a larger, active guy may tap out around 35 grams per sitting, says Matheny. Once you’ve fulfilled your body’s needs, any protein you consume is just extra calories.

“Too much of anything can be a problem,” says Matheny. So eating tons of processed foods like bacon just because they contain protein isn’t a great idea. Look at the food as a whole, not just its protein content. “Get your protein from whole foods instead of processed stuff that comes along with additional calories but few nutrients,” says Harris-Pincus.

Myth #2: Protein automatically goes to your muscles.

So now you know that your body can only use about 25 to 30 grams of protein for your muscles and tissues at a time. Anything beyond that is a different story…

Protein is great and all, but it does still have calories—four calories per gram, to be exact. The protein your body can’t use for its primary purpose basically gets broken down like a carb, says Matheny. That means it’s either used for energy or stored as fat. So, hate to burst your bubble, but more protein doesn’t automatically equal more muscle.

It’s all about balance: Too much protein (and calories) and you can still gain weight, says Harris-Pincus. Meanwhile, too few calories (even if they’re all protein) and you won’t build an ounce of muscle, says Matheny. “If you’re not meeting your calorie needs, your body focuses on maintaining the muscle it already has, not building more,” he says.

Myth #3: Plant proteins aren’t as good as animal proteins.

No two proteins are created equal—but that doesn’t mean they don’t all deserve a spot in your diet. Different protein sources contain different types and amounts of amino acids, and there are nine ‘essential’ amino acids we can only get from food, says Matheny.

“Animal proteins have higher amounts of branched-chain amino acids in amounts that have been shown to support muscle synthesis and growth,” he says. Meanwhile, plant proteins are often lower in branched-chain amino acids or other essential amino acids.

As long as you eat a balanced diet, though, chances are you’re getting all of the aminos you need. The full nutritional picture of a food is more important than how much protein (and how many of which amino acids) it contains, says Harris-Pincus. “Your body needs a variety of foods for a variety of nutrients to prevent disease and keep you healthy all life-long,” she says. Harris-Pincus recommends mixing up your protein sources and incorporating plant proteins (like beans and whole grains) and animal proteins (like chicken and whey supplements).

Related: 7 Protein Sources For Vegetarians

Just because those plant proteins don’t pack as mean an amino acid punch, doesn’t mean they’re not valuable: Plant-based diets not only help protect the body from oxidative stress and inflammation, but also help ward off issues common later in life, like metabolic syndrome and neurodegenerative diseases, according to a review published in Trends in Food Science and Technology.

Myth #4: Eating too much protein is bad for your kidneys and bones.

Yes, protein gets processed through your kidneys. But if you have healthy kidneys and eat a balanced diet that includes a sane amount of protein, you’re not going to damage them, says Harris-Pincus. (And by ‘sane amount’, we mean Matheny’s recommendation of one gram of protein per pound of lean body weight per day, or less. Not 300 grams of protein a day.)

And what about your bones? The theory here is that eating too much protein increases the amount of acid in your body, so you pull calcium from your bones to neutralize that acid, says Harris-Pincus. But not to worry, a high-protein diet hasn’t been clearly shown to harm bone health, according to a review and meta-analysis published in Current Opinions in Lipidology. The paper’s authors suggest that a high-protein diet may actually support bone health and that healthy people should not limit their protein intake for fear of leaching calcium from their bones.

Myth #5: Protein Supplements Are The Same As Whole Food Proteins.

If you’re eating just plain, skinless chicken breast, yeah, you’re getting mostly protein—but whole food protein sources are typically a package deal, and provide protein along with other nutrients, says Matheny. (The additional vitamins and minerals are often accompanied by some fat or carbs, adding some calories to many whole food proteins.)

Protein supplements, though, are all about getting as much protein per calorie, says Matheny. And while they’re a more calorie-efficient source of protein than most animal sources (25 grams of protein from whey is about 120 calories, while 25 grams of protein from sirloin steak is up around 245), supplements shouldn’t be your only source of protein. “If you’re just getting your protein from supplements, you’re missing out on a lot of vitamins and minerals and losing the balance needed in your diet for general health,” says Matheny.

That being said, protein supplements can be hugely helpful tools. “Protein powder is great for augmenting foods that otherwise don’t provide much protein, like oatmeal,” says Harris-Pincus. A protein shake is also a portable alternative to skipping breakfast or making a desperate stop at a drive-thru.

And, since that protein shake is digested quickly, it can be especially beneficial before or after exercise, when your body needs protein quickly in order to rebuild the protein in your muscles that break down during training.

Related: Find the best whey or plant-based protein supplement for your lifestyle.

 

 

9 Moves That Will Set Your Obliques On Fire

Crunches, mountain-climbers, and planks probably already make frequent appearances in your workout routine—because who doesn’t want a strong core and a six-pack? But if there’s one part of your core that could probably use a little more attention, it’s your obliques. You know, your side abs!

Your obliques muscles (you have internal and external obliques) run along the sides of your torso, and are important for stability and balance, posture, and supporting your lower back, explains Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault.

While exercises that target your abs usually involve lots of crunch-type movements, exercises that hit your obliques involve a lot of twisting and side-bending, says Wickham. (But they’ll fire up your abs, too.)

Below are nine exercises trainers turn to when they want to really fire up their obliques and develop overall core strength. Try adding three sets of 10 to 15 reps of a couple of these moves to your next workout, suggests Wickham. (Just remember that visible obliques require a healthy diet and low body fat percentage.)

Move #1: Side Plank

Equipment needed: None

What you do:

  1. Lie on one side with your legs and feet extended straight out and stacked with one on top of the other.
  2. Prop yourself up on your forearm and raise your hips so that your body forms a straight line from your head to your heels, facing the side of the room. Engage your core and glutes to keep your hips up.

Why it works: This plank variation requires full-body stabilization and activates glutes, quads, hamstrings, delts, shoulders, and all of the core muscles, explains Yusuf Jeffers, C.P.T., head coach at Tone House. To make this move harder, first try raising yourself from your forearm to your hand, so that your arm is straight, with your hand below your shoulder. To turn up the heat even more, lift your top leg up toward the ceiling. Try to hold your side plank for at least 10 seconds, adding time as you get stronger.

Related: The 5 Most Effective Abs Moves

Move #2: Hip-Up

Equipment needed: None

 What you do:

  1. Lie on one side with your legs and feet extended straight out and stacked with one on top of the other.
  2. Prop yourself up on your forearm and raise your hips so that your body forms a straight line from your head to your heels, facing the side of the room. (Side plank.)
  3. Raise your top arm up so that it is perpendicular to the floor.
  4. Lower your hips down to the floor, then raise them back up into the side plank position.

Why it works: Consider the hip-up a higher-difficulty variation of the side plank, says Jeffers. You’ll get that same full-body engagement, with an extra challenge. “The movement of dropping your hips and raising them back up is almost completely in your obliques,” he says. To make this one a little easier, drop to your knees, so that they’re stacked one on top of the other, instead of your feet.

Move #3: Lying Windshield Wipers

Equipment needed: None

 What you do:

  1. Lie down on the floor with your belly up.
  2. Spread your arms straight out to your sides, so your body forms a ‘T.’
  3. Raise your legs straight up toward the ceiling, so they form a 90-degree angle with your torso.
  4. Keeping your shoulder blades on the floor and legs glued together, rotate your legs down to the left. Stop when your right shoulder starts to peel up off the floor.
  5. Rotate your legs back to starting position.
  6. Repeat the leg rotation on the right side.
  7. Rotate your legs back to starting position.

Why it works: The side-to-side rotating movement of your legs engages your obliques big time. The more you do this exercise (and the stronger your core gets), the closer you’ll be able to lower your legs to the floor, says Jeffers. And that’s a good sign for both your obliques and you’re your flexibility.  As you get better at this one, rest your arms closer toward your body so that they provide less stability.

Move #4: Weighted Lying Windshield Wipers

 Equipment needed: Empty barbell or PVC pipe

 What you do:

  1. Lie down on the floor with your belly up.
  2. Hold your barbell or pipe straight above you so that your arms are locked out and form a 90-degree angle with the rest of your body.
  3. Raise your legs straight up so they also make a 90-degree angle with your torso.
  4. Keeping your arms straight, shoulder blades on the floor, and legs glued together, rotate your legs to the left side. Stop rotating when your right shoulder blade begins to peel up off of the floor, or your feet are two to three inches above the ground.
  5. Raise your legs back to starting position.
  6. Repeat the leg rotation on the right side.
  7. Raise your legs back to starting position.

Why it works: The weighted lying windshield wiper movement activates your obliques muscles with each side-to-side movement of your legs, but is a little more challenging than the standard windshield wiper. That’s because holding that weight as you rotate requires a tremendous amount of upper body strength, explains Wickham.

As you improve, increase the weight of the barbell. For example, if you started with a 15-pound training bar, bump up to a 35-pound barbell. If you used a 45-pound barbell, add a five-pound plate to each side.

Move #5: Hanging Windshield Wipers

 Equipment needed: Pull-up bar

 What you do:

  1. Hang from a pullup bar.
  2. Raise your legs until they are perpendicular to the floor. (You should be in an ‘L’ shape.) To keep your torso straight you will have to engage your upper back muscles by pulling your torso underneath the bar and contracting your back muscles.
  3. Engage your upper back to keep your torso underneath the bar, then rotate your legs from side to side.

Why it works: Once you’ve mastered Lying Windshield Wipers, you can move on to this one. It requires a tremendous amount of core strength and control, explains ICE NYC HIIT coach Margie Welch. The key is actively engaging your shoulders and back instead of just hanging loosely from your arm sockets. (If you can do the lying version no problem, but have trouble with the hanging version, you may need to work on your upper-back and grip strength, she says.) To make this move easier, bend your knees at a 90-degree angle.

Related: 8 Pullups To Challenge Your Upper Body

Move #6: Side-to-Side Medicine Ball Wall Throws

Equipment needed: Medicine ball and wall

What you do:

  1. Stand next to a wall (about three to five feet away) with your feet shoulder-width distance apart.
  2. Hold a medicine ball between your hands at chest level.
  3. Straighten out your arms so they’re parallel to the floor.
  4. Rotate your torso towards the wall and release the ball. It should hit the wall and bounce back at you. (If it doesn’t quite make it to you, take a step closer and try again.)
  5. Catch the ball and return to your start position.
  6. Repeat. Switch sides after the prescribed number of reps.

Why it works: This move requires core stabilization, upper-body strength, and endurance. “You’ll be surprised how quickly this one tires you out” says Wickham. The key to this core move is explosiveness, so make sure you’re rocketing that ball into the wall. (It may take some trial and error to figure out how far from the wall to stand. You’ll need to stand further away with a heavy ball than you would with a lighter one.) Increase the weight of the ball and the number of reps you perform as you get stronger.

Move #7: Diagonal Ball Slam

Equipment needed: Medicine ball

What you do:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width distance apart and a medicine ball place on the outside of your left foot.
  2. Keeping a neutral back, bend down and pick up the ball. Raise it up over your head, as if drawing an arc in the air.
  3. From this overhead position, slam the ball back down toward the outside of your left foot. (The ball should be moving in a diagonal line.)
  4. Repeat on other side.

Why it works: The diagonal movement here really fires up your obliques; just make sure you use a ball you can slam with force, says Wickham. As you progress, increase the weight of the medicine ball or the number of reps you perform.

Move #8: Kettlebell Windmill

Equipment needed: Kettlebell or dumbbell

What you do:

  1. Stand with feet just wider than hips-width distance apart with a kettlebell on the ground in front of you.
  2. Lift the kettlebell above your head and hold it overhead with one hand.  Extend your free hand toward the ground.
  3. Keeping the kettlebell locked out at all times, push your hips and butt back toward the side the kettlebell is on.
  4. Bending at the hip to one side, sticking your butt out, slowly lean as you slide your free arm down your leg until you can touch mid-calf or the floor. (Keep your eyes on the kettlebell at all times.)
  5. Pause for a second after reaching the ground, then reverse the motion back to the starting position by shifting your pelvis back to center to redistribute your weight evenly between both feet. Keep the kettlebell extended and slide your fingertips up your leg.

Why it works: This oblique move is no easy task. It requires full-body stabilization, shoulder and arm strength, and maximum oblique flexibility and strength, explains Wickham. You’ll even feel it in your glutes and hamstrings. For that reason, Wickham recommends beginners try the move without any weight. Once you get the hang of the movement, you can add a light kettlebell to the equation. From there, you can increase the weight of the kettlebell as you get stronger. “When you use a weight, keep your eyes on the kettlebell overhead the entire time, this will help you maintain correct form and alignment of the shoulder” says Wickham.

Related: Find a supp to help your muscles reap the benefits of a good workout.

Oblique Movement #9: Weighted Twist (Russian Twist)

Equipment needed: Kettlebell, dumbbell, medicine ball, or weight plate

What you do:

  1. Sit down with your legs together straight out in front of you. Bend your knees to form a 90-degree angle and plant your heels on the floor.
  2. Hold a five to eight-pound weight between your hands.
  3. Keep a flat back and twist your torso to the left. The weight should twist with you.
  4. Stop twisting when you feel a stretch in your obliques.
  5. Reverse your twist back to the middle and then twist to the right.

Why it works: This exercise, which really fires up your obliques thanks to that twisting movement, really hits your whole core. “This movement focuses on both the external and internal obliques and the rectus abdominis, or the washboard muscle,” says Welch. Beginners can practice the move without added weight and touch the ground on each side as they rotate. For an extra burn, try lifting your heels and hovering your feet above the ground as you rotate.

What A Day Of Sugar-Free Eating Looks Like

There’s no getting around it—eating too much sugar can be really bad for your health.

High consumption of the sweet stuff is associated with type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Recent research published by the AHA even found a connection between drinking sweetened beverages and higher risks of dementia and stroke.

While the AHA recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons (or 24 grams) of added sugar per day, and men consume no more than nine teaspoons (or 36 grams), the average American takes in a whopping 22 teaspoons of added sugar in a single day.

Considering sugar is hiding in tons of packaged foods and drinks under names like malt, molasses, fruit juice concentrates, corn syrup, and anything ending in “ose,” it’s no wonder we’re taking in so much of the stuff. Take a look at your ingredient labels and you’ll often find added sugar in everything from flavored yogurt to granola to cereal to bread to condiments like sriracha and barbecue sauce.

Related: 8 Foods That Pack A Surprising Amount Of Sugar

The best way to slash added sugar is to stick to a diet of whole, fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and meat, says Maggie Moon, M.S., R.D.N., author of The MIND Diet. We know that’s easier said than done, so we asked a few nutrition experts to walk us through a day of sugar-free eating—and it’s much simpler (and tastier) than you might think.

Breakfast

With sugary cereals, instant oatmeal packets, and coffee shop pastries dominating the standard American breakfast, the best way to start the day off added-sugar-free is to whip up something quick at home.

Try this option: Make a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal (you can prep it in bulk for the week), and stir in a spoonful of peanut butter. Then top with strawberries and a sprinkle of hemp hearts. “It’s a hearty breakfast that supplies whole grains, healthy fats, naturally sweet berries, some protein, and heart and brain-healthy omega-3s,” Moon says.

And, if you’re not in the mood for oatmeal, go for yogurt or eggs, which are both high in protein to keep cravings at bay.

Rizzo likes to mix a cup of fruit (like papaya or berries) into a cup of plain Greek yogurt and top it all with a teaspoon of unsweetened shredded coconut for healthy fats. Not only does yogurt pack protein, but it also contains probiotics to improve digestion and keep you regular.

If you’re making eggs, just add some veggies and extra protein (like low-fat cheese, avocado, black beans, or smoked salmon) to the mix, Rizzo says.

Related: 8 Breakfasts That Pack Between 20 And 30 Grams Of Protein

A.M. Snack

When you’re stomach starts growling mid-morning, don’t reach for a sweetened granola bar to hold you over. If you usually go on a coffee run before lunch, have a latte made with just unsweetened almond milk to avoid sipping on added sugars, suggests Moon. And for your mid-morning snack, grab a piece of fruit (like a nectarine) and an ounce of almonds, pistachios, or walnuts. The sweetness of the fruit satisfies any sugar cravings, while the nuts provide protein and heart-healthy fats to fill you up, Moon says.

Lunch

A green, nutrient-rich salad is a favorite lunch for many nutrition experts. The key is to make your own dressing and choose toppings wisely to avoid added sugar.

Start out with a mixture of romaine, kale, and spinach, and top it with a serving of quality protein, like grilled chicken breast or salmon, recommends Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D. Then add in a serving of avocado (a third of a medium fruit) which adds creaminess and helps your salad fill you up for just about 80 calories. Top your salad with a drizzle of olive oil and your favorite vinegar for a dose of healthy fats and a punch of acidity to tie everything together.

You can even make a satisfying salad without the meat by topping mixed baby greens with quinoa or farro for fiber and edamame for plant-based protein, suggests Moon. From there, add your favorite colorful veggies, like red bell peppers, avocados, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, and more. Then drizzle with olive oil, your favorite vinegar, and a small pinch of salt and pepper. Tons of flavor, zero added sugar.

P.M. Snack                           

Afternoon cravings are often the undoing of our sugar-free eating efforts. Trade the trip to the vending machine for a nutritionist-approved snack like air-popped popcorn with a dash of sea salt, suggests Rizzo.

If you need something a little more substantial, munch on a handful of unsalted peanuts and a few raisins. The combo tastes just like peanut butter and jelly, says Rizzo. Or, munch on a cup of steamed edamame or roasted crunchy chickpeas. Both are packed with fiber and sugar, she says.

And if you typically reach for a soda in the afternoon, go for a refreshing naturally-flavored sparkling water instead, says Moon. Just avoid any sparkling beverages that use artificial sweeteners and flavors. (We love LaCroix’s fun flavors.)

Dinner

A mix of whole-food complex carbohydrates, vegetables, and protein at dinner is all you need at your evening meal.

To keep things simple, you might have a serving of grilled fish (like salmon or halibut) with a side of green vegetables (like green beans or Brussels sprouts) and a serving of either brown rice or beans, says Rizzo.

When you’re in the mood for something heartier, toss whole-wheat pasta with shrimp and sautéed broccoli florets and top with a fresh tomato and white wine sauce, suggests Moon. (Make the sauce yourself, since the canned stuff often packs added sugar.)

Dessert

If you feel like you need some sweetness at the end of the day (hey, we all do!), it is possible to get your dessert in without added sugar coming along to the party.

Try this: Drizzle a tablespoon of warmed all-natural peanut butter and a teaspoon of sliced almonds over frozen banana slices—it’s a favorite of Elizabeth Ann Shaw, M.S., R.D.N., C.L.T.

Or, top a plain rice cake with a third-cup of plain cottage cheese (mix in cinnamon or vanilla extract for extra flavor) and a teaspoon each of dried blueberries and chopped walnuts, Shaw recommends. This sweet and texture-filled dessert provides protein and heart-healthy fats, she says.

Related: Shop a number of pantry staples for a healthier kitchen.

Consider this infographic your sugar-free menu: 

Kris Gethin’s 3 Best Tips For Building Your Chest

For a chest that really pops, you need to hit your upper pecs hard. Maximize your chest day with these upper-body-pumping tips from celebrity trainer and Kaged Muscle CEO Kris Gethin. Take Gethin’s three strategies to the gym with you for a more effective, muscle-building workout.

Slug back your preworkout and get to it!

 

Related: Kaged Muscle supps are now available at The Vitamin Shoppe!

How I Stopped Eating My Feelings—And Cooking Them Instead

I remember going to my Italian grandmother’s house and eating mounds of pasta while watching bad hair metal on MTV (this was the ‘80s!). I was barely five but I can still taste the ice cream she served while “Cherry Pie” by Warrant was blaring in the background.

Grandma gave me all the food I wanted and let me watch whatever I wanted—unlike my own parents, who did neither. Eating at Grandma’s made me feel better about things, including my family life, which was hard because my parents fought and we all weren’t very close.

It was my grandmother who trained my mother to be a good cook. And the only time my father and I would spend time together was at dinner over those delicious meals. Food became the only way for all of us to be close. I wished we all talked more—but instead we just ate. It made it seem like everything was ok.

Related: What Happened When I Finally Took Everyone’s Advice And Started Eating Breakfast

In grade school, I didn’t feel like I fit in with the other kids, so I would eat to calm my nerves. At that point, my emotional eating didn’t look like a problem because I had the metabolism of a hummingbird.

By the time I got older and went to college—turning to food for comfort during all the years in between—I gained weight and kept turning to unhealthy food. I might have never dealt with my emotional eating problems and depression if it wasn’t for Wendy’s.

I ate Wendy’s a lot, though I barely ever stepped foot into the place. I was in a serious relationship with a girl who worked the Wendy’s drive-thru, and every night she would bring home a ton of leftovers. Maybe it was hitting my twenties or eating chicken nuggets every single day, but my skinny frame began to expand—and it was not muscle.

By the time I got older and went to college—turning to food for comfort during all the years in between—I gained weight and kept turning to unhealthy food.

This weight gain didn’t change my eating habits. I did try to exercise more (and it worked to some degree) but each year it got harder. I kept eating and gaining more weight. Even when I randomly tried to diet and eat ‘healthy,’ I’d buy Lean Cuisines and end up feeling unsatisfied—so then I’d end up eating three in a row.

I refused to learn to cook because I was so used to others cooking for me or giving me food. And when I was out of TV dinners and stressed out about work, school, or a relationship, I’d end up just giving in and getting fast food.

I hit rock bottom in my late-20s, when I found that I was 60 pounds overweight. I just stared at the numbers on the scale and wanted to cry. I could feel the little kid in me frightened that he’d have to give up eating whatever he wanted. My adult self was experiencing a harsh reality: I needed to change how I approached food. It needed food to become actual nourishment.

Related: Shop spices and bring flavor to your healthy, home-cooked meals.

When I made the decision to really eat healthfully (I chose whole foods and more veggies over processed stuff) and deal with the emotions behind my eating, I realized that I was going to have to learn to cook—for myself. It occurred to me that I had never even bothered to learn to cook! Others cooking for me was their way of showing they loved and cared about me, so I needed to show love to myself by cooking healthy food for myself.

Related: Mindfulness Tips From A Former Stress Junkie

Cookbooks and YouTube videos became my best friends and my confidants. I dusted off (yes, they were literally dusty) my measuring cups and created a cooking area. It was difficult at first, and my fiancé politely lied to me about the first couple of meals being good.

But I got the hang of it, and I actually started to love the process. Cooking was like learning a new language: It was math, science, and art all rolled into one. It empowered me to know that I was responsible for what I ate, and I started to see food as fuel and art instead of an ephemeral escape.

Others cooking for me was their way of showing they loved and cared about me, so I needed to show love to myself by cooking healthy food for myself.

After cooking every day, my kitchen skills have really improved, and my fiancé’s appreciation of home-cooked meals has as well. She had done all the cooking up to this point, but now I’ve claimed the kitchen, as well, and it’s really become a creative space for me. It’s brought us closer and made dinner more intimate. I take my time to savor the meal as we talk and enjoy the food that I cook.

And becoming passionate about cooking started a domino effect of healthy habits. When I’m feeling high or low, or if I need to get centered, I spend some time in my garden and then I cook a healthy meal.

I don’t eat my feelings now; I cook them. The cravings have gone away and I am halfway towards reaching my weight-loss goals. It has increased my self-esteem and I am much more willing to try things that once seemed impossible. (Example: As someone who works in publishing, I finally attempted to learn Photoshop and print interior design—if I could cook, I could design covers and books!)

The biggest change and benefit of cooking my own food has not been the weight loss, though. It has been an inner bonding between my adult self and my inner child. Cooking has become a way for me to be a responsible adult, while tending to the little kid in me that learned to eat away his feelings and anxiety. I understand now that I am responsible for my own health—and the kid in me gets to enjoy the food I make with love.

That feeling I looked forward to experiencing when I visited my grandma is now something I get to experience on a daily basis.

Being healthier has helped my nerves and my depressive symptoms. It has enabled me to see the world as a kid again, when there were always new discoveries. My grandma has been gone for a while, but I know she’d be proud that I’m learning to cook healthy food that tastes just as good as her own.

Level Up Your Tea Game With These Non-Traditional (And Delish!) Recipes

Tea is chock-full of ingredients that do our body good, and with so many varieties out there, you’re guaranteed to find a tea to sip for every need. Upset tummy? There’s ginger for that. Want to show your immune system some love? Hey, turmeric. Looking for an antioxidant boost? Brew up some hibiscus. (You get the picture.)

But that doesn’t mean you need to sip mug after mug to reap those benefits. With a little creativity, you can transform your average cup of tea into a luxurious latte, summertime drink, or even a snack. Put these fun recipes from Alvita to the test:

1. Easy Golden Milk

This warm and slightly spicy drink is comforting and soothing. Wondering what’s up with the black pepper? It helps your body get the most benefit from that immune and digestion-supporting golden turmeric!

Ingredients:
2 cups unsweetened almond milk
2 teabags Alvita turmeric root tea
¼ tsp ginger powder
¼ tsp black pepper
1 scoop Reserveage Collagen Replenish Powder
2 tsp honey (optional)

Directions:
In a small saucepan, heat almond milk until hot, but not boiling (about three to five minutes). Add teabags and let steep for five to eight minutes. Remove teabags and add ginger powder, black pepper and collagen powder. Stir until combined. Pour into mugs, add honey if wanted, and enjoy!

Related: What Happened When I Drank Golden Milk For 30 Days Straight

2. Hibiscus Fruit Roll-Ups

Who knew? Try mixing your favorite fruits with tea to make this kid-friendly recipe.

Ingredients:
1 cup water
2 teabags Alvita hibiscus tea
1 cup sliced peaches (fresh or frozen)
1 cup strawberries
¼ cup sugar
1 Tbsp. lemon juice

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Boil water in a small saucepan and let tea bags steep for five minutes. Reduce heat to medium and add sugar to the saucepan. Let sit until about half the liquid has evaporated. In a blender, puree peaches and strawberries. Add pureed fruit and lemon juice to the saucepan and cook until mixture thickens (about 20 to 30 minutes). Spread mixture onto a baking sheet (lined with either a splat mat or wax paper) in a very thin layer. Bake for three to four hours—or until the mixture is no longer sticky to the touch. Let cool for 20 minutes. Place fruit leather on fresh wax paper and cut into long strips. Roll up to eat immediately or store in the refrigerator.

Related: How To Find The Best Herbal Tea For Your Needs

3. Spiced Iced Tea

This is not your average iced tea. The perfect combination of citrus and spice, the recipe is both soothing and refreshing.

Ingredients:
6 cups water
4 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 teabags Alvita ginger root tea
2 teabags Alvita turmeric root tea
1 cup orange juice
1 whole orange, thinly sliced
1 whole lemon, halved

Directions:
In a medium saucepan, combine water, cloves and cinnamon stick, and bring to a boil. Remove saucepan from heat and add all four teabags. Steep for seven minutes. Pour orange juice into a large pitcher and add orange slices and juice from the lemon. Strain tea into pitcher, and chill until cold. Serve over ice.

Related: Check out a large variety of teas from Alvita.

What Exactly Is Rhabdo—And Are You At Risk?

You may have been hearing some—okay, a lot—of noise about something called exertional rhabdomyolysis (or rhabdo, as it’s colloquially known in the fitness industry). In fact, a recent New York Times article detailed the story of a woman who, post-spin class, came down with the life-threatening health condition brought on by extreme exercise.

Although uncommon, rhabdo is real. So in the age of HIIT and other fast-paced classes, should you be worried? And how much is too much exercise?

What EXACTLY is rhabdo?

Rhabdo is a condition in which there’s a rapid breakdown of muscle tissue, resulting in the death of muscle fibers that wind up leaking into the blood stream, explains Michele Olson, Ph.D., F.A.C.S.M., and adjunct professor of sport science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, AL.

Normally, your kidneys, which process and remove waste through urine, would take care of those leaking muscle fibers. But with rhabdo, the kidneys can’t handle the amount of damage, Olson says, and eventually (if not treated), they shut down.

That’s why you want to catch symptoms quickly. Rhabdo can lead to a very dangerous situation: People may experience kidney failure, electrolyte disturbances, cardiac arrhythmia, and even death.

Rhabdo is considered pretty rare, with about 26,000 cases per year occurring in the United States. (That may sound high, but a disease is considered ‘rare’ if it affects less than 200,000 people per year.)

How do you get rhabdo?

“Exertional rhabdomyolysis is the term used when rhabdomyolysis is associated to physical activity,” explains Gerardo Miranda-Comas, M.D., an assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

With this kind of rhabdo, the activities that cause the most muscle damage are the most likely to cause a problem, says Olson. “This includes ultra-endurance events such as marathons and heavy-intense weight lifting.”

And while healthy people who follow their training plans to a tee can unfortunately succumb to rhabdo, often it’s people who don’t properly build up to endurance exercise or heavy lifting who suffer, says Olson.

Related: Shop immune-boosting supplements.

Other kinds of rhabdo are caused by underlying medical conditions (think: diabetes, thyroid disease, chronic electrolyte disorders, or acidosis); medications (stimulants, antihistamines, and statin drugs), and illicit drugs can also put people at risk, notes Miranda-Comas.

Also: Anyone who’s damaged their muscles—whether it’s from a car accident or a dangerous infection—can experience rhabdo, notes Olson. So it’s not exclusive to your spin or HIIT class—you don’t have to cancel your membership!

What are the symptoms?

If you’re suffering from rhabdo, you might feel weak and have trouble with ‘normal’ movements, notes Olson. Pain in the shoulders, upper back, and thighs is also common, as is confusion, or vomiting, she says.

“Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)—muscle soreness that occurs one to three days after an intense bout of exercise—is considered a mild form of rhabdomyolysis,” says Miranda-Comas. “So persistent soreness is an early sign and should be evaluated.”

Dark red or brown urine—which could mean there is blood and degraded protein (from destroyed muscle fibers)—can also be a sign of rhabdo, notes Olson.

Unfortunately, not all cases (or symptoms) look the same, so it can be difficult to diagnose. Miranda-Comas notes that symptoms can vary from no soreness to mild soreness or extreme muscle tightness and pain with weakness and extreme difficulty moving.

Related: I Won’t Let My Thyroid Disease Stop Me From Staying Fit

Adds Olson: “A person may have all or very few of the symptoms—which is why rhabdo is clearly dangerous and can harm an unsuspecting exerciser.”

If you think you’ve got rhabdo, it’s crucial to seek medical attention immediately, both experts say. Miranda-Comas notes that hydration is the standard form of treatment, but severe forms may require dialysis or surgery.

How can you best prevent getting rhabdo from exercising?

Your best bet is to stay safe with exercise (regardless of rhabdo, but also because of it), and take things slow. “Build up gradually,” says Miranda-Comas.

Remember, endurance training should be a gradual progression, with no more than a 10 percent increase in volume weekly, he says. That means if you’re trying to build up mileage when running (let’s say you’re doing 10 miles a week), you should only do 11 miles the next week.

Rest days are crucial, too. The average exerciser shouldn’t be doing high-intensity training on consecutive days, notes Miranda-Comas.

The bottom line? “Do not ever jump into something intense if you haven’t been exercising, have been sick, have experienced a break from exercise due to vacation, or have a chronic medical illness.”

Should You Try Cayenne Pepper For Weight Loss?

A healthy diet and exercise will always be the best way to manage your weight, but who of us doesn’t keep an open mind when it comes to easier, natural solutions?

Drinking lemon water has been a huge weight-management trend for years (even though the effects are minimal), but it’s about to get its butt kicked by cayenne pepper. This nightshade (a semi-controversial group of flowering plants which yield foods like tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and other peppers) is responsible for not only making your dishes more delectable, but giving your health a boost.

The cayenne pepper powder you buy at the grocery store is entirely made from ground cayenne peppers, whereas chili powder (which cayenne pepper is often confused for) is a pepper-based spice made with other plant products like garlic. Its main active ingredient? Capsaicin, a compound that gives the pepper its spicy zing—along with its health-boosting benefits.

Related: 5 Ways To Kick Excess Water Weight

So how does cayenne pepper work for weight loss?

Clinical nutritionist Tara Coleman, who specializes in weight loss, tells her clients that cayenne pepper can have a slight metabolic effect—specifically due to its thermogenic effects.

Thermogenesis, put simply, is a warm-bloodied organism’s process of heat production (basically, when your temperature rises). When the food you eat takes more energy (calories) to digest than were actually found in the food, that’s known as diet-induced thermogenesis. This process kicks your body heat into gear, increasing your metabolism.

Research seems to back up the theory: A review published in the journal Open Heart showed that ingesting capsaicin (the study had people take nine mg daily) can have positive effects on metabolic rate and fat oxidation, breaking down large fat molecules so they don’t stay large and stack up, leading to weight gain—all conducive to weight control.

And according to a study conducted by the International Journal of Obesity, cayenne pepper may help you stay fuller for longer, and not eat as much to begin with. The study found that subjects who took nine grams of capsaicin supplements consumed 10 percent less food, and subjects who drank a capsaicin-containing beverage consumed 16 percent less.

Related: Try this zingy cayenne shot for a health boost.

Another contributor to satiety: “Eating cayenne adds heat and spice to slow down how quickly you eat. Adding it as a toping to dishes can cut down on your speed and, in a roundabout way, cause you to eat less,” Coleman says.

On top of weight-management potential, a review in Cellular Signaling suggests that capsaicin also mediates the production of pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines. Win!

Taking Cayenne Pepper

Cayenne pepper is a super-versatile spice used in plenty of cuisines. You can add a dash or two of the powder to pasta, soup, eggs, tacos, chicken dishes, and even healthy detox drinks. You can also mix it into salad dressings and barbecue sauce.

If you don’t like spicy foods, you might want to get your cayenne through a supplement. Most supps will require you to take one or two capsules per day, each time with a meal. Cayenne also comes in liquid form.

Related: Shop cayenne capsules and liquids.

Cayenne isn’t for everyone, however: The capsules may cause acid reflux. If you have gastrointestinal issues, such as an ulcer, talk to your doctor before adding cayenne supps to your daily regimen.

People who take blood-thinners should also check with their doc before regularly consuming cayenne pepper, as it could possibly increase the risk of bleeding, according to the American Journal of Health System Pharmacy.

The Bottom Line

“As with anything, an excess is probably not the best thing for you,” says Coleman. “It would be hard to overdose on cayenne pepper, but if you eat too much, you may notice irritation in your mouth or experience diarrhea.”

Related: 7 Weight-Loss Myths That Can Sabotage Your Progress

Lastly, if weight loss is your goal, you’ll do well to adopt an exercise regimen and build healthy-eating habits. Because, as Mayo Clinic says, cayenne isn’t a miracle supplement. It doesn’t burn fat—but it does help to increase satiety and promote the healthy function of your metabolic system as part of a larger weight-management plan.

5 Ways To Crush It With A Resistance Band

Throwing barbells and dumbbells around isn’t the only way to build strength. With a set of resistance bands you can score a solid pump and push both your muscles and your cardio to the max.

These resistance band moves come in clutch when you’re traveling, need a break from the weights, or just don’t feel like leaving the house to hit the gym. Get ready to feel the burn:

 

Related: Find an energy bar to fuel your next workout. 

I Tried Clean Eating For A Week—And It Wasn’t Actually Awful

I’ve always experienced an almost visceral reaction to diet and food trends. Despite my desire to eat healthfully and intelligently, I don’t believe that restricting myself or limiting the scope of my life (I’m Italian—the food is the life!) is worth it in the end. So, my food rules are simple: Eat healthy as often as I can, enjoy all foods in moderation, and have waffles after midnight every once in a while just because.

When I first heard about the “clean eating” trend, I was a little put off. Not only can it come off elitist (not everyone can shop at a farmers market or afford healthy foods all the time), there are also links between healthy eating trends and orthorexia, a kind of disordered eating that hinges on an obsession with eating healthy foods, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Still, I couldn’t help but be intrigued: Clean-eating advocates (they’re all over Instagram, where the #CleanEating and #EatClean hashtags reign) do have a point. Clean eating is all about mindfully eating and eliminating the stuff we already know is bad for us: processed, packaged, nutritionally-lacking foods. The goal is to eat whole foods, lean proteins, legumes, whole grains, greens, and fruit. (You can learn more about which foods count here.)

Other clean-eating tenets include eating locally, eating more plant-based foods, and adopting a cleaner lifestyle in general.

The gains? Plenty! You nourish your body by eliminating extra sodium, totally unnecessary extra sugars, unhealthy fats, and empty carbs. After all, so many of our favorite foods contain so much crap. A trip through the grocery store is legitimately like a gut health horror movie: packaged pizza loaded with saturated fats and processed dough, juices jam-packed with added sugars and syrups you can’t pronounce, and bleached pastas.

As someone with an autoimmune condition that comes with its side of gastrointestinal issues, becoming more aware of my food intake—as I’d begun to do lately by reading labels and balancing my macros—was like winning the gut lottery. I spent a lot more time eating well and a lot less time worrying if I’d end up feeling bloated all day.

So, after a friend of mine did a month of clean eating and loved it, I decided to try it myself, for one week, to expand my healthy-eating habits…and to see if the trend would really interfere with my attitude about living life to the fullest. Here’s the list I used when shopping.

Day 1:

I found myself googling things like, “Can I drink wine?” (YES, thank god, but only a little.) Another one:  “What kind of snacks can I have?” (There are definitely some—but that heavily depends on your definition of “snack.”)

All in all, nothing else surprised me. I was supposed to eat whole foods and loads of fruits, veggies, and legumes. Easy! Right?

Breakfast was a veggie scramble (with a little olive oil) and lunch was a tuna salad with arugula, chickpeas, and tomatoes. Dinner was from an organic food chain called Sweet Green. It was a warm Portobello bowl with veggies and lean chicken. I went to bed itching for a snack (I was hungry all day)—but ended up popping some (well, like, 50) grapes.

I’d cut out a few things: cereal, the candy I sometimes eat, healthy snack bars (like Clif Bars), sardines and most canned foods (apparently canned foods are off-limits because they contain aluminum). Many fresh “clean” foods also contain aluminum.

Days 2 & 3:

I was invested by now—so I went ahead and started bringing my own breakfast to work: yogurt with fruit. I REALLY wanted to add Muesli for a little kick, but it’s boxed and I decided against it. I remembered how hungry I was the day before, so I made about a thousand pounds of boiled eggs and ate 2-3 throughout the day. Lunch and dinner were salads—with chicken, sliced avocado, and lots and lots of cannellini beans (beans are great because they promote heart health and are loaded with antioxidants and other goodies, according to Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism).

Days 4 & 5:

I woke up and made myself a smoothie with almond milk, bananas, cinnamon and a half teaspoon of peanut butter (apparently, the jury is out on whether some peanut butters are clean eats or not; I decided to live on the edge).

Related: Here’s What A Day Of Clean Eating Actually Looks Like

As the day went on, I would want something hot and delicious, like mashed potatoes and fried chicken, and I also wanted peanut butter cups. The desire was REAL. But I stuck it out and ate salads for lunch (I added a bunch of tofu to bulk them up).

I made myself a huge, clean meal for dinner: a warm spicy (olive oil and jalapeno) quinoa bowl with chicken breast, lentils, peas, carrots. It was amazing.

Days 6 & 7:

These days got a lot easier, and I had food left over from the days before. Lots of places cater to clean eating, I realized, but they can get pricy. You really need to get creative and make lots of food at home so you can feel full and have options all day long.

The Bottom Line

I felt really good eating clean. I was rarely bloated, I was energetic and not deprived nutritionally (my taste buds would beg to differ), and I felt confident in my food choices. It’s not the sort of diet you can’t get the hang of, especially if you already eat well, but I imagine those whose lives are filled with fast food or packaged meals might have a harder time.

What’s not so fun? Standing in the grocery store aisle manically googling “clean eating” foods. (You’d be surprised what’s not allowed: Goodbye, smoked salmon!). It’s also really hard to eliminate canned foods.

And I won’t lie to you, dear reader: I definitely had a slip-up. I ate a dish of gnocchi (from a bag) and I attacked a bag of fruity wafers (also from a bag). These two things were so beautiful I feel no regret.

Related: 7 ‘Shrooms You Should Be Eating For Major Health Benefits

However, it does underscore the idea that, to me, clean eating is a goal one should work toward most of the time. It can function well as a sort of quick nutrition detox, but it seems unsustainable as a long-term habit for most people. For me, enjoying a few processed things here and there is what makes life delicious—and doing so every once in a while allows us to be mindful about our indulgences without feeling restricted or self-punishing. Also, some processed foods, like whole grain breads, can still be ok for you in moderation.

I won’t hop on the clean-eating lifestyle any time soon, but I will adopt some of its tenets, say, 80 percent of my time. 80/20 rule! Eat healthy 80 percent of the time and enjoy anything 20 percent of the time. Because I will never give up my late-night waffles.

6 Reasons Why You’re Not Building Muscle

So you’ve been busting your you-know-what in the weight room for months now, and the coveted muscle you’ve been working for is still M.I.A. What’s the deal?

The idea is that when you put resistance on your muscles (say in the form of a dumbbell or barbell), they adapt over time by producing more of the proteins inside of them that help them contract. And that leads to larger muscles. In science speak, this gain in muscle size is called ‘hypertrophy.’

Here’s the thing, though: The equation is a little more complicated than ‘lift weights equals get big.’ From nutrition to workout design to plain ol’ genetics, there are a number of factors that might be standing between you and building muscle.

But there’s hope for you yet! Here are six of the most common muscle-building saboteurs—and what you can do to finally start making gains.

1. You’re Doing Too Many Reps

If your goal is to build muscle, you need to apply enough stimulus to your muscles to force them to grow.

What does that look like in the gym? Low to moderate rep ranges with heavier weight (like between three and 12 reps)—and not higher rep ranges with lighter weight (like upwards of 20 reps), according to a review published in Kinesiology.

There’s quite a bit of back-and-forth in the research about using certain rep ranges and seeing muscle growth—but the studies do suggest that sticking to 12 or less reps is key.

One study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition & Metabolism, for example, found that guys who lifted in an eight to 12 rep range for eight weeks saw similar muscle gains to those who lifted in a two to six rep range. Meanwhile, a study published in Physiological Reports, for example, found that guys who lifted heavy for four sets of three to five reps made greater muscle gains in eight weeks than those who lifted moderate weight for four sets of 10 to 12 reps.

So if you’re lifting to put on size, there’s a place for lifting heavy weight for six or fewer reps (which is known for building strength) and lifting moderate weight for eight to 12 reps (which is known for pure hypertrophy).

Related: The Hard Gainer’s Guide To Building Muscle

“Strength and hypertrophy are related so it is just as important to build strength in order to be able to do more repetitions at a heavier load, which will result in continued hypertrophy,” suggests N. Travis Triplett, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D., F.N.S.C.A., professor of exercise science at Appalachian State University.

The key takeaway: Performing tons and tons of reps builds muscular endurance, but not the strength and size you’re looking for.

2. You Were Born With A Lot Of Type I Muscle Fibers

Our muscles are made up of two main types of muscle fibers: type I muscle fibers, which are better at using oxygen for energy and have higher endurance for activities like running, and type II fibers, which rely on glycogen (stored carbs) for energy and are better suited for explosive movements (like plyometrics), and strength training. Type II fibers are naturally larger than type I fibers and give a muscle it’s size, shape, definition, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

The proportion of type I and type II muscle fibers we have comes down to genetics—and often determines what sports and activities we gravitate towards. (Picture your classic lean runner versus a more brawny football player.)

Related: 12 Plyometric Moves That Build Strength And Burn Calories

According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, your potential for making serious gains in muscle size may be determined by the amount of type II fibers you have.

That said, just because you might be type I-dominant doesn’t mean you can’t train and develop the type II fibers you do have. By focusing your workout routine on heavy resistance training and explosive movements, you can recruit more of those type II muscle fibers, according to ACE. Focusing on HIIT (high-intensity interval training) over moderate steady-state cardio can also help you call those type II fibers into action.

3. You’re Overtraining

Ultimately, working out puts stress on our bodies, and we see the best results when we apply enough stress to adapt and reach our full potential, but not so much that we run ourselves into the ground. When you can’t bounce back from that stress you enter a state called ‘overtraining’—which can wreck your performance and sabotage muscle gain. Basically, you’re in breakdown mode.

Training too often or too hard, missing out on ample rest, and falling short on nutrition can all lead to overtraining, which is often marked by persistent fatigue, loss of appetite, and crummy mood, according to a paper published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

If you’re inexplicably sick, have an unusually high resting heart rate, see a decrease in strength, or feel unusually fatigued over a period of weeks or months, chances are you’re overtraining.

The American College of Sports Medicine and European College of Sport Science recommend taking at least one full rest day per week and prioritizing ample sleep throughout the week. Proper hydration and carb intake are also key for keeping your body out of the stressed state of overtraining, they say. Though many people trying to keep body fat at bay often shun carbs, our bodies need them—especially after exercise—to replenish the glycogen in our muscles so that we can continue to perform and build muscle, according to research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine.

4. You’re Not Eating Enough Protein

When you lift weights (and go hard), your body burns through its stored carbs and begins to break down protein (like that in your muscles) for energy. If you want to build muscle, you need your body to build up more protein than it breaks down. And to do that, you need to eat protein.

Someone training hard to gain muscle may need anywhere up to two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, says Triplett. (That’s a little more than one gram per pound of body weight.)

Reach your daily needs by including protein in every meal and keeping protein and amino acid supplements handy for on-the-go. Triplett suggests first bumping up the protein in each of your meals, and then turning to supplements like protein powders and bars to reach your daily needs.

And don’t forget to fuel up before or after you train. A study published in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism found that supplementing with 20 grams of whey protein before or after training boosted exercisers’ levels of amino acids (the molecules proteins are made of), so that they had the positive amino acid balance necessary to build muscle.

“For best results, consume protein within 30 minutes to an hour of finishing your workout,” Triplett recommends.

5. You’re Not Following A Structured Training Plan

You could have years of gym time under your belt and still not have even scratched the surface of your muscle potential—and that goes for both strength and size!

Showing up to the gym and just winging workouts won’t yield maximum muscle gains. It’s possible to gain some size from doing random workouts a few times a week, but to really make the most of your gym time, you need to have a long-term plan in mind. (You’ll often hear this referred to as ‘periodization.’) Within your year-long plan at the gym you should have cycles of shorter-term plans to help you reach your goals, according to the International Sports Sciences Association.

So if you’re main goal is to build muscle, you’ll need to alternate between phases of lifting to build strength and phases of lifting for pure hypertrophy. You might dedicate four weeks to high-weight, low-rep training to build up strength, then four weeks of moderate-weight, moderate-rep training to maximize your muscle-gain. You’ll continue to alternate between these two training styles to prevent plateaus and keep your muscles growing.

In your high-weight, low-rep strength cycles, you’ll perform sets of six reps or less with weight that’s between 70 and 85 percent of your one-rep max, according to the NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training. In your moderate-weight, moderate-rep hypertrophy cycles, you’ll perform sets of eight to 12 reps with a weight that’s between 60 and 80 percent of your one-rep max, suggests Triplett. How many times a week you train depends on your lifestyle, but make sure your workouts include staple exercises like barbell bench presses, back squats, deadlifts, power cleans, overhead presses, push presses, and pullups.

Related: 3 Ways To Improve Your Deadlift And Crush Your Next PR

Why? “Hypertrophy is best developed by stressing a muscle group with a variety of exercises,” says Triplett. So incorporating a mix of single-joint and multi-joint exercises (which tax your body even more) into your routine is best way to promote muscle growth. So dumbbell rows and squats both deserve a slot!

6. You’re Not Using Intensity Techniques

Even with consistent and well-rounded training, your muscle growth can still plateau. Consider it a very frustrating sign of your progress: Your muscles have adapted to the stress you’ve been putting on them!

To get back on the gain train, up the intensity of your workouts with techniques such as drop-sets, eccentric reps, or occlusion training.

Drop-sets: The next time you’re doing bicep curls (say for three sets with heavy weight), tack on an extra fourth set. In that extra set—your drop-set—you’ll slash the weight you lift and perform the usual number of reps with that lighter weight. Drop-sets further fatigue your muscles and lead to additional damage of working muscle fibers, which can spur further muscle growth, according to ACE.

Eccentric training: This focuses on the lowering action or ‘negative’ part of an exercise. This can help you make muscle gains that would be otherwise impossible. That’s because your muscles can support more weight when, say, uncurling a dumbbell versus curling it, so you can do eccentric training with heavier weights than you can use for standard concentric training, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). You can use a squat rack or spotter to use eccentric training on big movements, like the squat, with a super-heavy weight (around 110 percent of your one-rep max). In the squat, for example, you’ll start in standing position with the barbell on your back and slowly lower the weight until the spotter or squat rack safety bars catch it. Instead of squatting that weight back up, you’ll take plates off the bar or work with your spotter to re-rack it in starting position. You can also employ eccentric training with weights you normally use by shifting the timing of your reps. Using a moderate weight, lift the weight and contract at your usual pace, and then take three to five seconds to slowly lower that weight. This way, the emphasis is on the eccentric part of the movement.

Occlusion training: This sort of training requires you to wrap a strap, band, or cuff around the top of muscle that you’re training in order to block blood flow to the area. You’ll then train those muscles with light weight (20 to 50 percent of your one-rep max). The theory is that blood-flow restriction training forces you to use type II muscle fibers when you would normally recruit type I fibers, according to a review published in Strength and Conditioning Journal.

Related: Shop gainer supps to help pack on the pounds.

I Drank A Gram Of Caffeine A Day—Here’s What Happened When I Went Cold Turkey

If you know me, you know I have a ‘fever’—and the only prescription is more caffeine.

I consider myself generally healthy: I bust my tush at the gym five or six days a week, I meal prep on the weekend to keep my calories in check, and I don’t booze nearly as much as I did back in the day.

But I have this caffeine habit. People at work know me as the guy who consistently and constantly has an energy drink in hand. I love getting my morning fix with a nice can of Bang. And then there’s my early afternoon pick-me-up with a refreshing can of SPIKE. And then there’s some late-afternoon preworkout so I can crush it in the gym. So, yeah, that’s a lot of caffeine.

If you don’t have your calculator out, I’ll do the math for you: All of this comes out to about one gram of caffeine a day. That’s like ten cups of coffee or twelve small Red Bulls. (I know, crazy.) I’ve been crushing energy drinks and preworkouts for so long that I’m no longer sure whether or not my ‘always ready to rock and roll’ personality is natural or caffeine-induced. All I know is I feel good all day long.

My hardcore caffeinating started back in college because of a combination of two things: working out and late nights studying. I’d knock back a preworkout before hitting the gym and grab an energy drink to help me get through all-nighters. From there, it was a slippery slope to my daily gram of caffeine.

I never thought it would catch up with me—despite what I’d read online about the dangers of going caffeine crazy (like the fact that too much caffeine could lead to insomnia, nervousness, and irritability, or this study that found that people who drank more than eight cups of coffee a day were twice as likely to commit suicide).

After years of caffeinating heavily, though, the negative effects have started to rock me. I can count on one hand the number of nights of uninterrupted sleep I’ve gotten throughout these past few years; I’m lucky if I get five decent-ish hours. At one point I even started taking sleep aids at night—just so I could boost myself back up with caffeine in the morning. It was a vicious cycle.

I remember getting home from the gym one night (after crushing a chest workout) and still feeling so wired that I actually put some liquid cherry sleep aid in my chocolate protein shake. Chocolate-covered cherry! Great flavor, frightening idea.

The next morning, I finally realized that I was in dangerous territory. I’d told a few friends about my concoction—and they were not impressed with my creativity. They were worried. At first, I was put off by the “Bro, what are you doing?” and similar comments—but slowly I began to realize how unhealthy my habits had become.

Coincidently, not long after, one of my co-workers challenged me to give up caffeine cold-turkey for one whole week. I was the perfect guinea pig—not only because I was loaded up on the stuff, but because I had realized that I really needed to get my act together.

So that night I downed two cans of Bang (as a way of saying, “goodbye, caffeine!”) and mentally prepared myself for my seven-day caffeine-less adventure.

Related: Let’s Clear The Air About Caffeine

The First Couple Of Days…

On day one of my caffeine-free life I woke up groggy, as per usual. After a few minutes at my desk—at which point I’ve usually had my morning Bang—I was hit with absolute lethargy. I was just sitting there, staring blankly at my computer screen, trying to keep my eyelids from closing. If I had let my eyes close for more than a second, I would have definitely fallen asleep.

Which is exactly what happened the following day. I closed my eyes for a second too long—and opened them 10 minutes later.

By the afternoon my energy finally started to kick up, but I felt very irritable. (It probably didn’t help that I had about a dozen of old energy drinks at my desk staring into my soul.) I made a pretty unhealthy (but caffeine-free!) decision, and bought a 12-pack of decaf diet soda. I flipped my energy drinks the bird—and hid them from view in a drawer.

My energy level dipped down again on the 40-minute drive home from work, but I still had enough mental and physical juice left to get myself to the gym. The mental grind was real. My workouts seemed to drag on and on and I was tempted to just go through the motions of my routine and then get out of there. But I pushed myself through with a little help from a solid playlist, and I actually ended up sweating more than usual. Like, dripping. Was my body struggling that much more to get me through my usual routine?

Related: Why Do Some People Sweat More Than Others?

Crossing The Halfway Mark

After the first few days, I didn’t feel like as much of a zombie in the mornings. No more dozing off at my desk! (And good thing, because sleeping at your desk is probably a fire-able offence.)

My newfound A.M. energy was probably a result of the AMAZING sleep I was getting. As the week went on, I continued to crash hard when I got home from the gym. I didn’t need a single sleep aid. Instead of waking up and staring at the ceiling at around 2:00 a.m., I was out cold the entire night. I’m talking seven hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Around mid-week, my workouts also began to pick up. My focus and intensity were back at (or at least close to) the level I was used to. And I still sweat buckets.

One thing I really wasn’t anticipating when I kicked the caffeine: I started craving fast food and ice cream. (Not that I don’t always want both of these things, but these cravings were wicked.) I almost hit the drive-thru for a burger with three patties and cheese, please, a few times. So I turned to my other bubbly beverage or sucked on a sour mint to distract myself. I started to wonder if I just really loved the flavor of my energy drinks. Perhaps I just craved something yummy, like my favorite blue razz or cotton candy drinks.

I Survived!

I thought I’d be in bad shape by the end of the week, but I never really craved caffeine itself as much as I thought I would. The withdrawal headache I had mentally prepared for never actually came and I certainly wasn’t mad about it!

The last few day, my weird food cravings faded. And knowing the finish line was close, I started to feel pretty dang proud of myself. I would definitely finish this experiment stronger than when I began. My productivity at work and intensity in the gym slowly shifted back to normal. I didn’t want to nap before lunch. I wasn’t tempted to half-a** a workout. I felt like my usual self—just without the caffeine.

Since finishing my little caffeine-free experiment, I’ve kept my total intake at about 350 milligrams a day. Occasionally I’ll get up to 500 milligrams, but I haven’t come close to the full gram I used to down. As I started to suspect during my caffeine-free week, I think I crave bubbles more than caffeine itself.

I haven’t even considered taking a sleep aid since my cold-turkey week, and it feels great to actually wake up well-rested.

I don’t think I’ll completely cut out caffeine any time soon (I just love that cotton candy Bang too much), but now I know I can do it—and that feels pretty damn good.

Related: Check out caffeine-free vitamins and supplements to support your gym performance.

 

9 Nutrients You May Be Short On If You Don’t Eat Dairy

Just about everyone has dietary restrictions these days—in fact, many people cut out entire food groups, like dairy. Whether you have a milk allergy, are lactose intolerant, or just aren’t a fan, it’s important to be aware that ditching dairy may mean potentially missing out on a number of key nutrients.

Thing is, dairy foods are pretty jam-packed with the good stuff. Cow’s milk contains nine essential nutrients, including protein, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin B2 (riboflavin). Cheese also provides protein, calcium, zinc, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin B2, and vitamin B12. And yogurt (especially Greek yogurt) packs a good dose of protein, plus calcium and ever-important probiotics.

Don’t worry, though, you can find these nutrients in non-dairy sources. Just know that you may need to eat several different types of those foods to reach the amount of the nutrients in dairy.

1. Protein

We’ve put protein on a pedestal because of its ability to squash hunger and support and repair tissues and muscles. A cup of dairy milk contains eight grams of protein—but this is one nutrient you’ll have no problem making up for elsewhere. (Men need a bare minimum of 56 grams per day and women need at least 46 grams—but most of us get much more.)

Just one ounce of most animal proteins like meat, poultry, and fish provides as much (if not more) protein as that glass of milk. (A three-ounce chicken breast gets you about 26 grams.) Eggs come close with six grams of protein per egg. Plus, plenty of plants also provide similar levels of protein as milk. Tofu comes in around 10 grams of protein per four ounces, beans provide about six  grams per half-cup, nuts provide about six grams per ounce, and whole grains contain about three grams per quarter-cup serving.

Related: 7 Vegetarian Protein Sources

2. Calcium and Vitamin D

I’m putting these two together because the pair is crucial for your bones—and many Americans fall short on both nutrients. (Vitamin D also plays an important role in your immune function.) Adults need about 600 IUs of vitamin D and 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day.

One cup of milk contains about 305 mg of calcium, while an ounce of hard cheese contains about around 200. Most milk is fortified to provide about 120 IUs of vitamin D, while that cheese supplies about six IUs. Many almond milks are also fortified with enough calcium and vitamin D to be a fair replacement for cow’s milk.

Other sources of calcium include canned salmon (including the soft bones), which offers 180mg per three ounces, firm tofu (320 mg per half a block), almonds (80mg per ounce), spinach (240mg per cup), and broccoli (180mg per cup).

Vitamin D, which is pretty darn tough to get from food, can be found in sockeye salmon (440 IUs in three ounces) and eggs (40 IUs per whole egg).

Related: Find a vitamin D supplement to help you fill nutritional (and sunshine) gaps.

3. Phosphorus

This mineral tag-teams with calcium to keep bones and teeth strong, and also helps strengthen your immune system. You’ll get 224mg phosphorus in a cup of milk, and adults need 700mg per day.

You’ll find phosphorus in other animal proteins like turkey (131 mg per three ounces), and sardines (215mg per three ounces, canned), and scallops (340mg per three and a half ounces). It’s also found in plant sources like quinoa (149mg per half -up), almonds (880mg per ounce), Brazil nuts (885mg per ounce) and in chia (265mg per tablespoon) and sesame seeds (21mg per tablespoon).

4. Potassium

This electrolyte (a type of mineral) is a key player in establishing normal heart rhythm and stable blood pressure levels. Milk provides around 342 mg potassium per cup, and adults need about 4,700mg a day.

When dairy is off the table, turn to produce for your potassium—it’s pretty easy to find! Fruits and veggies like bananas (422mg per banana), white potato (1626mg per baked tater with skin), apricots (650mg per two ounces, dried) and kidney beans (655mg per cup) are some of the richest sources out there.

5. Vitamin A

Vitamin A protects your skin and promotes good vision. Most milk is fortified with vitamin A, providing around 499 IUs per cup. We need about 10,000 IUs a day.

Our bodies convert beta-carotene, which gives plants their orangey color, into vitamin A. Sweet potatoes (a whopping 11,916IU per three ounces), carrots (10,691IU per half-cup, chopped), cantaloupe (5987IU per cup), and winter squash (22,869IU per cup) all provide some. You can also get vitamin A from spinach (2,183IU per cup).

6. Riboflavin

Also known as vitamin B2, this vitamin impacts energy production at a cellular level and generally helps keep cells in good shape. A cup of milk provides about 0.5mg, which is half of an adult’s daily B2 needs.

Beef liver (2.9mg per three ounces), clams (0.4mg per three ounces), and mushrooms (0.3mg per half-cup) all supply some riboflavin. This is another one that’s found in fortified cereals (1.7mg per serving).

7. Magnesium

The most abundant mineral in our body, magnesium plays a role in hundreds of different processes. (A few: blood sugar function, cardiovascular function, and digestion.) You’ll find 28mg of magnesium in a cup of milk. While women need about 320mg per day, men need about 420mg.

Plant foods like almonds (105mg per quarter cup) and sunflower seeds (128mg per ounceounce) contain magnesium. You can also find it in shrimp (36 mg per three ounces).

8. Zinc

Zinc is important for proper wound healing and actually impacts your perception of taste and smell—fun fact! Milk has 1.1mg of zinc. Guys need about 11mg a day, while women need about eight.

Get your fill of zinc from non-dairy foods like oysters (74mg per three ounces), crab (6.5 mg per three ounces), beef (7mg per three ounces), and baked beans (2.9mg per half-cup).

9. Probiotics

Last but not least are probiotics. These beneficial bacteria help your gut take better care of you; they boost immunity and can help ward off digestive woes. When you think probiotics, you probably think yogurt or kefir—and although the amounts and strains of probiotics in yogurts vary, varieties labeled “contains active, live cultures” are sure to provide some of the good stuff.

Luckily, probiotics are also pretty easy to find in non-dairy foods. Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and pickles are natural sources of probiotics. You can also find it in super-trendy kombucha, a drink made from fermented tea.

Related: I Drank Kombucha Every Day For Two Weeks—Here’s What My Gut Had To Say

Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., C.D.N., is an award-winning author, spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC. She has been featured on TV, radio, and print, as well as in digital media, including Everyday HealthBetter Homes & GardensWomen’s Health, and U.S. News & World Report. She is a recipient of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Media Excellence Award.

Stop Letting These 4 Carb Myths Run Your Life

Carbohydrates have been the enemy of the diet world for pretty much forever. They’ve been long accused of making us gain weight, and it seems like every trendy diet out there recommends we slash them from our daily eats.

But if you’ve ever tried a low-carb diet, you probably know the feeling of being absolutely drained that comes along with it. And that’s not surprising: Carbs are a powerful source of energy for our body. They’re composed of strings of glucose molecules, which our body breaks down into sugar molecules, says nutritionist Kara Landau, founder of The Traveling Dietitian. These sugar molecules are used as energy or stored to be used later, she says.

“Carbs are the preferred fuel source for our brain and our muscles,” she says. “They help us concentrate, perform optimally, and stay energized.” Sounds pretty important, right?

Still, misunderstandings about carbs are everywhere, so we’re busting some of the most popular myths out there in hopes of convincing you that carbs can be part of your life.

Myth #1: Carbs Make You Fat

We know you’ve heard this one before. But the connection between carbs and weight gain is a little more complicated than “carbs equal fat,” says Keri Gans, R.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet. Whether or not carbs affect the scale comes down to quantity and quality, she says.  

Eat too many carbs—or too much of anything, for that matter—and you may take in too many calories, which leads to weight gain, Gans explains. You don’t have to completely break up with pasta and bread if you’re watching your weight—but you do need to control your portion sizes, she says. Just fill half of your plate with veggies, a quarter with protein, and the other quarter with high-fiber carbs. Choose carbs like legumes, beans, and whole-wheat pasta to get a dose of that filling fiber, she says.

Related: How To Eat Carbs And Still Lose Weight

When these carbs are just a portion of a healthy, balanced meal—and not the focus—you’ll feel satisfied without going overboard. Gans recommends serving pasta with sautéed vegetables and olive oil instead of dousing it in cheese, and making sandwiches with grilled chicken breast and avocado instead of processed deli meats.

Myth #2: All Carbs Are The Same

If a serving of soda and a serving of fruit contain the same amount of carbs, they’re pretty similar, right? Wrong.

Foods and drinks that contain refined carbs (like white flour and added sugar) do a pretty poor job of keeping you full and providing nutrition, says Landau. “When you eat cookies, cake, or candy, your blood sugar spikes and then nose dives quickly,” Gans says. And when your blood sugar dips back down, you’ll want to eat again to bring it up a bit—explaining the vicious cycle of all-day cravings. Plus, refined carbs are often pretty devoid of valuable vitamins and minerals, hence why they’re often called ‘empty calories,’ says Landau.

That’s not the case with natural, whole sources of carbs, like fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, and beans, says Landau. These wholesome carbs provide micronutrients our body needs, along with fiber. Dietary fiber is critical for slowing your digestion, making you feel full, and supporting your metabolism, Landau says. Some whole-food carbs even contain an indigestible type of fiber called ‘prebiotic fiber,’ which works to keep your gut healthy by supporting your digestion, immune system, and ability to absorb nutrients, she says.

So, yeah, go ahead and bit into that apple. The soda can go, though.

Myth #3: You Should Cut Carbs To Lose Weight And Be Healthier

When it comes to your daily diet, no food group should be ‘off limits,’ Gans says. If you swear off carbs, you’re practically guaranteed to go overboard when you do eventually eat them, she says.

Yes, cutting certain carbs can benefit your waistline and your overall health. If you’re going to slash carbs, just slash refined carbs and added sugars, says Landau. By now, you already know that whole-food carbs are better for your waistline—and they may also be better for your brain. You know that joke we’ve all made about being addicted to carbs? According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a super-high-carb meal activates the part of the brain associated with cravings, reward, and addiction.

Related: Is Sugar Really All That Bad For You?

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Just swap out white pasta for pasta made from legumes (chickpea pasta is a good option) and ditch side dishes like white rice for sweet potatoes. This way, the carbs you eat provide fiber and nutrients to support your health and keep you from going overboard, says Landau.

Myth #4: You Should Only Eat Carbs At Certain Times Of Day 

Only eat carbs after you work out? No carbs after lunchtime? There are plenty of ‘rules’ about when you should eat carbs floating around out there. But ultimately, the quality of the carbs you eat—and how much total you consume—throughout the day is what really matters, says Landau.

Sure, if you’re snacking in front of the TV or computer after dinner, you might be more inclined to munch on foods that are high in refined carbs and sugar, like snack mixes or sleeves of cookies, says Landau. And because these foods don’t keep you full, you end up overeating. Instead, reach for a filling snack bar that’s made from whole grains and contains fiber (like KIND’s Madagascar Vanilla Almond bar) or a serving of your favorite fruit. It’s all about eating healthy carbs in the proper portions—and pairing them with quality protein or fat, Gans says. We’ll have a spoonful of peanut butter on our evening apple, please!

Related: Check out fiber supplements to keep your gut—and waistline—happy.

Should Your Kids Be Drinking Fruit Juice?

You’re probably hearing it more and more these days: Don’t drink fruit juice—it’s loaded with sugar! But is fruit juice really that bad for your health? Well, it’s not as black and white as critics may suggest, especially when it comes to kids’ consumption.

Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics released its May 2017 policy statement, Fruit Juice in Infants, Children, and Adolescents: CurrentRecommendations, which said that fruit juice and fruit drinks offer no nutritional benefits for kids under one year of age. Previously, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended four to six ounces daily for kids under one.

As for current suggestions regarding kids over the age of one, the policy states that only 100 percent fresh fruit juice (made purely from the juice of natural fruits, without any added sugars, preservatives, or additives) should be consumed, and only if it’s part of a balanced diet.

But not everyone agrees with the AAP’s recommendations.

According to Taylor C. Wallace, PhD, CFS, FACN, kids under the age of one should be consuming 100 percent fruit juice. Wallace co-wrote a July 2017 review (Satisfying American’s Fruit Gap: Summary of an Expert Roundtable on the Role of 100% Fruit Juice) that was published in the Journal of Food Science, which stated that 100 percent fruit juice:

  • Offers essential vitamins and minerals.
  • Does not compromise fiber intake.
  • Contains health-supporting antioxidants.
  • Does not lead to weight gain when consumed in accordance to the AAP’s prior recommendations for children under one year—four to six ounces daily.

Other research backs up this claim: According to Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition,
the consumption of 100 percent fruit juice can provide beneficial nutrients without contributing to pediatric obesity.

Wallace believes 100 percent fruit juice should be consumed by kids of all ages: “Kids lack nutrients that fruit juice provides, like potassium, vitamin C, and magnesium,” Wallace says. For many kids, especially those in lower-income families, 100 percent fruit juice helps to comprise a healthy diet, according Wallace.

For parents worried about sugar intake, the polyphenols (antioxidants) found in 100 percent fruit juice may help to block up to 40 percent of the sugar from being absorbed, Wallace says.

So, what, technically, is a fruit juice? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandates that a product must contain 100 percent fruit juice in order to be labeled “fruit juice.” Other juices, like those made from concentrate or those containing less than 100 percent fruit juice, must be labeled a “drink,” “beverage,” or “cocktail.”

Although national guidelines suggest kids get one to 1.5 cups and adults get two cups of fruit per day, dietary patterns in the U.S. reflect a deficit (up to 80 percent of the country fall below fruit goals), according to the Satisfying American’s Fruit Gap: Summary of an Expert Roundtable on the Role of 100% Fruit Juice. Hence why Wallace believes fruit juice offers a valuable and affordable way to meet those dietary needs for everyone.

The benefits of 100 percent fruit juice are plenty: The Journal of Food Science study found that children who consume moderate amounts of 100 percent fruit juice are less likely to consume soda, and that the antioxidants within it may have health-promoting effects, especially as it relates to cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline. Adults and kids who drink 100 percent fruit juice usually meet their daily fruit needs, too, on top of having an improved overall diet and nutrient intake.

The bottom line

According to American Heart Association, kids should be getting less than 25 grams (that’s six teaspoons) of added sugars (like those found in fruit drinks that don’t come from 100 percent fruit juice) daily. Adult women should aim for less than 25 grams and adult men should aim for less than 36 grams per day.

Read drink and food labels, and reach for 100 percent fruit juice over other juice products. Even better? Consume fresh fruit over drinking fruit juice when possible.

I Weightlift For My Sanity

The. Weight. Room. Hearing those three words used to immediately transport me into a male-dominated turf riddled with loud grunts, motivational tank tops, and a ton of unnecessary flexing. Not exactly a welcoming visual. I had never actually worked out in a gym weight room for that reason—it never seemed like the right place for me—but all of that changed in the past year. And then, so did my life.

My wellness journey is deeply rooted in the need to feel calm, beyond building my strength and endurance. I’ve always been anxious and I also spend a lot of time managing my depression. I use medication, but I also turn to fitness for its feel-good hormones—I’ve done yoga, running, and swimming. For the longest time, I never felt the need to be ripped or to be able to show how much I could lift, so I never even considered adding lifting to the list of activities that could support my mood.

And because lifting never made sense to me, I kept sequestering myself to those other workouts, or to Cardio Island, where my routine felt safer. On that island there were fewer chances for me to incorrectly use dumbbells or show off my poor deadlift skills.

My wellness journey is deeply rooted in the need to feel calm, beyond building my strength and endurance.

The fear of messing up or really hurting myself took over my thoughts, too. And then off to the treadmill I went, where I could zone out for an entire album or a lengthy podcast episode.

MAKING👏A👏200LBS👏DEADLIFT👏LOOK👏EASY👏

A post shared by Laura (@lauradelarato) on

On top of all of that, I was dealing with minor knee trouble from a previous sports injury. It was seriously getting in the way of my workouts, so I decided to see a trainer for the first time in my life. Maybe she could help me run in a smarter way? I was determined to correct the pain for fear of not being able to run at the gym—I mean, what would I do if I couldn’t do that?

Related: My Size 18 Body Doesn’t Mean I’m Unhealthy

Besides helping my knee, the first thing she did was place a set of eight-pound weights in each palm. She stood before me and mimed the proper way to do bicep curls. I tried to hand them back, explaining that I was only here to help figure out the pain caused by running, but she didn’t back down. She really believed I should be lifting.

One set of 10 reps with eight-pound weights was barely a test. Simple. So I did another set. Not so simple. At that point, everything started to get a little shaky. I couldn’t curl those eight-pound weights after the second set—I really wasn’t as strong as I thought I was!

Honestly, I didn’t like the lifting at first. Mostly because I wasn’t very good at it. I always had to slow down every rep to get the mechanics just right and I got frustrated when I couldn’t find my balance during weighted squats or lunges. I’d get annoyed and then I’d find myself rushing (which only ever leads to pulled muscles).

So, I compressed and iced and elevated my body and went back to training. It was a great lesson, actually. For someone who strived for serenity, I was really putting a lot of pressure on myself to speed through the reps just because I found them to be challenging.

It was a great relief to find something that actually made me feel still, all while watching myself do overhead extensions in a gym mirror.

I kept up with the training and really dived into lifting smarter: That meant no hunching on dumbbell rows, no lazy curls, no swinging my arms to use momentum when the lift got difficult.

Related: There Are Two Types Of Cardio—Here’s Why They Both Matter

Then I started noticing something amazing: I was falling asleep faster—an issue I’ve had trouble with since I was a kid. I was less emotionally reactive at work, and had a generally better attitude throughout the day (I never felt this way when I was running).

Another major benefit? My confidence was boosted. I would walk into work a little taller knowing I was increasing my squat-weight steadily overtime. And as a person who is constantly aware of my own mental health state, it was a great relief to find something that actually made me feel still, all while watching myself do overhead extensions in a gym mirror.

I started with eight-pound weights! I can now deadlift 200 and squat lift 170.

So I stuck with it. I now head to the gym, turn on a podcast, and go through my routine. I treat it almost like a form of therapy. I even track my progress in a tiny notebook, and it’s a real trip to see where I started at and where I am now. Remember: I started with eight-pound weights! I can now deadlift 200 and squat lift 170.

I’m still not in the market for ripped arms and I don’t really want to be able to lift a car (though, that would be pretty cool). I have a lot more autonomy over my range of motion and I’m definitely the person my friends call when they need help moving out of their four-floor walkup.

Related: Shop protein to fuel your next workout.

I breathe easier, sleep better, and find myself more open to trying different workouts because of the chance I took with weightlifting. It’s not going to erase all of my hard days and restless nights, but it makes it a whole lot easier to mentally manage them.

Welcome To Your 8-Week ‘Manage Stress’ Program

My name is Keith Mitchell and I’m here to take you on an eight-week stress-management journey towards finding your center and calming your mind. It won’t be easy at times, but it will be rewarding.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of finding inner peace, I think I owe you a little information about me, and why you should trust me to be your guide.

To start off, I grew up right outside of Dallas, Texas. My father was a minister and my mother was a football lover and intermural flag football player.

As a child, I discovered the healing power of being part of a sports team. My family, with its many differences, could come together on any given Sunday and find common ground while gathered around the television. When the Cowboys would make a big play, my family—from my grandparents on down to my cousins—would jump up and down in excitement as if they were right there in the stadium. Seeing their joy is what made me want to become a football player.

I began in my backyard, visualizing myself making big plays and scoring touchdowns. I convinced myself that could do what the Cowboys were doing, if only I got the chance!

When I was 10 I asked my mother if I could play football. The answer? An emphatic NO. And she kept saying ‘no’ until I was 13 and finally big enough to play. By that point I had worn her down, and she begrudgingly agreed.

I wasn’t a star right off the bat. One day, a coach called me out in front of my teammates and said, “You look like Tarzan, but you play like Jane.” In that embarrassing moment, I realized that I really needed to put in the work. My internal fire was lit, and I dedicated myself to the game with a fierce, unstoppable force.

I went on to become an elite high school football player. I chose Texas A&M for college, where I saw tons of success and was even inducted into the Texas A&M Hall of Fame. Later, I was given the opportunity to play for the New Orleans Saints.

I played with the Saints, and then the Houston Texans, before joining the Jacksonville Jaguars as a starter. In total, I played football for seven years between 1997-2003. In my second game, against the Buffalo Bills, I made a routine tackle—the type of play I’d made hundreds of times in my career. But this time was different. Little did I know it then, but in that moment my football career had ended.

I suffered a spinal contusion that left me paralyzed from the neck down for a month. For six more months, I was severely constrained, but some of my movement came back. It was a turning point in my life—I could give up and give in to my injury, or I could become stronger. I chose the latter.

After months in and out of the hospital, I was introduced to the practice of conscious breathing as a way of healing my wounds. For the first time ever, I connected to my breath (it is the essence of life), linking my mind to my body.

I was able to attain functionality and walk again. Later, I discovered yoga as a way of deepening the connection between my mind, body, and spirit. As a result, I charted a new life path.

Today, I am a yoga teacher, an advocate of holistic health, and a mindfulness coach. I travel the world sharing my knowledge and practice. My journey has taken me from the White House and the United Nations to juvenile detention centers and rural towns in Honduras.

And now my path takes me to you.

Life is full of challenges—big and small—and stress plays a huge factor in how we handle and heal from those challenges.

If you have ever planted a garden, you know there is a huge gap between the planting of the seed and the harvest. Throughout the next eight weeks, we will be working on the space in the middle: This is where the transformation exists. We’ll begin by taking a step back to look at the benefits of an inner journey, then focus on the physical and contemplative practice of connecting with our minds, bodies, and spirits. We’ll also consider the role of our everyday behavior, such as eating, in support of our stress-management goals. Along the way, we’ll integrate practices for optimal healing and stress reduction.

To start, I’d like you to begin with a simple exercise:

  • Think of something that you want to change or create in your life—and focus on this throughout the next few weeks. It could be that you want to make more time for yourself, or make your home a more peaceful place, or focus less on negativity, or be more present.
  • Grab a journal and write down your goal.
  • Also notice whether you are breathing shallow versus deeply. Notice if you feel agitated. Think about what triggers your stress and agitation. Where in your body do you feel strained, tired, or uncomfortable?
  • Notice when you feel relaxed. Write down these observations.

Connecting intent with awareness is key to uncovering how, when, where, and why we are experiencing stress in our lives.

From there, we can chart a new trajectory of well-being together. I’m looking forward to serving as your guide to creating more balance, less tension, and greater strength!

Week 1: Introduction To Mindfulness

Life can come at us quickly—we all know that! I sometimes find myself stirred up by personal matters, work issues, or even the daily news. Thoughts and emotions get triggered and suddenly I find my mind spinning. Anxiousness sets in and I need to regain my equilibrium. I am sure this happens to you, too.

So, what to do? I press the pause button, and take a moment to sit and find my breath. By sitting and being mindful, I am able to refocus. I can get beneath the agitated waters and find the calm that lies below.

Mindfulness—which, at its most fundamental level, simply means being conscious or aware—is a tool that we can use for relief at almost any time, anywhere.

Try the below exercise the next time you feel overwhelmed, upset, or stressed out:

When your mind is racing—I have to join the gym! I need to make dinner! I have to pay my bills!—focus on the task you are doing at the present moment. For example, you might think: “This is me, driving a car. My hands are on the steering wheel, and the steering wheel is wrapped in leather. The sun is out.”

I know what you’re thinking: This seems too simple! It truthfully works, however, and it can really help to prevent information and sensory overload (which can cause you all sorts of stress, like overthinking and anxiety). It is an assertion of your power to bring yourself back to the moment that you’re in. This kind of conscious thinking helps refocus us.

Give it a shot!

When we start applying mindfulness techniques within our everyday lives, we become less distracted. All those emotions, reactions, and feelings we feel become less-intensely charged. We start to recognize that whatever we are experiencing is temporary and will pass. We also start enjoying the good moments even more.

When we make this investment in ourselves, and when we connect to ourselves on a deeper level, we can find stable ground.

Week 1: Meditation Is Nothing To Be Scared Of

Meditation, put simply, is the practice of stillness. It offers you an opportunity to sit in a quiet, relaxed, contemplative space away from the hurried pace of life and its many demands. It is an active incorporation of peace, as well as a life-changing and proven stress-reduction technique.

We are consistently bombarded with stimuli—from the daily decisions we have to make, to any sort of stressor—but we are often unaware of the toll this takes on our physical, mental, and energetic bodies. Imagine the opportunity to just be—to simply show up for yourself, with no goals, no winners or losers, no expectations of how to act. Simply being. I know—you’re probably thinking that sounds nearly impossible.

But it is possible! Meditation is derived from eastern contemplative practices that teach ‘the middle way’, suggesting that although we may experience reactions and circumstances from one extreme to the other, there is a still a centered place within ourselves (everyone has it) that we can go. Through the practice of meditation we can get there.

During meditation, you will connect with your breath, channeling the energy in order to heal yourself. Oxygen has the ability to heal our bodies in ways we can’t even imagine. With the conscious inflow and outflow of breathe, we are bathing internal organs in a very vital way.

You can also think of meditation as exercise for your brain. The practice of meditation trains your brain, making it stronger. Here’s how it works: You focus your thoughts on one single thing—we use the breath most commonly—and when your mind wanders (which it will, a lot!), you will bring your focus back to your breath. That refocusing is the ultimate exercise for your brain.

During this training, you are able to recognize distracting, counter-productive thoughts more quickly, making it so that you’re able to let them go. This frees your mind to focus on what’s truly important to you. With this increased ability to influence and redirect your thoughts, you can improve your focus, reduce your stress, and become, well, happier!

Research proves it:

  • Reduces Stress & Anxiety

    • In a study led by Harvard researchers, the gray-matter density in the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with stress and anxiety, physically decreased in people who meditated a few minutes per day (the average was 27), and the thickness of the pre-frontal cortex in the brain (the part of the brain associated with attention) physically grew.
    • Neuroscientists at Stanford University found that people who meditated for eight weeks were able to quiet the amygdala, which is also the part of the brain that triggers fear.
  • Helps You Become More Compassionate & Improves Your Relationships
    • A Stanford University study found that just a few minutes of meditation per day enhanced feelings of social connection and positivity towards others.
    • In a study published in Psychological Science, meditators were three times as likely to offer assistance to a person in need.

Times to Practice

Starting your day with meditation is one of the most clarifying and healthy decisions you can make. By allowing yourself to practice first thing in the morning you are making a decision to go slowly and gently into what’s ahead of you. You have the power to set your mood, pace, and will for the day.

And when you find yourself in a stressful or provoking situation, you can also take a moment to breathe. When you have important decisions to make you can also consciously breathe to settle your mind and help you focus. I challenge you to try this out in the morning, as well as anytime you begin feeling stressed.

Breath Meditation

      • Find a location to sit comfortably with the least amount of distraction. If it feels right, you can cross your legs in front of you and place your hands with your palms facing upward on your lap.
      • Begin to notice your breath, simply recognizing its pace and pattern. Becoming conscious of it will naturally create relaxation.
      • As you continue, deepen your breath so that you can feel it originate all the way from the belly.
      • Scan your body, consciously calling attention to different parts—see if there is any discomfort, or if any part of your body needs more attention. Send love and breath there.
      • In this quiet space, honor your body.
      • Breathe and repeat.
      • Through your developing practice you will begin to discover your true essence and the voice within. This is your highest self.

    You can start with as little as five minutes per day, or just a few times per week. My wish is for you to create a practice that brings you home to yourself.

Week 2: The Importance Of Good Nutrition In Managing Stress

Food influences your mental and physical state in a huge way. It drives your hormones, your brain chemicals, your metabolism, and it affects your energy and your mood. Ever heard of the term “hangry” (hungry/angry)? So true.

When you experience stress, your body’s natural reaction is to release the hormone cortisol. In small doses, cortisol isn’t harmful to your health. But if you experience chronic stress, those elevated cortisol levels over time may add up to sleep issues, as well as mood and memory problems. All of that could lead to poor eating habits, super-late-night dinners, and emotional eating. And the combo of bad food and stress? Tummy fat. Add to that the lack of energy that comes from a poor diet, and you’ve got a major stress disaster on your shoulders.

What you eat every day matters. Habits add up—and the bad ones can definitely take their toll. So if you want to de-stress, ramp up your energy, clear your mind, and lighten the toxic load on your body, cleaning up your diet is crucial.

I want you to consider changing some of your food habits. Think of it as a mini detox, only I want these changes to stick. Small changes make a difference, especially if implemented gradually.

The Do Not Eat List

Avoid gluten, dairy, soy, caffeine, alcohol, added sugars, and factory-farmed meat. For the purposes of detox, removing (or greatly limiting) these common digestive irritants can be an eye-opening experience. You will feel better physically, which can help improve your mood.

What You Can Eat

Tons of greens (think kale, spinach, arugula), vegetables, beans, avocados, pumpkin seeds, chick peas, bison, grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, and turkey. If you don’t eat meat, introduce all sorts of healthy fish (think salmon, sardines, trout, albacore tuna), and plant-based proteins, like lentils, tempeh, chia, and quinoa. Also choose liver-supporting foods like bitter greens, lemons, artichokes, and beets.

Terms To Look For On Labels

Organic, grass-fed, free-range, antibiotic-free, pasture-raised, hormone-free, gluten-, soy- and dairy-free.

Tip: Use almond or coconut milk instead of cow’s milk for a delicious, smooth, dairy- and soy-free substitute if you have a sensitive tummy.

Plants, Not Packages

Skip pre-packaged snack foods and opt for veggies and real foods instead.

Daily Probiotic 

Add one to your regimen! By repopulating your gut with healthy bacteria, you help your body more easily digest the foods you eat. Look for a dairy-free probiotic. As far as dosage, around 10-15 billion units is a good starting point. That sounds like a lot, but there are over 100 trillion bacteria in your gut already!

Meals Throughout The Day

Breakfast is so important! Your body digests overnight, so it is important to gently reintroduce clean, simple, and familiar foods into your system in the morning. I typically blend up a mix of non-dairy milk, blueberries (which are antioxidant-rich), banana, and avocado. You can also go with 100 percent fruit juice, or fruits and plain Greek yogurt.

For lunch, I eat lots of healthy carbs, like red potatoes, brown rice, lentils, and as many greens as I can get my hands on. Complex carbs like these won’t drag your energy down unlike processed carbs (like white or bleached bread).

If you’re hungry in between meals you can munch on almonds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds (my favorite, which also happen to be really good for prostate health).

I tend to eat dinner the way I eat lunch, with an emphasis on sautéed or grilled vegetables and healthy fats (like olive oil). I never go too heavy. Eating anything after 8 p.m. is not recommended due to the length of time it takes to digest your food.

As you go forward in your week, be mindful of your food choices and how they will benefit your body. Slowly make introductions into your diet, and gently stop eating problem-causing foods.