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Life Lessons I Learned From Working Out

As a matter of principle, I try to learn from every experience. Exercise is one of those things that is so broad and varied that the opportunities for learning and growth are endless. As 2016 draws to a close, I thought I should reflect on some things that being involved in fitness has taught me.

rest
Resilience
- I know it takes a lot of tenacity and grit to get through a tough workout or training program, but pushing hard alone is only half of the picture. The true meaning of resilience is the ability to bounce back; to get beaten down, regroup, and jump back in the game. In a literal sense, when it comes to exercise, you can only build muscle tissue while at rest. In order to improve your physical condition, you must have adequate rest and recuperation practices. I learned that my mind as well as I body can only be as resilient as the rest I give it. Thus, I have learned to not work myself into the ground and instead, make time for slower days. As the old saying goes, sometimes, less is more.


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Nothing Exists In A Vacuum - Just like your bicep alone can’t pick up that cup of coffee, working on only specific muscle groups or eating strictly for weight loss/gain are not effective at achieving optimum health. Between the musculoskeletal system, the lymphatic system, the endocrine system, the nervous system, the digestive system, the gut flora, and many more aspects of the body, it is impossible to fix a problem without looking at a bigger picture. Just as I look to see why someone’s knee keeps snap, crackle, and popping, I make sure to take a step back in everyday situations to determine what led to the current scenario, and how I can improve things for the future.


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Hardship Is A Necessity - We’ve all heard the saying that character is built through adversity, and it’s absolutely true. Regularly pushing yourself through hard exercises, despite the little voice in your head telling you it burns too much to keep going, is one of the ways you can experience hardship in small, controlled doses. Lifting heavy weights, working on my form, and hitting the pavement for several miles at a time are some of the ways I have learned to improve not only my physical conditioning, but also my mental strength. Although no one welcomes hardship in everyday life, (and no one really should), when it arrives, you can be certain that is going to be another building block for your character.


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There Are Always Answers - Each time I have suffered an injury or some kind of ache or pain, I found that if I looked in the right places, I would figure out how to heal myself. Since nothing exists in a vacuum, when something goes wrong in life, I know I can always find a solution. Sometimes, it takes awhile, (like years), but it can be done, and it will. In the case of my health, because I have continued to find ways to improve both my mental and physical wellness every year, I feel like Benjamin Button! The same can be said about my career, my home life, and my relationships with other people.

Working Out Is Like Watching A Sitcom Episode

When you envision a good workout, what images come to mind? You, sweat-soaked and desperately trying to keep up in a fast-paced spin class? Or maybe doing push ups or something of the sort until a heroic faceplant? How about a good 40 minute bout of cardio on a machine? What constitutes a “good workout”?

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Typically, the biggest indicator is sweat--the more you work the bigger those wet spots grow under your arms. The next indicator might be pain. No heroic faceplant, no gain, right? Finally, it’s time. We all like to think that the longer we workout, the more calories we “burn” and thus, the more results we will get. Well, let’s make a clear distinction between simply “working out” and training.

When we try to get a workout in, we are thinking of it as a bout of vigorous activity that is isolated in nature. Each workout is its own independent bout of activity and we are simply trying to “get it in” so that we can maintain a certain number of days of having moved around. It is like watching an episode of Modern Family, where we do not need to see the very first episode to understand the characters and their motives. We can pick up the story in the midst of any season and the entertainment value would not diminish.

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Proper training is more like watching Game of Thrones, where if you didn’t see the first season, you had better not embark on the third! Training, whether it is one-on-one or in a small group with a certified trainer, or you simply trying to do it on your own based off of books and other helpful resources, is a periodized* system for gradual physical improvements. What separates a workout from training is progression. No one can go from zero to 60 in a day, a week, or even a month. Training is a method to maximize results while minimizing the risk for injury. Ever noticed the use of the word “train” when athletes discuss their exercise programs? Whether it is to perfect a sport-specific skill or to improve certain physical abilities, training always begins with an individual’s existing ability level, and progresses to ever-challenging movements.

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A training program does not necessarily mean an exercise regimen that includes dripping sweat, debilitating pain, or long periods of time spent doing repetitive movements. The key to training is that it is science-based and highly personalized to the individual. If Joe Sits-A-Lot embarks on a proper training program, he will need to begin with creating a goal(s) and start at the lowest level of the periodization pyramid, focusing on assessing and addressing the various muscular imbalances he may have. Once Joe has built a solid foundation, he will likely progress to increasingly challenging training programs until his exercises resemble those of the athletes’ in Nike commercials.

Anyone can get and give a workout because simply getting your sweat on is easy. I sweat when I mop my floors! After awhile, my shoulders burn and I just want that damn mop to wring itself. But mopping will not make me muscularly balanced, build cardiovascular endurance, or prepare me for lifting heavy weights. It is best to make our physical activities count toward a meaningful goal so that not only do we not waste time by maximizing our efforts in the gym, but we correct any existing movement dysfunctions that can potentially create overuse injuries down the road.

So now that we know that workouts are like sitcoms and training is like Game of Thrones, it is time to ask yourself: do you workout, or do you train?

Walking Is The Hardest Thing Your Body Can Do

My friend and mentor Dr. Perry Nickleston likes to say that walking is the hardest thing your body can do.

I agree.

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Whether you spend your days moving from couch to subway (or car) to chair to subway (or car) to couch again, or you’re someone who regularly clocks in enough mileage to hatch several rare Pokemon a week, walking is a daily and essential part of our lives. As discussed in previous posts, many aspects of living in urban industrialized societies cause muscular imbalances, which leads to dysfunctional movement patterns--most of which center around the gait. When we don’t have the ideal balance of strength and flexibility, simple things like stepping off a curb have the potential to cause serious injury. The day to day wear on already overused muscles and stressed out joints is akin to layers of dirt and grime that accumulate on your windowsill: over time, things only get uglier.

So before you attempt fancy things like Iron Mans and mixed martial arts, or even after you’ve started, it is absolutely imperative that you improve your walking form.

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What is walking? Well, it is primarily a single legged exercise that requires the coordination of the entire body. It is also an exercise that exists within the transverse plane--which means rotation is involved. When the right foot takes a step, the left shoulder gently sways forward while the right leg flexes, and the right shoulder gently sways backward while the left leg extends. When the left foot takes a step, the right shoulder gently sways forward while the left leg flexes, and the left shoulder gently sways backward while the right leg extends. Take a moment to picture this in your head.

A dysfunctional gait can range from walking with very little upper body movement to hyperextended legs during the planting phase, to an excessively arched lower back, to many other signs that I won’t list right now, (but you can take a look at your own gait and probably notice a few things I haven’t mentioned). Whenever dysfunctions occur, the question has to be, where is the weakness? Your body will only choose to lock up certain parts when it senses instability in other crucial regions. Hence, when people experience very limited ankle range of motion, or really stiff shoulders, it is always a result of the body trying to make up for these weaker areas. Conditions like plantar fasciitis and runner’s knee are just your body’s way of telling you there’s a problem. While chronic pain and stiffness can be frustrating, I say, be forgiving of your body and recognize that it is just making sure that even if your glutes barely function, you can still escape that saber toothed tiger that may be lurking behind the U-Haul across the street.

So how do you correct a dysfunctional gait and become the best damn walker in North America?

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Start with strengthening your hips--both the front and the back. Perform exercises that require the lower abdominals and the psoas muscles to work together, such as many exercises in Pilates. Become really good at engaging and utilizing your glute muscles, such as in a lunge, a deep squat, or a glute bridge.

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Next, get rid of all ill-fitting footwear with cushy soles and tight toeboxes. No exceptions. Sometimes, for women, I understand that high heels can feel like a must, but in those cases, make sure to get a shoe that has a wide and rounded toebox, and to limit the time spent in them. Daily walking should always be in something that allows your toes to wiggle and your feet to be completely flat to the ground. *Side Note: Yes, New Balance Minimus with their 4mm heel height is still OK.

While you’re liberating your feet, make sure they’re also getting stronger by always lifting up your arches and allowing your big toe to splay out. Feet and ankles cannot assist you in balance if they are weak and are always either turned outward or inward. They must point forward and align with your knees. *Side Note: People who have hip deformities will need to point their feet based on where their knee is facing.

Finally, get some core strength. That doesn’t mean just abs either. We have many muscles in our trunk, including ones that extend the spine, the obliques, and the deep abdominals. These guys all need to have the strength to hold the upper part of your skeleton up. Do some planks, some Pilates, or even try keeping your abs tight when you’re opening a heavy door! Think of it this way: can a weak hub keep its spokes together?

Personal Guide To Treating Minor Stiffness And Pain

Most aches and pains that we experience from day to day come from inflamed or tight muscles and tendons. Very often, these are mistaken for joint problems because that’s where a lot of us feel the actual pain. Whenever you encounter mild to moderate pain in the knee, shoulder, back, hip, ankle, or wrist, know that there is no need to panic--you are most likely not experiencing the destruction of your joints, (for now), and you can actually do some troubleshooting on your own.

Remember: these solutions are only temporary. If you experience any of these issues chronically, I highly advise you to see an orthopedist/sports medicine doctor, a physical therapist, and then a qualified personal trainer, (in that order), so that you can work on the root of why the pain/discomfort is there in the first place. Dysfunctional movement patterns are almost always to blame when we feel discomfort in our joints, so while this chart can be of great use immediately after experiencing the issue, it is NOT a cure or a permanent solution.


Knee Pain

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Back Pain
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Shoulder Pain

Shoulder-Pain
Hip Pain
Front Hip Pain_copy
Outside Hip PainInner Hip Pain_copy3
Elbow Pain
Above Elbow Pain
Inner Elbow Pain_copy
Wrist Pain
upper wrist pain_copy1Underside Wrist Pain
Foot/Ankle Pain
Top Of The Foot Pain_copyOutside Foot PainInside Of Foot PainGeneral Calf Pain_copy
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3 Big DON'TS When Working Out

I usually talk about what to do to reach your goals. I feel like it’s time I talked about what NOT to do to reach your goals. These are things I have to tell people all too often, so let’s just put it out there now.


Don’t move without a purpose

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                               Pencilmation Cartoons, YouTube

Every single physical activity should have a purpose. When we talk about getting fit, losing weight, or increasing strength, we have to perform movements that have been proven to be effective at helping to reach these goals. Just like we need maps and directions to get us from point A to point B, we need a plan that can get us from starting point to ultimate goal. Have you ever noticed that when you watch those silly half hour TV sitcoms, the storyline only progresses as far as the episode and each episode introduces a brand new plot? There is no continuity between episodes so there is never an overarching storyline, which means you can watch any episode during any season, and still get the gist of what’s going on. When you workout just for the sake of working out because somehow, you’ve got it in your head that anytime you sweat, you’re losing body fat, then your workouts are like these sitcom episodes. You’ll never reach your goals because, well, there is no plan (or storyline). True exercise programming requires honestly assessing your own physical and mental abilities, and building a plan to gradually take you toward your goal(s). Ask yourself, do I want to just work out, or do I want to train? 


Don’t fixate on body parts

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No, you can’t exercise a body part and expect fat to drop from that one area. No, there’s no such thing as simply “toning up”. No, working exclusively on select body parts won’t make you any fitter or more attractive. Your body doesn’t utilize fat stores based off of what muscles you use the most. Instead, it chooses to consume fat stores from the entire body, (although some people see more change in certain body parts than others). In order to get abs to show, or get “toned” arms, you really just need to do two things: drop your total body fat, and enlarge your muscles. In order to have a more athletic figure, it is absolutely essential to exercise the entire body.  


Don’t move mindlessly

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                          Monty Python, Ministry of Silly Walks

Most of us New Yorkers walk around with a thousand thoughts racing through our heads, and the last thing we think about is where we are planting our feet. In order to get the most benefit from your workouts, you need slow it down and actually get to know exactly what good form feels like, and what bad form feels like. You also need to know where your body is relative to its environment, and recognize that without full awareness of the body parts you are exercising, you will never fully engage the right muscles. The single biggest lesson I try to impart on all of my clients is mindfulness. Without the ability to be inside our own bodies, we can never truly know what it is we need to do for it. Remember my five M’s:

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-make
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Reach out to us and get started on your workout DO's!

3 Simple 30-Second Exercises for Back Pain Relief

Chronic back pain is the leading cause of disability WORLDWIDE. Chances are, you or someone you know has/had the misfortune of dealing with this debilitating and largely preventable condition. If you look at populations that still rely heavily on hunting and gathering, and living off the land, these folks rarely report back pain. When examined by researchers, their bodies show very healthy, erect spines and strong gluteus muscles. The keys to relieving chronic back pain and preventing future injuries is essentially to strengthen all the muscles that support the spine and pelvis, and keep the muscles in the pelvic region flexible. It really takes a good ten minutes each day to get your back started on the right track.

Psoas Stretch - Pronounced “So-aas”, this muscle is right above your hip bone and links directly into your lower back. When the psoas tightens, as it tends to do when we sit at our desks for too long, the resulting pain usually emerges right where it is attached to the spine. Thus, maintaining good flexibility in this muscle is the first step to a healthier back.

kneeling psoas
  1. Drop to one knee
  2. Tuck tailbone in
  3. Press pelvis forward
  4. Lean trunk back

Plank
- In order to have support for your spine, the deep abdominal muscles need to be regularly engaged and strengthened. When the spine is not properly supported from the front, the back muscles have to act like a splint. As a result, the muscles become overworked and go into spasm.


plank
  1. Rest on your forearms and your toes
  2. Maintain straight line from top of your head to your heels
  3. Draw navel deeply toward spine
  4. Squeeze glutes
  5. Hold 30-60 sec
pelvic bridge
Pelvic Bridges
- The glutes are a very underrated and forgotten muscle group, but are extremely important in overall strength and injury prevention. They not only support your pelvis and lower back, but are an integral part of walking and running. Without proper glute strength, you’re essentially an airplane that is missing one engine.


  1. Lie down on back with bent knees and feet planted flat
  2. Draw navel deeply toward spine
  3. Squeeze glutes and hamstrings in order to push pelvis up off the floor
  4. Go as high as you can before slowly letting yourself back down
  5. Repeat 10x

5 Outdoor Exercises For The City Dweller

Spring is here, so let’s get ready to go outside! For most of us New Yorkers, being active “outdoors” is… Subjective. Since scenic trail runs and rock scrambling hikes aren’t easily accessible, I’ve compiled a list of simple exercises to do at the local park(s). By the way, these exercises are for those who are already in decent athletic shape and I would go as far as saying they range from intermediate to advanced. Reach out to me if you need suggestions on exercises geared toward beginners!


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1) Sprints
- Find an open stretch of space, (I like all of the parks along the Hudson), decide on a reasonably challenging distance for one bout of sprinting that you can complete with about 80-90% of your maximum effort, and then decide on the number of rounds you can reasonably perform. For most fairly fit adults, I recommend a distance of about 25-35 meters and 6-10 bouts of sprinting with your “rest” period being the walk back to your starting point. Add some competition in the mix by timing yourself so that with each bout, you try to beat your previous time.

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2) Jump Rope
- Grab a cheap, no frills jump rope and find a flat, open space, (no lawns). Depending on your fitness level and proficiency with keeping a rhythm, you may want to start off with a slower pace and a small skip in between the skips that clear the rope. If you’re confident, go ahead and skip as fast as you can maintain the rhythm, and listen for the whipping sound of the rope through the air, (because it is SUCH AND EGO BOOSTER). I recommend 1 min on with a 1 min rest period for 6-10 rounds.


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3) Push Ups
- Push up varieties are endless! You can do push ups anywhere, but because they are easy add-ons to other outdoor exercises, I think they are instrumental in creating a great outdoor workout. Beginners can do these on an incline, (such as a bench), while more advanced folks can do them on the floor, plyometrically, (like with a clap), or vary the width and direction of the hands to hit different parts of the shoulders and chest. Try going for 10-12 reps and 3-5 sets, or as many as possible in 1 minute.

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4) Box Jumps
- Like push ups, you can do these just about anywhere, and since they’re great additions to other exercises, be sure to use these to complete a tough outdoor workout! Beginners can jump on a low bench or step, while the more advanced folks can find higher places. Shoot for 10-15 reps and 3-5 sets, or as many as possible in 1 minute.


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5) Stairs/Hills
- Honestly, I am of the opinion that there is nothing harder than running as fast as you can, both mentally and physically. When you add in an incline of some sort, you make it EVEN HARDER. When it comes to inclines, whether it is stairs or just a big hill, I recommend running up as fast as you can until you clear the incline. Sometimes, with stairs, there are numerous flights, and while nobody will judge you for only completing a single flight, I suggest going until you feel moderate fatigue in your legs before you turn back down. On the other hand, when it comes to hills, sometimes, they can be quite a long distance. Choose the distance or degree of incline wisely so that you minimize the chance of overuse injuries. Your feet, calves, hamstrings, and glutes will thank you. Rest no longer than a minute when you get to the bottom.

4 Ways To Keep At It After January (When Motivation Wanes)

It’s that time of the year again--January has come and gone, and so has our steely resolve for a healthier, fitter body. This unfortunate annual cycle is something all fitness professionals witness, and pityingly shake their heads at. Every year, these big box gyms are just itching for the resolutioners who will come in, pay a YEAR’S WORTH of membership fees, and then stop showing up six weeks later. Can we break this vicious cycle already?


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1) Slow and Steady Wins the Race

You know how the tortoise won the race? He walked at his own pace. I’ll put it this way: can you maintain a sprint and never stop for rest? Health goals are really just lifestyle changes formed into digestible chunks for our brains. If we’re really going to change our bodies, we can’t possibly go hard at the start of a new year and not expect to emotionally and physically burn out. Instead, we have to begin by realizing our limitations and setting our goals accordingly. If we’re jumping from the couch to the treadmill/weight room/spin class/etc, we need to make sure we still give ourselves enough couch time to recuperate. On another note, I really dislike couches for our bodies… But I digress.


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2) Be Kind

I think most of us can stand to be a little kinder and more forgiving toward ourselves. Changing our lifestyle for health reasons really is about changing the mental framework first. If we don’t hit the gym on the day we wanted to, or get that run in that we had been planning on, what’s the big deal? There’s no need to try to “hit it” harder the next time, and certainly no need to think negatively about having missed a day. I used to push myself on days when I really didn’t feel 100%, or when I just didn’t have enough time, and you know what happened? A whole lotta fail. I’d either have a really terrible workout, complete with embarrassingly loud clanks from weights hitting the floor because I couldn’t hold them up anymore, or be running late for things because I thought I could somehow squeeze in a workout at a hummingbird’s speed. Rather than tear ourselves down, how about we instead, build ourselves up?

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3) Put On the Blinders

My grandmother was probably the hardest working person I’d ever known. So long as she was physically able to get out of bed, not rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor CANCER, could stop her from going to work or finishing an errand. Growing up, I often wondered how a person could maintain such a machine-like ability to keep on chugging, but I now realize that it’s because she created what I would call “mental blinders”. She was always singularly focused on a goal, (making money, getting her green card, telling me to get off AOL and go to bed…), that she essentially had zero distractions. She never forgot what her desired end state was, and that was why she was able to spring up each morning. I have found this kind of self-imposed tunnel vision to be extremely rare in the culture in which I’ve grown up, and I think my grandmother probably developed it as a result of having survived China’s Great Famine and Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Now, I’m not saying we should all go through famines and political turmoil to develop discipline. I’m just saying: don’t lose sight of your goals. Your health is important and if you’re not going to care for it, who else will? The onus is on YOU to keep yourself going, so don’t let yourself down.


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4) Take Some Pride

Be proud of your decision to commit to a healthier you. Find delight in small triumphs at the gym. Know that you are just that much cooler now for having taken the bold initiative to change. If you can’t be happy with what you have accomplished thus far, then you can’t give yourself the positive reinforcement that will fuel the courage to keep pushing forward. Protein is to muscles as positivity is to mental health; so smile, pat yourself on the back, and prep yourself for the marathon we call a “healthy lifestyle” ahead.

The Simple Way I Completed My Resolution

CatInPool

In 2015, I realized that I needed to finally tackle a long standing problem in my life: I was a terrible swimmer. I never took swim lessons as a child, and didn't grow up being exposed to the water much, so the only time I ever really did anything that could be considered swimming was in small hotel pools while on vacation. On land, I was agile, I had finesse, I was FAST--but in the water, I was clumsy, my actual swimming was slow, and I was quick to tire. I decided that my goal for the year was to improve my swimming so that if I were on a sinking cruise ship, I could stand a reasonable chance at surviving.

I started by taking the same approach I have toward fitness training: I had to strip everything down to the basics and master simple tasks before I started trying to copy Michael Phelps. I used a noodle.

As weeks went by, I was quickly improving in my technique as well as my endurance. I became more confident in the water, which allowed me to stay calm when I hit learning speed bumps. Within a couple of months, I was bold enough to attempt one of the lanes at the pool without any styrofoam assistance. I dove in without a second thought, and despite not always getting as much air as I should, (because I still had trouble synchronizing my breathing with my strokes), I made it to the end! In that moment, I knew that I had accomplished the first major step in my goal: I rose above the noodle.


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As the year wore on, making time and having (mental) energy for the pool was always a challenge. Between the inordinate amount of time it takes to change into and out of swimwear, and the showering and drying process, swim practice became a chore. But every time I felt myself wavering in my commitment and focus, I would remind myself of how much more work is still ahead of me, how far I've already come, how much progress I would lose should I start slacking off, and how incredible I feel each time I see significant improvement. I had good days where I felt like I was a seal pup splashing through the deep end, and bad days where I had the coordination and the agility of a log. In order to maintain my morale, I made sure to never dwell on anything too long.


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I am proud to say that I have accomplished my resolution of 2015. Not only am I a better swimmer now, but I am actually in better cardiovascular shape! Through this process, I've learned that it's really the day to day thoughts that get you through a long-term commitment. Thoughts that begin with, "I can't," or "I don't have time," or "I'm never going to," are absolute killers of success. When you make a resolution, instead of thinking about how daunting something is, it is best to not think, but instead, take on the process of achieving the resolution as just a new part of your life; a new habit; as thoughtless of an act as brushing your teeth. Before you know it, you'll be rising above the noodle!



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4 Ways To Prevent Holiday Gut-Busting

I really like the holidays because I am an expert at overeating. Just ask my friends. But around the holidays, I know it's really important to balance out the overeating and the whole staying lean and healthy thing, so I've found little tricks to keep myself in check.

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1) Healthy Alternatives - If you are in charge of making or helping with the dishes you'll be eating, I highly recommend creating healthier versions of traditional foods. For example: a sweet potato casserole can be made with less sugar and the marshmallow-y crust on top can be replaced with an almond or pecan meal. Likewise, a pumpkin pie can be made with an almond meal crust instead of a wheat flour one. Instead of sugar, honey and maple syrup are flavorful alternatives that don't require as much to be added into a recipe to give just the right amount of sweetness.

2) Choose Fat - Instead of carb-loading, which will just give you ample amounts of energy for minimally active holiday weekends, and cause your insulin levels to shoot sky-high, go for dishes that have high amounts of healthy fats, like ghee, butter, coconut oil, olive oil, lard, and tallow. Sure you'll be getting loads of calories that you may or may not use up, but you'll also be less prone to eating large volumes of food simply because you'll feel satiated faster.

3) Find Movement Opportunities - When I was in basic training, one of the other platoons had drill sergeants who mandated that every time one of them entered the room, the whole platoon had to drop and do ten push ups. Multiply this by the number of their drill sergeants (3) and the frequency with which they saw them (A LOT), and you can well be on your way toward 100+ push ups in one day. I've found this to be a clever tool to apply to my civilian life: every time I enter or leave a specific room, or several rooms, I do a certain exercise for a specific number of repetitions. For example: I used to keep my over-the-door pull-up bar in the kitchen doorway, so every time I walked into the kitchen, I forced myself to do 5 pull-ups. Let me tell you--I got pretty good at pull-ups! You can get creative and assign different triggers, like instead of rooms, try every time you go in the fridge for a snack out of boredom, or every time before a meal. You can even string together a bunch of triggers and have different exercises assigned so that you inadvertently perform a bit of circuit training. All this can be done at home, on lazy holiday weekends!

4) Assign A Value To Indulgences - During the holidays, treats are abundant, but it's important to ask yourself, "Is this a worthwhile experience, or is it pretty generic?" Since treats should be limited in order to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle, I generally will reserve eating sugary or high-carbohydrate foods for times when they are unique or seldom encountered. For example: I will eat pasta if I go to a really fantastic Italian restaurant that makes their own in-house pasta. On the contrary, I don't find a basket of bread during dinner time to be a special experience, so I choose to forego them.

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