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NIFS Healthy Living Blog

Getting Geared Up for Cold Weather Wellness

GettyImages-1179065933As winter approaches, don’t let it discourage you from reaching your full potential and goals you’ve set for yourself. 2020 has definitely been a trying year, full of new normals. Continue to use exercise and strength training to keep your body healthy.

Keep Setting Fitness Goals

Continue to set goals; goal-setting will help you stay the course. Setting goals gives you purpose and meaning, and a reason to come to the gym. Set small goals and watch them turn into big ones. If you feel you’re plateauing, get a personal trainer to help you push past your threshold. They will keep you accountable as well as push you to new heights in your fitness journey.

Focus on Nutrition and Healthy Eating

Use the cold months to really focus on your nutrition. Winter months can lead to more relaxation since outside activities are not as prevalent. Keeping good nutritional habits will help you achieve your goals. If you need help with nutrition, utilize a dietitian to help you find the right foods to eat. Meal prepping and eating real foods will be key during the winter months—not getting set on carryout food and outside dining. Although every once in a while it’s okay to eat restaurant food, you want to focus on eating clean and getting proper nutrients into your body. Especially now during COVID-19, you want to make sure you’re staying as healthy as possible.

Maintain Safe Practices in the Pandemic

Speaking of the pandemic, continue to practice safe distancing while out in public. That way, you’ll keep your family safe and those around you. Try to minimize large gatherings. If you have to be with friends and family, make sure everyone does the proper things to keep everyone healthy and safe, including wearing masks. Use your best judgment while out and in social gatherings. Continue to wash your hands and sanitize equipment and any object that has been touched or will be touched.

Stay Busy and Keep Planning

Find new hobbies. If you’re able to get outdoors, enjoy that time with family and friends. If you’re not fortunate enough to be able to be outdoors due to the cold weather, find indoor activities to pass the time, but keep yourself busy. Don’t let the winter months bring you down. Continue to plan daily to attack the day and stay motivated. Stay busy and stay healthy!

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This blog was written by Michael Blume, MS, SCCC; Athletic Performance Coach. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: winter fitness nutrition healthy eating winter strength training cold weather wellness goals pandemic

Healthy Holiday Eating: The Practical Way

GettyImages-495329828The holidays are HERE! We all know what happens around the holidays. I see two extremes in my practice as a Registered Dietitian:

  • The vicious cycle of dieting all year to lose the “holiday weight” or to get bloodwork back to normal after all the holiday meals. People accomplish their goals just in time for the holidays to start again—and gain back the weight and drive our doctors nuts with outrageous bloodwork again.
  • The person who is terrified to “lose all their progress,” brings their own “healthy” meal to the gathering, and completely avoids the yummy meal—even at the cost of social, mental, and emotional health. Let’s be honest: that behavior distances people socially, and not having Grandma’s famous pie is just sad. 

Honestly, both are unhealthy approaches and they are, frankly, unnecessary. Let me be real clear: what we do consistently over time is what has the greatest impact on our health, not what we do on one day, two days, or a couple holidays. We can break these cycles! You don’t have to gain weight or ruin your bloodwork over the holidays. You also do not have to bring your own “healthy” meal, avoid Grandma’s cooking, and face a socially awkward and sad situation.

There is a way to enjoy the holiday food with family and friends all while pursuing your health goals. Here are the action steps.

Be Active

Get up and moving. This can be as simple as taking a walk with family, going on a morning stroll before the gathering, walking the dog, or playing a game that has you up and moving (such as Wii, tag, Twister, or Simon says). You can also get in a quick 20–30-minute workout before all the festivities start that day, or wake up early to get in a full lifting session. Don’t overthink this; a short 20–30-minute workout with high intensity is very effective! (Here are some workouts you can do when traveling.)

Follow Your Eating Routine

Forget the “don’t eat anything to save calories for all the food tonight” method. That leads to a very hungry person, which makes overeating at the gathering much easier. Go about your morning as you normally would. Eat breakfast (if you eat breakfast). Have your typical snack and lunch. Fill up on fiber-rich sources, such as fruit and veggies, along with lean proteins. All these options will help fill you up and nourish your body. You will walk into the gathering satisfied and ready to eat your Grandma’s holiday meal.

Hydrate 

Be sure to stay hydrated with plenty of non-caloric fluids (mainly water) the days before, the day of, and the days after holiday gatherings. Liquids take up room in your stomach, meaning staying hydrated contributes to proper regulation of hunger/satiety cues. Again, this helps reduce overeating. Additionally, holiday foods tend to be high in sodium. You will want plenty of water to offset the negative effects that a high sodium intake has on your hydration status. Trust me, you will feel much better if you stay hydrated.

Eat the Holiday Meal

For heaven’s sake, do not bring your own meal, measuring cups, or scales to the gathering! Eat the holiday meal. Fill up your first plate with all your favorites—the ones that grandma and momma only cook once or twice a year. Be mindful of portion sizes. Then, if you want, go back for a second plate. For that plate, pick two or three more things that you want some more of. Take a portion of each and enjoy it.

Enjoy the Meal

Sit down with each plate. Take a nice deep breath. Start eating. Chew each bite thoroughly. Slow down your eating. Be present at each bite, soaking in all the yummy goodness of that home cooking. Don’t be afraid to pause between bites and converse with family around the table. This not only helps you enjoy family around you and to be present in that moment, but it also gives your body time to send you satiety cues. When we eat super-fast, we do not allow our body enough time to signal “I AM FULL.” Be present and listen to what your body is telling you.

Have a Conversation

During the meal, talk with your family and friends, even if you are the one having to initiate conversation. DO IT! Think about one of the true reasons for the season. Hint: it is not food and gifts. Sure, food is a huge part of it. But we gather to be with family and friends to celebrate our blessings, our year, and our religion, and to give thanks. Conversing really embraces what holidays are all about and shifts your focus to more than just the heap of food in front of you.

Eat Dessert

Find your favorite deserts and eat a serving. I promise, eating dessert will not derail your health goals. I’d argue this action will actually help your health goals because Grandma’s famous pie sure does positively contribute to mental and emotional health.

Get Right Back to Your Typical Regimen the Next Day

Wake up the next day and get back to your typical routine. Exercise as you normally would. Eat your normal meals and snacks. Honor your physical health with nutritious options. Sleep. Do this on the days you are not at a holiday gathering. Back to the idea of consistency, there are more non-holiday days than there are holiday days and gatherings. Be on your game and remain consistent during those weeks and days, knowing that another gathering full of food and fun is right around the corner. Repeat steps 1–7 during the next gathering.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

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This blog was written by Sabrina Goshen, NIFS Registered Dietitian. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: healthy eating snacks holidays breakfast hydration Thanksgiving christmas meals emotional blood sugar dinner

My 4 Takeaways from the Squatober Weightlifting Challenge

GettyImages-1148247238Fall is hands-down one of my favorite times of the year. There’s a crispness in the air, the leaves begin to change, there’s pumpkin-flavored everything, football season is in full swing, and there’s the return of a little phenomenon known as Squatober!

Yes, you read that correctly: SQUATober. Squatober is known as “the world’s largest knee-bending party,” and consists of squatting 5–6 times per week for the entirety of the month of October. Crazy, right? Crazy awesome! The program is written and was originally created by Aaron Ausmus, NCAA D1 shot put champion and strength and conditioning coach. It culminates in a PR party sometime around Halloween (“personal record” for those of you playing at home), and all proceeds from shirts and merchandise are ultimately donated to outfitting a high school weight room in need of some upgrades.

I can almost hear the confusion, apprehension, or flat-out scoffs through the screen. Squatting, and squatting heavy no less, five days a week, every week for a month—why would anyone want to embark on something so outlandish? Well, a lot of strength coaches, fitness professionals, and gym junkies have taken the plunge into Squatober since its inception.

And while I understand that it’s not for everyone, there’s something about stepping up to the plate (or under the bar, I should say) that really appealed to me. It was a "challenge accepted” moment that took me back to the days of being a competitive athlete. Plus, I wanted to be a part of a larger, worldwide phenomenon that ultimately ended in giving back to communities and those in need. There have also been numerous stories of other coaches citing Squatober as the reason they overcame personal struggles such as addiction, mental health struggles, and much more.

After completing the sometimes grueling squat party for the first time last year, I came away with a little more than soreness. Here are my four biggest takeaways after completing Squatober.   

Our bodies are capable of some incredible feats.

Now, I’m not saying I broke the female world record for the back squat. But after squatting for 27 days, my estimated 1-rep max increased by over 10 percent! This definitely exceeded my expectations (seeing as all I wanted to do was make it to the end). And I understand that picking up things and putting them down might not be everyone’s favorite pastime. But if you’ve been debating signing up for that triathlon, or that Spartan race, or picking up trail running, or training to hike to the top of Pike’s Peak, my advice? Just start! It’s never too late, and our bodies are able to do some pretty cool stuff; you may surprise yourself with what you’re able to handle.

Coaches need coaches, too.

I’ve always been more of a nerd when it comes to training. I want to know the ins and outs when it comes to physiology, how certain periodization schemes affect the body’s ability to adapt. I view programming as a puzzle: trying to piece together the optimal exercises, at the correct dose, in the right order, in order to achieve the desired result. But when you do that for numerous clients, athletes, and friends, for hours at a time, week after week, I’ll be honest: I feel a little brain-dead when it comes to my own programming. Having another coach be in charge of the plan, so all I had to do was open my phone, see the workout, and get down to business? That was a huge weight lifted (pun intended). Since completing Squatober, I’ve reached out to colleagues multiple times to get not only their advice but also their take on my programming. I’ve found that this leaves me fresh, more motivated, and honestly more accountable.

If you want to improve a skill, do it every day (or close to it).

I’ll be honest, the first 6–7 days were a little rough. I was waddling around like I was learning to walk for the first time (hello soreness!). But once I progressed into week two and beyond, I noticed a few things. My depth was consistently better. I wasn’t compensating as much (toes turning out, trunk lean). And my bar path remained more constant (not moving forward or back). By addressing my ankle mobility each day, and my hip stability before each lift, the pieces started to come together. This premise holds true for any habit you want to start or any skill you want to learn. Even if you address it for only a minute a day, making your mission constant improvement, even if it’s only 1 percent each session, it can lead to profound results over time.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

This message was echoed from many of my coaches growing up. Similar sentiments float around the fitness industry fairly regularly. “Comfort is the enemy of achievement,” for example. And Squatober was a nice reminder of that. Again, going into week two, knowing that I had another heavy load that would literally be placed on my back, I started to shift my mentality. I began to look forward to the challenge. I wasn’t worried about any soreness that might ensue. I had begun to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Now, I’m not saying we have to be uncomfortable 24/7, 365 in order to achieve results. But rather, what was once uncomfortable became the new normal. We adapt, we overcome. And we ultimately change for the better!

I admittedly was only able to complete some of the workouts this year due to scheduling. And I do want to reiterate that I understand this is not for everyone. Would I program this way for athletes? No. Is this the end-all be-all in terms of workout plans? No. Was it fun? For me it absolutely was. I loved the camaraderie it offered. I loved checking in with former colleagues and coaches as we all progressed from week to week. I loved that I could look back and say, “Yeah, I did that. I made it.”

So, if you are interested in hopping into Squatober next year, you can check out @sorinex or @penandpaperstrengthapp on Instagram for workouts. Don’t be afraid to modify when you need to, either. And at the end of the day? Just have some fun with it while accepting the challenge! Happy lifting!

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This blog was written by Lauren Zakrajsek, NIFS Assistant Fitness Center Manager, Health Fitness Instructor, and Personal Trainer. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: workouts challenge weightlifting coaching squat

Stuck in a Rut? How to Avoid Plateauing in the Weight Room

GettyImages-679304968Let me ask you a question. Have you ever hit a plateau in the weight room when it comes to increasing strength? What about when it comes to increasing power output (vertical jump, short-distance sprint)? Well if you have, you are not alone. I know I have hit plateaus in the past and it can definitely be frustrating when you are not able to get past it.

The question I always asked myself was, “What am I doing wrong now?” Well it wasn’t necessarily that I was doing anything wrong. I followed the basic recommendations for strength gain (2–6 sets of 2–6 repetitions). I used to follow those parameters religiously because that’s what I learned early in my undergrad classes. What I didn’t know is that there are virtually endless ways to get past that plateau. I will share my favorite here.

Traditional Strength Training

Let me first describe what strength really means. Strength is essentially how much force a person can exert, or to simplify that, how much weight a person can lift. What traditional strength training is, is lifting a certain amount of weight—typically about 8095% of your 1 rep max by sets of 2–6 of 2–6 repetitions (NSCA, 2016).

Tempo Training

Tempo training is essentially lifting a certain amount of weight for a certain amount of time. What I mean by this is that I can manipulate the amount of tension I want during each rep by varying how long I have my athletes either lower the weight or bring the weight back up. This type of training has been found to elicit more strength and power output gains than traditional strength training (Dolezal, 2016).

I can have my athletes train at two different types of tempos that will essentially give me the outcome that I desire, whether that be more strength gains or power gains. The first tempo would be more eccentric based (lowering the bar during a squat, lowering the bar during a bench press, etc.). I typically have my athletes lower the bar for about 3–5 seconds and then explode up. The parameters I use and that have been found to have the rest result are about 65–85% of their 1 rep max for about 3–4 sets of 3–6 reps (Dolezal, 2016).

The second method of tempo training I use is velocity-based training. This essentially means I have my athletes perform a certain amount of reps as fast as possible. This type of training has been proven to increase both strength and power output in both athletes and the general population (Banyard, 2019). Performing 3–5 sets of 3–5 reps at about 50–70% is enough to elicit these changes.

The Verdict

In my opinion, tempo training is a much better tool to use versus traditional strength training. The reasons are that with traditional strength training, you really have to make certain you stay within the parameters. With tempo, there is more freedom in how you want to train as well as the additional benefit of improving power output as well as strength, where traditional training does not really increase power output (Banyard, 2019).

I realize that I have oversimplified this topic, but the actual mechanisms of why tempo training is more beneficial than traditional training are out of the scope of this blog. If you would like more information, I would be happy to explain in more detail in another blog or in person.

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This blog was written by Pedro Mendez, CSCS, FMS, Health/Fitness Instructor and Strength Coach at NIFS. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: fitness center weightlifting strength training plateaus tempo training

Early Sport Specialization Is Detrimental to Kids’ Health

GettyImages-155601842Recently I heard someone say something along the lines of, “That sixth-grade basketball player is ranked #1 in the country.” That got me thinking: How in the world are we ranking sixth-graders? They haven’t even gone through puberty yet!

Early sport specialization basically refers to putting a child into one sport before puberty and keeping them in that one specific sport their whole childhood and adolescent life. Parents think that if their child is focused on one sport, they have a higher chance of getting an athletic collegiate scholarship and possibly going pro at their respective sport. This is the furthest thing from the truth. Early sport specialization is actually detrimental to young children physiologically, psychologically, and fundamentally.

Children Should Learn a Variety of Sports

Children should be exposed to as many sports as possible as they grow up because this allows them to learn different skills that they might not learn if they are focused on only one sport. If a child focuses on the skills required to play baseball or tennis, that child will not master the physical literacy that every athlete should have. Physical literacy is the basic sport and movement skills required for sports that include agility, balance, coordination, and speed (Brenner, 2016).

Variety Will Help with Injury Prevention and Avoiding Burnout

Being a strength coach and personal trainer, a lot of parents ask me to train their child from as early as 10 years old because they think their child is the next LeBron James or Usain Bolt. What I have found out is that those kids typically can’t perform a simple movement like a skip or jumping jack. It actually is sad to see kids struggle with basic movements like this. Allowing kids to play sports for fun is the best way to keep them from burning out or getting seriously hurt before they reach puberty.

Let Kids Play to Have Fun

At the end of the day, we need to allow kids to be kids and play to have fun. Putting too much pressure on kids takes away from their experience and they begin to get scared of failing or not being good enough. They need to learn to fail in certain situations when it comes to athletics or they will not know how to deal with it on their own. Parents and coaches need to work together to eliminate the concept of trying to get their kid to be a professional athlete because chances are it won’t happen. Allow them to enjoy their young years without the pressure.

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This blog was written by Pedro Mendez, CSCS, FMS, Health/Fitness Instructor and Strength Coach at NIFS. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: injury prevention kids sports professional athlete football student athletes basketball early sport specialization team sports baseball parent

What Happens in Vagus: Jump-start Recovery by Increasing Vagal Tone

GettyImages-1182821901Raise your hand if you’ve been here before: You get to the end of a great workout. You’re spent, fatigued, but in a good way. In a way that you know you’ve put in some quality work. But you look down at your watch and realize you’ve run a bit over your time. So you grab your things and rush out of the gym. You don’t have time for a cool-down, right? You’ve got to get to the car and rush to the next thing on the docket.

Without realizing it, you’ve kept up that same stimulus from your workout: that amped-up, fight-or-flight response. Only now it’s been hours since its conclusion. In short, your body has never left that stress response behind. Instead, it’s been carried around perhaps all day, and your body has not had time to transition into a rest, digest, and recovery mode. In other words, you’ve never shifted from a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) to a parasympathetic state (rest, recovery). This may sound like a “so what?” problem. But if left unchecked, this can not only stall out your workouts, but can also eventually lead to chronic issues with inflammation, sleep problems, or altered hormonal responses.

Appropriately managing your stress response isn’t something that only applies to workouts. We all face stressors on a daily, weekly, or hourly basis (perhaps in today’s world now more than ever!). If it starts to get out of hand, numerous aspects of our health and well-being are affected. Learning to mitigate and manage chronic stress can have positive effects on both physical and mental health. One way to do this is to address your vagal tone.

What Is Vagal Tone?

The longest nerve in the human body is the vagus nerve. It innervates numerous organs such as the intestines, stomach, heart, liver, and lungs (fun fact: “vagus” translates to “wanderer” in Latin; because it wanders around the body). The vagus nerve is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system, and vagal tone refers to the activity of this nerve. If it is impaired, low vagal tone results, which is a contributor to stress and increased anxiety, a pro-inflammatory response, and a disruptor of normal gut functioning.

What Are the Benefits of Increased Vagal Tone?

A high vagal tone is associated with lower blood pressure, improved blood-sugar regulation, improved digestion, better mood, reduced anxiety, and reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. Perhaps one of the largest benefits of a higher vagal tone is the ability to relax faster after stress. So whether you’re talking physical stress from a workout or mental stress from everyday life, having an increased vagal tone can help you navigate the stressors of everyday life and be better prepared for the next one!

Additionally, researchers have discovered a positive feedback loop involving increased vagal tone, positive emotion responses, and physical and mental well-being. In short, the vagal response, or parasympathetic drive, actually works to mitigate stress and foster positive emotions. Definitely a win-win!

How Can You Increase Vagal Tone?

Okay great, now how the heck can I start working to stimulate the vagus nerve? Here are a few quick hitters that you can do today to improve your vagal tone.

Deep or Diaphragmatic Breathing

If you have virtually no time to cool down after a workout, a few deep, slow, diaphragmatic breaths can help quickly shift you toward more of a parasympathetic state. Lying on your back, elevating your legs so that your knees are at 90 degrees (on a box or bench), and taking 10–20 slow, deep breaths helps to gradually lower the heart rate and reduce blood pressure, all while stimulating the vagus nerve. Try having one hand on your upper chest and one hand over your belly button, and as you inhale try to see if your lower hand (belly) is moving upward. If you notice that only your upper hand is moving upon inhaling, take a few reps to practice filling your belly with air. This is a skill just like any other; it takes a bit of practice. But if you’re short on time, this technique is a bit of a cheat code. You can even try it before bed to help relax!

Singing, Humming, or Gargling

Yes, you read that correctly. One of the branches of the vagus nerve, the superior laryngeal nerve, actually innervates the vocal cords. As a result, we can mechanically stimulate it by singing, humming, gargling, chanting, etc. So belt out those tunes for car karaoke, hum that song that’s stuck in your head at work, and increase that vagal tone in the process!

Cold Exposure

For all us Midwesterners, we should have this one covered for about 7–8 months of the year! In all seriousness, gradually increasing your exposure to cold, and eventually becoming more habituated, causes a shift to greater parasympathetic activity. This doesn’t mean you need to go out and run two miles barefoot in the snow. You can start by splashing cold water (and I mean cold) on your face 10–20 times. Or going out to get the mail in December in a t-shirt and shorts. Or finishing off your shower with a quick 10-second blast of cold. Overall, try small interventions first to get the ball rolling. And if you’re looking for a laugh, check out my previous blog, when I put myself through hot-cold contrast showers for a week!

Omega-3s

The body cannot produce omega-3 fatty acids naturally, so they must come from the diet. They are found readily in fish (especially cold-water fish like wild-caught salmon), extra virgin olive oil, avocados, walnuts, and flaxseed, among other foods. Their benefits are wide-ranging: they positively affect brain and mental health, mitigate inflammation, and aid in improving cardiovascular health. Studies have also shown that omega-3 fatty acids also increase heart rate variability (a good thing!) and stimulate vagal activity.

Social Interaction

We are social creatures. As humans, we are hardwired to find and belong to a community. So it should come as no surprise that social connection, laughter, and having a stable support system improves our mental and physical health. While this may have been more difficult or a bit unorthodox with COVID-19, its importance has never been greater. Research has shown that laughter increases heart rate variability, and that even reminiscing about positive social connections and prior engagements improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions. So even if you can’t physically be near those you love and appreciate, making that effort to continue to reach out and connect goes a long way in your recovery from stress.

Jump-Start Your Recovery

We all face stressors on a daily basis. Whether it’s the low-level background noise of the news, or a large deadline looming in the future, learning to navigate and respond appropriately to stress is a must for maintaining physical and mental well-being. By increasing your vagal tone, you can help jump-start your recovery so that you’re more ready to tackle the next thing on your to-do list, be it a work project or a workout!

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This blog was written by Lauren Zakrajsek, NIFS Assistant Fitness Center Manager, Health Fitness Instructor, and Personal Trainer. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: stress workout recovery nervous system