Thursday, May 14, 2015

2 examples why playing sports is GREAT exercise

Yesterday after work I convinced my 11-year old to go for a jog with me. I didn't want to burn him out or push him too hard, so I thought we'd go at a nice easy pace for about a mile and a half - "let's see what the kid's got", I thought to myself. I upped the ante by telling him if he wants to bring his soccer ball we could stop at the park on the way home and kick the ball around.

youth soccer - club soccer

Now, this is a kid who plays club soccer, which means he's playing soccer almost year round, a couple times a week (or more). So I assumed a 15-minute jog wouldn't be too much for him. Well, that was the understatement of the week!

Example #1: The soccer player was in better shape than the moderately fit guy.

While I jogged along at a moderate pace (probably about 9:30/mile but I wasn't timing it), my son was dribbling a soccer ball - zig-zagging back and forth across the path, stopping and starting, doing fancy moves, sprinting ahead of me before stopping to juggle the ball, etc. It was ridiculous! I would have been completely gassed if I had been doing what he was doing.

Granted he's 11 and I'm... much older. But still - that kid is in great shape even compared with other 11-year olds. Playing a high-intensity sport like soccer, consistently - week in and week out, is a great way to stay in shape.

Example #2: Playing soccer was much harder than running.

Once we had run our loop and ended up back at the park, we started kicking the soccer ball back and forth with each other. Kick the ball, trap the ball when it comes to you, dribble once or twice before kicking the ball back to the other guy, run a few steps so the other guy can pass to a moving target, cut back when you receive it and pass with your other foot, etc. etc. It was a lot of short bursts of energy - no more than a couple-few seconds at a time.

After 15 minutes of goofing around kicking the ball back and forth, I was far more tired than I had been after jogging. My heart was racing, I was covered in sweat, and I was panting for air. Not to mention I was using more muscles with greater intensity and range of motion.

If I had to choose which exercise would burn more calories and give me the best full-body workout for a given amount of time, I'd say playing soccer beat running yesterday - and by a large margin.

- Chris Butterworth

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

What is a 30-Day Challenge?

Forming a new habit can be difficult, as it requires you to make both physical and mental changes, and sometimes these changes aren't easy. This seems to be especially true when you're trying to do something that's "good for you."

image credit -

Trying your new habit out for 30 days (a 30-day challenge) can be a great way to test drive your new habit, without having to commit to it forever.

What is a 30-day Challenge?

This isn't rocket science - it's pretty easy. Challenge yourself to do something, or to quit doing something, for 30 days. Every single day, no matter what, for 30 days. The challenge gives you an opportunity to:
  • Give something new a try. A new task / habit / change can seem daunting. By giving yourself a 30-day time frame you're able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's that whole "I can do anything for 30 days" mentality, where you're more willing to endure some difficulty because you know it's not permanent. This makes it much easier to start a new task - both mentally and emotionally.
  • 30 days isn't a long time in the grand scheme of things, but it is long enough to effect changes to your body and mind.
    • Work out really hard for 30 days, and you'll see and feel the difference in your body.
    • Cut your calories drastically for 30 days, and you'll lose a lot of weight.
    • Changes to your diet will have enough time to impact your digestion, sleep patterns, and energy level. Do you feel better after cutting sugar (or alcohol, or gluten) from your diet?
    • Changes to your daily routine will have enough time for you to see the fruits of your labor. Have you made progress on a hobby because you're watching less TV, or because you're waking up 20 minutes earlier in the mornings?
  • Try something you might have been afraid to try on a more permanent basis. There may be things you would be afraid of failing on, but you'd love to give them a try if it's temporary.
  • Determine what parts of the new habit you liked best, and what parts weren't meant for your long-term life. You can then continue to make that new habit part of your life in whichever way works best for you.

How to make a 30-day Challenge work for you.

Try doing something you've wanted to do, and see how you like it. Commit to it - give it everything you've got - for 30 days. Keep a journal, or at the very least be cognizant about how you feel during the process. Did you lose weight, or get stronger, or get more flexible? Are you sleeping better? Do you have more energy? Enjoy the accomplishment, and take stock about what you gained from the process.

After the 30 days are over, you can decide whether to make that new habit a permanent part of your lifestyle, and on what terms. Maybe you're only going to do it 3 days per week instead of every day..?

Smaller is better

You can't run a marathon every day, but you can run (or walk) a mile. Doing something every single day - rain or shine, weekday or weekend, even when you're sick or tired - is hard enough. Make that new something a Herculean task and you're doomed before you even begin. Keep it simple - you can always modify and expand on it as time goes on.

Examples of good 30-day Challenges

Good 30-day challenges shouldn't take a lot of time, and they should be easy to track. When you're going to bed at night, there shouldn't be any doubt about whether or not you were successful. (and the answer better be that you were successful!)
  • Run 1 mile every day.
  • Remove something from your diet - soda, sugary drinks, desserts, wheat (gluten), alcohol.
    • Changes to diet can have a big impact on other parts of your well-being, so pay close attention to how you feel, how you sleep, and your overall energy levels.
  • Counting calories - give yourself a daily calorie budget and stick to it.
  • Limiting your time spent on Facebook and/or social media. (or eliminating it altogether.)
  • Stretching / Yoga
  • Stand up from your desk and do jumping jacks for 30-60 seconds, 3-4 times per day.
  • Exercise during TV commercials. push-ups, shadow boxing, 100-ups, mountain climbers, and squats work great for this.
  • Drink 8 glasses of water per day.
  • 30-day challenges don't have to be fitness related either; they can work on all areas of your life.
    • Limiting your time spent watching TV.
    • Reading for 15 minutes every day.
    • Say hello to a stranger / smile at somebody.
    • Learning a foreign language for 15 minutes a day.
    • Learning to play a musical instrument for 15 minutes each day.
    • Writing a couple hundred words in your novel, or your blog.
    • Meditate

Tracking your 30-day Challenge

I like to print out a 30-day worksheet and cross off a Big Red X for each successful task/day. (see my post "Don't Break the Chain"). I keep the worksheet at my desk at work, and it motivates me to continue my forward progress. Here are some worksheets you can print and use. (if the jpg files don't print great for you, shoot me an email and I can send you a pdf version.) I always start on a Monday, which is the beginning of a new week for me, so my tracking schedules start on Mondays...

once per day

twice per day

three times per day

four times per day

eight times per day

a Few of My Personal Challenges

I've taken on a number of 30-day challenges over the years, and sometimes the results have surprised me.
  • 1 Mile per day - some days this was planned as part of a workout, while other days I took a long walk during lunch. And there were a few times where I was getting ready for bed and said "Oh S***! Honey, I'll be back in 10 minutes.." before running out the door! When the challenge was over, I had decided that running wasn't so bad, and I've run a large number of miles since then.
  • Giving up soda - soda has been my vice as far back as I can remember. I've flip-flopped between diet and regular, and I've tried limiting my intake, but it's always difficult. So I made a concerted effort for a 30-day challenge. (I ended up turning this into a 60-day challenge, but that's beside the point.) I was sort of expecting a great cleansing feeling from doing this, but surprisingly it didn't have any impact on my energy, sleep, digestion, or otherwise. So, when the trial was over, I decided to re-introduce soda back into my diet (sugar only - not diet because I don't trust the long-term effects of artificial sweeteners), and I'm using my weight and calories to help determine if and how much I can consume. (because at 150 calories per can it can add up to trouble quickly.) If my weight and eating have been good, I get to indulge.
  • Facebook holiday - I removed Facebook from my phone for 30 days, and realized I really didn't miss it all that much. When the challenge was over I added it back to my phone, but even today - 2 years later - I still don't use it nearly as much as I used to.
  • Being "there" with my kids - this was my favorite challenge I've done, and I liked the results so much I've continued with it ever since then. Instead of being near my kids while doing my own thing (working, or being on my phone, or watching a game on TV, or whatever), I try to be actively engaged with my kids - all that other stuff can wait. My relationship with both boys has become stronger because of this.

In the end, a 30-day challenge is nothing more than an easy way to tempt you into trying something you either wouldn't have tried at all, or that you'd try and then give up on too soon. That being said, a 30-day challenge is also extremely effective and can have long-term, life-changing benefits.

I recommend keeping the 30-day challenge as a tool in your health and fitness arsenal, and using it anytime you're not sure whether a new habit might be right for you.

- Chris Butterworth

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

dinner made easy - turkey burgers and sweet potato fries

Sometimes you need a quick and easy dinner that doesn't require much in the way of prep work or cleanup, but you still want to eat healthy, and you'd prefer it if the food tasted good too.

We had one of those nights last week. Late meetings at work and homework that needed help left little time for a big dinner, so we turned to the freezer: Trader Joe's Frozen Turkey Burgers and Alexia Chipotle Seasoned Spicy Sweet Potato Fries (purchased at Fry's; rated 4.8 stars on 1,733 reviews on the Alexia website) answered the call.


The turkey burgers went straight from the freezer to the grill. I let them cook a few minutes to thaw before adding seasoning, but otherwise I grilled them the same way I normally grill burgers and turkey burgers. Then I melted cheese for those who wanted it, and everyone is welcome to grab a bun and add condiments to taste.

The fries are even easier - turn on the oven, spread the fries out on a cookie sheet/pan, and in they go.

Add in a salad with some freshly cut tomatoes and cucumbers, and the whole meal took less than 10 minutes of prep time. (plus cooking time.)

Food Quality

We all know that fresh food is better than frozen, and packaged food is never as good as the food you prepare yourself (both in terms of nutrition and taste.) So how bad are these burgers and fries?

frozen turkey burgers
photo of the box - Trader Joe's Turkey Burgers

Well, the ingredient list looks safe: Turkey, Salt, Rosemary extract. We could get nit-picky about how much salt, and why didn't they just list rosemary / why extract? But compared with most pre-packaged foods that is an awfully short list, and there's nothing in that list I can't pronounce or tell you what it is.

From a calorie standpoint - 180 per burger will fit into just about any diet (unless you're trying to gain lots of weight!)

Now let's take a look at those frozen french fries..

alexia chipotle sweet potato fries
photo of the front of the bag

photo of the Nutritional Information

close-up photo of the Ingredient List

First I considered the calories, listed at the top of the Nutrition Facts.

  • 130 Calories per serving with 7 servings in the bag. However, we get about 5 servings out of the bag - we each eat a portion with dinner, and then one of my boys brings the extra fries in his lunch to school the next day.
  • 130 calories per serving * 7 servings = 910 calories in the bag.
  • 910 calories / 5 servings in our family = 182 calories per serving for our family (give or take for each person's portion.)

Next I read the Ingredient List, and while it's a longer list than I would have preferred, it's mostly powdered spices, and it's mostly things I've heard of and can pronounce. Even the things I wasn't sure about were short words and easy to pronounce, but I did have to look a couple up online:

  • Dextrin - this sounds like it could be man made, but then I found an article titled "8 benefits of dextrin" on a website called Global Healing Center, which made me feel better. Turns out dextrin is a natural fiber which can act as a binding agent. Hmmm, ok.
  • Gluconic Acid - the good news is that this is the last ingredient listed; the bad news is it shows up on a website called GMO Compass. However, even this website points out it's a naturally occurring fruit acid which accrues during the decomposition of carbohydrates. I don't know whether the gluconic acid in my sweet potato fries came from GMO carbs or not, but I'm not going to worry too much about it either. It's the only potentially bad ingredient and it's last on the list - I'll take the trade-off for my easy to prepare meal. (It's ok to just be healthy - you don't have to be perfect.)

Calorie Count

How many calories did my whole meal contain?

  • Turkey Burger - 180
  • Turkey Burger bun - 150
  • Cheese on Burger - 110
  • Condiments (ketchup, mayo, pickles) - 100
  • Chipotle Fries - 182 (per my revised calculation)
  • Salad - negligible
  • Ranch Salad Dressing - 75
  • Total Calories - somewhere in the neighborhood of 800, depending on portion sizes
    • If I was trying to lose weight and limit my calorie intake, I would skip the cheese, mayo, and ranch dressing, and I would have eaten a smaller portion of fries. That would keep the meal closer to 500 calories.
    • As it was, 800 calories for dinner works great for me as part of a 2,000 calorie diet in maintenance mode.
    • Either way, if you know what you're eating, what your daily goal is, and how much you've already eaten that day, you can plan and budget accordingly.

Meal Review

This was a good meal - maybe not something I'd crave in the mid-afternoon or travel across state lines for, but a good, fresh-tasting, full-flavored meal. It left me satisfied without feeling stuffed-full, and happy that I had eaten a reasonable amount of healthy calories. Prep work and cleanup are a breeze, too, which is a big bonus.

We'll definitely replenish our freezer and keep this in the rotation of "once every couple months when life is more frenzied than normal and we need to get dinner going in a hurry" meals.

Cheers to another easy-healthy meal.

- Chris Butterworth

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Monday, February 2, 2015

Tortoise and Hare - the tale of two diets

Here I sit on the other side of losing 10 lbs in very short order, and I've had a chance to reflect on the process. This time was a lot different from the method I used last time, and while I was successful both times, I had to ask some deep-thinking questions.

Mercedes Benz tortoise and hare

My first question to myself was "why did I have to lose 10 lbs again?" (ie: why wasn't I able to keep the weight off?) It turns out I have a weakness - I'm not very good at re-adjusting my diet after a big race or event.

The last time it happened I had spent the fall training for a 10-mile run. I was running a lot, and I was eating a lot of food just to maintain my weight. I was able to shove pretty much anything and everything down my neck without consequence. Unfortunately, once my race was over and my workouts tapered down, I continued to snack at my desk all day, and the net result was inevitable.

This time it was because I had been training to hike the Grand Canyon - down and back up on the same day, and the same thing happened. In the spring I was doing a lot of trail running and eating at will. Then, due to injuries and time commitment changes, my workouts slowed down to nothing, but my eating did not. And once again I found myself carrying a dumbbell's worth of extra weight around.

Note to self - stop doing that!

Most of you probably saw the much-hyped Mercedes Benz ad in yesterday's Super Bowl - The Tortoise and the Hare. (if you didn't, click here to watch it on youtube.) That's a great way to describe my two diets. Let's compare the slow and steady tortoise diet with the rapid weight loss hare diet..

Tortoise Diet - Slow and Steady

This was a marginal change diet. I removed the worst offenders and the easiest to find problem spots, such as snacking on sun flower seeds and red vines, and then I ate pretty much whatever I wanted, but I modified my portion size to about 2/3 of what I would normally have eaten. Read the full details here.

The plan was to not have to put a lot of energy into food - counting calories, preparing all my meals, eating specialty foods, changing my behaviors. I kept eating the same foods, only I ate less of them. I guestimated that I was eating about 1,700-ish calories per day, and I expected to lose a couple pounds per month.

  • No major food or lifestyle changes required - eat most of what you ate before, but less of it.
  • Not a lot of hunger pains.
  • Easy to modify over time - a little less or a little more is ok.
  • Sustainable - can eat this way the rest of your life.

  • Thinking about food a lot - you're constantly thinking about what you would normally be eating right now, and then you have to limit yourself to less than that amount.
  • Slow weight loss - spending all month long thinking about food, and then only losing a couple pounds, doesn't feel very rewarding.
  • Not an exact science - you might not know at the end of the day whether or not you've run a calorie deficit for the day.

Hare Diet - Rapid Weight Loss

This was a diet predicated on a severe calorie restriction, eating less than 1,000 calories per day. It required counting calories (I rounded and estimated a bit, so my count wasn't perfect) and an insane amount of willpower. The plan was to lose weight quickly - more of a rip the band aide off type of plan.

  • Rapid weight loss - I loved seeing the scale move lower almost every day, and my clothes fit better each week.
  • Rewarding - A quarter-pound here and a half pound there; it was easy to know my hard work was paying off, especially when I graphed each day's weight in Excel. For me, this was enough to push through the tremendous amount of will power required.
  • Food tastes awesome - every meal tasted like the best meal ever. A slice of pizza was sent from heaven. A ham and cheese sandwich on toasted sourdough was a culinary masterpiece. I ate very slowly and relished in the gift of every bite.
  • Quality food - you learn very quickly which foods give you more satisfaction for fewer calories, and you end up spending your calories on nutrition rich foods, simply because they make you feel more full than the empty-calorie foods.

  • Hunger - you're body is hungry for food, all the time.
  • Will Power - it takes an extreme amount of will power to not power-binge on whatever happens to be closest at any given time.
  • Socially awkward - going out to eat with friends and ordering a small salad and a glass of water (or sharing a meal with your wife) is a little socially awkward. (and requires more of that will power stuff.)
  • Food headaches - the brutal food headaches lessened somewhat after awhile, but they were miserable at the beginning.
  • Physical and Mental changes - your body reacts to the natural environment of not having enough food/energy, so it starts diverting resources from activity it deems to be less important. (sort of like your phone shutting down radio contact when the battery gets down to 5%..)
    • Short attention span - over time I started noticing I wasn't able to focus on a task for more than about 20 minutes at a time. This had a negative impact at work, at home, and as a soccer coach.
    • Exhaustion - I found myself running out of gas at night. I would sit down on the couch at about 8:00, and it was game over for the night. Truth be told, I'm always tired at night, because I run hard all day long and I don't get enough sleep, but I can still motivate myself to be productive for another hour after the kids go to sleep. That simply wasn't the case on this diet.
    • Reduced sex drive - enough said here, but this ties into the exhaustion phase.
  • Water aware - while I'm always aware of hydration, I was almost hyper-concerned about getting enough water to stay safe. (plus it filled my belly and staved off hunger for a few minutes.) Water became almost an obsession.

In the End

If I was designing a diet from scratch, I would take the best of both diets. I would base my long-term diet on the Tortoise, but I would mix in the Hare for a week or so once in awhile. The Hare Diet has too many disadvantages to make it practical for the long term, but it offers two things the Tortoise doesn't:
  1. Quick Rewards - getting almost instant feedback that you're doing it right might be enough motivation to keep you going.
  2. Calorie Conscious - if you really pay attention to your calories, and live on 1,000 per day, then 1,700 Tortoise calories will feel like gluttony.

I think the Mercedes Benz commercial got it right - the Tortoise's slow and steady approach, supplemented by a turbo speed boost now and then, is the winner.

Mercedes Benz tortoise and hare

-Chris Butterworth

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

the Starvation Diet

Imagine not having enough food to eat. I'm not talking about saying no to that third slice of pizza; I'm talking about literally not having any food to eat. Think of being lost in the wilderness, or stranded on a deserted island. My guess is you'd get pretty skinny, pretty quick.

deserted island
image credit to idr solutions (I couldn't find the original source of the image.)

Experts say that as long as you can stay hydrated, you can live for a long time without food. (which makes sense, since every pound of fat inside your body is 3,500 calories' worth of energy just waiting to be released from storage.) You could survive for 1-2 days per pound of body fat, depending on personal factors and your physical exertion rate.

I bet it wouldn't be fun, and it wouldn't be by choice either, but if you didn't have a food source available you would lose weight, very fast.

Is there any way we could take that concept and apply it to the real world?

I don't think any expert in the world would advise that actual, long-term starvation is a good idea, and I'm not suggesting otherwise. But what about a very low-calorie diet? You could still feed your body healthy nutrients and keep normal body functions in place, but force your body to burn fat for fuel. I decided to give this a try.

My Goal

I wrote not long ago about gaining some weight in the second half of last year, which culminated in my right knee aching badly. I was about ready to go see an orthopedic about my knee, but I decided to try losing weight first, and given the pain and annoyance involved I wanted to lose the weight quickly.

I set a 2-step goal for weight loss: First I wanted to lose 9.5 pounds as fast as possible, which would put me at 1 pound less than my normal carrying weight. Then I would lose an additional 3 pounds more gradually over the course of the spring. The result would put me at my super-trim racing weight from when I was running triathlons.

My Plan
  • I would try to limit myself to less than 1,000 calories per day. (Hopefully this would lead to rapid weight loss, which would be self-reinforcing.)
  • I would weigh myself everyday, using the brand new high tech scale at the gym, and chart my results. (Hopefully a downward sloping graph would be an exciting reward.)
  • I would continue with moderate exercise. (Hopefully this would keep my metabolism high and help my body keep processing normally. I didn't want my body to shut down functions or slow down my metabolism.)
  • I would drink A LOT of water, since all those survival guides say hydration is far more important than eating for short-term survival. (Hopefully this would help keep my body functioning properly.)

My Process

The process involved being hungry, pretty much all the time. A typical day looked like this:
  • Breakfast - a bowl of frosted mini wheats, without milk, and a cup of coffee. This gave me 200-300 calories in the morning, depending on the size of the bowl. I sometimes substituted half a bagel w/ cream cheese or a couple pieces of fruit.
  • Drinks - I added 2-3 oz of cranberry-grape juice to 12 oz water, and drank several of these throughout the day. I probably consumed 150 calories of fruit juice per day.
  • Lunch - a slice of pepperoni pizza, a small plain cheeseburger, or a small ham & cheese sandwich (or something similar - yummy, small, and not necessarily a "healthy" option), worth about 350 calories.
  • Water - a couple glasses of water w/o fruit juice in the afternoon.
  • Dinner - a few bites of whatever our family's dinner was, along with a medium sized salad. (I skipped dinner on nights when I went straight to coach soccer practice.)
  • Snacks - none, most days.

pepperoni pizza

My Result

As of this morning I am 1/2 pound away from achieving my first-stage goal. Hopefully the scale is cooperative tomorrow or the next day, and I'll finish this thing off. Then I can add food back to my diet and drop the last few pounds over the coming months. I'll probably settle in at about 1,800-1,900 calories per day, which should still allow me to lose about a pound per month.

I lost about 1/2 pound per week during the Holidays, and about 2 pounds per week since then. (Note - I couldn't stay under 1,000/day during the Holidays - too much good food and good family cheer.. Whatchagonnado?)

Oh yeah, and that knee pain? It's pretty much gone. I don't have the knees of a 20-year old anymore, but I did put away the orthopedic's phone number..

What I Learned:
  • This was very difficult to do - having the will power to simply not eat when there is food everywhere you look (and you're really hungry), is not for everyone.
    • Knowing that it was only for a short time period helped; I don't think I could have held up for an extended battle of wills against all food.
    • Seeing the rapid weight loss on my daily tracking sheet helped a lot; looking forward to tomorrow's weigh-in was enough to help me power through some of those tough decisions.
  • This is not a lifestyle change, since it's not sustainable. And if you don't have a game plan for what comes next you'll be very likely to put all that weight back on. And that would suck.
  • Your body does become more efficient at burning fat. I had big-time hunger headaches at the beginning, but they mostly went away as time progressed. This was my body realizing that it couldn't trick me into feeding it a bagel, so it just went to work at burning some fat cells instead.
  • Your body doesn't function exactly normally on so few calories. I noticed some changes - both mentally and physically - that I had to adjust to. (More on that in a future post..)

Overall I'm still not a big fan of "diets", as I'd much prefer a long-term change in habits which will lead to a lifetime of better health. But seeing fast results is very rewarding as well - a way to kick-start yourself down the road to a smaller you. Maybe there's room for ultra-calorie-reduction in the weight-loss arsenal after all...

- Chris Butterworth

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