Three Steps to Starting a Workout Program and Sticking to It!

I started going to the gym when I was around 17 or 18, to a mildly seedy YMCA in downtown Ottawa. I had a handful of friends who worked out, and I suppose I just wanted something to do after school other than watch The Simpsons.

My first years of going to the gym were pretty silly. I knew nothing about weights, so I would do about 100 repetitions of one exercise using 2 lb dumbbells and then an hour on the elliptical,  finishing my workout with about 150 crunches.

Nowadays, my gym time looks pretty different. I get my workout done in about an hour (including warm-up and cool down), I have abandoned those crazy crunches, and I even hired a personal trainer to design bad-ass workout routines that I can do on my own.

I’m a gym bunny.

Deadlift

[Photo taken by Clance Laylor]

We all know the benefits of exercise, but knowing something is good for us doesn’t always translate to action. If you are someone who knows you need to start exercising but can’t seem to rally the initiative to get moving, please read the following advice. Actually, my tips below can be applied to any situation where you may be dragging your feet and procrastinating, so basically, you have to read this no matter what.

Here are my top three tips for cultivating and staying with a workout (or any) program!

1) Don’t Wait to Feel Motivated

If you waited to “feel like” going to work, your boss would probably fire your butt. A big false assumption made about exercisers by non-exercisers is that regular exercisers have all this motivation and energy to work out.

It’s not true.

It’s not about motivation or feeling inspired. There are days when I literally stomp and growl my way to the gym. I let myself feel annoyed and even angry that it’s time to go to the gym and I do it anyway. And I always feel amazing after. I PROMISE you will too.

Feeling inspired and excited to work out can and does happen, but to be successful at anything, we must learn to do it even when we don’t feel like it. Be rational about the time your schedule allows to devote to exercise, and block off three to five 30 to 60 minute sessions to go for a power walk, lift some weights, or do a yoga class. And just do it!

The resistance involved in a mental battle between your “I-want-to-fuse-to-the-couch” side and your “I’m-Michael-Jordan-bitches” side requires more effort than actually working out. Think about that.

2) Focus on Specific Behaviours, Not Goals

There are two sides to goals. On one hand, they can be great motivators (think about that picture of the Brazilian supermodel that made you want to start working out because you want to look like her). On the other hand, they can be very discouraging (think about that picture of the Brazilian supermodel that made you want to stop working out because you still don’t look like her).

While goals are fine to have, a more encouraging thing to work towards is behaviours. If you have a goal of weighing 10 lbs less in a month and don’t reach that number despite sticking to your diet and exercise regime, you’re going to feel discouraged and may be very vulnerable to giving up altogether.

Focus instead on healthy behaviours, and the goals will be met naturally, at their own time. Be specific, for example committing to adding three servings of dark leafy greens a day, limiting alcohol to five drinks a month, and exercising for 60 minutes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Specificity increases the likelihood of following through. Again, it’s important to be REALISTIC here and choose behaviours that are healthy and SUSTAINABLE. If your target behaviours involve skipping meals or exercising seven days a week, you will burn out. Be kind when considering your ambitions, and aim for long-term health rather than short-term fixes.

3) Put Your Shoes On, Girl!

When someone tells me they have a hard time going to the gym, I always tell them that the next time they feel themselves resisting exercise to suit up anyway. Even if the thought of 8 minutes on the treadmill or 12 bicep curls is too overwhelming, get your gym gear on. You can lace up your running shoes, right? You can walk to the gym, right? If you can do that, then start with that. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, once you are at the gym, geared up, you will be ready to work out. If not, promise yourself just TWO minutes on the treadmill or just ONE set of squats. You can do that, right? If you feel overwhelmed, just break it down into small steps and give yourself permission to stop at any point. The point is that you took some steps forward.

This practice of doing something rather than nothing also trains you to trust yourself and what you commit to. When we don’t trust ourselves to make good on a promise, we’re more likely to give up even before we start. Faith and confidence in our ability to carry out an intention makes us that much more likely to succeed.

I hope those tips have been helpful!

And remember, exercise is natural! Release the idea that it’s torture or that you’ll hate it. Your body loves and needs to move and sweat. It’s your head that makes exercise hard. So stop fighting yourself! Cue James Brown! Get up!

Take care,

Alex

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In Small Doses, Really Good Quality Dark Chocolate Is Medicine (I Knew It!)

As a terribly unoriginal member of the female species, I have a small obsession with chocolate.

Kakobohnen und Schokolade

[Photo credit]

However, I am also a chocolate snob, favouring only good quality (organic, fair trade, simple ingredients) dark (over 70%) chocolate. As it turns out, my palate has inuitively steered me in the right direction, because dark chocolate, in reasonable doses, is actually a health food. Although I have plenty of experience with unreasonable doses, I usually try to stick to one to two squares a day. And some days I don’t have it at all. Usually because I have forgotten to replenish my stock. And those are usually sad days.

According to researchers, 6.7 grams of dark chocolate per day, about the amount found in one to two squares, represents the ideal amount for a protective effect against inflammation and cardiovascular disease. Eat more or less than this amount and benefits begin to diminish. 

For the remainder of this article, please know that when I refer to “chocolate” I am excluding all types of white chocolate, milk chocolate, and the chocolate candy bars strategically placed for impulse buying while in line at the grocery store/drug store/corner store/gas station. These chocolate imposters contain little to no chocolate, lots of sugar, and often weird ingredients to colour, flavour, and preserve themselves. Please leave them on the shelves where they will remain in pristine condition for years and years (not a good thing!).

Researchers have been disproportionately eager and prolific at providing support for the notion that chocolate is actually good for you. Try finding a similar volume of research proving that fish eyeballs are good for you. You won’t find it.

Chocolate is high in a range of superstar nutrients and associated health benefits. Check it:

-Magnesium: A mineral involved in hundreds of metabolic reactions in the body, including muscle relaxation, blood sugar regulation, and hormone balance.

-Catechins & Epicatechins: Antixidants found also in red wine and tea, have been shown to delay some forms of aging, and reduce risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. [Source]

-Procyanidins: Antioxidants found also in dark pigmented berries which have been linked to lower rates of heart disease and overall mortality, and are important in the maintenance of youthful skin and good circulation. [Source]

-Phenylethylamine: A compound that improves mood and motivation. Abnormally low amounts have been found in those with ADHD. [Source]

-Theobromine: A bitter alkaloid also found in black and green tea that promotes circulation through vasodilation. That means lowered blood pressure, and possibly less need for Viagra. [Source]

-Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ): An essential nutrient found to protect memory and cognition in aging populations, reverse cognitive impairment caused by free radical damage, and stimulate the production and release of nerve growth factor, which is critical for the survival and maintenance of nerve cells..[Source]

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With benefits ranging from mood support, to better aging, to heart health, you can feel good about a daily, small chocolate treat. Good quality, low sugar, high cocoa content bars that I like include: Green and Black’s Dark 85%Endangered Species Natural dark 88%Chocosol Darkness and Hemp GoldGiddy Yoyo Xtra Dark, Spirulina, and Chaga. They can all be found pretty widely in health food stores around Toronto.

And, if you’re keen and like to DIY, I encourage you to make your own chocolate creations! Here are some delightful chocolate recipes to get you started:

Superfood Chocolate

Chocolate Coconut Truffles

Spiced Hot Chocolate from www.mynewroots.org

Please enjoy responsibly!

Take care,

Alex

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Flax Seed Cookies to Love Your Heart

Back in the eighties, when parents were mostly not aware of the ills of fluffy white bread, I was the only kid in school with “multigrain” bread in a sea of unblemished, alabaster Wonderbread-type sandwiches. My friends would wrinkle their nose at the sandwich my mum, also a nutritionist, had lovingly packed for me. “Alex, there are ants in your bread,” they would say. “No,” I replied somewhat self-consciously, “those are flax seeds.”

Flax cookies

Now that we are well into the new millennium, people know about flax seeds. You can even find them in commercial breads (which unfortunately, still doesn’t mean most commercial breads are good for you).

Cozying up to the romance of Valentine’s Day, February is, appropriately, Heart Month. It seems like every major chronic illness now has a month. We all hear about prostate cancer in November (or should I say Movember?) and breast cancer in October, pink ribbons aflutter. The Heart and Stroke Foundation nabbed February as “Heart Month’, and hearts heart flax seeds.

Shall I tell you more about this super seed?

Most people know of flax seeds as a good source of fibre and a source of plant-based omega 3’s. That is true although if you want to get your omega 3’s from flax, you are better off consuming the oil instead of the whole seeds. Whole seeds are difficult for the human digestive system to break down and therefore in order to obtain the full benefits of flax, they are best consumed freshly ground. I buy my seeds whole, grind them in small batches in a coffee grinder, and store them in the freezer to preserve freshness.

Here is a summary of some impressive things that flax can do, and below that you will find a heart healthy fibre-rich cookie recipe to help you incorporate more of this wonderful seed into your diet.

-Heart Health: Particularly in its whole form (ground up) flax seeds reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, improve circulation by improving blood viscosity, and at higher doses reduce inflammatory markers in the body (such as C-reactive protein) [1]. Recently, it was shown that two tablespoons of ground flax seeds a day significantly reduced blood pressure in hypertensive participants. The effect of flax was greater than any other dietary intervention so far in its impact on blood pressure [2].

-Breast Cancer Survival: Plant compounds, called lignans, found in particularly high amounts in flax seeds have been linked to better survival rates in women with breast cancer. It is thought that flax lignans act like weak estrogens and block the receptors from stronger estrogens encouraging the growth of cancerous cells [3,4,5].

-Diabetes: 1 tablespoon of ground flax seed per day lowered levels of fasting blood sugar and glycosylated hemoglobin (a measure of longer-term blood sugar regulation ability). An improvement in blood lipid parameters were also noted, with a reduction in total cholesterol, particularly LDL (the “bad’ cholesterol) and triglycerides [6].

-Fertility & PMS: Daily consumption of flaxseed reduced the likelihood of anovulatory cycles (menstrual cycles where ovulation doesn’t occur) and decreased symptoms of breast tenderness [7].

-Better Poops: For those prone to constipation, one to two tablespoons of ground flax seed a day helps lubricate the bowels and add bulk to stool, thus creating an easier, fuller poop. ‘Nuff said.

So, how do we sneak more of these little seeds into our diet?

Flax seeds are very mild tasting with a pleasant, nutty flavour. In terms of taste, they are easy to disguise, so they can be thrown into smoothies, cereals, soups, salads, burgers, and baked goods. Many people will just put the ground flax seeds directly into water, give it a stir, and gulp it down.

However, if you want a more novel way to incorporate a good dose of flax seed into your diet, try these cookies!

flax cookies

No Bake Flax Cinnamon Raisin Cookies

1 cup ground flax seed

½ cup almond meal

½ cup unsweetened coconut flakes

1 Tbsp cinnamon

¼ cup raisins

¼ tsp sea salt

½ cup coconut oil

2 Tbsp raw honey

-Combine all dry ingredients (flax, almond meal, coconut, cinnamon, raisins, and salt) in a large bowl and stir well. Add wet ingredients and mix until well incorporated. Should form a sticky, thick dough.

-With clean hands, scoop out golf ball-sized amounts of dough, roll into a ball, and flatten slightly into a pudgy cookie shape. Place on parchment lined cookie tray.

-Freeze or refrigerate for about 30 minutes, then they are ready to serve! Cookies can be stored in the fridge or freezer in an airtight container for about a week. Makes about 16 small cookies. Each cookie contains approximately 1 Tbsp of heart healthy ground flax seed.

Please note that if you are using flax seeds for the first time, start slow! Flax seeds promote bowel movements and some people may be more sensitive to this effect than others. Start with 1 tsp at a time, and work your way up!

Take care,

Alex

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Cold Turkey or Cold Truffles: Quitting Sugar After the Holidays

The holidays are over and intentions are fresh…but then there’s that small matter of those last few gold wrapped chocolates hanging out in your cupboard. And the fact that two weeks of family feasts, office treats, and an endless train of sweet comestible gifts have trained you to become dependent on a steady supply of sugar.

You’re addicted to sugar, and you don’t know how to stop.

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[Source]

Don’t feel so bad…rats behave in the same way!

Although I’m sure being compared to a rat instantly made you feel better, hear me out. Several studies have shown that sweetness is more preferable and pleasurable than cocaine or opioid drugs, and is highly addictive.

The late Bart Hoebel at Princeton University who devoted much of his career to studying food addiction found that rats exposed to sugar exhibited evidence of craving, bingeing, withdrawal, and relapse, all hallmark stages of classic drug addiction, completing the picture of sugar as a highly addictive substance. One study showed that rats favoured sweet flavoured water over cocaine. Even the rats already addicted to cocaine switched over to sweetened water when given the choice! Another study showed that pleasure centres in rats’ brains were activated more intensely when consuming Oreo cookies (which contains the devastatingly addictive combo of sugar and fat) than when given cocaine or morphine (which is chemically nearly identical to heroine). And guess what? Oreo cookies are a heck of a lot more accessible than cocaine, so guess what humans are more likely to be addicted to?

BUT, lucky for you, you are smarter and sneakier than a rat, and can employ strategies to help you break up with your sugar addiction.

The question is: Do you go cold turkey or wean yourself off slowly? The answer is largely personal, and I’ve got solutions that work for both.

Tips for Breaking a Sugar Addiction

1. Either way, do a kitchen purge.

Clear out your cupboards and refrigerator and THROW THAT JUNK OUT. That’s right, throw it out. You may protest that wasting food is bad, but when that food does nothing but promote poor health, then you have to ask yourself what the better option is: Throw it in or throw it out? Don’t treat your body like a compost bin! Those sugary cookies, chocolates, and candy canes will do less damage in the garbage can than in your body. For more on this concept, read this article! A kitchen free of temptations makes it that much harder to give in to a craving, so even if your goal is to wean yourself off of sugar by having occasional sweets (ideally with high quality, whole food ingredients), don’t keep them in the house.

2. Eat a breakfast rich in protein and fat.

The typical breakfast foods (think toast & jam, cereal, breakfast bars, etc) are high in carbohydrates and often high in sugar. This means they will not satisfy your appetite for long, and they will only feed the sugar beast that gets stronger with more sugar. Like begets like, right? Instead, try a breakfast smoothie with berries, full fat organic yogurt or coconut milk, some ground flax seed and a good quality protein powder. For a savoury option, try a bit of cooked quinoa with some steamed greens & poached eggs, with a generous spoon of organic butter or coconut oil on top. Don’t let yourself get to starving point during the day- snack lightly throughout the day if needed. Remember: Really hungry people make bad food choices.

3. Take some probiotics.

In my opinion, probiotics as a supplement for the average person are absolutely necessary in only two occasions: during/after a course of antiobiotics, and during/after a sugar overdose. Sugar is easy food for greedy pathogenic bad bacteria in your gut. You can bet that once they have a taste they will have you craving more to feed them and grow their bad bacteria babies. Probiotics, or good bacteria, will prevent these bad bacteria from growing out of control. Probiotics will also strengthen your immune system after being depleted by too much sugar. Unpasteurized fermented foods like saurkraut, kimchi, and miso are food sources of probiotics and can be helpful to quell sugar cravings.

Lastly, if you must have some treats in your house while you overcome this seasonal addiction, try my coconut chocolate truffles, because they’re pretty guilt-free at about 2.5 g sugar per ball. They also contain a good amount of appetite-satisfying coconut oil, a wonderful healthy fat.

chocolate coconut bliss balls

Chocolate Coconut Truffles

1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

½ cup coconut oil

¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

2 Tbsp honey

Directions

-Add all ingredients a bowl and mix until well combined. Spoon small dollops of mixture onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Place sheet in freezer and let set for about 20 minutes. Store covered in a container in the fridge or freezer. Makes about 16 bliss balls.

Stay well!

Take care,

Alex

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Filed under Chocolate, Diets, Motivation, Nutrition, Recipes

Surving Winter with Onion Bhaji & Green Chutney

Hibernation time has arrived, and although we might like to spend the next couple of months conserving energy in a cave, us humans have designed a society that operates through all seasons. Sometimes, while struggling to unearth myself from under my flannel sheets, I curse this fact.

Although it’s funny how, just like wild animals, we humans also tend to eat more, sleep more, and generally retreat as the days become darker and colder.

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If you are someone who looks upon winter as a vast, bleak expanse of time that simply must be endured, listen up! The fun doesn’t have to stop when the leaves fall! I have some ideas for how to warm up your winter and brighten up your mood…

Take Some Vitamin D

Part of the reason you may be feeling glum could be a physiological response to a vitamin D deficiency. Low levels of vitamin D are associated with depression, and risk and severity of depression increase as vitamin D levels get lower [Source]. Depressed women felt better when they supplemented with vitamin D to treat their depression [Source]. We get vitamin D from the sun, and my favourite way to keep vitamin D levels optimal is still to sunbathe. But who’s going to expose even an extra forearm to the outdoor elements let alone most of your body at this time of year?! Vitamin D supplementation, for most Canadians (especially those with darker skin), is wise. I recommend at least 2,000 IU of vitamin D per day for adults, and around 400-1,000 IU for children.

Consume Warming Spices

Comforting sweet spices like ginger and cinnamon, as well as bold, pungent spices like cayenne, garlic, and horseradish not only taste warming and delicious, but they actually have medicinal benefits too. All of these spices actually help to warm the body by increasing circulation (so maybe your feet won’t feel like two frozen clubs next time you go out for a walk). They are also good for the immune system, as they help to fight off pathogens and break up excess mucous. These yummy spices are easy to incorporate into teas and foods every day.

Exercise Outside

I never dreaded winter when I was a child, because winter brought its own particular charms to look forward to: mounds of snow in which to burrow into and make secret hideaways, and slippery soft surfaces on which to slide down. Adults are more likely to hate winter because they don’t embrace it. Talk to a snowboarder or a skier and they do not have the same dread of winter as someone who doesn’t participate in winter activities. The secret is dressing properly for the weather (and often relinquishing vanity for the sake of enormous boots, puffed outerwear, and bizarre knitted headgear)! Get outside for regular walks, especially during daylight hours, and make a point to have some winter fun on the weekends. You are never too old to go tobogganing, visit a farm and go for a hayride. or build a snow man. Fresh air and sun are essential for our well-being all year round.

Eat Delicious Baked Onion Bhaji…

Obviously the most important tip is saved for last. Onion bhaji is a traditional Indian appetizer often made with chickpea flour. My recipe uses whole chickpeas instead of flour, is baked instead of fried, and incorporates some of those lovely warming winter spices.

Baked Onion Bhaji

5 medium yellow onions, diced

3 Tbsp coconut oil or ghee

2 Tbsp cumin seeds

2 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)

1.5 tsp sea salt

3 cups chickpeas, soaked and cooked (or roughly two 15 oz cans, drained)

2 Tbsp psyllium husks

olive oil for drizzling

Directions:

-Add onions, oil, and dry spices, and salt to a skillet and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until onions are soft and translucent, or about 10 minutes

-While onions are cooking, add chickpeas to a food processor and process until smoothish (it’s ok if some random chickpeas are left whole). Transfer puree to a large bowl.

-When onions are done, transfer to the large bowl containing the chickpea puree. Add psyllium husks. Mix until all is incorporated.

-On parchment lined baking trays, spoon golf ball-sized amounts onto the parchment. Pat down with spoon if needed. Drizzle with olive oil.

-Bake at 350 F for 25 minutes, then remove trays and gently flip bhajis over. Place back in the oven for another 10-15 minutes.

-Bhajis should be lightly golden brown at the tops when done. Let cool slightly before removing from baking trays.

Green Chutney

1 cup parsley, packed

1/2 cup cilantro, packed

1 green chili, seeds removed

1 tsp ginger, minced

3 small green onions, ends trimmed

1/4 cup olive oil

1 Tbsp lemon juice

1/4 tsp sea salt

Directions:

-Throw all ingredients in the blender and puree. Serve with baked onion bhajis.

Stay warm!

Take care,

Alex

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