Lessons that I have Learned from My Own Personal Fitness Revolution (Updated, See Links At Bottom of Post)
May 27, 2011 by Dr. Lam
As many of you know, I have undergone a transformation in my body over the past few years through a combination of good diet and exercise. When many ask me, how did you do it? They are surprised that it was not some pill or quick fix diet that made the difference but instead good diet and hard sweat done consistently over a period of two years. When I was getting a haircut in my salon from my stylist, Natalia last week, she was fascinated by all the pearls that I had accumulated from intensive reading, discussions with personal fitness experts, and through my varied experiences. She encouraged me to write a blog on all of this wisdom that I have gained. Because I have been writing so many blogs for my business group, Entrepreneur’s Organization, and for my facial plastic surgery and hair transplant blogs, I have neglected writing any recent blogs for my lifestyle blog. In response to Natalia’s request, here is a summary of the major things that I have learned about fitness and health that I hope to pass along to you, my dear reader.
I will divide this section of pearls into Diet and Exercise:
- Diet is everything. Sorry to let you guys in on that little secret. When my diet goes south for a while, so does my body. Eating slowly, chewing your food, eating more organic, fresh vegetables and fruits, and less meat is critical. I would say 70 to 80% of your struggle to look and feel better is due to good diet.
- Give up Coke and all sodas. They are very acidic and not healthy for the body. Coke can dissolve meat and clean concrete. Just because you are drinking Diet Coke does not save you. Fake sugars are equally bad and they are terrible for you. People can develop cancers from having a body that is not pH balanced, i.e., acidic. I drank a Diet Coke every day and never thought I could give it up but I did and have not had a soda can for two years now. Buy pH strips from Amazon for a few dollars and make sure that your pH is at least 7 or higher. You might be surprised to see how low your pH really is. A low pH predisposes you to cancer.
- Give up caffeine if you can. I stopped a year ago and I feel much better. I do not have the up and down swings anymore. When your body is totally fit you will not need to rely on caffeine. Do I miss the taste? Not really. Not after awhile.
- Don’t blame genetics. That is a sign of weakness. We are actually more of a product of our environment, which we can control, than our genes. Genetic risk of cancer is in general very low. The number one risk for cancer is bad diet followed by a sedentary lifestyle. If you control your diet, you seriously reduce the risk of cancer and of heart disease. Look at the women who go from a low meat and dairy diet in Japan over to the United States who start getting a high incidence of breast cancer just like Americans do. Diet is everything.
- We consume way too much sugar. Start to cut down on your sugar intake but don’t replace it with aspartame or saccharine. Those chemicals are truly bad for you and can actually spur your body on toward obesity. Replace sugar if you have a sweet tooth with natural Agave honey or Stevia and do so in moderation.
- Get rid of all things white: white sugar, white bread, and white rice. Consume unpolished, brown rice only. The Ezekiel brand, sprouted bread is amazing.
- Give up dairy. Stop drinking milk of any kind, especially the conventional steroid-laden kind. Cheese, ice cream, etc. are all bad. When we talk about needing milk for growth and to prevent osteoporosis, that is pure bunk. The best thing to limit osteoporosis is exercise to strengthen one’s bones. It is questionable whether even calcium is needed.
- Give up OJ. Drinking juice is a very sugary activity that even one glass a month can risk an increase in diabetes. Don’t be afraid of fresh fruit, which is great for you, unless of course you are in fact diabetic. Eating fruits are great for your body, skin, and to limit cancer. Drinking juice is not. Ideally, if you eat fruit, it is better to eat it on an empty stomach an hour before a meal. It will raise your insulin and help you digest your food better and thereby burn more calories. However, personally, I am used to eating fruit as a dessert after a meal (still good though).
- Shop at the edges of the grocery store and buy as many colored food items as possible. Buy the rainbow of food colors.
- Do not eat any processed food, period. I have stayed away from major fast food chains for two years now. The cheap meats and the chemicals that are in there are nothing short of deadly. If you do this one thing alone, you will be much healthier.
- Make small changes to your diet. Many Americans (like myself) are radical and we make radical changes rather than baby steps. Do one thing at a time. Give up Coke then go from there. Start small.
- A little cheating is ok. Read The 4-Hour Body. If you cheat with your meals once a week, it almost reprograms your body for weight loss. However, when I cheat I still stay away from really bad foods like fried foods, soft drinks, and processed foods.
- Hara hachi bu- Japanese for eat until you are 80% full. In the past I would eat until I was stuffed like a pig. Now, if I eat to that point I will feel physically sick. I eat until I am pretty full then stop. If I just wait a few minutes, I will become full. It takes our bodies 20 minutes to sense that we are full. Unfortunately, most Americans eat rapidly and finish their meals way under 20 minutes before our brain can even register that we are in fact full.
- Eat when you are hungry. If I feel hungry, my body is telling me I need something so I eat something small. I try to get in 2 small snacks between my meals but with my busy schedule I don’t always do that. Smaller meals, more frequently program your body toward a greater metabolism that leads to faster fat burning. I also try to avoid eating any meal for at least 3 hours before going to sleep. I like the rule, “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.”
- Avoid domino foods, like nuts and chips from a bottomless bag. I eat nuts for my break (Brazilian nuts are great) but I take out 5 and plan on eating not a single one more.
- Drink plenty of cold water. Cold water in particular makes your body’s metabolism speed up and it is also refreshing (except for Europeans who like to drink their water at room temperature. Sorry for that.) Rain Water is a great brand that is pH balanced. Thanks Richard for that tip. Otherwise for the sake of the environment, drink filtered water.
- Grow an organic garden if at all possible. Gardens have so much more nutrition than even the produce you get from Whole Foods. A study from the University of Irvine showed that organic vegetables have a much higher polyphenol content, a secondary metabolite that helps with a vegetable’s defense against bugs. When there are pesticides, the polyphenol count goes down because the plant does not need to mount a defense against the bug. We get a huge degree of our protection against illness and disease from polyphenols. I have not been sick one day for over two years now, and I do not get the flu shot.
- Do not drink shakes to replace meals unless you do not have a healthier option. I drink a blend of many vegetables in the morning but try to eat at least 1 to 2 hard food meals during the day since our body does better in processing real food and not shakes. If you do not have a healthier option, by all means have a healthy shake. For protein shakes (which are different), please read the exercise pearls section below.
- Read anything written by Michael Pollan. I have summarized a lot of his work here in this blog series. Go to the archives. His magnum opus is The Omnivore’s Dilemma. His shorter book that is equally great is In Defense of Food. That book is actually what started my change toward better health so I owe a lot to him. His newer short book of simply a list of rules (as I am doing here) is called Food Rules and even though I did not buy it because I have read all his other books I think it is brilliant. However, for the non-reader, read Food Rules, as it summarizes all his thinking in pithy one-liners.
- If you are too lazy to read, please watch Food, Inc. It will change the way you see everything. Michael Pollan is prominently featured in it. It is an eye opener.
- Buy local food from local grocers as much as possible. Grassfeed beef is so critical if you eat meat. Cows were not meant to eat corn. You will be surprised that local farmers can actually be cheaper than Whole Foods or other major chains. Just get a dedicated deep freezer to store the meat, which will keep.
- Try not to eat out because it is not healthy for you. My friends who eat out more like My Fit Foods, a place that has prepackaged healthy foods. Don’t know if you have one near you or an alternative to that. Whole Foods
- Be mindful of your food when you chew it. Experience the taste of it rather than scarf it down. Establish a positive relationship with food rather than a negative one. Read Savor, a great book on mindfulness eating.
- Take fish oil and vitamin D. Omega-3s from fish oil regulate blood pressure, resting heart rate and limit sudden death, arrhythmias, etc.; and we simply do not get enough because we do not eat enough fish. Salmon is the best source of omega-3s where tilapia followed by orange roughy are the worst on the list, i.e., those latter fish give very little omega 3s. Do not eat farm raised fish but only wild. (Avoid big fish like tuna that carry more mercury. Watch the extras section of the DVD The Cove and you probably will not eat tuna again.) We need to ingest (if we do not get it from fish) about 1000-2000 mg combined total of EPA and DHA per day so check the backside of your Omega-3 supplements to make sure that you are getting that quantity. With proper Vitamin D we can prevent arthritis, cardiovascular disease, depression, pain, cancer, osteoporosis, hypertension, diabetes, etc. We should shoot for 40-60 ng/ml as a blood level with 30 ng/ml being insufficient and below 20 ng/ml being truly deficient. A recommended dose of supplementation is 2000 IUs per day as a start. In contrast most multi-vitamins only contain 400 IUs.
- Before we talk about exercise, we should talk about sleep. You must get 7 hours of sleep or more even if you tell me you do not need it, your body does. When you don’t sleep enough you risk heart disease but even more importantly you will gain weight. People that do not sleep enough simply start to gain weight because that is what our body does when it is deprived of much needed sleep.
- Use public accountability for your progress. Too often we do everything in private and we do not have people who hold us accountable for our actions so we fall off the wagon very quickly. Our January resolutions for the year disappear by the end of that month. I post my before and after photographs on Facebook and I also have accountability meetings with my Entrepreneur’s group every month for metrics that I must uphold and attain. Find an accountability partner that can help you achieve your goals and stick with them. Your accountability partner has to be as serious as you are or it won’t work. Give yourself a monetary penalty or some other form of shame if you don’t make your weight or your goals.
- Find friends that workout and eat right. You are your friends. The more you hang out with people that are overweight, who do not value exercise and diet, and who scoff what you do, the more that you will become like them. A survey found that the more you associate with fit people, the fitter you become. The more that you hang out with people who are not fit, the less fit that you become. Sorry, that is the truth.
- Use three forms of body weight evaluations. I use a caliper that I bought for $5 (to measure body fat), a Myotape for $5 (that easily allows you to measure body circumferences), and also an Omron body scale (all bought from Amazon) that measures percent body fat, muscle, visceral fat, BMI, etc. (BMI is not important if you are already a muscle lean individual but it is a helpful measurement if you are a bit overweight.) I heard of a cool device theWithings body scale (thanks Richard Jensrud) that is a beautifully designed scale and wifi enabled to sync to your iPhone and to your PC all of your information like BMI, weight, fat percentage, and muscle percentage, but I saw one review on Amazon that says the body fat reading is not that accurate. (I own the Omron and not the Withings body scale.) Try to do the measurements at the same time of day and with the same relationship to food (that is before a meal preferably).
- There are three types of stretching: static, dynamic, and ballistic. We tend to do static stretches before a workout but they do not actually help minimize injury (they don’t increase injury risk either as some believe). However, they can actually compromise performance when dealing with sports that require power and speed, which would be most sports. Ballistic stretches are not that helpful either. They involve rapidly moving back and forth motions. Dynamic stretching, as advocated in the book Dynamic Stretching, involves movement activities like heel and toe walking, spiderman walking, air squats, high knee raises, etc., that can actually minimize injury and help with sports performance. The best thing to do is to find movements that would mimic your sports activity (read Dynamic Stretching for more information). However, static stretching after working out is great, and I do that after every workout for at least 5 minutes if not longer. I have always wondered why we do dynamic forms of stretching before each Crossfit workout. Now I know.
- Quit going to the gym. What? Well, don’t quit going to the gym but as you will see in what I have to describe I believe that traditional gyms are not the best way to get healthy, as I will shortly explain.
- To build a Spartan body will take years not weeks or months. Many people get fooled by a before and after body that is seemingly a magical transformation. In the 6 months that you see of my photos, I am still not close to where I would like to be, but that is part of the fun. There is no end, just a journey like anything else in life. Make it fun and stay on track for a lifelong journey of improvement. Once you change your brain about exercise and diet, you can then take off. Don’t think negative and don’t be impatient for the body you want. Many people use quick fix remedies and try to lose all the weight quickly. That leads to disastrous yo-yoing and skin problems as well as metabolic issues. Plan on losing weight and build muscle slowly. The joke is that the 300 workout will not give you a 300 body (a la the film). The 300 workout was done as a test but not as a regimen, and also the casting directors already picked buff guys that had developed those bodies over years. All they did was refine those bodies by adding harder workouts to get them even more refined for the movie.
- Muscle confusion is what I learned from finishing the home program P90X. When our bodies get used to a certain program, we become very efficient at it. This leads to a stop in growth or a plateau. The more you change it up, the better.
- High-intensity interval training (or HIIT) is what I learned from completing the home program Insanity. (Do not do Insanity unless you are already totally fit or you will hurt yourself.) If you perform very high intensity work with short breaks, you actually reset your metabolism higher so stop looking at how many calories you burn on the treadmill. It does not matter. You want to have a strong afterburn, i.e., how many calories you are burning in the next 2 days that follow your workout. For free workouts, go to bodyrock.tv. It is a great site for those who want a quick workout. The lie is that you have to spend a lot of time in a gym to get fit. All you need is 4 to 20 minutes at home doing high-intensity interval training with a good interval timer. I have all the gadgets that are shown on bodyrock.tv including the Gymboss interval timer, a sandbag, dip bar, jump rope, but more about gadgets in a moment. I also just downloaded the free app (Nike Training Club) for the iPhone that helps you with free HIIT workouts. Have not used it yet. Thanks Ashley from Crossfit for that tip!
- The best speed jump rope is Buddy Lee’s Aero Speed Hyperformance Jump Rope. It is expensive ($40), and you can buy it on Amazon.com.
- The programs that I got from Beachbody that I mentioned above, P90X and Insanity, are great. They are super intense and I would not advise them for someone who is out of shape. You need to work into them. However, what I love about them besides the fact that they are intense is that I can do them at home. In the past, I would say I would never have had the dedication to work out at home because I felt that I needed a class to attend in a gym environment. That all changed in late December 2010 when I realized that I did not need to go to the gym anymore. Believe me, you do not need a gym and you will be disciplined enough to workout at home. Once you have done this you will be amazed at your progress. Your excuse that you can’t go to the gym because you have no time or you have to watch your kids is now officially gone.
- Do not use traditional Nautilus machines since they work your body unnaturally. If you look at a powerlifter versus a sprinter, which body do you think looks more natural and attractive? The answer obviously is the sprinter. Doing compound exercises that require multiple muscles and balance create much leaner and more balanced looking muscles. Mark Lauren’s book, You are Your Own Gym: The Bible of Bodyweight Exercises, will help you understand how to use your bodyweight for exercises to get that body at home without needing a gym. I recommend however push-up bars (I have the power bars by Tony Horton) to limit wrist strain and a great pull up bar (I love my P90X one). I also have the Bowflex SelectTech 552 Adjustable Dumbbells that are amazing because you can dial in any weight without needing a rack of weights at home but be forewarned these dumbbells are expensive, costing about $400 for a pair.
- Work out in the morning. I realize that if I don’t get my workouts in in the morning I have a good chance of not getting the workout in at all. I try to workout 6 days a week if possible. You really need to work out almost every day to get fit. Those weekend warriors (which I was one of them) cannot get fit enough with working out twice a week. It just won’t happen. But as I mentioned above, start slow. Start with a couple times a week and build slowly to 5 to 6 times a week. Read the book, Younger Next Year, for more information on this idea.
- Crossfit- This is extreme again. I love Crossfit gyms. If you have never tried it and you are type A, you will love it. Crossfit is HIIT training that incorporates Olympic weightlifting, kettlebells, etc., in short bursts that are all timed to measure your fitness and intensity. It is truly max effort of 100% that really is the epitome of HIIT. Please consult a doctor before trying this (or anything I have recommended) and be careful if you have body injuries, as Crossfit may worsen them if you are not careful.
- Active.com is dedicated to triathletes. What I learned from this site is that when we constantly stress our bodies just a little bit more, our bodies grow from that stress. However, if we do not listen to our bodies and push through injuries, we lead to injuries that really set us back, if not indefinitely so. So the second half of this advice is listen to your body. When it is in pain, stop. I have come to realize two types of pain: muscle soreness (to me a good thing but then I back off on that area until the soreness dissipates) and ligament and joint pain (by all means, STOP!)
- Get bodywork done. I believe that structural integration or rolfing is the best body manipulation that exists. Michael Solberg, a structural integration expert in my building, has literally saved my body from injury. Over time you start to understand how your body feels and moves; and it is amazing how in tune you become with your body. I literally can guide Michael on where the restriction is and what needs to be done because I am so in tune with my body (but he really does not need my help). Structural integration is focused on releasing fascial (connective tissue) scarring that occurs from just daily living not to mention being a surgeon and an intense fitness devotee. I also get deep-tissue massages whenever I can in my spa (or when I am traveling). Good bodywork is so important as part of any fitness regimen and limits the potential for injury and allows you to advance safely.
- Do yoga (or pilates). I am a huge fan because it also saves my body from injury. When we only do compression workouts (everything I have described until this point), we risk injury and shorten our bodies. Yoga helps me stretch out my body so that I limit the risk of injury but also shape my body favorably. Although structural integration helps me release much of the tightness that yoga helps me do as well, it is not enough. Yoga builds 25% more muscle strength and toning when muscles are eccentrically stimulated. In addition, yoga increases peace, mindfulness, balance, neural integration, posture, and flexibility. These are all important things to have. If you are not enjoying your yoga experience, it is most likely due to two things: inexperience in the field and also choosing the wrong studio. Many gyms that offer yoga offer a “yoga light” version. You should try to find a dedicated studio that matches the style that you like. I cannot recommend a particular style of yoga since you will find what works for you. However, personally I love vinyasa flow yoga. I can promise you that I sweat three times more at yoga than I do at Crossfit or running but my heart rate is lower throughout, and I do not do hot yoga. (Btw, a great yoga mat that absorbs sweat and does not slip when wet is called “The Mat” by the great clothing designer, Lululemon. I stopped using my yogitoes. Thanks Allie for the tip!)
- You must take Whey protein (I recommend Jay Robb since it is from grassfed cows that are not steroid injected) mixed with some kind of fruit immediately after your workout. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. Your body goes into a catabolic (destructive) state after your workout and you are more prone to injury and will try to retain fat if you do not replenish it with nutrients. Eating a piece of chicken won’t cut it. Your body needs broken down protein (Whey is the best) and some kind of glucose (fruit is the best) to drive the protein into your cells. You can build muscles (don’t worry ladies you will not get big if you are not on steroids) and burn fat better if you take this protein shake after a workout. A protein shake is very low calorie typically and is not intended as a meal replacement. Thanks Marzia for this tip. She also recommended taking a combination of glutamine and branch chained amino acids (BCAA) to help with muscle recovery if you are as intense as I am about your fitness training. Skip the creatine. It is not good for your body.
- Get good shoes. Actually get rid of your shoes. The more padding you have in your shoes the more joint problems you can have. Our feet are one of the most complex parts of our body. We were programmed to run and move barefoot. When we wear padded shoes, we lose proprioception (feeling of the ground below us), which causes us to bang our joints even harder without us knowing it. Switching our workouts over to a relatively barefoot or minimalist style shoe should be done slowly because you will have injuries if you do so too quickly and do not build up enough foot strength. Some brands that I recommend are Vibram FiveFingers (the ultimate), Vivo Barefoots, and Merrells. (If you love Nikes, get the Nike Frees. I use those to walk in on my vacations. I prefer those as walking shoes and the Vibrams and Vivos for running where I am forced to run on my forefoot. But I like to walk by striking my heels so Nike Frees are great for a lot of walking, as you do in Manhattan.) Learn more about my feeling about barefoot techniques in the section below on running.
- For runners, I would recommend reading Chi Running (and the DVD) and Barefoot Running. They have both changed the way that I see running. As mentioned above, the type of shoes you wear can truly destroy you or help you. 60 to 80% of runners injure themselves. This is an alarming statistic. This can be easily avoided if one small thing were changed: moving from a heel strike to a forefoot or midfoot strike. The reason that most runners run by striking with their heels is that they wear shoes that are too padded and allow them to do that. If you change your shoes to a minimalist one or even try running for a few steps by striking your heel without shoes you will be screaming in pain. Our body will not allow that. When we strike our foot with our heels we transmit 7 to 8 times our body weight through our ankles, shins, knees, hips, and lower back. Strike with your forefoot and read the books that I have recommended and you can avoid injury. Again, start slowly and do not run very much when starting barefoot even if you are an experienced runner because you will injure yourself if you do not build up foot strength first.
- Eric Franklin balls and imagery. I have just purchased these so I cannot speak much for them yet but am excited to incorporate them. They are rubber balls that build up strength in your toes and make your body conscious of injuries and help you work through areas of tension through related imagery. You can get the book and balls on Amazon.
- For swimmers, read Total Immersion. This book will help you swim much more efficiently and with less fatigue. The concept of this book like Chi Running is to work with your core rather than your arms and legs. We too often think that swimming is an arms and leg activity when it should not be. When we swim with our cores rotating us then we use that as the engine and the arms and legs as propellers. It has changed my relationship to swimming. Great goggles that I love are the Italian-made Aqua Sphere Kayenne: they are sexy and do not leak.
- Get a kettlebell. Kettlebells as popularized by ex-Soviet Pavel Tsatsouline are an amazing way to workout and build total body strength, lose weight, and tone your body in virtually minutes. I got this idea from Crossfit but more importantly from the book, The 4-Hour Body. The one that I own is the Weider version that allows for different interchangeable weights and I totally recommend watching the DVD, Enter the Kettlebell, by Pavel Tsatsouline. You do not need to buy the book. The DVD will help you minimize injury and optimize your form.
- TRX system. The TRX system is a great bodyweight trainer that I own. I use it for atomic pushups and to work out my back. Just Google it to see what it can do.
- Buy a sandbag. The purpose of the sandbag is to make your muscles adjust as you lift the bag thereby improving balance and firing off more muscles recruited during the exercise. The best one to buy on the market is the Ultimate Sandbag, which is a bit pricey but worth it for the quality. You have to buy some Play Sand for a couple of bucks from Home Depot to fill it up.
- For indoor cyclists, I love Spinervals training DVDs. I use that at home on my home exercise bike. They really get you through a spin class without having to attend one. I did spin class for ten years but now I only integrate a spin class a couple of times per month to mix up my other routines. I think just doing spin all the time can make your body too used to the same motion, and as mentioned above make it too efficient leading to stunted improvement in overall fitness goals.
As all of you know, I am not a fitness expert and value the input of my dear colleagues who are. I would also like to thank them for their valuable assistance and guidance in helping me be more fit. Why be more fit? So that you look and feel better than you ever have. As Todd Whitthorne from Cooper Aerobics said, it is about “squaring off the curve”. What that means is that our lives should be rock solidly high in quality and then we die one day, which unfortunately is inevitable. This is opposed to how most of our bodies go without proper diet and exercise, which is a slow downturn until we barely can wipe applesauce off our chins on the day we die. One day you will wake up barely able to get out of bed with chronic pain. But remember the words of Jake Lalanne who was doing bench presses a week before he died at 96 years of age: “Inactivity is the killer, and remember, it’s never too late.” Hope you found this blog inspiring and also I am open to your input, as I am always learning too!
BTW, I HAVE UPDATED THIS BLOG IN SEPARATE SECTIONS. YOU CAN FIND THE NEW BLOG POSTS HERE