Archives for May 2011

Building up your Health Account

Go and read this excellent post about preventative healthcare. Then come right back here. I want to add a couple more points that are more applicable to the already-an-exerciser reader.

Building up your Health Account.

For those of you who already eat well and exercise frequently (particularly those who weight train) might I also suggest a little preventative maintenance of another type?

Regular foam rolling and massage therapy.

Just because you aren’t feeling any pain doesn’t mean that your body is working efficiently. Strength training without adequate stretching and myofascial release (‘unsticking’ the muscles from the surrounding ligaments and tendons) can lead to tight muscles and compensatory imbalances.

Over time, those imbalances may increase your risk of injury and lead to chronic pain.

Think of stretching and massage as deposits in your wellness bank!

The thing about willpower

For the last two weeks I’ve been participating in the ‘No sugar challenge’. Attempting to increase my awareness of the ingredients in the products I buy and rid my diet of unnecessary, added sugars.

All in all, it went pretty well. I have more energy, my mood is more even, the ‘afternoon slump’ has disappeared and I’ve signed up for another round just to make sure the changes I’ve made get a chance to become habits.

What’s been most surprising about the challenge are the responses I get from others when I tell them about it.

“But I can’t drink my coffee without sugar”

“I need a cookie or a ____ (insert your vice here) mid-afternoon to get through my day”

“I wish I had your willpower


The words ‘can’t’ and ‘need’ imply that some terrible fate will befall you if you don’t indulge. Yes, your coffee might taste different without the sugar, but give yourself a week to re-train your taste buds and you won’t miss it (trust me, I just gave up a 20 year addiction to chocolate syrup in my morning coffee and the world didn’t come to an end). No, you don’t need that mid-afternoon treat, try a piece of fruit instead; in a few days it will seem sweet enough and as an added bonus, they’ll be no pre-dinner sugar crash!

As for ‘willpower’, it’s not some magical virtue that you either have or don’t have. We are all tempted by something, be it food, alcohol or expensive yarn. It’s simple impulse control. Making a thoughtful decision about what you will or won’t do, knowing that your decision has consequences and may hinder or help you to reach your goals.

We expect children to control their impulses to hit their friends. As adults, we practice impulse control on a daily basis. We refrain from telling our boss what we really think of him. Although we may be tempted, we don’t ram our car into the vehicle that just cut us off. We don’t tell our best friend that her new boyfriend is a cad. Yet when it comes to food, we blame our inability to curb those impulses on ‘willpower’.

The thing about ‘willpower’ is, it’s just a word we use to rationalize poor decisions.

This week, practice making mindful decisions about nutrition. Think about the consequences of your actions before you indulge. Make a habit of controlling your impulses. Join me in the two week no sugar challenge.

Before you know it, your friends will be commenting on your ‘willpower’!

The one in which she posts a no-sugar dessert recipe

Yesterday was Friday; at my house that means dessert. It was also Day 13 of the Two Week No Sugar Challenge.

Last Friday I dealt with this dilemma by making a variation of The Gracious Pantry’s No Sugar Challenge Strawberry and Rhubarb Crisp. It was delicious and well-received by three of the five members of my family.

This week, I have been hankering for a fruity bread pudding. Not sure why. I’ve only eaten bread pudding twice in my life and I’ve never made one from scratch. Usually my dessert dreams include chocolate. Lots of it.

Perhaps it’s because I haven’t been eating very much bread. Maybe it’s those ‘monthly’ carb cravings (do you get these too?). More than likely it’s the 4 pound package of incredibly sweet strawberries Thrifty was selling for $4.99!

Whatever the reason, I spent most of Thursday evening scouring my cookbooks and the internet for both basic and clean recipes. Most of the traditional instructions call for lots of sugar; white, brown and honey. Even Tosca’s recipe required artificial sweetener.

In addition to sugar, the rest of the ingredients were pretty standard; bread (of course), milk and eggs. I decided that it wouldn’t be too hard to wing it create my own recipe.

fitknitchick’s Craving Killer Bread Pudding

  • 4 cups day-old bread chunks (I used a local organic whole-wheat sourdough)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 and 2/3 cups 1% milk
  • 1 Tbsp cinnamon (I could have used even more)
  • 1 tsp ginger powder
  • 2/3 cup slivered almonds
  • 2 cups sliced strawberries (you could easily use raspberries, blackberries or blueberries too)
  1. Whisk eggs, milk, cinnamon and ginger in a large glass bowl. Gently stir in bread chunks. Let sit for 10 minutes, until bread has soaked up most of the liquid.
  2. Fold in strawberries and almonds.
  3. Scrape batter into lightly greased 8 x 8 inch glass pan.
  4. Place pan in a water bath in the center of a 350 degree oven (I used a 9 x 13 inch backing dish. Hint; place smaller pan inside larger pan before adding water to the latter.)
  5. Bake for 45-60 min, or until cake tester comes out relatively clean.
  6. Serve warm!
I served my with a side of whipped cream (made the old-fashioned way, with beaters and patience and no sugar).

The verdict? Absolutely fabulous!

What a great way to finish up the no sugar challenge (which, by the way, I plan to continue with for another two weeks; it takes 3 to 4 weeks for a new habit to form and I’m not quitting half-way!).

Have a great, naturally sweet, Saturday!

A change is as good as a rest!

As a personal trainer at a public facility, I have a lot of occasional or sporadic clients (somehow the word ‘irregular’ doesn’t seem quite right…). Clients who see me not for regular training sessions, but for a new program to do on their own.

Inevitably, the question ‘how long should I stay on this program‘ arises. Now of course, the answer depends on the client’s individual training goals and how frequently (and with what intensity) they execute their program. But in general, I suggest that they should be ready to have their program ‘tweaked’ in about 3 weeks and overhauled in 5 to 6.



The human body adapts very quickly to any new demand placed upon it. While our muscles are initially challenged by a new exercise or an increase in load or volume (more reps or sets), within as little as two weeks, our muscles may stop responding unless further challenged. That’s why weight training is also called ‘progressive resistance’ training. In order to continue make gains, you need to continually increase the challenge to your body.

In addition to hitting physical plateaus, it’s also easy to become bored with your exercise routine. In my experience, psychological plateaus usually kick in at the 3-4 week mark. When my clients become bored with their programs, they find reasons to stop coming to the gym. Or worse yet, I find them pounding out miles and miles on the treadmill or the elliptical, often while reading a magazine or talking on the phone. Not my idea of a high intensity workout and completely contradictory to my views on the relative value of strength training and cardio (but that’s a post for another day…).

In my own training, I aim to stick with a planned program for 4 to 6 weeks. While this is a longer programming interval that I recommend to my clients, I make small changes to my program on a weekly basis. I increase load or advance at least one exercise every 2nd or 3rd workout. I change the angle of my bench to target different muscle fibers. I add longer bouts of plyometrics every week or two. In effect, my program is continually changing. (Not to mention that I teach 4-8 group fitness classes per week, never repeating a workout; my body never knows what’s going to hit it next!)

I’ve spent the last few months working through phases 1 and 2 of the New Rules of Lifting for Abs.

It’s been a great program. My core strength has definitely increased and I’ve regularly upped my weights on all of the exercises except one (after I hurt my knee doing heavy step ups, I backed off on the load and just concentrated on proper form). There is a phase 3, but I’m ready for a break from whole body, core-based training. I’m a bit bored with it!

For the next little while, I’ll be returning to a more classic way of training, working 2 or 3 body parts at a time for a total of three days per week in the weight room. That means I’ll only be training shoulders, say, once per week. My reps will be in the 8-10 range and I’ll be using a super- or tri-set approach, as is appropriate for my current goal of putting on a bit more size. As long as my weights are heavy enough, I’ll continue to burn fat. I’ll get my cardio done on the step and in the spinning studio.

Out of necessity (three school age children on summer holidays!), I’ll need to switch it up again in about 5 weeks. Too difficult to get to the gym regularly, I’ll most likely revert to my summer approach of TRX-ing in the backyard and working extra hard in the classes I teach (participants be warned!).

Shall I put together some sample at-home workouts to get you through the summer?

Remember, change is as good as a rest!

P.S. Day 12 of the No Sugar Challenge and counting…

No sugar tonight

“No sugar tonight in my coffee
No sugar tonight in my tea
No sugar to stand beside me
No sugar to run with me”

The Guess Who

It’s the start of the second week of the ‘No sugar challenge’ and today has been a banner day!

No-sugar latte and a bowl of overnight oats for breakfast (I added almond butter, fresh cherries and a few coconut flakes to my usual recipe).

Lunch was a whole wheat wrap with chicken, peppers, mushrooms and a bit of feta cheese. Yum, yum!

I snacked on a homemade protein bar in the morning and a banana mid-afternoon.

For dinner we ate crockpot (I found it!) chicken in pesto-tomato sauce and roast mushrooms and asparagus (I am just in love with roasted veggies lately; I like to serve them over raw spinach for a warm, wilted salad).

But tonight is Sunday and in my house that means dessert!

Faced with the pressure of making something to satisfy my family’s sweet expectations, but determined not to eat any sugar myself, I searched my Clean Eating cookbooks for something that would make everyone happy (I need to give up on the idea that I will ever be able to make them all happy…). No luck. While there were lots of clean desserts, they all contained some form of sugar or sugar substitute.

Then I remembered that Tiffany of The Gracious Pantry, had created some recipes specifically for the challenge. A quick perusal of her web site revealed a possibility; Clean-eating strawberry rhubarb crisp. Not only is there no added sugar in this recipe (it’s sweetened by fruit and some apple juice concentrate), there’s also no butter! And the bonus? Oats and quinoa on top!

Only one problem. I had no rhubarb. My husband harvested a few paltry stocks from our garden yesterday, but had eaten them by the time I got around to making dessert. A quick check of the freezer revealed a bag of frozen blackberries (we have a ton of wild blackberry plants in our neighbourhood and pick a freezer full every summer). A perfect replacement for the rhubarb (in my opinion, never having been a big rhubarb fan).

The verdict? Absolutely fabulous!

I ate mine warm, fresh from the oven (the recipe advises you to freeze it before slicing and eating, but mine was sufficiently thick that this step seemed unnecessary). Hubby missed the whole ‘no sugar’ point of this dessert and added vanilla ice cream. My oldest son even asked for seconds! (children number 2 and 3 would have nothing to do with it and were instead given one of their dad’s home baked chocolate chip cookies; I have not given up on them though!).

With a happy, full tummy, I retired to the couch with my knitting and a cup of ginger tea; no sugar tonight in my tea!

Can I really go 14 days without sugar?

Last week I mentioned a great clean eating blog I found on the web; The Gracious Pantry (wonderful, clean recipes and fabulous food photography). On Saturday, I followed a link from this website to another inspirational site; Fit Fabulous Forever (more wonderful, clean eating recipes and lots of tips about exercise and weight loss).

Not sufficient with being incredible mentors on their own, the authors (Tiffany and Gale, respectively) of these two sites have teamed up to create ‘The 14-day No Sugar Challenge‘. The goal of the challenge is exactly as it sounds; eliminate all forms of processed sugar (including, but not limited to white sugar, brown sugar, glucose-fructose, honey, maple syrup and agave nectar) from your diet for fourteen days.

Always up for a challenge 🙂 , I decided to join in!

Now I knew where my weaknesses would be; Hershey’s chocolate syrup in my morning coffee, a handful of chocolate chips mid-afternoon, dessert on Fridays and Sundays. But it’s only two weeks. I don’t anticipate that I will go completely sugar-free once this challenge is over; I really look forward to and enjoy dessert nights with my family. For me this challenge is more about finding those extras that I can live without.

I started by taking a look in my pantry. Since I don’t tend to buy candy or packaged baked goods (I bake my own, often cleaning up old favourites by subbing in whole wheat flour, bran and flax seed for white flour, applesauce or pumpkin puree for the fat, and brown sugar for white) and make a habit of reading product labels before I buy, I figured that my cupboards wouldn’t reveal too many forbidden items.

Was I ever wrong.

All of my favourite “healthy” products (you know, those ‘low in fat’, ‘high fibre’, ‘good source of protein’ ones?) contained added sugars.

Kashi Go Lean Crunch; evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup and honey; 15 g of sugar per serving
Kashi Seven Whole Grains and Almonds Chewy bars; evaporated cane juice syrup, honey and cane juice molasses; 5 g of sugar per serving
President’s Choice Blue Menu Omega-3 almond vanilla granola; brown sugar, sugar and honey; 10 g of sugar per serving
Aunt Jemima Buttermilk Pancake and Waffle mix; sugar, dextrose, glucose solids; 3 g of sugar per serving
Nature’s Path Organic Instant Oatmeal; granulated organic cane juice; 11 g of sugar per serving

Now I realize that these sugar counts are relatively low (as compared with say, 3 Oreo cookie or a small bag of red Twizzlers; 14 and 28 g, respectively), and in all likelihood, when this no-sugar challenge is over, I will go back to including them in my diet (perhaps less frequently…). But for me, this exercise is more about increasing my awareness of the presence of added, and unnecessary sugar, in my diet. Given the link between sugar consumption and weight gain, this is surely a good thing!

I’ve slipped up a couple of times; hubby made chocolate chip cookies (the un-clean kind) and even though he tucked them away, out of sight, I could still smell them and had to have a taste (but I stopped at just one!); the remainder of my daughter’s after school granola bar; a beer during the hockey game (Go Canucks Go!). But I’ve given up my morning mocha for a non-fat latte and don’t miss the chocolate in my coffee at all.

You can follow my daily progress and updates on Facebook (go ahead, ‘friend’ me, Tamara Grand, I won’t bite!) and what the rest of the challenge participants are up to on the Fit Fabulous Forever forum.

What have you got to lose (other than your sweet tooth?)!

A few of my favorite (green) things

Well, spring has finally arrived on the west coast. Tank tops and flip flops, here I come! Everywhere I look I see green. Wanna know what my favourite green things are?

Creamy, ripe avocado. One of the best heart-healthy fats out there and a great addition to your favourite salad or sandwich. I use it as a replacement for mayonnaise in tuna, salmon or chicken salad. Yum, yum!

My kitchen garden. Full of an incredible assortment of beautiful plants, including my favourites, Solomon’s Seal and Hostas. Now that spring’s finally here (I did mention that, didn’t I?), I can finally spend time in my garden, sipping tea (green tea!) and perhaps, knitting a bit…

A spinach salad. Pair your iron-rich spinach with tomatoes, peppers or some other source of vitamin C to really up your absorption of this much needed mineral. I dress mine with a combination of home-made pesto, sun dried tomatoes, garlic and extra virgin olive oil.

My gym buddies; Lululemon gym bag, Pearl Izumi spin shoes and Nathan water bottle. There isn’t a day that I leave home without this winsome trio. And no, I didn’t purchase them to match, it just happened that way!

A recently finished shawl. Knit in Saffron Dyeworks Enya. The colour is ‘Frog Blancmange’, perfect for the leaf-inspired stitch pattern. Doesn’t it just scream spring?

This knit is a gift for my son’s grade 1 teacher, who retires at the end of the school year. She has done so much to nurture him through kindergarten and grade 1, as well as being his older sister’s kindergarten teacher too. I thought it would be appropriate to knit her something to place around her shoulders as a way of thanking her for all the hugs she has bestowed on my children over the years.

Happy retirement Cathy and happy spring (yes, it’s finally spring!) to you all!

Want to live a long and healthy life? Exercise like your ancestors!

The other day my husband left a research article for me on the kitchen counter (my ‘unofficial office’). This, in and of itself, is not unusual. He is a professor of evolutionary biology and spends much of his day searching through on-line data bases for new literature. He frequently stumbles upon things he thinks are relevant to my work. What was unusual above this article was the fact that I took the time to read it!

Scholarly articles are often dry, laborious reading, full of jargon that is impenetrable to the non-expert. I know this from personal experience, having spent 15 years of my life as an academic and being the author of more than 20 published (and jargon-laden) scientific articles! (Note that it’s only other specialists’ terminology that we refer to as ‘jargon’, our own is merely ‘technical’ or ‘specific’…)

This one was different. It was engaging and easy to read and focused on a topic near and dear to my heart; the relationship between lifestyle (exercise and nutrition) and health and longevity.

Exercise like a hunter-gatherer: a prescription for organic physical fitness. O’Keefe, J.H., Vogel, R., Lavie, C.J. And Cordain, L. 2011. Progress in Cardiovascular Disease 53:471-479.

The authors argue that many of the health concerns of modern human beings (including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, musculoskeletal disorders, sleep quality and immunodeficiency) are a direct result of current “daily physical activity patterns that are profoundly different from those for which we are genetically adapted”.

For nearly 85,000 generations, humans lived as hunter-gatherers. They expended a large number of calories each day while engaging in activities directly related to their survival; foraging, hunting, building and repairing shelters and confronting predators. Over the last 350 generations, humans have made dramatic ‘advances’, resulting in the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and more recently, the digital age. As life became physically easier, humans became more and more sedentary.

Estimates suggest that hunter-gatherers expended about five times as much energy per day as the average modern North American. Five times!

What types of physical activities did hunter-gathers engage in? Walking, jogging, sprinting, climbing, jumping, bending, digging and carrying. Women typically carried their children until they were about 4 years of age, often for long distances and for much of the day.

Their daily activities included short bouts of strenuous effort (lifting a heavy rock, pursuing wild game). They alternated high intensity days with less physically demanding ones (resting or remaining close to home after a big hunt). Spending much of their days outside, they obtained adequate sun exposure to stimulate their bodies to produce appropriate levels of vitamin D (vitamin D deficiency has been linked to cardiovascular disease).

Our ancestors were not only much more physically active than we are, they engaged in a wide variety of physical activities, including aerobic and anaerobic cardiovascular training and strength training, on a daily basis. Sounds like cross-training, doesn’t it?

The authors conclude that “natural selection shaped [humans] not to run marathons or exclusively lift extremely heavy weights but rather to survive and thrive as very active outdoor generalists in the wild…the cross-training… regimens that appear to be ideal for developing and maintaining fitness and general health…are similar to the lifestyle required of the typical hunter-gatherer”.

How can we apply these ideas to our modern lives? Clearly, we can’t go back to our hunter-gatherer days, but are there some ways we can incorporate their lifestyle into ours?

My daughter and I brainstormed and came up with the following;

  • Walk to the grocery store; buy only what you can carry home. Two moderately heavy grocery bags (cloth please!) will challenge your muscles and your heart.
  • Push your stroller; even better, carry your small child in a backpack or baby carrier. Think of this as progressive resistance training; you will get stronger as your body continually adapts to your ever-growing load.
  • Take the stairs, not the elevator. ‘Nuff said.
  • Ditch your remote control; get off the couch and change channels manually. (My children can’t believe that this is the way we used to do things…).
  • Hang your washing on the line to dry. Lots of bending, lifting and reaching to stretch and elongate your muscles. A little vitamin D won’t hurt either!
  • Leave a little earlier and walk your child to school. You’ll both be getting some exercise and the extra parent-child quality time is a wonderful bonus.
  • Make more of your meals from scratch. Washing, cutting, pounding, kneading and stirring use more energy than opening a box or can, or even worse, dialling the phone to order take out! Involve your children in meal preparation.

  • Plant, tend and harvest fruit and vegetables from your own garden. In addition to the physical effort required to grow your own food, you can be sure it’s pesticide and herbicide free.

Can you think of anything to add to our list?

Overnight oatmeal; new to me and maybe to you too!

Ok. So I’m late to the party. Seems like everybody BUT me knows about overnight oats.

Yesterday, while following an aimless path through fitness and nutrition blogs, I found a new (to me) clean eating website. The Gracious Pantry. (Go have a look, I’ll wait!). I know, pretty great, huh?

The author’s mission is to take your favorite recipes (you know, the ones full of sugar and unhealthy fat) and turn them into something clean and delicious. She regularly posts new recipes and you can sign up for email notifications of new posts (incidentally, you can do this with my blog too; look for the subscription button in the bottom right corner of this page 😉 ).

While looking through past recipes, I came across one for Clean Eating Overnight Oatmeal. While the recipe looked delicious, it required a crock pot. Not a big problem, but mine was buried in the back of the corner cabinet behind the bread maker, the Mr. Coffee (a wedding gift that gets used once a year), some pot lids whose pots have long disappeared and a lot of miscellaneous plastic ware. Do-able, but a bit of an imposition.

Half-way down the page, the author made reference to simply soaking your oats in liquid over night and suggested that this was a commonly known method of making overnight oats.

Two minutes later, a Google search rewarded me with thousands of references to ‘overnight oats’. Seems like fitness and nutrition bloggers have been talking about them for some time and have published a ton of recipes including everything from chocolate to pumpkin to spinach. The basic recipe is dead-simple, three ingrediants and you can add whatever seasonings, fruits, vegetables and nuts you like (or in my case, whatever needs to be eaten up before it reaches the ‘best before date’ 🙂 ).

Are you ready for it?

  1. 1 part oats (not instant, the longer-cooking the better)
  2. 1 part liquid (water, milk, almond milk, soy milk; you choose)
  3. 1 part yogurt (flavored, unflavored, organic or not, low-fat; I prefer President’s Choice 0% fat Greek yogurt ’cause it’s full of protein!)

Mix ingredients together, add your favorite extras, cover and refrigerate over night (or at least 4 hours). The oats will soak up the liquid and in the morning you will have a thick, gooey, oatmeally mess. 

You can eat it cold. You can let it warm up on the counter for a few minutes. You can pop it in the microwave. 

I used 1/3 cup oats, 1/3 cup low fat milk and 1/3 cup 0% fat Greek Yogurt. This morning (or rather, last night), I added the following to the mix;

  • 1 Tbsp almond butter (no sugar, no salt)
  • 1 tsp unsweetened, shredded coconut
  • 1 Tbsp sundried cherries

Just before eating, I microwaved the bowl for about 15 seconds and threw a handful of sliced almonds on the top (if you like crunch, don’t add your crunchy ingredients until the last minute). A nice, balanced mix of complex, whole-grain carbs, lean protein and heart-healthy fat. Calorie count would have been somewhere between 350 and 400.

Yum, yum! Quick, no pot to clean up and I could eat it while making everybody else’s breakfasts and packing up their lunches. Even got me through a high-energy spin class, with enough left in my tank to hit the weight room!

Overnight oats will definitely become a regular item on my breakfast menu. I’m thinking banana and peanut butter for tomorrow, apple and cashew butter on Friday, pumpkin and maple syrup on Saturday…