Ask the MisFits

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Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Health Section
Tuesday, July 24, 2007; 11:00 AM

He's a veteran reporter, digging up the latest fitness news. She's an irreverent columnist with a knack for getting people off the couch and into the gym. Together, they're here to handle your worst work-out dilemmas and exercise questions.

Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider are the MisFits, The Post's new fitness writers. They were online Tuesday, July 24 at 11 a.m. to take your questions.

A transcript follows.

Discussion Archive.

Howard Schneider: Morning everyone...Well that was a great weekend we just had -- wonderful weather for playing outside and I hope you took advantage of it. My wife and I rode the Rock Creek and Capital Crescent Trails together on Sunday, and I got out Saturday with the Potomac Pedalers for a quick ride around Montgomery County. For anybody trying to get started with an exercise program, this is the time of year to do it. It might be hot during much of the day, but those hours early in the morning and right around dusk are tailor made for a good walk or run. I've been BEGGING Vicky to unplug her treadmill, but alas, she is inveterate on that accord.

Vicky Hallett: Hey kids. I spent the weekend hoofing it around Philly, where the weather was similarly gorgeous. And there's a lot of good food around to keep one's energy level up...

Howard Schneider: Vicky was your cheesesteak wid or widdout...

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Vicky Hallett: Welcome back gang! Before we get going on today's round of questions, let's quickly flashback to last week. Our pal Anonymous wrote in about the fact that she's curvy in one hip and boyish in the other. And boy, did you have suggestions for her.
-A huge gang emailed to say that she should get checked out for scoliosis. Anonymous' description seemed spot on, and since she's a bit older, there's a chance she was never diagnosed as a kid.
-Another possibility? One leg is shorter than the other. A reader said her daughter has fixed the problem with an inexpensive lift in her shoe.
-Perhaps, Anonymous, if you're out there, you're a gardener? Or a horseback rider? Katie from Clarksville thinks you may have overdeveloped one side of your body that way.
-Laura Collins, author of "Eating With Your Anorexic," suggests she might have body dysmorphic disorder, meaning that it's all in her mind.
-And, finally, Norm from Falls Church says he fixed a similar problem by switching which side he slept on. Can't vouch for the scientific basis for that, but there you go.
Whew! Anyway, what's on your mind this morning?

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Washington, D.C.: I'm what you call a shy person but am tired of working out home alone. I want to try different workouts with a group but necessarily have a gym membership. What do you suggest?

Howard Schneider: I'm not always the most outgoing either, but I find that having a workout group or buddy helps a lot with motivation and consistency, so I bet getting out of the house will not only be more fun but boost your activity as well...Not knowing where you live or what you like to do, it is hard to get too specific, but here are some thoughts:
1) Neighborhood or city rec centers are bound to offer some programming, as are local churches or social groups.

2) Call the nearest YMCA and ask for ideas -- those guys are in the business of helping you be active even if you are not a member.

3) Poll your neighbors and find out if any go on regular walks -- if not suggest it as a way to exercise and make friends.

4) If there is a specific activity you enjoy, you'll probably find a club devoted to it in the area...Here for example, is a link to a list of local running groups...
Good Luck!

Vicky Hallett: You sound like you might also be a good candidate for boot camp. Folks who like them are attracted to being told what to do to get in shape, of course, but there's also the added bonus of making new friends. People you sweat with regularly get to know a lot about you quickly.
Also, how about a sports team? D.C. is sports league central.

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Hartford, Conn.: I once heard that drinking a skim latte mostly every day for a year can pack on about 3-5 lbs. I think I have succeeded! In an effort to lose those excess lbs, which I believe is just sugar, I have decided to nix them from my daily routine. Instead I am trying diet soda, what are your thoughts?

Vicky Hallett: Hmm, Hartford. I'm all for you cutting back on sugar, but diet soda might not be the best substitute. Did you see the study that just came out that said that diet soda drinkers have the same heart risk as people who drink the regular stuff?
I'm generally not a big fan of fake sugar. Personally, I don't think it tastes good. But it's also much sweeter than the real deal and that can make you crave sweeter foods all of the time.
But I'm getting in Sally Squires territory here...I bet at 1 p.m. she'll have some good advice for you.

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Re Hartford: Hartford should replace the skim latte with coffee plus a little bit (i.e., a couple of tablespoons) of skim milk, without sugar. That's healthier than a diet soda. Or black tea.

Vicky Hallett: Better beverage suggestions for Hartford. Thanks!

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Arlington, Va.: I'd like to start taking yoga classes, but I'm not sure what's the best way to jump in. Should I read some books/try some videos at home first, so I'm not completely lost at that first class, or would I be setting myself to have bad form? And what kind of shoes does one wear to a yoga class?

Vicky Hallett: If you're nervous about walking into your first yoga class cold, there are approximately a gazillion books and DVDs to choose from. Gaiam.com is a good source for solid stuff.
But I think you'll enjoy the DVDs more if you've been to a few classes first. Start with one that's for beginners. Sometimes studios will have special seminars specifically for yoga virgins, but a level 1 class should do, too. I know a newbie who had a good experience at Edge Yoga on Wilson, which is maybe near you? (And he's a he, for all of you yoga-shy dudes out there.) If you're nervous that it's your first time, get there early and chat with the instructor ahead of time so you can get a few pointers.
And footwear is easy: You go barefoot. Or, if you find that gross, there are a bunch of yoga socks available. ToeSox and Crescent Moon are two popular brands.
Good luck, and keep us updated on how it goes!

Howard Schneider: Keep in mind there are also many different styles of yoga, as outlined in this article...Some are more intense, some more strength building, some more focused on meditative practice and breath...Read the primer and that may help you in the search for a class...And don't worry about form or "not fitting in..." Good instructors will walk you through it in a very safe and deliberate way...

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Arlington, Va.: I live right off of Lee Highway about a mile from the Key Bridge. This past weekend I rode to Roosevelt Island and on to Mt. Vernon and back. This was the longest I have biked before (I own a Hybrid.) I was unaware of how long it would actually take me, as it was about 4.5 hours. Come to discover that my back tire was low on air so I was able to fix that at one of the shops conveniently located on the trail. However, how much time should that take and for a 130lb woman, how many calories do you think I burned?

Howard Schneider: Congrats on finishing that route -- sounds like you rode about 38 miles round trip. The calories burned is a tricky one because it depends on how fast you were going and the grade of the trail -- not to mention that pesky tire. Having low tire pressure means you were fighting more friction than needed. I plugged 4.5 hours of general biking into this calculator for a 135 pound person and got 2,315. Play with the variables yourself, based on how hard you thought you rode -- and again, congrats...

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Alexandria, Va.: This weekend I bought one of those resistance tubes so that I could do a little toning/weight training at home or when I travel. It came with a guide book, but it didn't really offer a routine. Where can I find a good routine that uses resistance tubing? And are resistance tubes really effective (I saved the receipt).

Vicky Hallett: They're definitely effective -- and they're especially great if you want to take something on the road while you're traveling.
As for a routine, I have a great DVD from the Firm that I can't find online anywhere (so, I'm not sure you can grab that one). But there are others out there, and books too. Any chatters have good experience with one?
Another option: Ask a trainer to come up with a routine for you.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi there. I suppose I'm looking for reassurance rather than an answer to a specific question. I cleaned up my diet and started walking 45 minutes a day/5-6 days a week in mid-May. I lost 6 pounds the first two weeks. Then I started weight lifting. Light and sporadic at first, but now I've worked up to a specific program with increasing poundage. I started taking my measurements in mid-June. I have lost inches (not a ton -- about an inch or so in each measuring location) and my clothes are certainly getting looser. So what's the problem? I have not lost a single pound since I started weight lifting. Not one! I'm aware that since my clothes are getting looser, this must mean that I'm losing fat while gaining muscle (I would say I need to lose about 20 pounds). But I can't tell you how frustrating it is to see that number not change at all. I've put the scale away, but I have to admit it's bothering me. Any pointers for breaking my scale addiction?

Vicky Hallett: Yes! Smash the scale to smithereens and get yourself a body composition monitor! (Or, get someone at your gym to measure you at regular intervals.)
As you've noticed, you can shrink your problem areas without losing any pounds. Your clothes are an awesome way to gauge that you're still making progress. But if you want to see numbers that prove that point, a body composition monitor will let you know that your fat percentage is dropping.

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London: Hi!

I'm looking to add some variety to my workout of cardio and weights. I'd like to try adding swimming at least two days a week for half an hour, but I hear conflicting things on if it is really a good calorie burner... I'm looking to tone up and drop about 10 pounds. Should I add some swimming or just stick to cycling and walking? Thanks!

Howard Schneider: This is all relative to the intensity of what you are doing and how long you sustain it (and related to that, how much you like it...)
Of all the things you have put into play, I find cycling to offer the most intense calorie burn -- you're chugging those big leg and gluteal muscles around and around.
You'll burn more calories running at 6 mph for an hour than you would swimming for the same, but if you're comparison is with walking then maybe not (of course that depends on how hard you swim...see why it's hard to answer clearly?)
Lets look at it a different way: Doing a variety of things is good for you. Keeping track of what you do, and doing more of it, more intensely over time, will help you lose weight and become healthier. Keep those two principles in mind and you'll do fine -- swim, bike, run, fly a kite -- whatever tickles your fancy.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm not a regular exerciser, but have noticed that I'm not maintaining my weight since a move now has me taking the bus to/from work instead of walking the half hour each way (as I used to for 5 years). Can you recommend a good treadmill or elliptical that is small/compact in size or foldable? I live in a small apt and don't have room to keep a large machine out at all times.

Thank you.

Howard Schneider: Hi...I don't know of any size-efficient machines offhand, but from what I have seen around the stores and worked with in gyms, I'd be really skeptical about the existence of such a device. I am not an engineer, but I am guessing there is a trade off between size and weight and durability. Treadmills and elliptical take a lot of pounding. My parents had a very small, cheap treadmill on their backporch -- and it was virtually unsable...
You open to other ideas? First, seems that if you were in the habit of walking that hour a day, you might make time to continue it. I know your commute has changed, but even prolonging your walk to the bus and back home will mimic what you were doing. Also, in terms of compact home equipment, think more broadly: There are some great, multi-use dumbbells that let you dial different weights (giving you one piece of equipment versus eight or ten of different weights)...Jump ropes and medicine balls are awesome...A stability ball can be inflated and deflated as needed...
And if you are worried strictly about cardio, how about trying out a couple of aerobics videos...Sounds corny, but I used to haul them around to hotels and they are actually kind of fun...

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Rockville, Md.: Some people write in with work out schedules longer than my work week. I was wondering if all of that is necessary. I know that the government recommends 30 minutes a day and that training athletes obviously need much more but where is the happy medium? I am a healthy woman and reasonably active at work (research scientist on my feet most of the day) what should my work out time be if I'm not trying to lose weight or really make any fitness strides?

Howard Schneider: Sounds like you are blessed with an interesting job that keeps you moving and a metabolism that's in pretty good balance with your daily life...Want to swap?
I think there is a real disconnect between the deluge of fitness advice from the government and media, and the time constraints we all feel in our life. The missing piece of the equation -- and something we don't get counseled on too much -- regards goal setting: Where do you stand, what do you need to be healthy, and how far beyond that do you want to go?
It may be that you are walking so much at work, and your genetic makeup is such that you don't need to do much.
I would recommend you look at some sort of resistance training a couple of times a week -- just to make sure you maintain muscle and range of motion in the joints, and, as a woman, keep osteoporosis at bay...Maybe that's it...If your blood pressure and weight are all in line, count yourself among the lucky and invent something cool that we will all enjoy...

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Cleveland Park, D.C.: Good Morning,

I would like to try Pilates in the privacy of my apartment before venturing out to classes. Can you recommend a beginner's Pilates tape to start with? Also, how much room do I need for such a workout? My apartment is predictably tiny.

Thanks!

Vicky Hallett: I've loved the Winsor Pilates series. And again, Gaiam.com has tons of super options for Pilates, too. Pretty much anything in their beginner selection is good.
I do a lot of working out to DVDs in my teeny apartment, and I generally haven't had a problem. Sometimes you need to move over the coffee table or scootch over more frequently than the instructor on the DVD, but they're generally filmed with small spaces in mind.

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Burke, Va.: Hi guys,

Enjoyed the column on weight training. I've recently started adding weights to my routine of cardio, and do weights about 3 times a week, mostly focusing on abs and upper body. My question is, how many reps/sets should I do to tone up and lose inches, rather than bulk up? (I'm a 23-year old female.) Thanks!!!

Howard Schneider: Many of the trainers I have talked to think "toning" is something of a misnomer, because really what you are doing is building more muscle. So the difference between "toning" and "bulking" is a matter of degree and personal aesthetics...
Keep in mind this is a gradual process -- you'll see change in your body in plenty of time to taper off once you feel your arms or abs or legs are where you want them to be. Particularly as a woman you're not going to suddenly find yourself with 20 inch biceps...
The usual recommendation for people starting out is three sets of around 12 repetitions. Give yourself perhaps a minute or so between sets. Use enough weight so that by the end of the third set, you're finding it difficult to complete the final repetition (while of course maintaining your form.) Once that becomes easy, you can increase the weight, and keep monitoring those muscles to decide when they're "done."

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Wilmington, Del.: Any opinion on bee pollen as a supplement to my diet? I'm training for my first sprint triathlon, doing 1-2 workouts/day.

Thanks!

Howard Schneider: I thought all the bees had disappeared? I have not had much experience with bee pollen. Let me rephrase that. I have not had any experience with bee pollen, except the little bits that might have rubbed off on my foot the many times I have stepped on bees. Though of course that has not happened lately since they've all disappeared.
There are so many energy boosting gels and drinks out there these days, I'd be hesitant to vet one over the other -- be it sapien or apian. Here is an article discussing some of the chemical properties of bee pollen that might help in your decision. I'd suggest talking to some of your fellow triathletes and copping some of their tricks...If you go with the bee pollen, just remember to wear shoes..

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Richmond, Va., - I'm in a slump...: I am naturally a smaller person with a curvy figure. I used to work out every day and had a killer figure...I was training for a pageant, of all things! Since I retired my tiara three years ago and settled into a full-time career, I have completely neglected exercise. I work many hours during the day and when I come home at night, I crash. It's difficult to get started. I don't have a gym membership anymore and refuse to get one because of the cost. I need motivation that isn't in the form of competing in a pageant...help!

Vicky Hallett: Your talent wasn't clogging or something? Even if you've given up competing, you can still slip on the wooden shoes...
The key to motivation is having something to work toward and doing it in a way that you enjoy. So even if the crown isn't your goal any more, maybe a pair of jeans can be. And if you're pooped when you get home after work, try to get that exercise in before work (or over lunch). Is there any way to squeeze exercise into your commute? I'm a big fan of walking or biking to work.
Or if it's competition that really motivates you, try to find something you can compete in (a sport, martial arts, etc.).

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Skim lattes aren't that bad...: Only about 110 calories per 14 oz! Seems like there are many worse choices the person could be making.

Vicky Hallett: But maybe our chatter is downing 100 oz. cups. I don't know what people are doing out there!

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Hartford, Conn.: Thank you -- I appreciate the suggestions! I guess I like the sweetness of the soda and the idea that there are no calories. I think I was adding way too many calories onto my intake for the day.

Vicky Hallett: Good luck with your liquid makeover! And when in doubt, just drink water.

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Whitefish, Mont.: Generally during the winter months I do resistance training three times a week and cardio three times a week and down hill ski on my two days that I don't go to the gym. During the summer however I backpack on my weekends 15-30 miles with a 15-35 pound pack, I also ride my bike to work which is 8 miles and 2500 feet of elevation gain. So I only do weight training with my upper body because my legs almost always feel like noodles due to the rest of my activities. Do you think that I am losing some potential weight loss by not consistently working out with my lower body?

Howard Schneider: Well you're the second person to write in today that I want to swap lives with...E-mail me your social security number and I'll send you mine in return. The kid's names are Nancy and Jack, the wife is Eleanor, the dog is Pepsi and the in-laws are really great (for the most part)...
Given all that you are doing I can't imagine weight loss is an issue...What's your body fat percentage? If you added a rigorous lower body weight training routine to your current regimen, you might actually gain weight through the addition of muscle (which weighs more than fat, and my guess is that your probably a pretty lean character, and don't have a lot of fat to burn anyway...)

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Fold-up treadmills: Hi,

I second Howard's note of caution about folding treadmills. When I was in high school, my family bought something like this from Shopko. But we definitely got what we paid for - no accurate speed gauge, no calorie or distance count, and I find this folding treadmill is quite uncomfortable to use for running, whereas I can run for miles on the more robust models at the gym. My mother's also found it's no good for long walks. So for the poster, I would recommend either investing in a good piece of exercise equipment or putting that money toward a gym membership.

Howard Schneider: More advice on home equipment...What is Shopko anyway?

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Whitefish, Mont.: More of a note from the West. I read you guys recommending a variety of gyms in the cities and such and was wondering if you had heard of the recent phenomena of community gyms that are being built all over the West? My hometown opened its community gym doors two years ago. There is small membership fee and a sliding scale payment to encourage everyone in our community to stay fit and healthy not to mention a meeting space for all minds and bodies. It is not for profit so any profit made at the gym goes to improvements. Just added on 15,000 more square feet (including a second yoga studio.) Paid for with tourist and second-home dollars.

Howard Schneider: Thanks for cluing us in...It is easy to forget -- living in a dense urban area with probably a dozen gym chains competing with each other, not to mention small businesses as well -- that rural communities don't have the same array of facilities...Sounds like a novel way to make up for the lack of private investment...

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Yoga: This is actually in regards to last week's discussion about yoga. I know you get a lot of questions about the appropriate level of fitness and I have to say that confuses me as well. I run about five miles three times a week and go to two power yoga classes a week. I also walk 20 mins to work and then the same amount home. I feel like this should be enough, but then I see others who exercise so much more and am wondering what else can or should I add?

Howard Schneider: Read up a question or two about the discussion of goals -- and the woman who feels she is in fine shape by virtue of the fact that she walks a lot at work.
It sounds like you have a very good routine -- building endurance and cardio fitness through your running, and working on strength, balance and flexibility through yoga.
Why add more? Is there a goal you don't think your meeting?
Part of the trick is defining what you want -- General health? A better looking body? A 4 minute mile? The ability to walk up the stairs? -- then doing the things that get you there (which, it sounds to me, you are doing...)

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Instead of sodas: How about some flavored sparkling water? I like the lime and raspberry/lime from Poland Springs. I get tired of plain water, but I need something to kick the cola habit. Now if I try a soda it's way too sweet and syrupy for me.

Vicky Hallett: One more for you Hartford!

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Boot camps?: Have you compiled a list of available exercise boot camps in the D.C. area? I've been trying to lose a little weight and get in shape all year, but have been on a roller coaster with motivation. The boot camp appeals to me. If I pay for it and have to meet people at a certain time, I will do it. Thanks.

Howard Schneider: We don't have a master list but you can check dcbootcamp.com -- that's a brand name but they might have a program that fits...Also the local YMCA's often sponsor these as well...

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Pittsburgh, Pa. : Thanks for taking my question, I look forward to these chats each week!

I am a woman in my early 30s, and I have been working on getting healthier, I feel that I have come a long way. It has been up and down in the meantime, due to knee injuries and a reconstructive surgery to fix it. I am 302 currently, but I am down from a high of 323 this last go 'round. The lowest I have been recently has been 278, but that was about three years ago. It is a long, slow slog through getting healthier, and I wanted to put out some encouraging words for those of us with metabolisms of slugs.

It has taken six years of working out three times a week for 60 minutes-plus and other stuff to even get my metabolism UP to slow! But, I feel radically better when I am going than when I don't or can't.

I started out with swimming, one could say it was my gateway drug...Now, I am doing cardio on the stair machines, weight training (130-pound chest press), calisthenics and yoga, slowly increasing resistance and complexity over time.

Most recently, along with increasing the intensity of the cardio, I have shifted my breakfast routine to be before the workout, healthier, and increasing whole grain and fiber. It's been working out well, best results I have seen in a long time, about 10 pounds in five weeks!

Funny how tweaking a few habits can change things!

Anyway, after all this exposition, I suppose my biggest question is about vitamin supplements. I take a B-complex, and a regular multi-vitamin with ECGC. Though, I have yet to actually determine if it is actually worth doing.

Thanks again!

Vicky Hallett: What a great success story! As for the vitamins, you're probably better off asking Sally, but I say that if they're making you feel good, it can't hurt.

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washingtonpost.com: Fit: Past Perfection (Express, July 3)

Vicky Hallett: Vintage Base Ball for guys and gals who want to play like it's 1864.

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Washington, D.C.: Similar to the shy poster...

My husband likes to play softball. Over the last few years he's tried getting on teams that post on Craigslist looking for players, but when the season ends, so does the team.

He's lucky to get to play 10 games a year. We're both self-employed, so there's no company team to join, and his college doesn't have an alumni group here. He's also having trouble finding a middle ground between the boozy singles-oriented leagues and the former college all-stars super competitive leagues.

He's also contacted municipal rec departments in D.C. and close-in Virginia, but they all say it's virtually impossible to place solo players because all their teams register as a unit.

Any suggestions on tracking down an appropriate league or team?

Vicky Hallett: What about the leagues he's played in through the Craigslist ads? Has he talked to those teams about playing with them the next season? Or gotten those leagues to try to place him?
I've talked to some league folks before and they've generally seemed eager to get single players who can fill up an understaffed team. He might just need to be a bit more aggressive. But I can see how finding the balance between the boozers and the ultra-competitive players is a challenge.
I recently wrote about Vintage Base Ball (that's baseball played by the rules from the 1860s), and the local team is on the lookout for new players. It might not be the best fit for your husband, but it's worth a shot...I'll get up a link in a sec.

Howard Schneider: Well I can smell the itchy wool uniforms from here...If you are up to giving hardball a try, check out the Ponce de Leon league, which is real baseball but with an "everybody plays" ethic...There are rules about the age of pitchers, as well, so you won't be batting against an angry 21 year old who played sallie league ball for a couple of years but got cut from the Myrtle Beach Team and now works for the USDA and really wants to make sure you know HOW close he can shave that curveball to your head...

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Waldorf, Md.: I'd like to get back into doing a little cardio, but I have terrible knees and can't even manage much time on an elliptical machine. Any thoughts on what to do? Give up and get fat?

Howard Schneider: I'm convinced that Orville and Wilbur Wright got sick of jogging and that's why they went into bicycles. The rest is history...If the knees are feeling bad, biking is a lower impact activity that will get your heart pumping wildly...Also consider swimming...Keep in mind that both of those things will help you build knee strength along the way -- and maybe down the road you can add back some of the things that you find uncomfortable today...

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Reston, Va.: Hi! I've started walking/jogging, and I'm averaging 2-4 miles per outing. I have running shoes (because I'm actually trying to become a runner) that I got at a running store and fit pretty well. My knee problems have gone away, but sometimes after longer walks the bottom of my left foot hurts -- it feels like I really have to stretch it. Can you suggest any ways to help this or good stretches to do? Thanks!

Vicky Hallett: I don't know what's causing that, but you might want to swing back to that running store to see if they have any ideas.
As for a stretch, try this: Stand with the balls of your feet on a step and then lower your heels to the ground below.

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Howard Schneider: That's about all we have time for today...I am going to be testing out some of Nintendo's fitness applications for their new Wii game system this week, and will write about that in a couple of weeks for the paper. Looking forward to that. Meanwhile keep your cards and letters flowing to Vicky, the Miss Manners of fitness, though her hair's not as white and I have NO idea what type of dinner party she's able to muster because so far I have ONLY been invited for cockatiels...I mean cocktails (Vicky is a vegetarian).

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Vicky Hallett: Only sometimes...Any, keep the questions coming to fitness@washpost.com. And see you next week!

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