Ask the MisFits

Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Health Section
Tuesday, September 9, 2008; 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. No exercise question is too odd or embarrassing for them to answer.

Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider are the MisFits, The Post's fitness writers. They were online Tuesday, Sept. 9 at 11 a.m. to take your questions. As part of our Wedding Week coverage, they were joined by Sarah West of Results the Gym, who has trained dozens of brides to get ready for their big days.

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Vicky Hallett: Hey all, we decided to get in on the Wedding Week madness by bringing on a special guest this week: the fabulous personal trainer Sarah West. She's buffed up dozens of brides for their big days at Results Gym. (And she can also offer advice for folks not preparing for their nuptials, too...) So fire away!

Howard Schneider: Lets not forget the men on this one...What bride wants a slob standing next to her? So no doubt Sarah will have some points for the guys too...


Roanoke, Va.: I've been running pretty regularly for about 6 months, gradually working up my mileage to about 12 miles. Last week I learned I am pregnant. From what I've read, it appears to be safe to continue running, but I don't want to take any chances and I haven't been in to see my doctor yet. Your thoughts? Obviously, if I do continue to run, I'll keep the distance to a minimum. I'm thinking somewhere in the 3-4 mile range.

Vicky Hallett: Plenty of women run during their pregnancies, especially early on. Your main concern should be doing anything that might lead you to fall over -- that could be bad news. But I'd see your doctor before too long to get her/his opinion.

Sarah West: First of all, congratulations. Vicky's right; plenty of women run throughout their pregnancies. As long as you have your doctor's okay, you can continue to exercise with just a few modifications. You'll want to make sure your heart rate doesn't get too high (talk to your doctor about this). But as long as you're comfortable running, go ahead.


The vacation mystery: Gurus, can you help me solve a mystery? I'd consider myself a highly active person. I work out at high to moderate intensity (based on my HR monitor) pretty much every day and make sure to watch what I eat and have maintained the same weight, give or take a pound for a few years. So I go on vacation, throw caution to the wind, eat whatever I want (fries, chocolate, cake, wine) and don't work out for a single day the whole week. I get home, step on the scale and notice that I lost 4 pounds! Did I lose muscle or was the constant light activity such as walking and hiking enough to overpower all the hours I'd normally be sitting at a desk. Something seems too good to be true here, right?

Vicky Hallett: Depends on how much walking you're doing. Maybe in a workout, you run four miles, but in a day of sightseeing you end up trekking 10. That's a lot more calories you've burned, even if you did it at a lower intensity than you're used to. Hard to believe you lost four pounds of muscle on a vacation unless you were away for a long time...

Howard Schneider: Probably temporary. You would not have lost four pounds of muscle in a week...Maybe water, etc...Keep in mind that a couple of pounds of fluctuation day to day is normal...My guess is that some of that will reappear pretty promptly...


Georgetown: I sometimes spend half an hour working out on a low setting on the elliptical machine in my basement. I love working up a sweat, but I've heard it's a "useless" exercise (that it doesn't do much for fitness) that true?

Howard Schneider: Morning Georgetown...Check out today's story, which talks about a comprehensive exercise review underway at the Department of Health and Human Services...Bottom line: nothing is useless. If you are moving, you are helping yourself.

Will your half-hour of light elliptical put you in optimum shape? No...Will it build muscle or have the kind of benefit that higher impact exercises provide for your bones? No. But will it bring you some pretty substantial benefits in terms of disease prevention and general health? Absolutely...

The relevant question is: What's your goal?

Vicky Hallett: Also, there's something to be said for an exercise that you "love." And the longer you do it, maybe you'll be convinced to go up a setting or two.


Laurel, Md.: Hello! I am getting married soon and like many brides am trying to lose weight and get in shape. I can't afford a gym right now - is there a place (other than yoga studios) where you can sign up for an exercise class that meets a few times a week - preferably in the Laurel area.

Vicky Hallett: I have to admit I don't know Laurel all that well, but the best affordable options in any neighborhood tend to be community centers (run by the city, or YMCAs and the like). Or, you might be able to find an area boot camp...Any chatters have a suggestion for our bride-to-be?


Arlington, Va.: Any advice on firing my personal trainer? He's a very nice guy, and yes, I'm stronger and have lost an inch here and there, but after nearly 18 months and two workouts a week with him and one on my own, I weigh three pounds more than when I started and I'm wearing the same (ever-so-slightly looser) size. For that, I might just as well go to the gym by myself. And yes, we've discussed it over and over, but he doesn't vary the routine much other than to increase the weight on the machines. And what should I look for in a new trainer if I'm foolish enough to keep spending that money?

Sarah West: Obviously, since I am a trainer, I'm a bit opinionated in this issue. First of all, what has happened to your body fat % during your training time? I usually test my clients in body fat and measurements every few months. If your body fat has decreased, even if your body weight has gone up, you've gained muscle. But, as a trainer, there's only so much we can control. If you see your trainer for two hours a week, that's 166 hours each week in which you're out of his control. Cardio, diet, AND weight training all have to come together to see real progress.

Vicky Hallett: But I'd add that if you're that bored of the routine and he won't give you anything new, that is a big problem. If you're shopping around for someone new, be upfront about the fact that you want variety. Trainers have tons of toys at their disposal, and they should be able to keep it interesting.


Capitol Hill, DC: I'm fairly thin (5'4" and 120-125) and very fit (run about 30 miles per week) but like a lot of women, I store some fat deposits on my upper arms. I also have the ability to bulk up; fiance said "you're not lifting enough -- you won't get big," but after 2 months of using 20 pounds weights in each hand for my bicep curls last spring, my upper arms started to look like sausages. Muscle under fat still looks ugly. I know I can't spot reduce, so I've just upped the dieting and exercise generally. I've seen lots of articles on how to tone my upper arms before my November wedding, but how can I be sure to avoid the sausage effect?

Sarah West: You're on the right track by adding muscle. And your finance's correct when he says that women won't bulk up. You might want to try cross training; shake up the cardio routine. When you do the same workout over and over, the body uses fewer calories than it did when you started the routine. Try the elliptical machine, or take a class such as Spinning or kickboxing. And when you are working your arms with weights, make sure you work your triceps and shoulders. Those muscles actually add more shape to your arms than your biceps.


Washington, D.C.: I started working out on a daily basis at the beginning of the summer by playing tennis every morning. I love how I look and feel but I know that as the weather gets colder and mornings get darker, morning tennis won't be a possibility. I don't belong to a gym, but have some equipment at home. Any suggestions for how to stay on track as the weather gets colder?

Vicky Hallett: You could always go high-tech and play Wii Tennis no matter the weather...

But I don't know if you'll find working out in your home as fun as getting out on the court every morning. Have you thought about other sports you might enjoy in cooler temperatures? There's pickup soccer and Ultimate Frisbee and hockey (on rollerblades in front of the White House).

Howard Schneider: How early are you playing? What about weekends? Except for the depths of January and February, I really doubt there will be many morning when the temperature keeps you inside. As far as tennis goes wind might be a problem, but you can still give it a go...Also, there some public indoor courts you can book, such as Wheaton Regional Park


Prote, IN: I started lifting weights three times a week about four months ago. Although I see some results, (in typical guy fashion) I would like to see them faster. I know that I should be getting about 20g of protein 30-45 minutes after a workout and I have been trying to get that by eating a quick snack after the gym -- peanuts, cottage cheese, tuna, etc.

I am tentative to start drinking the protein shakes that everybody raves about because I'm more inclined to think that my body should do what it is supposed to do naturally. Is this a wise decision? Or should I do like everyone else and just start drinking the shakes? And if so, what should I look for (other than protein) in a good shake?

Sarah West: Oh my gosh, there's a lot going on in this question. First of all, I believe that in trying to get your nutritional needs from whole foods; I really only suggest using protein shakes/bars when someone can't get to real food during the day. But protein requirements depend on a person's weight, workout, body type, etc. I would suggest consulting with a trainer who is certified in nutritional counseling or with a nutritionist who can devise a meal plan for you.

Howard Schneider: I am with Sarah on this one. Eat food. Leave the gunk to guys who do this for a living and need that extra 1 percent...


Running and Pregnancy: Hi,

There's a great blog on Runner's World called "Baby Steps" ( in which a runner (Lisa Jhung) writes about her experiences with exercise and pregnancy. She had her baby a few months ago, but maybe the previous poster would be interested in reading the archives. (I have no affiliation with Runner's World - I'm just an interested reader)

Vicky Hallett: We have a non-affiliated obsession with Runner's World, too. Thank you!


Austin: I've seen several articles in the press lately recommending against stretching. What's with this?

Is there some new research out?

Does it really make sense for those of us who spend most of our days hunched over a computer?

Thanks, Over 42

Sarah West: The articles I've read aren't necessarily against stretching. And the older I get, the more I believe in stretching. But we now know that stretching a cold muscle can result in injury. I usually spend the last 10 minutes or so of a workout stretching my clients. At the end of a workout, their muscles are warm, and more pliable. If you do want to stretch before you exercise, first spend 10 - 15 minutes warming up your core with cardio.

And for everyone who does spend their days hunched over a computer, desk, steering wheel, etc., I suggest exercises to strengthen the back and pull the shoulders back, and stretches for the chest to keep from getting that hunched over look.


Baltimore, MD: Hi Vicky and Howard,

I recently started doing a Power Yoga DVD. It's very fast paced and leaves me a bit out of breath (perhaps a sign that I need to be working out more often!). Does this count toward aerobic exercise in addition to strength? Do I need to wear a heart monitor to find out? Thanks!

Sarah West: Yoga is great exercise, and while you might be getting a good cardio workout, we generally don't count it as strength training. Everyone should incorporate some weight bearing exercises into their workout programs.


Arlington, Va.: I know we all want to look our best on our big day, but what tips do you have for starting out in newlywed life (and on the honeymoon!) to keep up the motivation and healthy exercise habits together?

Vicky Hallett: I can think of one form of exercise you may want to get on the honeymoon together...But not all couples are meant to exercise with one another. If you can, that's great -- and it means you can spend active weekends hiking, biking, playing tennis, or coordinate your gym visits (totally adorable, right?).

I've done stories on this though, and a lot of couples just get too competitive in the gym, or one feels a need to "train" the other and it turns ugly.

Togetherness is wonderful, but sometimes, it's okay to be apart.

Howard Schneider: Here is the view from 22-years in: Be sensitive to 1)the things you like to do together...2)the things you feel you need to do for yourself...3)the things your spouse likes but you don't. Make room for them all -- and don't expect that 2 and 3 will ever or necessarily be in synch...Time apart and separate interests make the partnership stronger. And regarding the gym: classes work better, I have found, than attempts to workout together, because you have a neutral referee telling you what to do....


Maryland: I have to drop out of the Nation's Tri due to upcoming foot surgery. Not looking for a refund, but should I let them know? I couldn't find anyone to call.

Vicky Hallett: Oh no! Sorry about that Maryland...But you should let 'em know:


Arlington, Va: Good morning, currently I run 4-5 times a weeks and do upper body lifting twice a week for 30 minutes. My schedule is changing and I'm probably going to have to completely change my workout routines. I'm thinking of adding 20-30 minutes of yoga 4 times a week and dropping the lifting. Is yoga enough to maintain the current tone I have in my arms? I'm hoping it will also help with my core which is very neglected right now. Thanks.

Howard Schneider: It will probably be adequate, but it sort of depends on where you stand and what type of yoga program you dial into. Keep in mind that yoga is a package deal: typical session will work the whole body, but no part of it to exhaustion. A good vinyasa or "flow" session will leave you feeling like you've had a good workout. But you might find, for example, that you did not get enough specific work on your back or arms or chest. You might want to supplement with something easy afterwards -- some pushup or pull up sets, for example...

Sarah West: Oh, gosh, please don't drop the lifting. It is so important to do weight bearing exercises. Not only will the weights help you keep your tone and shape, but it strengthens the bones to help fight osteoporosis, and helps maintain muscle mass, which, in turn keeps our metabolism from slowing.

Yoga is excellent for core strength and flexibility, and is a great compliment to a lifting routine.


Washington, D.C.: I am training for a metric century bike ride in early October. So far the training is going well, with my longest ride so far at 45 miles. I have had one issue though, my wrists tend to hurt a bit during rides of this length. Is this a problem others have with riding? Any thoughts on how to alleviate this? Thanks!

Howard Schneider: Would love some advice from the field. I have a similar "numb thumb" problem. I just fight it be taking one hand off the bars periodically and shaking it out...My off the cuff suggestion would be to move around on the bars a lot. Use the drops to change the angle of your hands. Maybe consider the aero bars that triathletes use.

Might also try to some wrist exercises -- get a small weight and roll your wrists up and down and rotate them in circles...hold your hand to your chest and twist the wrist in and out, push the hand gently toward the elbow (palm up and palm down)....Any other ideas?


DC: Yoga IS weight-bearing -- your own body weight.

Sarah West: You're right, yoga involves your own body weight. But in order to strengthen bones and increase muscle mass, one must follow the principal of overload. You have to continually challenge the body with more weight than it's used to lifting in order to increase strength.


U St: Since the beginning of the year I have started working out consistently, almost always on an elliptical trainer with some weights mixed in, and have lost around 30 pounds. I normally go around 25 miles per week, spread out over 4-5 sessions. I feel great, but have recently hit a wall - both in motivation and weight loss - and thought it might be a good idea to consult a personal trainer since I really don't know anything about exercise other than what I read in your columns (don't get wrong, your advice is great). My goals would be to determine proper form and routine on the elliptical, expand my limited use of weights, possible examine proper running form (whenever I try to jog my back will hurt for a few days, which I attribute to a previous problem with two herniated discs in my lower back - haven't been able to run without pain since that injury), and anything else that might jump out to someone who knows what they are doing.

The problem is that I don't know where to begin. I don't know anyone who has had a personal trainer and I don't belong to a gym, I just use my my apartment building's fitness room. In seeking out a personal trainer, where do I look, what do I look for, and could you give me a ballpark figure on what I might expect to pay for a few pretty basic sessions?

Sarah West: Obviously, the easiest place to find a trainer is at a local gym. And very often you don't have to join the gym in order to take advantage of training (you'll probably just pay a slightly higher fee per session). First and foremost, make sure the trainer is nationally certified (American College of Sports Medicine, American Council on Exercise, and National Academy of Sports Medicine are all highly regarded), and that his/her training certification is up to date. Secondly, ask how long he/she has been training, and whether he/she does this full time. As we all know, wisdom does come with experience. Finally, meet with the trainer. You should feel comfortable working with this person. You should want to spend an hour with him/her.

Training rates in this area range anywhere from $50 per hour to well over $100 per hour. You'll pay more if the trainer has to travel to you.

Howard Schneider: Some of the certifying groups also have zip code search on their Web sites that will help you in locating people around the area...Try the ones Sarah mentioned and also perhaps the National Strength and Conditioning Association...


Chesapeake, Va.: Hello! I just recently got engaged, and am starting out with all the stress of planning a wedding. I would like to lose about 20 pounds before the big day (April of 2010 we think), which seems reasonable. EXCEPT I have fibromyalgia/chronic pain. So I can't do a lot that the "Buff Brides" suggest, or even a lot that regular people can do at the gym. A 10-minute walk on the treadmill is my limit. What can I do to get into "bridal" shape before my dress fittings come due? (In case it matters, I carry my weight in my middle -- my tummy and upper thighs; my arms and calves are just fine.)

Vicky Hallett: Sounds like you what you really need is a physical therapist. I believe exercise is one way to help treat fibromyalgia, but you'll definitely want someone who has experience to tailor the program for you.


Not a bride, but...: One of my pet peeves is women who hire a personal trainer/start working out just to get ready for their wedding and then stop as soon as they say, "I do." It's great if a big event like a wedding or high school reunion gives you an incentive to start an exercise program, but think of it as a lifestyle change and keep with it once the big day is over.

Vicky Hallett: But hiring a personal trainer is also very expensive, and it's not unreasonable to realize that it's a cost that won't fit in a newlywed budget. One hopes, however, that anyone who has spent time working with a trainer has learned more about proper form and a variety of exercises that they can continue to do.

And if this really worries you, you could always start a personal training registry...Has anyone done that yet? Not a bad idea...

Sarah West: As a trainer, I think that if you're already ready, you never have to "get ready" for an event. It's much easier, not to mention, healthier to stay in shape than fluctuate with the seasons/events.


Follow up from last week: Howard, last week a reader asked about the best way to lose 50 pounds. Your advice was to start and keep at a cardio routine. I was surprised you didn't use the opportunity to discuss the role of weight training when trying to lose weights. Study after study shows that weight training has a greater effect on one's metabolism when compared to cardio only exercise programs, and muscles burn more calories even at rest. Why not suggest a combination of cardio and weight training instead of cardio only?

Howard Schneider: Good points -- though I'll differ with you on the reasons. We wrote a couple of weeks ago on the weight training/metabolism effect, and my sense is that it is a bit oversold. Not invalid, by any means, but I think it is easy to exaggerate the actual caloric impact of extra muscle on resting metabolism. The HHS study we write about today also concludes that the connection between weight training and weight loss is not so well documented. There are plenty of reasons to lift, but for someone starting out and with a lot to lose it makes sense to me to get first accustomed to the ideas of A)becoming active in some way and B)learning to measure and progress that activity...To my mind at least at the beginning of the process it does not much matter what that activity is...


Exercising with spouse: As much as it might seem like a good idea (spending more time together), unless you have compatible exercise styles, best to leave this one alone. I like Howard's suggestion of classes.

My husband doesn't go to a gym (he's a contractor and gets plenty of exercise through working), but walking together is problematic for us because he's so much faster than I am. He always wants to walk much faster than I do. He gets frustrated with me, I get frustrated with him and it all ends in tears.

We do much better with outdoor activities that are not geared as "exercise," rather just an activity, such as hiking or canoeing (my favorite).

Vicky Hallett: The couple that boats together, stays together. Or so I hear.

Howard Schneider: When Eleanor and I run it is often the same story. She wants to bring the dog. I trip over the leash, etc. The other day we had a breakthrough. She does jog slower than I do, so instead of being frustrated at the pace I switched it up: Jog slowly for a while, do a sprint out and back; run backwards for a while, then do high heel high knee intervals; jog a bit then go side to side...That made it a good work out for me. We spent the time together. And the dog got to come along too...There are ways to make it work....


Silver Spring, Md.: How does a workout on a rowing machine (Concept II) stack up to other exercise equipment in terms of muscle building, general fitness and aerobic conditioning?

Vicky Hallett: It's super for cardio, really uses both the upper and lower body (which can't be said of running or biking) and is low-impact. But does it replace strength training? Not so much.


Alexandria, VA: I just got a personal training, trying it out for a few sessions to see if I like this approach, but wasn't sure about etiquette. She works for my gym, so I pay the gym directly for the sessions, so do you tip your trainer?

Sarah West: Oh, I would feel very uncomfortable if a client tried to tip me. First of all, many people see their trainers one, two, or three times per week. We certainly do not expect to be tipped every time you see us. If you really appreciate what the trainer has done, write the Training Director or General Manager to let them know about the trainer's stellar work.


elliptical - say it ain't so: Is it really that useless? I thought you could build muscle (at least in the legs) doing it regularly.

Howard Schneider: Depends on A)how much muscle you are starting with and B)how hard you crank up the resistance...The earlier question specified elliptical at a low level...To really build muscle, you need to work to fatigue. That is not really what you do on an elliptical. If you cranked up the resistance so high you could only push the pedals around a couple of dozen times it would not do much on the cardio side. If you can go for half an hour that is building endurance but not so much prompting the creation of more muscle fiber...


Anonymous: Hi MisFits! I've finally gotten into a really good work out routine that I am using to tone up, more than really lose weight. However, I've found, as has been a problem before, that the muscles in my legs are becoming more bulky than toned (I've always had really big calves, result of walking on my toes a lot when I was a kid). I'm a short woman, so having well muscled, but stocky, looking legs is not really my goal here. I've tried reducing weight and upping reps when doing weight training to tone more than bulk up. Any other tips? Thanks so much!

Howard Schneider: The folks who compete in "shaping" competitions have a whole separate art to their workouts...Hoping Sarah might add a couple of training tips? Do you run or bike at this point - something that will use the muscles in other ways than lifting?

Sarah West: First of all, you are probably the envy of many gym goers. Off the top of my head, I can think of two pieces of equipment designed to build calves. But, as someone with muscular legs myself, I understand (and sympathize if you go boot shopping). Fortunately, you are blessed with a muscular build. Rather than focus on the negative, appreciate your legs for how strong they are.


Vicky Hallett: By the power vested in me, by, I now pronounce this chat over. Thanks for joining us, and we'll see you next week.


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