Ask the MisFits

Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Health Section
Tuesday, October 14, 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, Oct. 14 at 11 a.m. to take your questions.

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Vicky Hallett: Feeling stressed? I'm not, but maybe that's because I walked to work today in this insanely gorgeous weather. And I know I get to beat up on Howard for the next hour. Coincidentally, exercise for stress relief is the topic of today's column. Any of you chatters have stories about the mental health benefits of your fitness regimens? We'd love to hear 'em...


McLean, Va.: Nice report on the benefits of boxing. It can be a great cross training exercise and gives a good workout and stress relief. Boxing on the Wii does not give you the feeling of impact but it can also give you a real good cardio workout if you do it long enough. I am thinking about adding some form of boxing as a cross training day into my marathon training program. Does anyone have any experience with this? Therapy With the Gloves On (Post, Oct. 14)

Vicky Hallett: Glad you enjoyed the piece, McLean! I don't know of any boxing programs that are specifically geared toward marathoners, but it sounds like a good idea to me -- if you're doing it right, you're really working your endurance.

If you're looking for a place to box, most gyms offer it (or at least kickboxing). And there seems to be a boom in the 'burbs of boxing gyms. LA Boxing ( is opening just about everywhere. And I always see fists flying at Team Lloyd Irvin Martial Arts & Fitness in Clarendon (


Alexandria, Va.: Hi Vicky and Howard,

Submitting early this week. I have a stupid question about the treadmill: WHY can't I get it to take my heart rate? Are my palms too sweaty? Am I gripping the bars too tightly? Not tightly enough? No matter what I do, the machine either doesn't register my heart rate or displays a bogus!

Howard Schneider: Is this at your home or at the gym? I assume at the gym...Have you asked the folks there what's up or noticed whether others are having this problem? Is it the same on every machine -- i.e. other treadmills, bike, etc. I guess what I am wondering is whether you've ruled out that the machine you are using isn't simply broken...Did you try cleaning the electrodes -- the plates where you hold your hand? I have found these very twitchy too, susceptible to sweaty palms and generally annoying (they are really pretty useless once you get to a certain speed...who wants to hold on while trying to run?)...Invest a hundred bucks in your own monitor -- some of the more common brands like Polar will even broadcast to the machine and give you a readout on its console...

Vicky Hallett: Also, just checking: Are you trying to hold on while running? Generally, you're supposed to go hands-free if you're moving faster than 4.5 mph. If you aren't letting go because you want to see what the machine says about your heart rate, you could end up hurting yourself.

Also, remember that once you've been exercising a while, you have a pretty good sense of what your exertion level is. If you feel like you're pushing yourself too hard or slacking off, you probably are.


Alexandria, Va.: Hi... So, I'm a little discouraged. I started biking to work in July. The trip is about 9 miles each way, relatively uninterupted. I started going once a week, then twice, and now for the last month or so I'm more or less going 4X or 5X a week. So, why am I not losing weight? I started at 241. I'm basically stuck around 235-237 depending on the day. I definitely feel fitter, the ride is quicker, and the clothes are looser. I haven't dramatically altered my diet -- but I figured the introduction of 80 minutes of cardiovascular exercise most days would show more dramatic results. What's going on?

My only vice with diet really is alcohol -- I've cut back, but haven't cut out. Should I go cold turkey? Don't have much time to cross-train (young kids dominate non-work time), which is why I started biking to work in the first place. I'm 37, about 5-10.

Howard Schneider: A couple of points stick out:

To say you haven't dramatically altered your diet doesn't mean much without knowing where you started. Have you been gaining weight steadily? If so, the exercise you are doing might even things out -- and keep you from gaining more -- but won't push things in the other direction unless you watch the calorie intake. To my mind, no reason to eliminate alcohol, but it can be a budget buster in excess (it is, after all, little more than sugar).

But more than that, you are really only a month into this. The research on exercise and weight loss is pretty consistent that you need 60 to 90 minutes 5 days a week to really make a difference -- couple with attention to nutrition and diet...

So stick with it -- you are talking about changes in behavior that, ideally, you will stick with for a lifetime. You have already gotten some benefit from this...More to come...


Alexandria, Va.: Hey, MisFits! I'm currently doing the couch-to-5k program, and I also work out at Curves at least three days a week. Is there anything else I should be doing to improve my overall fitness level, or am I getting a decent workout between those two programs?

Vicky Hallett: I'm gonna rely on my favorite answer for this one: It depends. Are you new to exercise and just took on the running program and Curves? Then I'd make sure you can stick with that schedule at first. Going for too much all at once can send you back to square one. But if you're used to this routine and looking for more of a challenge, then of course you can do more. I'd start by adding in some sort of stretching/flexibility element to your routine. It's important no matter what you're doing, but it'll be extra helpful for counteracting the tightness you're building up by running.


New York: Hello, I am thinking of buying an elliptical machine for my apartment. It will be much cheaper than joining a gym, and much closer, which I think will motivate me. Do you have any tips as to what I should look for? I have seen a wide range of prices, but the cheaper ones look just that -- cheap. Thanks for any advice!

Vicky Hallett: I think there's definitely an element of you get what you pay for with this stuff. But I'd say the best thing you can do with any machine is give it a test ride. Can you visit a gym that has the machines you're considering buying?

Howard Schneider: The commercial grade machines are more expensive but are made to take a pounding...One thing to consider: investing in equipment limits you to that exercise, which is fine if the choice is between that and no exercise at all. Are you sure there are not other options? Any why the elliptical? A treadmill is more versatile in that you can walk, walk uphill, run, run uphill, etc...And if you want to involve the upper body, carry light dumbbells...


New York: I have been working out for the past four years and lost 25-30 pounds (depending on the day). I have grown bigger chest, back and leg muscles. Yet my arms are still so skinny, despite doing shoulder, bicep and tricep exercises 2-3 times a week. How do I grow bigger arms?

Howard Schneider: Same way you got the others to get bigger -- and the fact that they have not may say more about genetics than your workout. In other words, if over four years your weight has dropped and you've gotten stronger overall, may be you are not a giant bicep kind of guy. I know I'm not. If you are determined, check that you are following a good strategy -- where the muscle reaches the point of fatigue after 2 to three sets of 8 to 12 reps, and gradually increase the weight...


Falls Church, Va.: I recently went to an all-levels yoga class where the instructor put her leg behind her head and encourage the whole class to do the same. I laughed, and so did another woman near me. The instructor admonished us to "just try it," saying I'd eventually get it. Was this irresponsible? It made me feel like I wasn't a good yoga student because I wasn't super-bendy, but really, I think the instructor was being kind of absurd. What should I do the next time this happens? (Besides maybe avoid her class....)

Vicky Hallett: Her tone is what matters here. There's no need to get witchy at students who are intimidated, but I think it does make sense to encourage you to try something new. Even if that pose seems it's meant only for circus performers, moving your leg in the general direction of your head wouldn't be so bad, right?

But I also wouldn't waste my time taking a class with an instructor I don't like. Particularly with yoga, you can get folks who are way too serious. I happen to think laughter should be encouraged. For more reasons why, see this.


New Spinner: Hi Vicky and Howard,

I went to my first spin class last night. Absolutely loved it and the good soreness is permeating my legs today. YAY!! My question is this. I typically ride between 150-200 miles per week in the summer. What tips or tricks could you (or chatters) give to make the transition smoother to spinning. My difficulty lies in the standing/out of seat parts. I'm accustomed to rocking my bike but spin bikes can't do that. It felt really awkward last night. Thanks! And I'm loving this weather!!

Vicky Hallett: You just went to your first class (congrats, by the way!), so of course it felt a bit awkward. After a few more, I'm sure you'll have a better feel for the difference...

The other option is to seek out these new stationary bikes that mimic the real deal a bit better. Vida Fitness at the Metropole is very excited about the Real Ryders ( they have in their new cycling studio. And at the Energy Club in Shirlington, they have X-Bikes (, which my friend the Spinning fanatic loves.


Washington, D.C.: Are there any decent heart monitors out there that do not require a chest strap? My overly sensitive skin breaks out a lot -- especially from sweat and I don't want to exacerbate that problem.

Howard Schneider: There are models that use finger devices or get the pulse off the wrist. I have not used any of them and cant vouch for comfort or accuracy....I think a company called Mio uses a finger clip of some sort...Hunt around online and you'll find them. Don't know if they have been reviewed...Anyone out there have any experience?


Alexandria, Va.: Timely article on boxing today -- I have been thinking of adding boxing to my routine. It would be nice to have something so physical and visceral instead of just elliptical/treadmill/controlled weight training all the time. Has anyone tried LA Boxing (specifically the one in Old Town Alexandria)? Any idea what the cost is? Ideally I'd keep my Y membership and just add boxing to the mix, but I can't afford two expensive gym memberships... also, what kind of lower-body workout do you get from regular boxing (as opposed to kickboxing)? Thanks!

Vicky Hallett: I've visited the one in Arlington, but haven't actually taken a class there yet. It's on my very long to-do list...

As for the cost -- it ain't cheap. I just called Alexandria and they said it's $20 per class, or you get a year membership ($248 for enrollment fee and first and last month's payments, and then $74 a month). But there's good news: Your first class is free. So if you want to give it try, go for it.

And your legs! If you duck enough, you'll get plenty of squats in. And boxing usually comes with total body conditioning -- loads of jump-roping and sit-ups and tons of other stuff sure to make you feel the burn all over.


Arlington, Va.: A quick hint to Alexandria: give up the sauce and lose the weight. Alcohol has been a lifelong friend and companion, it never lets ya down... But, at 200 pounds, 5-10, I COMPLETELY quit drinking all hootch, and lost 35 pounds in 3 months. And felt great, looked great, and even quit missing that ice cold beer after a long hot workout. You just have to hang in there.

Howard Schneider: Yeah, when you look at what goes in the still -- corn, potatoes, barley, etc. -- it is pretty heavy stuff...I still contend we don't need to go cold turkey (unless of course there are other issues involved, which is another discussion...)


Odenton, Md.: I am running the Marine Corp Marathon in less than two weeks. I have a sore hamstring that I have to run on and it does not get worse but it is not comfortable. I am tapering for the marathon anyway but is it best to not run at all until marathon day and rest it or should I still try to run a little bit on it? In the meantime, I have been icing and stretching. Will I lose any real fitness if I don't run at all until the 26th?

Howard Schneider: Seems to me you definitely want to take it easy. Your stamina won't regress much. To me the tougher part will be gearing yourself up psychologically for 26 miles after two weeks off. How bad is the pain? How long was your last long run? The underlying risk ought to be considered: If it is a bit of soreness, that's one thing. If it is a hobbling pain that's another, and if you suddenly put extra miles on an existing tear you might risk something even worse...I hate to beat the drum, but a full separation hamstring injury (pulling the tendon away from the bone) is more typical of sprint activities, if you are going out with a tear in the muscle it is courting trouble...You might want to consult with a doc or therapist in the meantime to get a sense of the seriousness of the present injury...


Arlington, Va.: My fiance and I are training for both of our first 5k. We are both novice runners but we are having a good time and trying to work up to being able to run the 3.1 miles at a decent pace. Anyway, we are having a disagreement about how to build up speed. We are both able to jog 5k now, so we would like to use the next month and a half before the race to build up speed. We have heard conflicting reports about how to do this though. Is it better to continue to run the same distance and just keep aiming for a faster time each time, or could running in shorter, faster intervals help us to better build up speed? Thanks and we love your chats!

Vicky Hallett: Both sound like good methods to me -- so why not do both? You don't want to do the same workout all the time anyway. The best part is that when you run the 5K faster than either of you ever imagined, you can each take the credit.

Some advice on intervals.

Advice on speedwork generally.


Easton, Md.: I have a bathroom scale that is supposed to provide body fat percentage. It tells me I am around 30 percent -- not good. I had it done by an RN at a health fair who says I am 15 percent -- a lot better. How does the scale work to determine body fat?

Howard Schneider: The off the shelf models use a standard technology called bioelectrical impedance -- it runs a small current from one foot (or hand) to the other, and based on models of how electricity moves through human tissue estimates how much fat it encountered in completing the circuit. They are very sensitive to things like your hydration level. They also will overestimate body fat in people who are very muscular. The method used by the nurse would have its own limitations (if she used calipers, for example, she may have measured at three spots or nine, or even used a clinical version of the bioelectrical method). But 30 to 15 is a big jump. My guess is that you are definitely not 30, but you'd also know if you were 15 (because you would not have purchased a body fat monitor to begin with...).

So try this: use the home monitor a few more times, but at a consistent time of day, when your hydration level and the time since your last meal will be roughly consistent. Only do it once a week -- not every day. And use it to establish a trend -- not to give you a precise measurement. That's more what the home units are for -- showing progress over time...If it still seems to read high, take it back and see if you can exchange it for a different brand....


Alexandria, Va.: I just wanted to say thank you to the person who gave me advice here last week. I wrote in saying that the front of my knees had been hurting after running in hilly areas in northern Alexandria, and the person said to stop running down the hills. And it worked! My knees haven't been hurting since last week. So, thank you -- whoever you are!

Vicky Hallett: There are some smart people out there in chatter world. Thanks mystery advice giver!


running and holding: Can you please expand on the idea that running on a treadmill while holding on is a bad/injurious idea?

My husband does this and I'm worried that he may injure himself, but I'm sure my opinion doesn't carry the clout necessary to change his behavior.

Vicky Hallett: There is one guy at my gym who does this and just watching him is painful -- running while holding on means his posture is totally out of whack. Even if you manage to do it without throwing out your back, think about what you're doing on the treadmill in the first place. Presumably, you're hoping to get the benefits of running indoors. How often are you holding onto a bar when you're running outdoors?

Hope that helps...

Howard Schneider: Also, arm rhytym is important -- it helps with pace and breathing and gives the upper body a workout too, since those muscles are being used to held yourself upright. Some treadmills will even admonish you to let go once the speed hits a certain level. My comment was that I find it annoying to try to hold on, but there are also sound reasons not to. The big factor here, however, is speed: if your husband is walking and feels he wants to hold on for balance, that is better than not working out at all...


Strength training vs. aerobic training: I am ready to kick start a revised program to drop weight and create some muscles. I am reading the "Biggest Loser Fitness Program" and think I need to rev up my weight lifting. The book recommends a minimum of 4 hours a week. I do about 1.5 hours of strength training vs. 4 hrs. of aerobic work. As a woman in her mid-forties, I have been lifting since high school off and on with machines and hand weights. What are your recommendations? Thanks so much for taking my question.

Howard Schneider: We had a couple from the Biggest Losers online a couple of weeks ago, and what struck me was the amount of time they spend at this: something like six hours a day in the gym. Most of us don't have that kind of liberty...For general weightlifting, two to four sessions a week is recommended, and it might take anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes to get through a session. This helps on a functional level, for coordination, balance, etc. and maintaining muscle. But don't ditch the aerobic work. The connection between weightlifting and weight loss, resting metabolism, etc., is not as well understood as some of the promotional for resistance training programs would have us believe. It is important to do, but not necessarily for the advertised reasons...


Rosslyn, Va.: Are there any places in D.C. that just do spinning classes? Some place where I can pay for a package or something?

Vicky Hallett: Indeed -- Bench Gym ( near Farragut Square is a personal training gym that offers pay-as-you-go classes, including cycling ($16 a pop). But if you're looking to go to more than two a month, you might be better off joining Fitness First at 19th and L. Membership is in the low $30s, and there's cycling every day of the week.


Alexandria, Va.: Through Weight Watchers I have lost 105 pounds since January 2007, and have only 3 more to go. But the last 15-20 pounds have been extremely tough to shed, and many weeks I have gained, not lost. I walk briskly 4 days a week for about an hour, get on the treadmill for an hour two days a week (4.6 mph at an incline) and lift weights one day a week (circuit machines, 25 minutes). Should I be doing more to get this final weight off?

Howard Schneider: Look in the mirror and smile and ease up on yourself. You're worried about less than three percent of your goal. If Wall Street had that problem we'd all be sleeping easier...At some point, genetics is going to say: this is how much you weigh, and it is tough to fight lower. If you insist, the most obvious strategy would be to turn those brisk walks into slow jogs, and try to push the treadmill speed up a notch or two...


Alexandria, Va.: Any advice on how to prevent cold air from completely wrecking your lungs? Last week, the morning commute via bike left me with a chest-wracking cough by Wednesday and bedridden by Friday. Should I get a mask or something? It's been like this all my life when I exercise after it gets cold.

Howard Schneider: Sorry to hear that...runnersworld has some good articles on some of the crazier myths that have arisen around exercising in cold weather -- frozen lungs and such....Your internal temperate is high enough (and rises during exercise) that you don't have to worry about that. But it sounds like this is triggering something more serious than a dry throat...Have you had a check for asthma? There is nothing inherent about cold weather exercise that should leave you in bed for two days, which argues for a trip to the doc....


Blacksburg, Va.: I have a question about getting exercise burn-out. I typically run and/or use an elliptical machine 4 times a week. I've been doing this each week for about 5 months now since I got over an injury that happened last spring. For the past two weeks while exercising my legs have felt like rocks in that they seem to have no energy to move. It's really put a damper on my runs because they have become a lot harder to finish. I've gotten my runs up to about 6 miles, and usually run 2 times a week and use the elliptical 2 times a week to give my knees and joints a break. Do you have advice on how to get back on track? Am I doing too much and this is my body's way of saying stop? Should I take a week off and see if that helps?

I know I should be doing other exercises that just cardio, but I don't have access to a gym (the elliptical machine is at home). So if you have any advice on other activities I can do in between cardio, or in place of it would be most appreciated. Thanks, have a good day!

Howard Schneider: Yea it is easy to get bored...Are you eating well? A good balance of carbs and fat and protein? If your legs feel truly leaden, you may be shortchanging them in your diet...But if that's not the case, then give yourself a break for a week, and when you come back try to mix up the running routine a bit. Instead of six miles at the same pace, do one shorter run but try to increase the pace a bit. If you do the same thing over and over, then you have trained yourself to do that consistently, but at some point will stop triggering much underlying change in your metabolism...So it not only becomes boring, it stops doing what you want it to do. As far as other workouts go, think about some of the less expensive stuff that is really good for you -- jump ropes, medicine balls, etc. You could supplant some of the elliptical training with rounds of jumping jacks, squats and jump roping...


Brooklyn, N.Y.: What is the appropriate temperature setting for a gym? Shouldn't it be cooler than the room temperature 72 degrees my gym is set to?

After a few minutes of cardio, I'm sweating profusely - and I'm in good shape. I suspect others don't complain because the profusive sweating makes them think they're burning a lot of fat.

Vicky Hallett: I've written about this, but can't find the article. Drat! But I will say that I understand it's very difficult to keep a consistent temperature at a gym. At slow times, when no one's there, it can feel freezing. Then you get 50 more bodies running and lifting in there, and it feels like an oven. So you could ask your management to be more vigilant about reacting to the time of day...However, I suspect if people aren't complaining now, if they were to dial down the thermostat, someone else would get upset. It's VERY hard to make everybody happy.


Treadmill Lovah: Hi Misfits, I'm one of the few people out there who prefers running on the treadmill to running outside. I know, I know, but I tend to do my best runs when I can focus directly on the numbers in front of me and not get distracted by cars, bikes, donut shops, etc. I've heard, though, that treadmill running doesn't give the same benefits as running outside. What can I do to make treadmill running more similar to outdoor running, and do you have any suggestions for mixing things up on the treadmill? I tend to run a straight 5/6k each time (30ish minutes), and I'm getting a little bored of that. I'm not training for anything, this is just for general fitness. Thanks!

Vicky Hallett: Are you using at least a 1.0 incline? Generally that's the recommendation for mimicking flat earth.

And as for mixing it up, you can create hills with that incline, and challenge yourself to intervals. Or spend some time off the treadmill, too. Run ten minutes, then hop off and do some crunches and lunges. Then jump on again for another ten, and then break for push ups and dips. And then finish up your run. Your beloved treadmill will not be offended.


Cold weather exercise: I have read that it is not the temperature that is the problem, but the dryness. Someone did a study using hot dry air, and people had the same problems.

Howard Schneider: Right....But the problem here is the "bedridden for two days..." If I understand it right, the dry throat coughing goes away pretty soon after exercise: you go out in the cold, your throat gets dry, you come back to a warm home and cough for a while...If it is deep in the lungs and lays somebody out, it sounds like a much more serious reaction, a la asthma or bronchitis, and should, I think, be checked...


Alexandria, Va.: On Sunday, 2 weeks before the MCM (my first marathon), I aggravated my IT band. Had to walk the remaining 7 of my 20. I'm devastated. What can I do to get there on 10/26? At this point, I just want to start and finish.

Howard Schneider: As with the hamstring, depends on the severity of the injury, which neither your or I can competently diagnose...No one wants to give up on a goal, but that can be the better part of valor. If you walked the last 7 of 20, that means you'll be walking 13 in two weeks -- or more, if it flares up earlier....or less if it gets to the point where you have to drop out...Ice, stretch really cautiously, ease up on the training and think seriously about getting more considered advice if you really want to follow and try to run...


Vicky Hallett: Wait, time's up and I didn't get to make fun of Howard? Arg! Okay, well next week, I promise we'll get to that, along with more of your questions. (Sorry to everyone we missed today!)


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