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Ask the MisFits: Free workouts, double chins, plantar problems and 'Spartans!'

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Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Health Section
Tuesday, November 11, 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.

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

The transcript follows

Discussion Archive.

MisFits Archive.

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Vicky Hallett: Hey there gang! Feeling like your wallet is losing weight while you're gaining? Check out today's column on free fitness ideas. Also, this didn't make the cut for the print edition, but there are going to be a slew of freebies for this weekend's opening of the Lululemon store in Georgetown. In addition to yoga and budokon, there's also boot camp. For the details, head to Lululemon.com, go to the Georgetown store and then events.

And any chatters have tips on other free stuff? 'Tis the season for sharing...

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Anonymous: What's the cheapest gym value? A friend says all college grads should ask their Alumni Office if they can use the athletic facilities. He claims that friends use Carleton College (in Northfield, Minn) for $15 a year .... Have you heard of this?

Howard Schneider: I think alumni club membership often carries library and gym privileges. Whether it is 15 bucks everywhere, I doubt it. Whether it is the same for a recent graduate as opposed to someone who is established in a career -- I doubt that too. Whether it is worth moving to Minnesota to workout -- I really doubt that...

But checkout Vicky's column today onfree workouts (at least in the Washington area...If you are not in our lovely part of the country, then do some legwork around your own town -- there are probably similar options. Of course, you dont need a gym to run or bike, or buy some dumbbells for your basement, or a jump rope for your back porch...You can do it on your own...

Vicky Hallett: Yeah, not the best deal to have to commute several hours by plane to your gym, right? A better deal: Get a job at the NIH. The gym there is sooooooo cheap -- I think it's $20 a month. Can anyone back me up on this? Anyway, it seems like a darned good perk.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi, I started doing push-ups (because of your articles) about 6 months ago. I quickly went from barely being able to do 10 to barely being able to do 20. I haven't been able to add more for the last few months. Shouldn't I be able to do more? I am 62 and female. I do aerobics several 4 or 5 times a week, so I am not generally out of shape. Thanks for your advice. I read you, if not religiously, than almost so.

Howard Schneider: Morning Bethesda, and congrats...From most of the charts I have seen, 20 pushups for a 62-year-old woman is well above average -- so contgraulate yourself on that. Are you doing the bent knees or the full pushup? If the latter, then that's a double reason to pat yourself on the back (if you can reach back there, with all that muscle in your arms....)...Anyway, as to progressing to more, the way to do that is to train for it. If you do twenty, for example, give yourself a thirty second rest and try to do a second set. Then a third. It may look something like 20-12-8, or something like that. But build up those second and third sets. Eventually you'll find you can do more in the first set...The point is: you become capable of doing the things you work to become capable of doing.

Keep in mind: the genetic limits for women are different than those for men, and age affects the process too...It may not happen fast...

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Northern Neck, Va: Do you have any physical suggestions to get rid of the double chin? There are a few Web sites that explain and diagram neck stretches though I'm not sure how effective they are.

Vicky Hallett: Your best bet for losing the double chin is probably exercising other parts of your body and eating less. Hard to believe you can burn that many calories no matter how much you're contorting your neck...

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Slakcerville, USA: I have been slacking for far too long on my fitness plan. I know when I run my plantar fasciitis tends to act up, so I know I need good new shoes and gel inserts. In the past I have worn Ascis lightweight trainers. Are these good shoes for someone with plantar fasciitis? Do you have other suggestions? I'm trying to spend as little as possible without getting a shoe that will ultimately hurt me. Also, where should I get gel inserts and what do should I look for in a "good" gel insert -- I've never worn them before. Thanks.

Vicky Hallett: Feet come in a multitude of shapes, so I'm not sure there's one magical pair that's the best for all people with plantar fasciitis. So, I'm going to send you to a running specialty store. (Or a few, if you want to get a couple of opinions.) The folks there can point you in the right direction...And let them know you're price sensitive. In these economic times, I'm sure they'd rather steer you to the better deal than lose your business entirely.

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Springfield, Va.: Hi Misfits! I used to run regularly but over the past few years I have become a lazy bum. Seeing that I have very little motivation to build up my endurance and speed on my own, do you know of any local running groups (preferably in the NOVA area) that will provide that motivation? Thank you!

Vicky Hallett: I tagged along with the Potomac River Running fun run from the Ballston store two weeks ago (for today's column), and I think that's a great program. It's social and supportive -- and perhaps you read that if you come four times you get a free T-shirt?? That's gotta be motivating, right? They also have for-pay training programs. Pacers stores also have fun runs and training programs, too.

And there are plenty of clubs in the area -- DC Road Runners is probably the biggest (and their runs actually begin in Virgina). There's also Reston Runners, Arlington Road Runners, and a ton of others. You might want to see if you can try a few different groups to get a sense of which is the best fit.

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No Longer Biking To Work Guy: I've been looking into the "300" workout, from the movie.

Looks tough. I've only done the hold the bench press bar up while bring feet back and over.

Have you read up at all on this and do you think it is a workout fad?

Howard Schneider: SPARTANS!! Fad? More like impossible. For the uninitiated, the "300" is the workout done by the actors in the movie portraying the Battle of Thermopylae. According to WebMD it was not so much a workout as a "test" administered at the end of months of training. Here are the details for anyone interested -- dozens of pushups pullups, deadlifts, box jumps totaling to, of course, 300...As the docs point out, this is a wonderful aspiration, but the actors took their time building up to this grueling circuit...

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Washington, D.C.: Where are there free yoga classes in NW D.C.?

Vicky Hallett: Are you really so lazy you're not going to read the column? That doesn't bode well for your exercise plans, D.C...

But I'll throw in a couple of others that weren't in the paper:

-Art of Living (Artoflivingmetrodc.com) has regular free intro seminars

-Mind the Mat (Mindthemat.com) has free meditation and stretching every Sunday

-Studio Serenity (Studioserenity.com) offers a free class to current students who bring a (paying) friend

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Lanham, Md.: Exercise makes me itch. It is so bad that it becomes painful to continue. What causes that and is there a treatment?

Vicky Hallett: We haven't addressed the itching issue in a while, so perhaps you haven't be here for a discussion of exercise-induced anaphylaxis. Yep, you can be allergic to exercise. And there's a chance that's your problem. You can take some drugs for it, and if it's really bad, you might want to have an EpiPen on hand. (Obviously, see a doc for that.)

Around this time of year, it's also often caused by dry skin and cold air. See if moisturizing helps...

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Texas: Good morning Misfits! I do about an hour work out every weekday, some weights, some cardio (mostly treadmill or stairs). The problem is, in the middle of the night, almost every night, one of my calf muscles cramps up. What could I be doing wrong, or what can I do to help prevent this? It's a lousy way to be woken up at 2 a.m.

Howard Schneider: The cramping may or may not be related to the exercise, particularly since it is occurring (presumably) several hours after your workout. This Mayo Clinic article notes that night cramps can be triggered by muscle overexertion. But there are other causes as well...I'd not their advice on stretching -- after your workouts, and before bedtime -- and hydration in particular...Maybe a stretch and glass of water before bed? Hope that helps...

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Free workouts?: A listing of free workouts is great but can someone really rely on these to make a complete workout on a regular and ongoing basis?

Vicky Hallett: It's true that some of these freebies are meant to be one-time deals, so you can scope out the place and see if you want to pay. But a bunch of these welcome repeats: the fun runs, Lululemon, Quiet Mind yoga, Fit's abs class, the tai chi. Can you just do those things? Sure -- as long as you supplement a bit on your own. A run a few times a week and yoga once or twice a week is a heck of a lot more than what most people do (even ones who pay for monthly gym memberships).

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Alexandria, Va.: Breaking in new winter bike shoes. Sudden knee pain. It's the new cleats, right? Or have I been at the wrong height in the saddle all this time?

Howard Schneider: Lets see what the crowd has to say...Sounds like if the pain started with the new shoes, that's where you should look first, with particular attention to how the cleats are aligning your knee. Do you have your old shoes? Can you compare the two? Can you spend a couple of hours tinkering with the cleat settings to see if it helps? Seems that if all else was working (such as seat height) you should leave that be until you have worked with the shoe/cleat set up a bit...Have you talked to the folks at your bike shop?

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Washington, D.C.: You told the person with the double chin that their "best best" was to exercise the other parts of the body.

Let's be honest. It's not their best bet; it's their only bet. Everyone repeat after me: YOU CAN'T SPOT REDUCE FAT.

Vicky Hallett: There's also plastic surgery. But yeah, that's not really our thing around here...

(And, of course, you're right. Spot reduction is a myth, people!)

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Washington, D.C.: Plantar fasciitis, a painful foot injury, brought my exercise routine to a halt last month. (I was training for my first marathon and doing yoga regularly.) I've seen a doctor, who told me to rest my foot and prescribed stretches. The healing is going slowly and I am eager to begin exercising again. Can you recommend any good types of exercise for me during my recovery? I'm looking to stay fit but am not fully capable of weight-baring activities yet. Also, how do I prevent this injury in the future? I do want to run a marathon someday.

Thanks!

Howard Schneider: Plantar fasciitis is largely an overuse injury -- a too much too soon, too many miles, etc. The general advice is that once you are pain free, you can ease back into it -- but starting very lightly, with walk-run intervals...But it sounds like you are not there yet. Until you get to the point where you are comfortable walking, you can use the elliptical, the bike, swim, or try the rowing machine in order to keep up your cardio....Also consider some resistance training -- that will be a good opportunity to do your foot stretches and maybe some other leg/calf/ankle/foot training to help avoid the problem from recurring... Toward that end here is a good article with some nice foot exercises...Good luck...

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DC: Last week, I finished an hour workout by running roughly 30 minutes on the treadmill followed by some weight lifting.

On the way home, walking in the street, BOTH of my calf muscles flared up, and to say I was in excruciating pain would be an understatement. It felt like someone shot me in calfs, or if someone was squeezing the nerve or muscle as hard as possible. I had to stand there, and bend both knees in order to relieve the pain, and it wasn't until about 5 minutes later was I able to walk (gingerly) to the Metro. This is the third time it's happened, but I've never had it happen on both calf muscles. I forgot to stretch before running on the treadmill, maybe that's why it happened, but it's becoming a recurring problem and I'm almost afraid to head back to the gym now.

Howard Schneider: Don't give up -- scale back and rebuild...First,did you give yourself warmup time? If not, then make sure you do -- e.g. by walking for the first ten minutes on the treadmill. For the remaining twenty minutes, use run walk intervals as you build up the calf muscles. Make sure to stretch them out afterwards. Don't feel defeated by this. It is common for parts of the body to be out of balance, and it sounds like in your case the lungs, heart and upper part of your legs are prepared for more work than your calves can sustain...

In addition, try to add some calf raises to your weight lifting to strengthen and train those muscles...

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Gym consistancy: Why don't gyms of the same brand/chain have the same machines or same number of machines?

I like the calf press at one Gold's and don't find it at another.

Howard Schneider: Interesting question....I am guessing different corporations are set up differently, have different managers, franchise arrangements, budgets, demand, etc. Have you asked at other locations? What was the answer?

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New York: I enjoy your chat and find a lot of useful information. My question is: Is it necessary to feel muscle soreness in order for your muscles to develop/burn fat? I use a bike and I am very sweaty and out of breath during my workout, but I am almost never sore the next day. I push myself, so it isn't that. Thanks for any advice.

Howard Schneider: Morning New York....There are two different types of traning tied up together here. Your work on the bike is endurance training -- which teaches the system to use oxygen more efficiently, create motion more efficiently, and be able to sustain that motion for longer and at more intense levels. It invovles lots of beneficial changes to your metabolism and burns lots of calories. Resistance training -- weight training -- involves different energy systems and triggers different sets of changes in your body. This is where the soreness comes in. Weight training causes small tears to the muscle fibers, and it is the process of repair that makes you stronger. Meanwhile, you may feel those tears as soreness, and it is a sign that you have worked out at level likely to trigger muscle growth. You won't (and, once you are used to it, shouldn't) feel the same way after a workout on the bike...

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Colorado: I believe some insurance carriers pay for fitness memberships for seniors--Kaiser comes to mind.

Question--three months ago I had ankle surgery. I'm back to playing tennis but after a month of playing, I'm finding it difficult to regain my prior fitness level. I'm a 52 year old female, and gained a few pounds while recovering. Any suggestions?

Vicky Hallett: If the problem is that your ankle is acting up, you might want to add something low impact to your tennis routine. Maybe swimming?

If you mean you're having trouble losing those extra pounds, I'd also recommend finding something new to supplement what you're already doing. But go crazy. Dance, running, martial arts, boot camp -- just something new to get excited about, get you moving even more and burning extra calories.

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Rockville, Md.: G'morning. I love your chats and your articles and look forward to reading them every Tuesday. I recently started running, a few months ago and have taken up running on a treadmill in the past month or so because it is way too cold to run outside at 5 a.m. My running is slower on the treadmill than it is outside. Not sure why. Also, how can I use the treadmill to help me lose those stubborn 10 pounds or so that just won't go. I am 5-7, 138 and exercise about 5-6 days a week for a minimum of 50 minutes a day. My downfall is food because I love to eat. Thanks.

Howard Schneider: Everybody who is down to those last "stubborn ten pounds" usually needs to reassess. Your body mass index is right in the middle of the normal range. Some of us are born with a super-skinny metabolism and genes that dont feel the need to hang on to fat. Others of us have greedier systems and only under duress will tap into that "stubborn ten pounds..." Whether you are at that point is something you'll have to experiment with...The last sentence may say a lot...Have you gone through the full exercise of estaming your daily calorie needs, matching that up with your exercise level and eating habits, and determining a target calorie level for weight loss? If not, there are tons of online sites -- at the mayor clinic, or caloriesperhour.com -- that will let you assess yourself...Bottom line: your body is probably used to the exercise you are doing, so to trigger further changes, you'll have to work out longer or harder, and probably overhaul the eating a bit...

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Dulles, Va.: I am female, 43, 5-3, 170 pounds. I have been on a rigorous fitness and healthy eating routine for the past three years; hard cardio 3-4 days per week, weights 1-3 days per week. I eat between 1200 and 1500 calories per day. I lost an initial 40 lbs over the first couple of years but now I am stuck stuck stuck at 170 and cannot lose any more weight whatsoever. I continue to lose inches as I still drop clothing sizes...am I destined to be stuck on this humongous plateau forever?

Howard Schneider: I just checked your figures with the WebMD metabolism calculator. It estimates you need 2300 calories a day, and maybe more depending on the intensity of your workouts (the 2300 is if you are moderately active...Nutritionists will tell you that if you drive the calorie count too low, the body responds by getting really greedy and efficient, and moving energy away from other functions -- people in this state sometimes complain of being cold...)

So you might want to consult a pro. The other thing is to have a body fat assessment. Though our BMI is high, you might also be very muscular and stocky -- and in fine shape. To get lighter, you'd have to lose muscle, which is possible, different than losing fat, and is something you may not want to do once you thinkg through the implications. You'll have to develop your own sense of that...

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Anonymous: Hi. I returned to running after 20-plus years. I am now beginning my third month. During the first two I was carefully taking rest days and I noticed it helped in that I slept better and I didn't over train. The question is: are rest days still necessary after two months? I would like to run whenever the weather and my work schedule permit. The books on running are a little vague at times: many say as much as three rest days on the weekly training programs, advice such as do what feels right for you or saying that rest days are important at the beginning of training programs. I have no injuries so far and run about 3 miles using paved urban park trails on hilly terrain. How many days a week of running do you think are good ?

Howard Schneider: Alot of this revolves around intensity and whether you hope to build up your distance, or stick with the three miles. If you are running those three miles at a really challenging pace -- and I mean dead out, can't breath too well, huffing and puffing -- you'll want to rest more than if this is a more casual workout. In the latter case, give yourself at least one or two days a week of rest, or maybe one day of rest and one day doing something else...

The training plans for distance races usually have two days a week of no running -- one of total rest, and one of crosstraining....

So, yes, continue to rest, but if three miles is your limit, and you are feeling good and injury free, then you can probably go 5 or 6 days a week without much risk...

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Falls Church, Va.: Is there anywhere to ride a bike after dark around here? Somewhere lighted? There aren't any bike paths on the road where I live, and with the sketchy lighting, riding after dark is a little dangerous.

Howard Schneider: Not that I know of....Any suggestions out there? The folks I see biking after dark are usually well lit themselves, but I also see folks that are almost impossible to spot before you are on top of them (in your car)...One option might be to invest in a trainer and hook your bike to that....

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Itchy while exercising: I truly sympathize with the person who itches while exercising because I do too. How I get around it is to do exercises that don't make me itch like spinning, kickboxing, body pump -- I don't use the treadmill because I itchy like crazy after 5 minutes of just walking on it (I also don't run or speed walk for exercise). The elliptical is much better. I would advise that she/he find something that does not cause itching by trying out different workouts.

Vicky Hallett: I have no scientific explanation for why certain exercises are itchier than others. But we totally support experimentation!

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Washington, D.C.: This is more a plea for encouragement rather than a specific question or comment. Earlier this year, I was exercising regularly (4-6 times a week) and had been for a long time. Got off that schedule and am trying to get back to it. Boy, it's tough! Any words of encouragement or even suggestions on how to get back into the swing of it and stick to it?

Vicky Hallett: Colder weather and shorter days are not exactly the best workout motivators. But this is the worst time to stop -- your mood will plummet and you can't indulge in as many holiday treats. How about you give yourself a goal, like the Jingle All the Way 10K?

And we'll be here every week...Good luck!

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Columbia, Md.: I have arthritis in my right hip and nerve damage from surgery on S4 on my back many years ago. I get back pain with any twisting exercises, sometimes spasms. I need exercise for my core muscles and upper arm muscles without stress to lower back. What do you suggest?

Howard Schneider: Given the history, I would suggest consulting a physical therapist. There is probably lots you can do. The trick will be scaling into it in a way that absolutely guarantees no injury...Keep in mind, the pain that people experience with arthritis is not a reason to avoid exercise: it may help overcome the pain as the joint is lubricated and reintroduced to motion...

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Monterrey, Mexico: I've been successful in losing weight through a revised diet (healthy eating) and exercise (cardiac and weights) program at a local gym. Over the past 7 months I've lost over 40 pounds and would like to (need to) lose another 40-50; however, I think I've reached a plateau. To continue the weight loss -- should I increase the cardio (bike and elliptical -- no treadmill due to bad knee) and focus less on the weights?

Howard Schneider: A couple of things the fitness folks dont like to advertise are that A)fat uses calories too...B)as you get in shape your body becomes more efficient, so the same amount of work requires less energy...

What that means is that you have dropped 40 pounds of calorie burning fat (ever heard that phrase before?), maybe replaced that with a couple of pounds muscle but not enough to offset comletely, and put your body in a state where you can do more with less...

Hence the plateau...One of the happy prices you pay for getting in shape is that to get in better shape you have to work harder. Not necessarily longer (though that works too), but more intensely. What I'd suggest is keeping you program as it is, but make sure you are steadily adding intensity, either in the form of progressively heavier weights, or progressively faster/harder settings on the elliptical and bike.

Basically, you've got the low-hanging fruit, now you are going to have to climb a bit higher...Go slow, track what you do, and step by step build your capacity to work a bit harder...

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Washington, D.C.: I am a 33-year-old woman with rheumatoid arthritis. I used to do a daily routine that included push-ups. Due to joint damage to my wrists, I am no longer able to do push-ups without substantial wrist pain (I'm no stranger to pain but this pain lingers for days which is an indication that I should not do that activity any more). Any suggestions for other exercises I can substitute to get a good upper body workout? Thanks!

Howard Schneider: Sorry to hear that...Has your doctor provided any guidance?

Think about pull rather than push exercises - that way your wrists are not under a gravity fighting load. I.e., the various types of rows -- which can be done with dumbbells or machines (generally your pulling a weight backwards from a seated or bent over position, or up in front of you from a standing position...)...Also there are some chest fly machines that dont require you to grip, but rather rest part of your arm on a pad. Lateral raises are also good for the shoulder and dont invovle the wrist (this involves starting with the elbows at the side and pushing them out and up...Is the joint damage something you are doing rehab to improve?

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Vicky Hallett: Our fingers are cramping up, so it's time to say goodbye. See you next week...

Howard Schneider: That's an unncessary preposition. My pet peeve. Figures dont cramp up or down they just cramp. Anyway it is time to go and Vicky is mad at me so my "best best" is to sign off...

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