Ask the MisFits

Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Health Section
Tuesday, December 2, 2008; 11:00 AM

Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider are the MisFits, The Post's fitness writers. They were online Tuesday, Dec. 2 at 11 a.m. to offer advice about working out and getting (or staying) healthy.

The transcript follows.

Discussion Archive.

MisFits Archive.


Howard Schneider: Okay lets start with the bad news...I indulged my son in a very unhealthy Thanksgiving eating contest with his cousin. My advice? I sent him to a Bikram yoga class the night before and he sweated off about four pounds, stayed dehydrated, and by mealtime was primed to soak up the gravy...He won handily after about half a dozen glasses of water, three plates of food, and a couple of hunks of pie. Twelves pounds later he won easily...

Great way to start the Holiday Challenge, no? The good news is we went dancing Saturday - as suggested in today's column kicking off our fun Holiday Things To Do -- and he was still trim and fit when he went back to college Sunday morning...

Vicky Hallett: And I thought my parents were weird. (In a good way, of course. Love you, mom and dad!)

Alrighty, let's get going...


Washington, D.C.:how does a static ab exercise, like the plank, compare to one that incorporates more movement, like sit-ups? I find the plank to be more strenuous, but am I neglecting some muscles by not moving? Does an exercise that forces contraction and release provide more of a work-out?

Vicky Hallett: Good timing, D.C. I was just chatting with Nathan Stormer, area fitness manager for Bally Total Fitness, about this last week. (Watch for him in next week's column...) And he was saying plank pose is way better for you than sit-ups because it targets the transverse abdominus. When you work that, it cinches in your waist. With sit-ups, you're mainly targeting the rectus abdominus, which is a more superficial muscle.

Howard Schneider: Just to add in: With a plank you get no momentum assist. With sit ups you build speed and at some point the muscle can let go. Plus you can't "cheat" on a plank by pulling with the hip flexor -- which happens easily with situps, to the point that, unless you concentrate, you end up not working the abs much at all...If you want to make a sit up motion retain its focus, do them "negative" -- start at the top and lower yourself as slow as possible so that abdominals are forced to fight gravity on the way down.


Virginia: When I use my elliptical, the balls of my feet hurt and feel almost numb after a while. I haven't found anything yet that really helps alleviate the pressure (shoe inserts, cut-up yoga mats). Do you have any suggestions?

Vicky Hallett: You shouldn't need all that padding if you're wearing socks and shoes. I'd take a look at how you're using the thing -- are you standing on just the balls of your feet? That's no good. You can usually fight off numbness by picking your feet up every once in a while and adjusting your position.


McLean, Va.: Great info today Howard. And who knew that my wife was so far ahead of her time. We have cut our own tree for 15 years or more and she always seems to find one as far away from the car as possible. She was just making sure I was getting my workout for the day!!!

For anyone already in good shape but looking for a quick workout during the busy holiday season, search the Internet for Tabata. Fourteen-minute interval workout with studies to back up the effectiveness. They hurt.

Howard Schneider: Thanks....And for anyone hunting for something fresh, try the Tabata protocol -- really intense....Whether it is this particular type of interval or any other, research seems to be accumulating that the use of intermittent intensity really helps make us stronger and leads to changes in body composition.


Baltimore: I used to think that gyms were too expensive, until a friend told me that his gym only cost $40 per month (I thought they were more than $100 per month -- some of them are). There is even a gym in my neighborhood that is only $10 per month. I joined the one recommended by my friend, because they have lots of yoga classes, spinning classes, etc. I've been working out 3x week all year. So if you think you can't afford it, check again!

Vicky Hallett: It's true! Fitness First, for instance, is a chain with tons of locations in the area and it's less than $40/month. But where is this amazing bargain gym in Baltimore that's just $10??


Gift List: Can somebody really do so many pushups that they lose count!?! I feel so inadequate now....

Vicky Hallett: A reference to Express! And it's not even me making it! Anyway, yes, in today's issue, we mention the Perfect Pushup Counter, which you put under your chest to count your reps. I would have no use for such a device as I am thrilled every time I knock out one. But it counts up to 999, so if you're the sort of person who could do that many, I'd imagine it would be hard to keep track...


Numb Feet on the Elliptical: It happened to me all the time until I started wearing my MBTs. The arched sole doesn't let you plant your feet so your feet don't get numb. Re socks and shoes, before I discovered the MBT solution I tried super cushy socks, new shoes, nothing worked.

Vicky Hallett: It's the same idea though -- don't plant your feet in one spot and you'll fight the numbness. MBT shoes force you not to do it, but you should be able to create the same effect even in normal flat shoes.


Cleveland Park: I'm thinking about getting a WiiFit for my husband for Christmas. He doesn't like to exercise that much, but he does love his Wii. My question is, does WiiFit really have any health benefits or is it just a well-marketed video game? Will it really do him any good in terms of weight loss?

Howard Schneider: At a very basic level, any movement is better than none, so if it opens the door to standing up and working on his balance and swinging his arms, it is helpful. Weight loss is another matter -- that is going to likely involve dietary changes, and longer/more intense exercise than he is likely to get from the Nintendo. Why not get it understanding that it is meant to be fun, and hope also that it will open the door not just to activities done in front of the television, but things done outside -- like actual tennis or actual bowling or yoga with real other people...One of the nice things about exercise is the social aspect -- it is a chance to do something with people you like...

Vicky Hallett: I think it's also a good wake-up call for people because it knows if you're overweight (and adjusts your avatar accordingly!), reminds you whether or not you have a sense of balance, etc. Those are the kinds of cues that might push someone into a more active lifestyle.

_______________________ A Knockout of a Workout (Post, Aug. 7 2007)

Howard Schneider: Here is a piece we did on Wiisports a year or so ago...The Wiifit was not out at that point, but I did use a beta and it had some nice stuff...The problem seemed to me to be limited progressivity -- i.e., once you are able to balance on the line, what do you do next? And if you really like the yoga, does it take you beyond a very elementary level?


Gaithersburg, Md.: Hi Misfits!! Thank you for your columns and advice!

I am just getting over a long-term illness. Before getting sick, I was very active -- went to the gym 4 times a week, running outdoors, playing tennis, swimming, etc. Now, after not being able to go to the gym for the last few months, I am barely able to walk for more than 20-30 minutes at a time (I've built up to that). I'm getting really frustrated that I'm still unable to run or work out like I used to even though I'm starting to get my old energy back. Do you have any recommendations on how to get back into the swing of things? Are there any Web sites that would be helpful? I've been considering getting a personal trainer but wanted to see if you all had any ideas before I make that kind of investment. Thanks!!!

Vicky Hallett: I can understand why a plateau would be frustrating, but you're making so much progress! You've built up your stamina so you can walk more than you could when you first returned to the gym. You can feel that your old energy is coming back. I'd focus on those things as a motivator...

Another idea is to try something you didn't do before your injury -- maybe something like gentle yoga would be a good place to start? That way you can't compare your performance now to what you used to do.


Arlington, State of Way Too Heavy: Help! I'm a small-framed, 5-foot-6, 51-year-old woman with an ancestry full of cardiovascular disease, who needs to ditch about 60 pounds. Love to walk, but on weekdays can only do so early mornings or mid-evenings -- and at this time of year it's often too cold and/or dark for me rouse myself to seize the moment when it comes (briefly) by.

So I dream of an affordable-but-sturdy motorized folding treadmill suitable only for walking, with no bells and whistles. (Don't need to know heart rate or calories burned. Just need to walk.)

Any suggestions? Any alternatives? Any advice? Help!!!


Vicky Hallett: We're not so well versed in home treadmills. But maybe another chatter can help you out? The cheaper alternative is just to find an indoor spot to walk (the Ballston Mall? Pentagon City?). Or maybe a warmer coat and some pals will make the outdoors acceptable? You have a great resource in Walk Arlington ( -- the site lists weekly walking groups and special events. And one more idea: the Thursday night Potomac River Running women-only walk/run from Ballston.


Upstate New York: Two running-related q's for ya: 1. When can I register for the Army 10-miler? I've decided I need motivation, and that sounds like a great way to motivate. 2. I want to increase my aerobic capacity this winter. I've read conflicting reports on the best way to do it. Some say intervals, other say steady-state. What do you think?

Vicky Hallett: Two answers!

1. Not for a while. It just happened! The next one's not until Oct. 4, 2009. But if you keep checking, info will eventually appear. The next big deal 10 miler in these parts is the Cherry Blossom. Registration opens Dec. 16 (, and as we've mentioned here before, it generally fills up within a couple of hours. So no dawdling if you want to do it.

2. I think both should help -- and will certainly keep your workouts more interesting and varied.


Washington, D.C.: I've been trying to lose weight for a while now and it has become clear to me that exercise alone will not cut it. I am 5-feet-11 and 255 pounds. Everything I've read indicates I need about 3,500 calories to maintain weight and 3,000 if I want to lose, say, a pound a week. The problem is although I am trying to cut down on food (while maintaining a beginner exercise program) I still feel way too hungry by the end of the day and eat too much in the evening. I love fruits and vegetables, but they are not filling me up and I get irritable and discouraged and... you get the picture. How do I train my body to not want as much food, or at least be satisfied with a half dozen carrots as opposed to half a pound of pasta?

Howard Schneider: Morning Washington...Well 3,000 calories is a lot to play with, so you should have no problem squeezing in some "real food..." You are right that exercise alone won't do it -- the latest research indicates that it takes about an hour a day to make a difference.

As to the food, where are those 3,000 calories coming from? Are you eating too much at night because of hunger or out of habit? Are you eating enough at breakfast and throughout the day to give yourself a fighting chance of not feeling starved at night? Keep in mind there is no reason why supper shouldn't include pasta -- but preferably whole wheat, and preferably a reasonable serving (not a whole bowlful...In other words the choice is not carrots or pasta, it is between a reasonable AMOUNT of pasta, perhaps with a light vegetable sauce, as opposed to a plateful with meatballs). And please look honestly at other foods you eat -- sodas, use of nonhealthy fats and oils, etc. Like I said, 3,000 calories offers plenty of room for all sorts of FOOD (not junk and sugar)...Just keep in mind that as you lose weight you'll need to also recalibrate what you need....


Wisconsin: Good morning,

How much does extra weight (say, 15-20 pounds, or a BMI of 25-26) increase one's risk for injury? I'm a woman in my mid 20s and exercise vigorously 6 days a week. I honestly love to work out. After years of this routine with no problems, I've experienced some tendon injuries in the past six months (leg, now shoulder) I'm scaling back, doing more cross-training, checking my form, and reevaluating my goals. Would losing weight be another way to take some pressure off my body and reduce the risk of injury?

Howard Schneider: Happy to hear from the crowd but I think if you have been working out that much for that long, the extra weight is not the issue. More likely you've sustained an overuse injury, and it sounds like you are doing the right things to fix it...Was the weight gain sudden, or gradual? Is the mid-20s too early to say "welcome to pre-middle age?"


Crazy like Patsy Cline: Since this is the season that everyone says wait until the New Year, I am committed to losing weight and re-energizing my exercise routine, now. My question -- is it better to spend 30 minutes at lunch to lift light weights, run up and down 5 flights of stairs and do yoga or should I walk two miles? My goal is to do this 3 times a week. I want to fit in my 90 minutes of exercise a day, 5 days a week. Thanks!!!

Howard Schneider: I'm confused about the time -- how do we get from thirty minutes to 90 minutes? And if you are in shape to run up five flights of stairs why settle for walking on level ground? I guess if we are just talking about the lunch hour, the mix of weights, stairs and yoga would trump a walk...Can you plan longer walks and runs after work?

Whichever you choose just stay off the airplanes, okay?


Baltimore - the $10 gym: Planet Fitness is the gym that costs $10/month. But I didn't join it because it's very, very crowded in the early evening hours (after work).

Vicky Hallett: I see on their site ( the offer expires at the end of the month, so if you're interested (and willing to brave the crowds), get on it...


Durham, N.C.: About six months ago, I started working out at the gym 3-4 times a week. I do the different cardio machines there (elliptical, bike, stairs, treadmill) to try to vary my exercise and I also lift some weights.

When I do cardio, half the time I do intervals and the other half I basically set my heart rate monitor to go to 145 bpm or above which I read is a good rate for my age. I've been doing this for six months. I know you need to increase your resistance with weights or you'll level off, but what about heart rate? Should I be increasing this at all? Or is this one target heart rate what I want to be exercising at for the rest of my life and as I get fitter, I'll just have to work harder to keep it at that rate? (Adjusted for age, of course).


Howard Schneider: Good question...You can't (except under really exceptional circumstances) change your maximum heart rate, so the intensity zones used for this type of training stay pretty much the same, other than for the gradual decline associated with age. So if 145 is a good training zone, you'll stick with that. But keep in mind there are different types of workouts. Is 145 a modest aerobic zone, or really high? Where does your heart rate go doing your intervals? The aim is to kind of mix things up so that over a week you are looking to push the heart rate higher over shorter periods, and then in other workouts go longer but at lower intensity...That will improve your overall endurance. But you'll always have that built in limiter, and once you hit around 90 percent of it you'll find the workout harder and harder to sustain...

But keep in mind: as you get in better shape you become more efficient. Hence your idea of "working harder." You won't aim for a higher heart rate, but you will find yourself having to add a bit more speed or resistance on the machines to achieve the same heart rate outcome...


Alexandria, Va.: Like many men at the gym, my workouts are mainly focused on upper body workouts. Therefore, my legs have been neglected and are very skinny when compared to my upper body, especially my calf muscles. I am not looking to get my legs huge, just toned, can you give me tips on the best leg workouts for this?


Howard Schneider: There are plenty of them, and the nice thing is that many are easily done with body weight, dumbbells or a barbell...What I have liked lately focuses on three: a leg press, a straightleg deadlift (it involves pulling the weight from the floor with the hands very close to the legs and the back straight so that the hamstrings and glutes do the pulling), and a barbell squat...If you are not comfortable with those (and I'd recommend some coaching on the deadlift particularly, it is to put too much pressure on the lower back), then do single leg lunges with dumbbells and squats...One routine I have used just relies on bodyweight: 4 sets of 30 squats and 2 sets of 12 lunges -- you'll feel it....


Alexandria, Va.: Hey, MisFits! I realize this is kind of late, but it snuck up on me! I'm leaving next week for a ski vacation in Colorado -- anything I can do in the next few days to get ready for it? I do exercise on a regular basis so I'm thinking of anything ski-specific. Thanks!

Howard Schneider: Next week is a bit quick. The vulnerable spot is the knee and the connective tissue down there because if you are skiing properly you'll be constantly compressing and extending from that joint through your turns. LA Fitness has advertised a get in shape for ski season workout -- you might give them a call if there is one in your area, and maybe get a class or two in before your trip. Meanwhile, here is a National Geographic article detailing some of Bode Miller's favorites -- if you can do the single-leg squat with the ski poles we will make you an inaugural member of the Misfits Hall of Fame...Otherwise, what about some jump rope? That will get the whole lower body rolling and begin to get the knees used to the up and down. Maybe add a side to side jump to build up the lateral strength...


Bikram Yoga : I took a couple of Bikram Yoga classes and really enjoyed them except that they were so long! It was a three-hour enterprise to travel to and from the studio and take the class. Is there another type of hot (maybe not quite as hot as Bikram...) yoga that has shorter classes?

Howard Schneider: Unfortunately not. At least I have not heard of any sort of "express" Bikram. The whole package -- the heat, the scripted series of moves, the length of time -- all kind of hangs together. Other flavors of yoga have their own selling points. If you like the intensity of Bikram then try Ashtanga, which sometimes gets branded as "power yoga..."


Annandale, Va: Are there any free or inexpensive indoor pools in my area?

Vicky Hallett: How about Audrey Moore Rec Center? It's $6.85.


St. Paul, Minn.: I LOVE my kettlebell and use it 3-4 times a week but need to add something else to my routine. Before the snow came I biked and walked daily but I am a fair weather - afraid of falling on the ice kind of person. I have a stationery bike and a Pilates tape, is that enough? Female, age 42.

Vicky Hallett: It sounds like it's enough to meet those activity guidelines, but if that's all you're doing, it could get a bit dull. Maybe ask for more DVDs for the holidays so you have a bit more variety?

And can't you just take your walks around the Mall of America? I'm so jealous! I've always wanted to go.

Look! You can become a Mall Star.


Arlington, Va.: I found an online calculator once that let me enter info about my height, weight, hip, waist, and arm measurements and it calculated that I burn 90 cal per mile. No matter how fast or slow I run that mile. Do you know of any similar calculators for riding a bike? Or any guess as to what the conversion would be? Thanks

Howard Schneider: Try using the Mets method we discussed recently. Instructions and a list that includes different biking intensities is available at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health.


Get me off my butt!: I am ready to go to the gym for lunch but the prospect of a chatting Weingarten and Farhi is leading me to procrastinate. What can you tell me to help out? You can read the transcripts later?

Vicky Hallett: You mean, your doctor hasn't told you that reading chats improve your aerobic capacity and burn fat? Honestly, I don't know what's wrong with health care in this country.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Are there any local businesses that buy used exercise equipment?

Vicky Hallett: Not that I know of. But I suppose it depends on what you're selling. You might want to see if a rec center could use it...


motivation issues...: Hi! I know you guys get these questions a lot, but I am seriously having motivation issues. I recently moved and am no longer within a reasonable distance to my gym; I joined one by my office, but don't have time to go during the day and I hate crowds so I don't go after work. My husband cannot wake up early in the morning to save his life (which is my preferred workout time) -- and since we drive to work together, he would need to come in early (between 6 and 6:30 a.m.) with me. Any tips for getting him motivated that early? Tips for me to not let him talk me out of getting up that early? I'm at a point where I've lost all my cardio and strength gains that I had up until this summer (when we moved) and it's really bumming me out. Thanks -- love the chats!

Vicky Hallett: I'd invest in a couple of DVDs and some dumbbells so you can do something most mornings when he's still in bed. And then every once in a while, prod him until he takes you to the gym. If it's not a regular thing, hopefully he'll do it for love. But between 6 and 6:30 requires a whole lot of love...And maybe get over your crowd issues. Better than sleep depriving your husband, right?


Arlington, Va.: I always feel like I am cheating when I bench press. I am not quite sure what I am doing wrong though! I lower the bar to my chest and the I push it back up. How hard is that? Afterward though, I almost always feel it more in my triceps and shoulders (deltoids) than in my chest. Is this a common problem? Is there a simple change in technique which can help?

Howard Schneider: The triceps and shoulders are both involved in the motion and as the chest muscles (pectorals) get tired, those will do more of the work. Of course when you say "how hard is that?" it means you might be doing more of the work with those secondary movers and not so much with the larger pectorals. If you're hands are close and the lift ends up much below the sternum, in fact, the exercise ends up being a tricep press. So keep the hands a bit wider -- the bar should have "rings" to help mark your spot, you'll want the arms basically in a goal post sort of pose...The other critical thing is to keep the scapula (should blade) pulled down so that you are truly lifting with the chest and not with the shoulder muscles (as I found out the hard way)...


Crazy like Patsy Cline: I am trying to get in a total of 90 mins of exercise on my workout days. To achieve that I have to break it out to 30 mins at lunch and a 60 min aerobic class. I take aerobics classes so I am looking for a boost at lunchtime. The 60 mins I have been doing for years so I figure I need to ramp it up a bit. I like walking because the cold weather clears my head and gets me out of the office so I can see the sun. I HATE jogging. Thanks!!!

Howard Schneider: That makes things clearer: split up the week. Three days of weights and stairs, and two head clearing walks...


Joe Cubicle: How many calories does one burn in a given day?

Just an estimate of how many calories are used during an average day.

Howard Schneider: How much do you weigh back there in cubicle land? You get get personalized estimates from Web sites like


Vicky Hallett: It's noon, so we've got to go! But we'll see you next week with more ideas on how to stay active over the holidays. Maybe Howard will even dance for us...


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