Ask the MisFits

Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Health Section
Tuesday, December 9, 2008 11:00 AM

Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider are the MisFits, The Post's fitness writers. No exercise question is too odd or embarrassing for them to answer. They were online Tuesday, Dec. 9 at 11 a.m. to offer advice about working out and getting (or staying) healthy.

The transcript follows.

Discussion Archive.

MisFits Archive.


Vicky Hallett: Good late morning, folks! Today's column tackles that important holiday ritual: shopping. But have any of you ever tried to exercise at the mall? It's totally doable -- just watch the video! (And yes, that is me holding the bench behind Nathan because the powers that be at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City thought it was important there be a "spotter.")

Also, if you have any free time this Saturday, get your rear ends over to SomaFit in Glover Park ( It's their annual holiday open house, and they're celebrating with FREE snacks (healthy ones from Whole Foods and Sushi-Ko) and FREE classes, including reggae yoga. I've tried it! It's fun. I'll get Paul to post my write-up in a sec.

Howard Schneider: And in case you missed it, ski season began this weekend: the region's resorts all opened this weekend, after enough cold weather to blow a manmade base...More to say about this next week....

_______________________ Jamaican Me Limber: Reggae Yoga (Express Night Out, April 8)

Vicky Hallett: As promised, a guide to reggae yoga. (With one of my better headlines, I think...)


Arlington, Va.: Quick question: When using an elliptical machine, is it better to hold on to the handles that swing back and forth or not hold on at all?

Howard Schneider: Never seen a study on this but just thinking it through, my sense is it would depend on your goals and your balance and your sense of "better." Not holding on at all will force you to use your core muscles more to stabilize and require the most from your legs (and by not holding on, i assume you mean not just the swinging handles, but the side of the machine as well, so that your arms are swinging freely). But that assumes you are comfortable doing that at a reasonable speed and resistance -- if not holding on leaves you unbalanced and moving slow as a result, then it is not so good...

Holding on to those swinging handles gives you the chance to work your upper body a bit, so that has its own benefit. But don't be deceived: simply holding on won't do much for your arms because you can easy to let your arms just sorrt of hang there and move back and forth through momentum. If you want to take advantage of that aspect, you really have to focus on pushing and pulling, and try to do less with your legs...

Vicky Hallett: Yep, even people from elliptical companies have admitted to me that most people don't get much of a benefit from the handles. But you can! Like Howard said, you have to really think about using your arms. One way is to tell yourself you'll switch off between your legs and your arms every few strides. You'll be amazed at how quickly your top half will tire out.


Arlington, Va.: Can you recommend a good pedometer, or at least a brand? My mother asked for one for Christmas, but I am clueless on which one to get. She is pretty low tech, so something easy to use, not too complicated. Somewhere in the $30-$40 range would be great. Do most sporting goods stores carry them? Thanks for your help!

Howard Schneider: Nice idea for a gift -- unfortunately there's about a bajillion of them out there.

has a review page that goes through price and accuracy. If you want to cut straight to a manufacturer I know Omron has several models -- you could go to there Web site and check out the offerings. Certainly 30 to 40 should be plenty...I have not done much research on their accuracy, but as with any sorts of home fitness monitors they should be used for trending -- not absolutes. I.e. if it marks 7,000 steps one day and 9,000 the next, you can feel comfortable that you did walk quite a bit more, but the number itself is likely off a bit (or maybe even more than a bit...)

Vicky Hallett: I recently tested out a bunch from Sportline and they have a few cool new models that are super small and can be worn anywhere on the body, which means you're more likely to keep them with you. They're all about $30, too. (And yep, Dick's, Sports Authority, etc. should all have a selection.)


Rockville, Md.: Do you have any thoughts on the P90x workout program? I just started it and like it a lot, but was curious about whether you think it's effective.


Vicky Hallett: Haven't tried it so I don't know the specifics, but I see it's based on the idea of "muscle confusion." So I'm guessing it keeps changing up the work out on you? That should be effective, but of course, there are plenty of other ways to get that same result without dropping $140. If it's working for you, though, stick with it, and let us know if you really do go "from regular to ripped in just 90 days."

Howard Schneider: And always keep in mind that the pictures of people with really tight, rippling muscles rely on people with really, really low body fat -- don't expect to look like that unless you have the genetics as well as the willpower to stay away from the peanut butter chocolate bars that your colleague just brought to work....

Vicky Hallett: And any water for 24 hours! Seriously, all of those people with the rippling muscles are about to pass out. (And Howard, can you save me a peanut butter chocolate bar?)


Silver Spring, Md.: With regard to your poster whose foot gets numb on the elliptical machine. You can have something called "Morton's Neuroma" which is a thickened nerve between the bones of your foot -- the ones that turn into your toes.

A pad under the ball of your foot with a little dome-like rise will spread the bones in your foot out and keep you from getting numb. It's also good to be sure your shoes have a toe box that is plenty wide so your foot isn't compressed. As you noted, distributing your weight back onto your heels and not just at the ball of your foot helps keep the ball area from getting compressed and numb.

Vicky Hallett: Do we have a podiatrist in the house? Thanks for the advice!


Washington, D.C.: Hi! I've had recurring back/neck pain that usually gets better with exercise (nothing serious, just tightness, etc), but I'm a first-year law student and in the middle of finals, so I don't have much time to get to the gym for my normal routine (although I'm still trying to stretch/do some yoga so I don't go too crazy!). After hours in the library and hunched over my computer, my neck and back are killing me -- can you guys recommend any exercises/stretches that might help? Thanks so much!!

Howard Schneider: A couple of ideas....

1)Take a cue from yoga. Maybe the library is not the place for a downward facing dog, but you can certainly stand in a nice mountain pose, do some side bends, touch your toes, etc....

2)Take frequent breaks to stand, but also pay attention to your seated posture. Sit up straight, and pull your shoulders blades back...

3)Check the OSHA Web site on workplace ergonomics and incorporate as much of that as you can into your set up at the library...

4)Take a stretchy band to the library. Use it once a hour to stretch out the upper body....

Good luck on your exams.....

Vicky Hallett: The Mayo Clinic site also has a bunch of videos with office stretch suggestions.

Check out this one:

And remember that physical exercise is good for your brain. You'll study better if you allow yourself to take some breaks and focus on your body instead of torts (even Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co.)


Fairfax, Va.: I don't know if you might have answered a question like this before, but I wanted to get my personal trainer a small Christmas gift. Do you have suggestions for a gift that's under $10? Thanks!!

Vicky Hallett: We've talked tipping before, and that's generally seen as a no-no. But I think a small Xmas gift is a lovely gesture. Without knowing your trainer, it's hard to pick the perfect present, but I'd say a Starbucks card (or similar) would be nice. (Or maybe a jar of jam or bottle of oil from a place like Stonewall Kitchen?) Anyone else have suggestions?


Kettlebell City: I wrote you in October to say that your Sept. article on kettlebells had inspired me to try a class here in L.A. and that I'd found a good instructor. Progress report: two months later I'm stronger and leaner, just like the article promised. I've only lost 4 pounds, but I'm down a size (!) already, and I had a "wait, where are the rest of my arms?" moment when I was looking in the mirror the other day. I've still got 25 pounds (or so) to go, but I'm reaping huge rewards. I'll report back again in another couple of months. A Great Workout for Women Who Like To Throw Their Weights Around (Post, Sept. 16)

Vicky Hallett: That's amazing! Keep us posted!!


Kentucky: Normally one should take a day of rest after lifting weights. How does Jazzercising factor into this equation? I try to go to class between 3-5 times a week. Each class is 40 minutes of aerobics, 10 minutes of ab and leg routines, and 10 minutes of weights. If I go to class two days in a row should I skip the last 20 minutes of class so my muscles have a day of rest? PS I've mocked my mom for years about Jazzercising, but it's really a great exercise routine. I started going with a friend who wanted to slim down and now two months into it my arms and legs are toned and people have started to ask me if I've lost weight.

Howard Schneider: Hi Kentucky....The day-off recommendation usually is associted with more intense weight lifting, where you are pushing the muscles to failure (or close to it) and they need a chance to recover...I doubt the weights at the end of jazzercise are heavy enough to do that, so i would not worry about it...

Howard Schneider: But of course if you are feelling sore or fatigued, take a break...What does the instructor say? Do other class mates do that?

Vicky Hallett: I did a piece on a local studio a while back, and one of the instructors I interviewed had lost an incredible amount of weight by becoming a Jazzercise junkie and showing up every day. So it certainly works for some people. But, of course, everyone's different, so look for cues about your soreness, energy level, etc. to figure out what you need to be doing.


Arlington, Va.: Hi,

I am looking for some new ideas to sculpt my things other than squats and lunges. Also, do you know of any fitness classes in the area that are similar to Physique 57 in new York City?


Vicky Hallett: I just looked up what Physique 57 is, and yep, I can help. You should head over to B. Fit ( in Logan Circle, where they teach Pure Barre, another twist on the Lotte Berk method. Even Howard's done it.

Also, in next week's Express, I have an interview with Elisabeth Halfpapp and Fred DeVito, the co-founders of Exhale's Core Fusion program (which is also similar, and based out of New York). They have two DVDs that just came out, so you could try those at home. And they say there are plans to open a studio in the D.C. area eventually...


Baltimore: Hi Misfits!

I just started 10K training and I need to incorporate some strength training. What type of exercises should I be doing to strengthen my running muscles?

And should a woman my age, 31, be taking any of the joint supplements to keep my joints healthy for running?


Howard Schneider: The "running muscles" are really all of them...Though the legs seem to be doing all the moving, the back, core, shoulders and arms are all involved...Pushing into a running program while ignoring lower back strength is a particular recipe for trouble. So think about ways to work the whole body. A good step toward that is yoga, because that is a very good way to maintain joint flexibility, and identify and strenghten weak spots. Beyond that, the American Council on Exercise has a good exercise finder -- you can look at it for exercises that cover all the major muscle groups.

And regarding joint supplements, 31 seems might young to me...The few studies I have seen dont put much stock him them. My attitude is: until a doctor says 'you're body does not manufacture enough X, take this pill,' I'll stick to food....


Bethesda, Md.: Hi,

My good friend in Chicago is training for her first triathlon. What local stores would have a good selection of tri accessories for her holiday gift?


Vicky Hallett: City Sports (there's a new one in Bethesda) should have some fun stuff. You might also want to hit the new location of Potomac River Running in Cleveland Park. I happen to know that the manager, Vergil Arbuckle, is very into triathlons. (The location in Ballston is right next to Conte's, a bike shop, so that might be another good place to try.)


Gainesville, Fla. -- Tired After Working Out: I run every morning, Monday through Friday, for 40-45 minutes each time. I run at 5:30. I do not eat anything before I run. As soon as I am done running, I eat breakfast. I eat either a bowl of cereal or a fried egg on toast with a slice of cheese or a bowl of oatmeal with raisins. I am at work by 8:30. This has been my routine for the past 2 months (give or take a few missed days here and there). Oh, and I am in bed by 10:30 at night--every night.

The problem is, on the days that I work out, I am absolutely exhausted by 9:30 in the morning. My energy level picks up in the afternoon, but it is so very hard for me to get going once I get to work and sit at my desk on the mornings that I have worked out. I thought that working out was supposed to give you more energy, not less. Is there anything I can do that will help give me an early morning energy boost?

Howard Schneider: What time were you getting up before you started the new routine? Were you still getting by on 7 hours of sleep at that point? Seven to 8 is the recommended amount, but if you were getting more and suddenly had to change you may just be adapting to that...Exercise does energize, but adequate rest is critical...


The truth about spinning: I love spinning and do so twice a week. I want to do more but a personal trainer advised against it saying that it would make my legs thick (they are already genetically on the thick side). Is this true? Do I need to mix up the cardio?

Howard Schneider: And what's wrong with thick thighs? Isn't the point to get stronger? Even with genetics on your side how thick is thick?

Mixing up different sorts of exercise is always a good idea, but you should ask a few more questions of your trainer...If the spinning class is heavy on the resistance and uses a lot of 'out of the saddle' moves with your rear held close to the seat, it is going to be more muscle building than if it is a more sprint oriented class. Most spin classes i have done have a mix....I doubt you'll end up with tree trunks. And keep in mind, whatever effect a given class has, the adaptation will peak...

Vicky Hallett: Not doing cardio will definitely make your thighs thick, so if this is what you like to do for exercise, I'd ignore the trainer.


Rockville, Md.: I pulled/strained an abdominal muscle about 2 weeks ago. I weight train 3 times a week normally. Certain moves obviously are painful currently and I'm avoiding those for now. However, I notice mild discomfort during most weight lifting since it involves my core. Is this okay as long as it's only discomfort? Or should I completely stop lifting until the injury is healed?

Howard Schneider: Sorry to hear about that Rockville....Anything in the middle of the body or lower back would make me nervous, and probably lay off until the pain is gone and I was pretty confident it was healed. I think the reason you feel discomfort even while trying to avoid the affected muscles is that those muscles are almost impossible to avoid...Short of sitting on a bench and doing certain types of bicep curls, I can't imagine how to avoid some abdominal involvement...Thing is, if you injure one of those muscles further it is going to be really annoying...


Chantilly, Va.: Does taking 5 minutes each hour (or at least most hours) during the work day to get up and march in place do me enough good to count towards my daily exercise goals?

Howard Schneider: Make it 10 --- the most current research endorses the idea that exercise "accumulates," but in chunks of less than ten minutes the benefit is less clear. Five is probably better than zero, but what about starting at minute fifty five and going to minute five of the following hour -- that's ten minutes over two that three times in a six to eight hour day and you'd have the minimum...


too little?: I'm no high roller, but $10 seems pretty cheap for a personal trainer gift. I've asked the same question, and I was thinking more along the lines of $20 - $30.

Vicky Hallett: It's the thought that counts! But for $20-30, how about some nice bath products? They're in a smelly environment a lot...


Washington, D.C.: On the P90X workout: I haven't bought their videos, but recently bought the P90X chip-up bar and stumbled upon the P90X web subculture. The idea seems to be that if you do what the videos say - exercise very intensely for an hour a day for 90 days, with a balance of cardio, weights, and stretching - you'll get in shape. Can't argue with that, but there's the little issue of actually doing an hour a day of intense exercise for 90 days...

Vicky Hallett: Right. There's always a catch.

Howard Schneider: Exactly...The "magic formula" underlying all these things is the work involved, which does not vary and is an immutable fact of being a mammal and perhaps a vertebrate (i dont know much about the exoskeleton subculture)....Have you seen the chinup bar commercials on the tube? Do you realize how worthless that is to the XXXX percent of people who can't do a single chinup -- let alone whole sets of them in different hand positions? That's not to say it is not a good exercise or a good aspiration, but the guy in the commercial walked to the set with those shoulders...he did not get them from that piece of gear...


Pilates: Could you expect a reasonable cardio benefit from this, or not? I always feel like I'm breathing hard when I do the exercises, but that's probably not a good measure!

Howard Schneider: Breathing hard is actually one of the best measures of what's happening, becuase it means more oxygen is getting delivered to the muscles and more calories are being used. So that extent yes. Pay attention to your heart rate: does it hold at a steady, elevated level throughout the workout? If so it is doing you good. Is your breathing so labored you can't talk? Light enough to hold a conversation? If the former it is too hard (in general), if that latter probably too light...

Of course there are exceptions. Fear might make us breath hard but is not much of a cardio workout...And the spike in heart rate during weight lifting is a result of pressure and other factors not so muhc oxygen demand...

But in general if you are breathing at a steady, elevated level, then there is aerobic benefit (how much depends on you fitness level...)


Alexandria, Va.: Thanks for taking these questions, they are very helpful.

I have two questions.

1. Is taking whey protein after every workout good or bad for you? I am a male, who does mostly weights about 4-5 times a week. I am trying to stay toned.

2. I am trying to also be financially fit, so do you think mortgage rates will fall to 4.5 percent in January?


Howard Schneider: The best path to financial fitness is to not waste your money on whey protein...Eat a balanced diet for your body weight and you'll get the macronutrients you need...


Triathlon store: Fleet Feet Triathlete in Adams Morgan--owned by Mayor Fenty's parents.

Vicky Hallett: It's Fleet Feet Sports, but yep, they should be able to help too.


Rockville, Md.: Hi there. Ever since my baby came along in March, I'm finding that I'm running outside with him much more than in the gym. In fact, I'm at the gym only once a week. This is making it a big luxury in our house. What are some things I should think about before canceling the membership? Thanks.

Vicky Hallett: If you're not using it and still getting enough exercise, then the decision is pretty easy. There's a chance you'll want to head indoors in July though...How do you do in hot weather? And I know some people who've belonged to gyms for so long that their locked-in monthly rate is half what new members are being charged. So if you think you'll want to go back and you have a deal, that's another factor.

But most of what you do at the gym (with the exception of classes and individual instruction) you can do outside, as well.


Cycling: Thanks for taking my question. Have you or any of the chatters ever used a cycling trainer? (The device that lets you convert a normal bike into a stationary bike - kind of like a stand for your bike) I live in a small apartment and would like a good home workout option for snow days, ideally something relatively quiet with adjustable resistance. Is the trainer a good option for something like this? Of course, I feel like a wimp for asking, as I just saw a man biking down the street in 6 inches of snow!

Howard Schneider: Lots of people use them. Since you are in an apartment consider the noise level -- some of them can be rackety...Any recommendations from the crowd?


Washington, D.C.: I'm going skiing over New Year's---what exercises would you suggest to help me get ready? Last time I went my legs got so sore! More running? Stairs? Squats?

Howard Schneider: All the above...Maybe some rope jumping; lunges; or simply mimic the motion you will use for skiing -- bend the knees and rotate one way, then up and rotate the other....You can also do knee circles do limber up the ligaments...I think LA Fitness is offering some get ready for ski season classes....


re Gainseville: Besides for sleep, are you hydrated? Not drinking for 8 hours (while sleeping) followed by a nice, sweaty run, may = dehydration...

Howard Schneider: Good suggestion from our morning runner...This is something I always forget: if I am groggy or hungry in the afternoon it is often cured as much by a glass of water or a cup of green tea as by eating or napping (though there is plenty of that too...)...And speaking of napping: it is an underappreciated art. Don't feel shy about closing your eyes for five minutes. You'll be more productive...


Washington, D.C.: Any thoughts on Bikram yoga? I have taken two classes and it seems more of a workout than regular yoga. Thanks.

Howard Schneider: Have not done it but testimony from friends and my daughter and son it that is a good workout. Keep in mind that you do lose alot of water weight from the sweat - and that's not actual fat loss...

As to "regular yoga" it depends on what you were doing, but probably you are right. The one downside I could envision is that it is the same series of moves each time -- a fixed series -- which might get stale...


Detroit 10Ker update!: Hi, guys! I am the person who wrote in before Thanksgiving about running the Detroit 10K Turkey Trot. I took everyone's advice and didn't wear the race shirt (although a lot of people did, since it was a group of 10,000 and not too many professional runners in the mix.) I finished in 56 minutes (first race ever!) This is my problem, though: after I finished the race, my body didn't really hurt and I felt great. But within an hour, I had an INTENSE headache that didn't go away for hours, even after taking 4 Tylenol and 2 Advil throughout the afternoon. It was painfully cold that morning (30 degrees or colder) and I think it was from filling my sinuses with that frigid air. I'm running a half marathon in Massachusetts this February, and I think it may happen again. Can anyone suggest a brand for a balaclava that isn't totally thick and makes me feel like I'm suffocating? Or maybe another suggestion?

Vicky Hallett: Congrats! And I think you made the right call on the race shirt. But why you keep picking these races in frigid temperatures is completely beyond me!! You could at least travel south for your races...

Anyway, it's a bit late in the chat to ask for advice, but does anyone have a favorite balaclava?


Arlington, Va.: I am trying to get back into a good cardio routine, particularly running. Right now I can only run about 2 miles (with a stretch break halfway in) at an 11 minute pace. My main problem is that my calves cramp up and it becomes painful to continue on the treadmill.

I know treadmills are very high impact, so I try to do a lot of my cardio on the elliptical. But I have a long term goal of running a half marathon -- are there any specific exercises or stretches that will help? Is this because my calves are not very strong, or something else? (I know I have slight plantar fasciitis but normally that pain is more in my ankle/foot, so I'm not sure if it's related or not). Any suggestions about running/stretching/strength exercises to help me run more would be appreciated.

Howard Schneider: Cramping is one of the things that is not fully understood. It could be dehydration or lack of a particular mineral (potassium or magnesium), or could be a strength/fatigue issue.

A couple of things to try:

1)Walk for a few minutes before you start to run -- make sure the muscles are warm and loose and the oxygen and blood are flowing...

2)Get a good warm down in as well, and stretch the calf (and the other major leg muscles) afterwards

3)On off days, do some calf raises to build strength.

4)Monitor the point at which the cramping occurs and see if it pushes back. My guess is with persistence it will disappear...

5)And always drink plenty of water....


Vicky Hallett: High noon! That's our cue to skedaddle. But I expect to see some squatting at the mall this weekend, you hear me?


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