Ask the MisFits

Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Health Section
Tuesday, January 6, 2009; 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. Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider are the MisFits, The Post's fitness writers. They were online Tuesday, Jan. 6 at 11 a.m. to take your questions.

The transcript follows.

Discussion Archive.

MisFits Archive.


Howard Schneider: Hi all, and welcome back...Can't decide whether I am more interested in Presidents aging twice as fast as everyone else (that courtesy of CNN this morning...should winnow the next primary field)....Oprah regaining all her weight...Richard Simmons reappearing with a new DVD...or the challenges of balancing on one foot...

The newsroom is littered with toppled bodies this morning...Hope everyone out there has managed to stay upright...

Happy New Year, BTW...What's up? Anyone want the last piece of pumpkin pie Eleanor and I have promised not to eat?

Vicky Hallett: Hopefully everyone saw Darth, I mean Howard, on the cover of Health this morning. That almost makes up for him being AWOL last chat...

Anyway, before we get started, I wanted to fill you in on a couple of events this weekend. Not only is it the NBC4 Health & Fitness Expo at the Convention Center (indoor soccer! snowboard simulations! free stuff!), but Saturday is "Winter Trails" (, a nationwide event that promotes snowshoeing and cross country skiing. The closest site is at Ski Liberty in Pennsylvania. As a bonus, you'll get a certificate from the President's Council on Physical Fitness. Ohh Ahh.

And away we go.


Favorite Workout Songs: I'm just curious, what are your top 10 workout songs are that really get you up and moving? I need to add more songs to my iPod!

Vicky Hallett: This is embarrassing, but I feel like I can share these things with you: anything by ABBA or the Village People. Oh, and "Hey Ya."

Howard Schneider: I am all across the map on this...Lately I have been listening a lot to Mofro, a southern folkish/rock band from Florida...And I'll match Vicky's "Hey Ya" with another Outkast tune, "Bowtie..."...Beck has some great "inspirational" tunes...

Vicky Hallett: But I'd steer clear of "Loser."

Chatters? I know you want to chime in on this one...


Arlington, Va.: I've decided this is the year I finally learn to swim. Problem is, I'm terrified of the water. Any suggestions on swimming lessons in the Arlington area that cater to adults like me? Thanks!

Vicky Hallett: Ready to dive into '09? Good for you! The Arlington rec department has adult beginner classes that start at the end of the month -- plus, it's a darn good deal at under $100 bucks for 10 classes. If you're looking for something a little different, you might want to contact Lloyd Henry of On Point Fitness ( He teaches the Total Immersion technique, which a lot of adults say works better for them. But he's definitely pricier -- it looks like his next session (in D.C., not Arlington) is $395 for six weeks.


Washington, D.C.: I have issues with my gym: there are rarely enough towels to go around, many of the machines are often broken, I NEVER see any staff wondering around talking to folks, the front-desk staff are not particular friendly, and the locker rooms are not cleaned regularly (I went to the gym this morning when it opened, and the locker room was clearly not cleaned last night -- no toilet paper, dirty towels on the floor, etc.).

I have complained. I have talked to management. I have talked to corporate. It hasn't gotten better. BUT, I'm stuck -- this is the most convenient place to go (work and home) by a long shot. So, what do I do?? I need a gym that's close by. I love working out, and I go regularly, but my monthly dues seem outrageous when I look at how crappy things are.

Vicky Hallett: If the gym isn't going to change, it seems like you'll have to. What are you doing at the gym to work out? If there really isn't another place nearby that's convenient (and we'll give you ideas if you give us a neighborhood!), think about how you can do those activities in different ways. Maybe you'll want to do weightlifting DVDs in your living room, join a sports team, take yoga classes at a studio, jog outside rather than on the treadmill...


Herndon, Va.: Rage Against the Machine "Killing In The Name" (uncensored version). You cannot listen to that tune and not get pumped up!

Vicky Hallett: Yeah, I find censorship really affects my workouts too...


Rockville, Md.: Doc thinks I have a meniscus tear (that is the test I screamed on). Follow up appointment is this week, but assuming that this is what is wrong and that it is minor and can be allowed to heal on its own, what is it that I am supposed to do/avoid doing to make the process as short as possible? I asked the doc, but he was less than helpful at the first appointment. I'm aware that he didn't know exactly what was wrong, but am I going to sue him for giving me more information than "don't exercise but otherwise do whatever you are doing now"? Keeping it relatively straight seems to have helped, but that was a total guess on my part since I first noticed the pain when straightening it out from being very bent (like sitting cross-legged).

Any recommendations would be appreciated. Oh, other than getting an orthopedist with better communication skills. This guy has already lost my business.

Howard Schneider: This seems to be a common approach at the Doc level, except for the ones that specifically classify themselves as sports medicine practitioners. They seem to understand the importance of motion to people and cater to it...That usually, however, involves referral to a physical therapist -- which is what you should pursue...What you don't want to do is turn a minor tear into something more serious...The WEBMD article has some recommended exercises, which look a lot like standard lower body exercises except with less weight and a go-slow approach. Use of an exercise band for resistance may be helpful (that's what I used initially to help restrengthen a rotator cuff)...But the point here is getting good advice about how to get started in a way that won't risk a deeper tear, but also how to progress so that the healing moves along...For that a PT's advice will be worth the investment...


Dear Calories: I hate you.

You taste so good in all of the things I've grown to love over the years. I can eat a hundred of you in one handful, drink a hundred of you in one gulp of delicious mass quantities of fermented hops. Yet it takes ten minutes of exercise to get rid of you. You add up like a snowball rolling down a hill. I loathe you. I despise you. I think about you when I sleep; I think about you when I eat; I think about you when I brush my teeth. How many of you does it take to remove you from my teeth? I eat you and then I use you to get rid of you. What a vicious cycle.

P.S. -- you are the devil.

Vicky Hallett: And yet, you need more than a thousand each day to live! It's definitely a relationship with some issues.

Also, I would love to see this performed spoken word style with a bongo drum. Just throwing that out there.

Howard Schneider: Yea I think you should send this to the public affairs office at HHS...I think they have some openings...


Arlington, Va.: At what age do hot flashes start?

Vicky Hallett: I believe they usually start with the onset of menopause. According to the Mayo Clinic, the average age of that in American women is 51. But it can happen years earlier. If you're worried, see a doctor.


my favorite tunes : all these are on my iPod and keep me moving: "Jesus Walks" by Kanye West, "Go Walking Down There" by Chris Isaak, anything from "Confessions from the Dance Floor" by Madonna, "Turn off the Light" by Nellie Furtado, "Paint it Black" by the Rolling Stones, "Black Horse" by KT Tunstall, "They" by Jem, "Lose Yourself" by Eminem, "Stayin' Alive" by Wyclef Jean.

Vicky Hallett: More music picks...


Workout music: Kanye West, "Harder Faster Stronger." Great running song.

Vicky Hallett: And another...


Potomac, Md.: Hey guy, I started running again about seven weeks ago (honest!). About two weeks ago, I developed a real tightness in my calf muscles. I ran a couple times in the last two weeks, which I presume was a mistake as both legs really hurt when I ran a 5K race on New Year's Day. I haven't run since. My legs don't hurt when I walk so hopefully my injuries are not severe.

How long should I expect for recovery? What is better for treating the calf muscles, heat or cold? Or should I just start loading up on the cheesecakes?

Howard Schneider: Put the cheesecake on hold...The Fiesta Bowl marks the official end of the party, I am told...

The general formula for aches and pains is RICE -- Rest Ice Compression and Elevation. The ice is to prevent swelling and inflammation, which can further damage tissue. So icing immediately after a run would be the way to go...

But your issue is more how to get back into the game without the pain...For that you'll want to work on calf strength (one-legged calf raises can be done by crossing one foot behind the other, and simply raising and lowering yourself), and flexibility. If the pain is gone, try starting back slow and easy -- use run/walk intervals, for example, to avoid putting too much stress on the calf muscle while you gauge its tolerance. Drink plenty of liquid before your work out, and be sure to stretch the calf afterward. Also, for general muscle maintenance, use of "the stick" or a foam roller helps a lot to help work out little knots and spasms...Point is, if it does not hurt to walk, start out just walking. Then add a bit of running and pay attention to the hydration, stretching and strengthening issues as you work....


Washington, D.C., personal trainer: This is more of an etiquette question that pure fitness question. Here is the scenario. My husband and I go to a personal training gym in NW DC three times a week. We are both fitness fanatics. I love my trainer and he has simply been okay with his. However, in the last 2 months his trainer has gotten progressively worse despite the fact that my husband has talked to him on three occasions about his goals and changes that he wanted in his program. At this point, what should we do? On the one hand, we want to go to the owner of the gym and request a change in his trainer(this may not happen as we train at the prime time of 7 a.m.) but on the other hand the thought of complaining and jeopardizing the trainers job is less appealing. I, of course, want him to be happy since we're paying $70 bucks a session for EACH of our respective trainers. Any advice would be appreciated.

Vicky Hallett: You don't need to get the guy fired. Why doesn't your husband just tell management that he's looking for something new? Sometimes personalities don't click -- trainers can range from cheerleaders to drill sergeants to your forgiving best pal. I'd frame it more like that: "I've really found a match with my trainer, but my husband hasn't. Maybe there's another one we could try?"

Since it's a such a prime time, the guy will probably get a new client soon anyway.


Washington, D.C.: Would I be crazy to run a half marathon the day after getting off a 14 hour flight from the Middle East? It would be a short trip, maybe 4-5 days, and I've done a couple of halfs before, but this will be the first in about two years. I really want to do it, but I'm afraid that it would be asking for trouble.


Howard Schneider: What's your training level? I would not think the plane ride in and of itself is a deal killer. The day before an event like that you should be taking it easy anyway...I'd plan carefully around the jet lag, and make sure you stretch your legs regularly on the plane. That's common sense anyway because of the arterial issues, but extra important for you to stay loose....


Fairfax, Va.: So, I was at Lifetime in Fairfax on Saturday, doing a nice ride on a bike. The woman next to me starts having a loud cell conversation, which thankfully didn't last more than a few minutes. But towards the end of her workout, she started grunting loudly and almost cheering herself on (go! go!, oh yeah! oh yeah!, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon!) There is another woman who regularly "dances" on the elliptical, with lots of clapping, snapping, hands in the air, etc. Am I uptight being peeved by this stuff or does this behavior violate gym etiquette?

Vicky Hallett: Well, there have been cases of people banned from gyms for loud grunting. So you're not the only one. But I'm personally more annoyed by cell chatter. If clapping, snapping and cheering get people to enjoy their workouts more, that's at least the reason they're there. Talking on the phone isn't.

But if you have headphones on and are listening to some good music (like "Waterloo" for instance), you should be able to tune most of it out anyway.



What is a good poundage to start with hand weights for someone who hasn't used them before? Thanks!

Howard Schneider: Totally depends on what exercises you are doing and how strong you are...In some cases a weight as light as three pounds is fine (that's what might be appropriate for certain should exercises that rely on the smaller muscles of the rotator cuff). But that amount of weight would do little for a rowing motion that involves the larger back muscles. If you are really just starting out, are not very strong, and have not done resistance type training before, consider starting out with resistance bands or rubber tubing. Rather than discrete weights, the resistance can be changed along a continuum by grabbing them in different ways or doubling them over...They'll cost less than the dumbbells and will let you get started without buying three or four pairs of different weights...


Atlanta: Hello

How important is strength training compared to cardio exercises?

Howard Schneider: The importance of strength training is pretty broadly acknowledged -- regardless of age (at least among adults) or fitness level. The most recent government review recommends a couple of sessions a weak. Both types of exercise have distinct benefits (along with some of the same ones). A good program will include some of each...Ignoring the resistance training means loss of muscle mass over time (or an accelerated loss since after a point it cannot be stopped completely) and loss of bone density, among other things...They involve different energy systems as well, and it's good to keep both working well.


music: "Low" by Flo Rida. Heard it in my zumba class over the weekend. Fun!

Vicky Hallett: And another for the playlist...


Philadelphia: HI! Thanks for taking my question. Took the funnest class at the gym yesterday, called Punk Rope. Lots of jump rope but also fun recess-like games to get you pumped up. They recommend you find shoes that have good support in the ball of your foot (which it is clear why after trying to jump rope for a bit). How do I find such shoes? Or inserts to put in my new sneakers? I could definitely feel it yesterday....and I LOVED the class so I definitely want to go back. THANKS!

Vicky Hallett: Did you see what the instructor was wearing? That might help you figure out what you want to buy. I'm guessing he/she probably wears cross trainers rather than running shoes. If you think your current shoes won't cut it, try a store like City Sports (there are two in Philly). You could bring your pair to see if inserts could work, too...

And I'm so jealous! I don't think we have Punk Rope down here.


Washington, DC: I tried to do sit-ups this morning and couldn't get my back/shoulders off the floor. Apparently my core strength is at zero. So, how can I begin to get some muscle strength there? Thanks.

Howard Schneider: Morning...Traditional sit ups have fallen from favor as a core exercise, partly because of the potential strain on the neck, partly because they focus on the more superficial muscles, and partly because as commonly done they end up using momentum for a good portion of the motion. Keep in mind that the "core" is not just your stomach -- it is your back and a good portion of your legs as well...

There are a couple of things to try:

1)If you are inclined to get involved in a class, try Pilates or yoga -- those focus on core strength and are good at shoring up other weak links...

2)The plank exercise is a good "whole core" exercise that can be modified for different strength levels. The basic idea is that, from a face down position, hold yourself stiff as a board, supported only by your toes in the back and your elbows and forearms up front (hands can be crossed or flat as in a "sphinx" position). Contract the abs and keep the head and neck straight. Try to hold that for a few seconds. Take a rest and repeat say two more times. Ideally, you'll build to the point where you can hold that for ten seconds or so...When you reach that, shoot for 30, then a full minute....Good luck...And if you really feel your abdominal muscles are shot, get some advice from a pro -- either a trainer or therapist. If those muscles are not kept in shape, back pain and other problems are right around the corner...


McLean, Va.: Thanks for the fun fitness tests. I am picturing cars full of Metro riders stumbling back and forth on their ride today!!

For the strength test if someone does not have access to a bench press how many push-ups would be considered a decent amount? Figuring Out How Fit You Really Are (Post, Jan. 6)

Howard Schneider: Here is a chart from one Web site showing the norms...BTW, the bench press test is in the category of "more challenging..." If you don't lift weights regularly and are not familiar with the exercise, it is not one you should jump right into...For example, I can lift my approximate "goal weight," but the extra 20 is no-go...


Alexandria, Va.: Is it important for someone who works out with weights and cardio about 4 times a week to take protein shakes after every workout?

Vicky Hallett: Nope. Most people are capable of getting enough protein through their diets, so unless these are really intense workouts (think marathon training or heavy duty lifting), you're probably fine.


Washington, D.C.: Is there a link/Web site to the NBC4 Health & Fitness Expo? Can't seem to find it. 2009 NBC4 Health and Fitness Expo Attractions

Vicky Hallett: It's overwhelming, but fun...


Calf Problems: Make sure you do lots of calf and Achilles stretching. Do some of the stretches with the back of your foot off a step and emphasize the "eccentric" part, when your heel is below the step. And yes come back slowly as these can be lingering injuries.

Howard Schneider: Advice on calves...if our calf-hurting-runner is still out there....


Re: Tight Calf Muscles in Potomac: The reader with the tight calf muscles should also make sure they have the right kind of running shoes for their feet if they have not already done this. Wearing the wrong shoes can do all kinds of funny things to your feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs and/or hips. My experience has been that discomfort or pain from poor shoe choice doesn't always appear immediately, it's sometimes not easy to make the connection between the two.

Howard Schneider: ....and some more...


Washington, D.C.: I'm a 54-year-old woman in relatively good health and at a decent weight (5-10, 140 pounds but my clothes fit better at 134). Do you have any suggestions for cardio that is easy on the knees? I currently mix up elliptical machines (with and without arm movement), arc trainer, rowing machine, and spinning class, but I am getting bored with all of them. I am going to try to switch my music (I hear Madonna has some good ones) but do you have any other suggestions? Thanks!

Vicky Hallett: How about swimming or dancing or some sort of group exercise class? And how much are you mixing it up -- are you doing a different machine each time you come in or doing an assortment? If 45 minutes on the elliptical isn't doing it for you, maybe you can do 10 minutes of rowing, 10 minutes on a bike, 10 minutes on the arc trainer and 15 on the elliptical. In short bursts, you might also be inspired to push harder.


joining a gym: I am looking to join a gym in the new year (not a NYE resolution based decision or anything, just realized I have put on some weight), but I'm a little nervous about the high pressure sales pitches gyms give. Any tips on how to not get suckered into a 3 year overpriced contract? Thanks!

Vicky Hallett: You need to walk in there realizing you have the power. You're the one choosing a gym, and even if you're only seriously considering one, they have no way of knowing that...

Almost anywhere you're entitled to a trial -- at least an hour workout and a visit to a class -- and I definitely wouldn't sign up for a gym without taking advantage of that. Some gyms have more lenient contracts, which can be so helpful for transient Washingtonians. So definitely shop around for something you're comfortable with.

I'll get Paul to put up a link to the gym shopping story I wrote just before Xmas.

_______________________ Resolved to Join a Gym? Price Isn't Everything (Post, Dec. 23, 2008)

Vicky Hallett: Here ya go -- more tips!


Arlington, Va.: I recently started using a calorie counting website to track my food and exercise as I try to lose weight. However, I can't figure out how to correctly calculate how many calories I burn at spinning class. The Web site I'm using lets you chose different levels of exertion - 150 watts is moderately intense, 200 watts is intense, and 250 watts is very intense. I feel like I give my all in spinning class, but I don't have a heart monitor or anything -- so how do I figure out how many watts I'm using?

Howard Schneider: I assume the Web site accounts for body weight and age as well? It should, if it doesn't. That also impacts how many calories you use.

One thing to keep in mind: all of these methods are estimates, so don't treat any of the numbers as gospel. Round generously, and over time you'll see what works...

That said, studies have shown that people have a pretty good sense of how hard they are working. Rate yourself on a 1 to 10 scale -- with 10 being an all out, can barely breath effort (keep in mind that sort of effort cannot be sustained for long, so it is not a level you'd work at for an entire spinning class)...and say 5 being an light effort through which you could keep a conversation going...Using that, give your own guesstimate of where you fit on the 150 to 250 watt scale. You'll probably be pretty close....Other thing is to use a stationary bike once or twice outside your spinning class. They usually have electronics that will give you some estimate of the work done...


Post-holiday bulge: Hi there! So over the holidays I tried an experiemnt: I've been trying to lose a little beer belly I've developed over the last year or so and my boyfriend suggested switching to dark beer. Needless to say that didn't really work out (even if I did get to enjoy some very tasty beer). So my question is what do you guys recommend to lose a beer belly and get myself in bikini shape?

Howard Schneider: Beer fat isn't different from any other fat. It's all excess energy...Lay off the sauce, for one, and crown your boyfriend with a rolling pin for duping you into drinking dark beer. My guess is he just wanted someone to share a Guinness with, or maybe surmised that you'd find the taste so yucky you'd drink less...


Cleveland Park: Is there a certain extent that exercising difficulties can be in your head? My friend was injured a few years ago (broken foot) and hasn't been able to get back into running. His doctor says it should be fine and he admits that the pain is gone, he is just paranoid about reinjuring himself. Any tips to get over this fear so he can keep running?

Vicky Hallett: I'd maybe start out with other physical activities first, get confident that I can be active without hurting myself and then ease back into the running.

But it's possible he just doesn't want to run anymore. If he's not going to have fun doing it, I wouldn't force him...


Madison, Wisc.: I am a healthy weight, but I have, er, beefy calves. They've always been muscular, but for the past few months, I've noticed that they feel swollen by the end of the day. This usually occurs only at work, when I've been sitting at a desk all day. It doesn't happen on the weekends when I'm up and about doing things. I work in a very small office, so pacing the halls would be awkward for my coworkers. Do you think this is really just a too much sitting problem? Is there some kind of ergonomic adjustment I could make to my chair or desk? Do I need to drink more water? Why are my calves so blimpy?

Howard Schneider: Seems to me you are answering your own question...My guess is that blood is pooling down there and making your legs feel swollen... Get up a stretch. Walk around your chair a few times. Stand at your chair and do calf raises -- and don't be self conscious. Do what you need to make yourself feel comfortable....


Vicky Hallett: It's noon, there's a loud beeping noise near my office and I think that means it's time to leave. See you next week!


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