Ask the MisFits

Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Health Section
Tuesday, February 3, 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, Feb. 3 at 11 a.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Discussion Archive.

MisFits Archive.


Howard Schneider: Morning everyone...Seems like it has been a while between the inauguration and my wonderful experience with a dentist last week. Glad to be back...Looking at those pictures of Michael Phelps I wanted to assure everyone that there is no connection between what was going on there and the gas mask I was wearing a couple of weeks ago...Anyway, the weather is lousy, the economy is lousy -- but Vicky is about to get married, so not all the news is bad...

Any questions about stretchy bands?

Vicky Hallett: Howard is clearly avoiding the important questions, like what he thinks of mating behavior at the gym. But we'll let it slide this time.

Also, events of note:

-This Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Verizon Center is the National Women's Heart Health Fair. There will be tons of free screenings (like blood pressure, BMI, cholesterol). Chefs (including Top Chef contestant Carla Hall) will be demoing healthy recipes. And giveaways!

-Monday is the kickoff for NIH Core Week. My column next week is all about this week of free, open-to-the-public exercise classes and seminars, so you'll find out more then. But here's the schedule:

And on with the chat...


Rowing machine?: Hi,

I know that your answer will probably be that I can get a decent workout on just about any machine as long as I work hard, push myself, etc. However, what do you think of rowing machines? I was thinking about adding it into my "rotation" one or two days a week.


Vicky Hallett: I think you can get a much better than decent workout on a rowing machine. Somehow they're not as popular as the elliptical/treadmill/bike triumverate, but they're total body, low-impact and pretty great for almost anyone of any fitness ability. The one thing is you have to know how to row -- it's not as intuitive as the other three machines. But once you get a lesson or two on form ( is an AMAZING resource if no one at your gym can help you out), you're set. They're also particularly good for data lovers...


Virginia Square, Va.: My office provides free bagels every Monday. It's sort of a ritual for everyone and then we sit all day at our desks letting those tasty bagels digest. But I fear that the bagel is just getting added to the spare tire around my stomach! Do you think that offices should cut unhealthy motivational treats like bagels? Seems like a good idea for the recession.

Or have any easy tips for office workers who want to enjoy the bagel and do something to make sure it doesn't stick around? Go on a walk around the block?

Howard Schneider: Boy do I sympathize...Office food is a big weakspot for me -- if someone puts it out, I'll eat it. The Post's financial desk has a very festive routinee of communal treats -- all delicious but all superfluous when it comes to energy balance...

Anyway, this seems like an easy one to fix.

1)Plan for it. Having a good breakfast -- and particularly a dose of carbs in the morning -- is good advice, so a bagel can serve that role. Maybe skip something you'd usually eat at home (saves you money too...)

2)If the office is only buying white bagels, ask whoever is in charge to include whole wheat, oats, raisins, etc., things with whole grain that are also healthier. Or maybe even some fresh fruit?

3)Skip the "schmeer" and other toppings.

4)Take half a bagel so you can participate in the fun without going overboard.

5)Bring your own piece of fruit to the party.

6)Keep in mind that beyond all the diet advice and gimmicks and everything else is a simple concept: people are overweight because they eat too much. Nobody can compel you to open your mouth.

Vicky Hallett: Do you work in my office? We happen to get free bagels every Monday too! (And lemme guess -- Brooklyn Bagel?) Anyway, I can't resist either, but I always go for whole wheat (as does just about everyone else, so that bag empties the fastest), and I pack a smaller lunch because I know I'll be getting the extra carbs.

The bigger problem: Birthday cake day. There's no whole wheat cake I know of...


Arlington, Va.: I received a very generous Christmas present, several lessons to a nice yoga studio. The problem is that it is very far from my office, leaving me no real choice but to go at around 8 p.m. I don't like to do too much activity that late for fear it will disturb my sleep.

Do any yoga studios have reciprocity? Also, any recommendations for a studio in Eastern Market?


Vicky Hallett: Some yoga studios have several locations (like Unity Woods and Tranquil Space) and I assume you can go to any of them if you have a gift card. But I think if it's just a single studio you won't be able to transfer classes. How about going on weekends though? You're not going into the office every day, right? Or, if it's such a pain to get there, maybe you can see if the class pass can be used instead for a single private lesson scheduled at your convenience. If the cost is the same, I bet they'd go for that...

As for yoga studios around Eastern Market, I know Capitol Hill Yoga is reopening next month right around there. And their site ( lists several other classes in the neighborhood. Good luck!


Arlington, Va.: Can I say something to the folks out there who work out at health clubs? Specifically, the selfish ones who don't put their weights away or wipe the sweat off the equipment after they're done? Please, people, clean up after yourself. All those other people you pretend you don't see are not your servants. We pay good money for gym membership, and we shouldn't have to waste our time taking plates off the bars, wandering around looking for the dumbbells you were too lazy to put away and cleaning your sweat off the benches. We all have to live on this planet together. Please respect the rest of us.

Vicky Hallett: I think you just said it! Yes, people, I know you're in a rush to hit the showers, but don't disrespect your fellow gymgoers.


Fairfax, Va.: I am a 55-year-old female looking for a walking partner near the Vienna Metro to keep me consistent. I like to walk at least 4 miles when I walk.

Can you provide some type of link for those of us looking for workout buddies?

Other suggestions or ideas?

Vicky Hallett: I bet if you contact the Northern Virginia Volksmarchers (, you can find someone who'd want to join you. And if you're willing to head up the Orange line, there's Walk Arlington (, which organizes a weekly walk from the Clarendon stop.


Pasta arms: Hi! I'm a runner, and I've been neglecting my now-noodly arms for a long time. My question is, am I actually going to benefit further from working out my upper body (winning an arm-wrestling contest with Madonna is not my fitness goal). If so, what kinds of exercises for my arms will focus on muscles I actually use while running?

Howard Schneider: I assume we are talking cappellini and not a robust ziti, correct?

Here is the thing: I have friends who do maybe a marathon a year. They are regular runners, but casual about it -- and their shoulders slump. Worry less about your arms and more about your shoulders and back. Ignore those and you are asking for long term trouble -- poor posture, shoulder pain, back trouble and on and on...

So upper body strength training would be good to tack on to your running program -- not to get bulging biceps, but to stay healthy.

Even to keep good running posture this is important. As a starter, consider compound exercises (ones that work a couple of muscle groups at a time) that focus on the uppper back and shoulder area -- any of the various rowing exercises, "pulldowns" that strengthen the lats and upper back, chest presses or pushups for the chest...Depending on your shoulder strength and health, you can also consider shoulder presses(people with shoulder issues would probably be better to avoid any of those overhead moves).

Here is a bit more background from

on why strength training is important for endurance athletes...


Watertown, Mass.: As I work to expand my lung capacity for competitive swimming, what do you think is the best type of weed to smoke? And should I use a bong?

Vicky Hallett: I'd stick with a 12,000 calorie/day diet instead.


Alexandria, Va.: What is with people setting their treadmills to an incline like Kilimanjaro, then holding on to the bar for dear life during their workout? Isn't it obvious that you'd get a better workout by lowering the incline and walking unassisted? Can I please tell this to the people in my gym? (PS - I sneaked in a run yesterday, with temps in the 50s, and it was fantastic.)

Howard Schneider: You know I have been wondering the same thing -- it seems this practice is becoming a mini-epidemic. It screws up posture, screws up motion, and messes up some of the good that walking uphill does for your upper body...I am not sure the pedigree of the web site -- it seems to be something from the treadmill industry, but check this out

Vicky Hallett: Even though you're right, if you want to help them, get someone who works at the gym to correct them. If you do it, it's likely they'll just think you're an annoying busybody and keep climbing the mountain.


Washington, D.C.: Good Morning! I'm 25, and I ran track pretty much my entire life. (Until college, because we didn't have a track team.) However, I made it a practice of running on my own. Long story short - because of the weather, I would rather run on a treadmill or hit an elliptical. However, it seems that I always get what feels like shin-splints when exercising on any type of exercise machine.

I did get shin splints when running track. But it came with the training on and off. Is there any way to prevent this or any idea what could be causing this?

Howard Schneider: I'll refer you over to the the Mayo Clinic fo the details, but the general idea is to check your shoes, watch your hydration, and work on strengthening and stretching the calf muscles...This is typically an overuse sort of ailment, and you should be able to manage...


Washington, D.C.: Good morning! As a woman who has recently entered her 30s, I am sensing that it takes more time to take off weight while at the gym. I can't tell if it's because I gained a few more pounds than usual (5 instead of 2), but I can't shake the feeling that it's age or something. Isn't a 4500-calorie burn going to have the same effect for a 20-year-old and a 30-year-old? In other words, whether I'm 20 or 30, doesn't the 4500 calories burned translate to the same number of fat grams burned? As long as I'm exercising and burning the same number of calories, I'm taking off the weight, right?

Howard Schneider: Unfortunately, it is not that easy. For one thing, the underlying metabolism of a 20 and a 30 year old is different. As we age, metabolism slows a bit so what our body requires to sustain itself also slows a bit, which is why we can eat like horses at 18 and then end up looking like a horse at 40...Point being, you put on weight more easily as you age, which means you either need to cut the input or up the output to match...

As to the exercise itself, there is not a direct connection between the number of calories you use during a workout and "fat grams." I don't pretend to understand the science on this -- there are lots of conflicting theories about whether longer, lower intensity workouts or shorter higher-intensity ones are better for weight loss...I try to do a bit of both in the course of a week. Point being, your body taps a number of different energy pathways during exercise, and depending on both the type and intensity of the effort that will affect weight loss...Unfortunately, this is what trainers and dietitians get paid to help us figure out...My advice is: If you're gaining weight, then look at both what you are eating and the amount of exercise, and try to tweak them both until you find a formula that works for you...


There's no whole wheat cake I know of... : Oh, but you're wrong! Maybe you can't buy them in the store, but there's recipes in the King Arthur whole wheat flour baking book. We had a whole wheat cake just last month and it was great, more texture, I liked it better than regular cake.

Vicky Hallett: Fine, you're right. But what about whole wheat icing?


Putting away weights: I'm with the previous poster about wiping off sweat and putting away the weights. But I also ask that the gym staff, at the end of the night, do a walk through and make sure any wayward weights are put back. I get to the gym 20 min after it opens and I know the towels or weights on the floor didn't happen between 5 and 5:20 a.m.

I think if the gym did this and showed that they care about their gym and take pride in it then people would think twice about not putting their stuff back.

Vicky Hallett: But if the staff is really good about putting stuff away then maybe people will feel even less responsibility to clean up after themselves...You can't win.


re: Watertown, Mass.: That was a snorkel in Phelps's mouth, duh.

Howard Schneider: That's what I thought too...Or maybe he was just sipping absinthe....


Golden Valley, Minn.: Good morning, and thanks for your help.

I've just entered the 21st century and purchased an iPod. The good news is that now I can do 50 minutes on the elliptical. The bad news is that my feet start getting numb after 20 minutes or so. What am I doing wrong, and how can I fix it?

Many thanks!

Howard Schneider: this is a pretty common complaint...Make sure your shoes are snug but not tied too tight...Try to make sure you are not jammed up to the front the pedals (stay more in the middle)...Concentrate on lifting your feet through the pedal stroke to mimic more more of a running motion (as opposed to keeping them flat)...Go through periods where you emphasize the arms and take some of the pressure off of the pushing motion in your feet...It will get better...


Running shoes: I'm sure you get asked this all the time but how long should your running shoes last? I can't tell if my shoes are giving me the sharp pains in my lower legs (not sure what it is called but the pain is in the muscle).

Howard Schneider: Shoe experts generally say that good running shoes generally have a useful life of between 300 and 500 miles....The problem is that over time the cushioning gets compressed to the point where it is not doing its job. If this is a new pain and you have had the shoes for a while, then get a new pair. Have you generally been running pain free? I know it seems wierd to track mileage on your shoes, but that's the best way to stay on top of how "old" they are -- age matters less than use...


Myth?: Is there any truth to the notion that potassium and/or milk can ease muscle cramps and stiffness the night of a run (if I've run in the afternoon or a.m.)? I've been told both things but it sounds like old wives' tales. Thanks!

Vicky Hallett: There's definitely truth to the idea that potassium can help with running cramps (hence, the bananas that are usually at the finish line at races), but I've never heard the same said of milk. Although hydration (usually with water) is supposed to help too. But I'm not sure how effective these things are several hours after a run -- at that point, you're not cramping, you're just sore. For that, I'd guess you're better off icing, using a foam roller, taking it easy, etc.


re: wiping down sweat: I know its icky to work out on someone else's sweat. However, is there scientific proof that the spray at my gym will prevent any microorganism or virus from infecting the person after me?

Do we wipe it down for piece of mind that the actual sweat is gone but are really not doing anything to kill the germs?

Vicky Hallett: I'd guess the bigger problem isn't the spray (which almost certainly kills germs), but making sure that everything is properly wiped down. If you're just wiping what's sweaty, that's not taking care of the light mist that fell on the control panel after you sneezed. The next person touches that to adjust resistance and that's where the trouble can begin...

So always wash your hands after a gym visit. I noticed my gym just put a big old bottle of Purell at the front desk, which is not a bad idea.


Washington, D.C.: I have bad knees and can't do many lunges or squats. What are some other exercises to quickly tone the thighs, hamstrings, and glutes? Thanks.

Vicky Hallett: I'd get thee to a Pilates class. That side leg series is killer on the thighs...


South Florida: I wanted to change my couch potato ways and bought a treadmill. I found a great article that gives me a weekly schedule on how to slowly work my way to running 5k. I am a couple of weeks into the schedule and am really proud of myself. My question is, how do I know when the ache that I am feeling is just something that I need to push through and when it is something that could be a problem? I know that if I become injured, I'll stop and then who knows when I will try again.


Howard Schneider: Intensity and location should be your guides. A dull ache or soreness in the muscle is generally not a problem -- that is common if you are working out hard, because vigorous exercise actually tears muscle fiber (the rebuilding process makes them stronger). Sharp pains are a sign of injury -- muscle pulls, ligament tears, tendon damage -- and at that point you should stop and figure out what is happening....Since you are just getting started, be cautious -- gradually you'll learn to ready your body's signals with confidence, but in the meantime the focus should be on injury prevention...


Arlington, Va.: If I can get up to 100 consecutive pushups and do them three times a week, can I forgo upper body strength training? (I like pushups okay. I hate weights.)

Howard Schneider: I'd love to hear any comments on this from the crowd but I'd bet you could stop short of that...I was speaking with the strenght coach at American U. the other day and he said he tells his athletes they only need to do three exercises for general life fitness: squats, pushups and pullups....If you have the pushups down, maybe add a pullup series for variety's sake...


Pittsburgh: I'm being encouraged to start doing Pilates at a studio with equipment. What benefits do Pilates offer? If combined with regular walking, would they contribute to a full workout?

Howard Schneider: Joe Pilates focus in developing that series of exercise was on strengthening what he called the body's "powerhouse" -- gluteals, abdominal and back muscles that have so much to do with how we move and stand. Devotees swear by it as a total conditioning program -- one that keeps the joints flexible and the muscles in shape. In that regard it is like yoga. The two are very different, but both are good at detecting weak spots and making them stronger...


Washington, DC: Two questions, with some level of relation I think. One: Any ideas about Web sites that will construct a gym routine for you -- something that you could, for example, plug your age, weight, goals etc into and it would tell you to do x amount of time on this machine and y amount on another. Does this sort of thing exist, or is that what you pay a trainer for?

Two: Do you have any suggestions for targeted underarm toning? I know women have to live with some degree of wobble - even Michelle Obama has a little - but I'd really, really like to minimize it! Thanks a lot guys!

Howard Schneider: Here are a couple of ideas, and part of the answer depends on whether you are looking only for free advice or are willing to spend a bit.

There is a program called podfitness which creates customized workouts and mixes them with playlists from an ipod or a couple of other brands of MP3 players. It does just what you are asking - and is versatile enough to cover weight training, yoga, running, a variety of cardio machiens, etc. It costs 20 bucks a month -- BUT if you are just looking to get started you might be able to sign up, download a bunch of workouts, then quit...In addition, if you dont own a compatible mp3, you could simply use itunes (which is free) to download the workouts and leave them on your computer, listen to them there, and take notes to the gym...So, in essence, for a minimal investment of a month or so's fees you could accomplish your end...

If you own an iphone, there are a lot of fitness apps for that as well...

On the Web itself, check about the American council on Exercise, the Mayoclinic, and Sparkpeople, all of which have lots of advice on constructing workouts...

As to underarm toning, what you'll probably want is an overall program for your upper body: it is geneally not recommended to work on one muscle (in this case the triceps) without working on the others that complement it (in this case the biceps and shoulder). But more to the point, the "wobble" is not necessarily a lack of muscle, it is the presence of fat. That's a diet issue too -- and unfortunately there is no way to "target" fat loss...


Metabolism: You wrote, "As we age, metabolism slows a bit so what our body requires to sustain itself also slows a bit, which is why we can eat like horses at 18 and then end up looking like a horse at 40." I can't vouch for its accuracy - and please explain if you think it's wrong - but this site ( cites studies that found that "the energy requirement of fat-free body weight (weight of the body minus the bodyfat) were remarkably constant for both men and women between the ages of 20 and 60." In other words, if you exercise regularly and keep the same muscle mass at 40 as you did at 18, then you can eat just as much as you did at 18.

Howard Schneider: Good qualification...The problem is maintaining the fat free mass...That requires pretty steady work. I believe studies in that regard show that while we never lose our ability to build muscle, it does slow significantly, which makes it that much harder to satsify the assumption of the study you mention...


New York: I'm a gymaholic who has sprained her ankle for the first time! It's a slight sprain and I'm now wearing a wrap...what can I do while I recoup? Is walking on a treadmill out of the question?

Howard Schneider: Swim? Bike? What did your doc say? Better safe than sorry...


Running shoe wear...: I know it sounds crazy, but when I started running a few years ago, I was told by everyone that I would know when it was time to get new ones. I thought they were insane, but you do know. Things start to ache that didn't ache - knees, ankles, shins, etc. It is subtle but once I get the teeny tiny aches on a run - it's past time to get them. Ideally, you should replace BEFORE the aches, but that is my little reminder to head to to store.

Howard Schneider: Advice on the shoes...And to those who dont buy into the need to spend the money: it daughter have all had the experience of running related pain that disappeared when we got fitted in the right gear...Not to say that is ALWAYS the problem, only that it is common...


DC: Hey - thanks for taking my question. So I'm using the Wii Fit and have a question about weigh-ins. The scale is pretty sensitive and I tend to use it in the early evening when I first get home from work, right before my workout. I noticed that my weight seems to fluctuate a lot - up to 1 kg in either direction - on a daily basis. Is this water weight? How does one measure the accuracy of one's efforts in light of such fluctuations? I feel awesome on the -1 days and demoralized when I think I've gained at all, even when I know it's probably just water or food weight.

Vicky Hallett: Your weight (and everyone's weight -- you're not alone here) fluctuates several pounds over the course of the day. So the main thing is being consistent about when you're weighing yourself, which is seems like you're doing. But if you're dehydrated one day or wearing heavy clothes (I assume you're not Wii-ing in the buff?) that can futz with the numbers. The more important thing here is to look at the trend. If you're losing weight, you'll hit that lower number more consistently and then see it drop even lower on occasion. You also have to give your body time to lose weight, so don't be too thrown off by what's happening on a daily basis. Just knowing that you're back on the Wii exercising should keep you feeling awesome -- you're doing something great for your body! And don't forget that weight isn't the ultimate test of fitness. Getting caught up in the numbers isn't very healthy...


staff putting away equipment: I think it takes a two-pronged approach by the staff. They should be vigilant in asking people to put away things - make it a gym policy. But I also think that last thing at night everything left out should be put away by the staff for a fresh start the next day. The gym does have a responsibility to create a conducive environment.

Vicky Hallett: Indeed. And the world will be a cleaner place.


Frederick, Md.: I am 15 weeks pregnant and, since I founnd out that I was pregnant, I have kept running 15 miles a week. Saturday I want to run 10 miles -- my doctor said is okay, but reading the Internet I got afraid that something bad can happen to me. Can you give me any advice?

Vicky Hallett: Nope, we can't give you any advice about stuff like this. If you don't trust your doctor, see another doctor. And remember you can't believe everything you read on the internet -- even this chat! Didn't you just see the thing about whole wheat cake?

Howard Schneider: I dont have the site reference hand and time is running out, but go to the Health and Human Services Web site and look up their report on Physical Activity Recommendations. There is a whole section on pregnancy, the bottom line of which was that people who were exercising before becoming pregnant could keep it up, though there were precautions about intensity as time passed...Major prohibitions involved impact activities like horseback riding or boxing...


Being clean at the gym: It goes back to the theory that if a place looks nice, then one is less likely to trash it than if it isn't kept clean. In sociology its called "broken-window theory". I'm not saying the gym should clean up after people....I just think people will more likely to pick up after themselves if items are already in their place (kinda like, well if they did it, mentality).

I also think gyms should have towels and spray bottles near everything (like how Disney World has trash cans ever 2 feet). If a bottle and towel were more accessible (at least in my gym) then I think people would wipe the equipment more often. I'd love to do a study about this.

Vicky Hallett: I totally agree that there should be more towels and spray! I'm often visiting unfamiliar gyms (it comes along with the job) and I'm amazed at how hidden that stuff is sometimes. If you make it easier, it seems like more people would do it...


Whassamatta U.: Hi You Fits,

Pulled a muscle in my hamstring/glute area, it felt like a rubber band had snapped back there. But no bruising, and I can run/bike/elliptical/racquetball just fine. It only hurts when I stretch it out. Should I just not stretch at all until the pain goes away, or should I slowly, gently, stretch it during the healing process. Thanks oodles, and congrats to Vickie. Truly, all the best hearts have been taken...

Howard Schneider: Slow and gentle -- but better yet if you actually heard it pop you should get it looked at. Even if there is no bruising, an audible tear may need more than self-medication...


Maryland: A bagel is NOT an unhealthy treat. you don't have to eat it at all, you certainly don't have to eat the whole thing, and you definitely don't have to smear it with fatty condiments. Some of us LIKE our free bagels in this economy, thanks very much, and if you think eating it is bad for you, then don't.

Just sayin'

Vicky Hallett: I LOOVE my free bagels. And I love my free cake, too. (You know about journalists and free food, right? We'll do anything for it.) But I wouldn't mind free crudite in the office once in a while. It's a way for employers to bring down health care costs, right?


3 1/2 Months Away: I'm getting married in Orlando in May. A lot of the time we'll be at the pool since the wedding hotel is at a nice resort.

I've come along way (with your help over the last few months - 22 lbs). But I again feel like I hit a barrier. My goal is to not lose any muscle (don't need to gain it either), but I would sure love to lose the love handles...don't even need a six-pack, just the excess shape above my waste.

I'm 31M, routine consists of an hour workout, combo weight training (30) and elliptical (30 mins) 4-5 times/week. (can't run because of knee problems). My diet - cut out coffee, soda, drinking protein shakes/eating protein bars for snacks (instead of potato chips), portions or less, and at times cut out alcohol (ex. this week, or only once on a weekend, etc.).

What else am I missing? Should I drop the weight training and focus just on the elliptical? Need to get that beach/pool bod.


Howard Schneider: Dontt cut the weight training...Try to up the intensity on the elliptical -- there is alot of emerging research that more intense workouts are more effective for weight loss...Also remember the unfortunate fact that at some point genetics takes hold: different people's bodies will hold on to fat in different spots so even doing all the right thigns may make those love handles hard to dislodge...But good luck...


Howard Schneider: That is all we have time for today....Thanks for the great questions...We have some fun stuff coming up for wedding week and Valentines day, so keep reading....


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