Ask the MisFits

Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Health Section
Tuesday, February 10, 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 Feb. 10 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions.

The transcript follows.

Discussion Archive.

MisFits Archive.


Vicky Hallett: Morning everybody! Are any of you making time to get over to NIH for CORE Week? Or do you already have a good balance of conditioning and relaxation in your lives?

Also, we have a Valentine's present for all of you: Bob Harper from "The Biggest Loser." I interviewed him a couple weeks ago for Express and managed to convince him to do a chat! So he'll be here at 2 p.m. (We originally wanted him to join us, but I guess 11 is too early over in California...slacker...) Anyway, so if you feel our responses today are lacking, there's backup. And I expect he'll be perky and loveable, which is more than I can say for Howard (kidding!).

And before we get started, a few deals/events to know about:

-Love Week at Joy of Motion Dance Center means if you come with a buddy, both of you can drop into a class at any of their locations for $10 each. (Thru the 15th)

-The newest Vida Fitness (at the Renaissance Hotel - 999 9th St. NW) is hosting a V-Day open house from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free fitness consultations, free massages and free chocolate!

-From there, you can head over to Conte's Bikes in Arlington (3924 Wilson Blvd.) by 6:30 p.m. for the Singles Only Valentine's Day Ride. It's free -- contact Jody Bennett ( for more details.


Honolulu, Hawaii: Hi folks,

I've recently injured my left big toe (drop a food processor blade on it). I've been active (running, surfing, swimming). I have been banned from those activities now. Beside yoga, stretches, and upper body weight, what else I can do?

Vicky Hallett: Uh oh. Maybe I should stop cooking barefoot...

But back to you. When people have serious lower body injuries, one cardio option is a machine called an upper body ergometer. It's basically a bike, but you use your arms to pedal instead of your legs. So if you belong to a gym, find out if they have one for you to use.

I don't totally understand your limitations. Can you not put pressure on your foot at all? Can you really not get it wet? I guess I don't really see the harm in swimming (or something like water aerobics), but if your doctor told you to cut it out, I'd stick with that advice. And don't forget about your core! Crunches don't require any toes at all. But do try to keep those other nine safe.


Chicago: I recently broke multiple toes in my foot and have to stay off my feet for a few weeks. I was thinking I should still be able to do some ab and upper body training. My only question is - how can I warm up adequately? Usually I do 10 miuntes of a cardio video to warm up. Any ideas?

Vicky Hallett: Ack! Everyone's having toe issues today! Well, again, an upper body erg would be the machine option. But you can get the same effect just by pushing yourself -- how about rapid fire punching or speedy upper body rotations? Those can both get you pretty warm.

Howard Schneider: You could also warmup using a lightweight and go for a high number of reps. Get on the bench, for example, use the standard 45 pound Olympic bar, and do bench presses for a minute solid at a steady pace. Or set a numberical goal, like sets of 50 or seomthing. You could do the same with lat pulldowns -- anything that does not require pressure on the feet. The important point is to use very light resistance and keep the pace up for long enough that the body gets warm and the aerobic system starts to roll...


Arlington, Va.: Why can't I ever get the machines at the gym to register my heart rate? I don't own a heart-rate monitor and find it difficult to take my pulse except when walking at a slow pace, so my only option is to grip the metal bits on the handlebars of the treadmill/elliptical/bike and hope the display shows me an accurate number. But either it never registers or gives me a totally wacko number (yesterday the machine said my pulse was 50???). What am I doing wrong? Too tight/loose of a grip? Sweaty palms?

Vicky Hallett: Don't blame yourself. Blame the equipment. And I think you know what you have to do if you really want a more accurate reading -- buy a heart rate monitor! Maybe your sweetie will buy you one for Valentine's Day? It is, after all, American Heart Month.

Howard Schneider: Sweaty palms, probably. I find I get a reading until about 15 minutes in, when the flood of sweat begins...

Vicky Hallett: Right, but there's not much you can do once the perspiration starts. You wipe, get a reading and then it goes all crazy again...You could inject your sweat glands with Botox so you don't get as wet, but that's probably a terrible idea, what with the overheating and all...


Baltimore: Dear Vicky and Howard, Early submission as I usually go to the gym at lunch! I'm training for my fourth triathlon. This will be my longest, Olympic distance. My week is pretty full with running, swimming, and biking. Though I enjoy a few other sports (rock climbing, yoga, soccer), with the training I find I have little extra time in the gym. Just keeping the tri training in mind, are there any muscle groups I'm missing that I absolutely must make time to train. I have some weights at home and can make time at the gym, if you say I should!

Thanks for all of the good advice. I really enjoy reading your discussion.

Vicky Hallett: Jeez! You're busy. I'd guess the most useful thing for you would be to spend any extra time you can rustle up working your core. You're using it in all three of those disciplines anyway, but you'll probably perform better the more strength you have. Bicycle crunches, plank pose, hip bridges, etc. should make you feel sturdier come race day.

Howard Schneider: Hey Bawlmer and good luck...I think with all you are doing the critical thing would be to get in a session of yoga or two each week. That will maintain flexibility in the muscles that are getting such intense repetitive use, keep the joints lubricated, and generally protect against injury. Core training is a good idea always, but if you are in the middle of prepping for a race you are probably getting a good core workout with your other activities. How about a good whole body yoga session with a focus on the core and any joints or limbs or muscles that you find particularly troubling? To my mind, one of the main benefits of yoga is to isolate our weak links, and then help fix them...


Austin, Tex.: I'm in a rut. I used to run a lot, but have gotten out of the habit. I used to go to the gym... again, out of the habit. And the thought of going back to those feels daunting and so I'm not super motivated. Any suggestions for how to get back into or thoughts on some new, different, interesting exercise?

Vicky Hallett: A class! Or a sport! That way the activity is social too, which can make it way more fun.

I don't know that much about the unique exercise offerings of Austin, but I just stumbled across Maybe something to look into?

Howard Schneider: Yea, decide on something you want to do that is physicalm, and then do it. What's the hiking like around Austin? Remember, anything can be more or less intensive -- just get outside and walk, and take say five minute chunks and walk really fast...Take up birdwatching or cowrustling or anything that makes you move.


Washignton, D.C.: Hi -

I like swimming, jogging, lifting and usually do one activity each day. I would like to run more and do the others less but have chronic calf trouble. I've seen the sports docs, adopted stretch routines, changed shoes, changed diet, hydrated, message therapist, etc... but still have chronic cramps and tears. At this point I think it would be helpful to find a running coach/trainer that really knows something abour running who might be able to suggest either stride changes (read the ChiRunning book too) or something else. Do you know how I might go about finding such a person? Thanks.

Vicky Hallett: If you're into the ChiRunning idea, there are three certified instructors in the city. Check out, and I've mentioned on this chat before I took one of the seminars with Lloyd Henry of OnPoint, and I immediately got some benefit -- especially with running up hills.

Or, I'd find someone at one of the running shoe stores to help you out. Pacers ( and Potomac River Running ( both have training programs with very smart coaches.


Alexandria, Va.: Hello!

Thanks for these chats, they really do help and I look forward to them.

I sometimes get pains in my left hand when I work out. For example, last night I was doing dumb bell curls and the pain came in my left hand, right around my palm area. If I stop the activity that caused the pain, and continue it right back the pain is gone. Just wondering what it could be. It only happens in my left hand and never my right, ( I am right handed). Also, I find that when I do shrugs with dumb bells my grip is a little weaker with my left hand then it is with my right.

Any thoughts?

Howard Schneider: Yea, like all you right wingers you have ignored your best hand, the left one, and left underdeveloped all the little muscles needed to support the grip. So give the left side a little attention: buy one of those spring handle grip machines and work it at it a few minutes a day. My guess is with the bicep curl you are getting a spasm mid-set which goes away when you rest it...


Alexandria, Va.: So I have just been informed that the chronic disease for which I suffer is acting up.

I have no energy and am in constant discomfort. I have taken at least a week off from the gym which is abnormal. What can I do to get myself back to the gym? Is it a motivational thing, mental, or physical?

Howard Schneider: Fatigue and chronic discomfort don't sound motivational to me...Chronic disease + discomfort sounds like your doc ought to be involved...


Heartrate Monitors: For the person who wants to monitor his/her heart rate, I just bought an Omron heart rate monitor on Amazon for about $35. I know that there are some very expensive ones out there, but if all you really want is to monitor your heart rate, there are some inexpensive ones out there.

Vicky Hallett: Right. It doesn't have to break the bank if you're not looking for fancy bells and whistles.


Pennsylvania: In case Bob Harper disses me, I'm submitting to you as well. I have about 80 pounds to lose, however, I'm nursing a newborn and have already lost about 30 pounds in a month, and am down below what I weighted when I got pregnant.

This is great, but the weight loss is happening very quickly and I'm concerned about ending up with lots of saggy skin and untoned muscle. I've been cleared by my doctor to do whatever I'd like. Any recommendations on what I can do to start exercising? (I have no idea where I'll fit it into my schedule, but I guess I can stop sleeping...) Thanks much!

Howard Schneider: With the much to lose you want to be careful on the joints at first. Fortunately with a newborn you can kill two birds with one stone: put the kind in a stoller (on in one of those backpack things if you'd rather) and start walking. Try to set out for at least half an hour, and build that up...Also work in some faster "speed walking" intervals of a few minutes here and there. Do that a few times a week and then maybe invest in some resistance bands to start training the uppper body. Check out the piece I wrote last week for tips on how to use those...


Heart-rate monitors: They're expensive! We're in a recession! Etc, etc. But maybe I'll do my part for the economy and spring for one anyway. Thanks for the advice.

Vicky Hallett: Barack Obama would be proud. This is the first step to getting the American economy going again...And it's an investment in your health care, so you'll probably save other costs down the road. Think of it that way!


Help: I found out I'm going on vacation in four weeks. That means four weeks to lose as much weight as I can while being realistic. What workouts in the gym and going to give me the most beneficial workout. I'll be in the Bahamas.

Howard Schneider: The ones you did a year ago...Whoops! I guess time travel will have to wait for the string theory revolution...Weight loss is not just about what you do at the gym, but about what you eat as well. If you have your diet under control, it does not matter so much what activity you do as the time and intensity. The recommendations for appreciable weight loss involve workouts of 60 to 90 minutes, and also shorter workouts that involve intervals of near maximum intensity...Pick your poison and watch what you eat. Four weeks ain't long...


New York: Hello,

I hate jogging and I think I am a pretty bad jogger, however, I like the results I get from jogging. I also walk on the treadmill at say 4.7/4.8 mph as well as do some incline walking (5.0 at 4.2 mph). Will walking at this speed help me get some of the same results as with jogging? I actually use just about every machine at the gym, I just think that jogging gives me the best workout. Alternately, will I get any benefit if I alternate walking fast (4.7) with a slow jog (5.5) every say five minutes (walk five, jog five) for say like 1/2 hour or so?


Howard Schneider: All of that works - if that is what you can do. But keep in mind: it will make you stronger and more efficient, hence the 'plateau' we all experience if we keep doing the same thing over and over. So vary it: push the incline up a bit...gradually add some speed...I find playing with the parameters keeps it challenging and interesting. Set goals and track your progress towards them...


Chi running: I haven't read the book, but there is a DVD that gives useful instruction. And it's probably better than a book, because you can watch the people running. I found it helped me with shin pain.

Vicky Hallett: I tend to think DVDs are much better than books for exercise purposes. I speak from experience that it's very hard to convey the way to move in words. Seeing it done is faster and easier to understand. Maybe we'll switch to doing video columns one day?


Fairfax, Va.: My BMI is about 25.5 (I'm 5-10, 26-years-old), though when I saw my belly roll like a bowl full of jelly, I decided I needed to start working out again. I'm not so much interested in weight loss, but more concerned about strength training or weight training. What would you recommend for beginners here?

Howard Schneider: Do you have access to a gym or home equipment, or do you want to try to put together a bodyweight program? Whichever, I'd recommend education yourself a bit -- get to the bookstore and pick up a volume or two that strike a tone you like. A couple of sessions with a trainer is a good investment too. If you are intent on going it alone, then start with something simple:

Jumping jacks, jumping rope and light running to warm up. Then do alternating sets of the basic bodyweight excercises -- pushups, squats and lunges. Try doing sets of ten to start out with maybe 30 seconds rest in between. As you build up, you might be able to double or triple the number of repetitions per set. Finish off with a couple of three minute jump rope sets. That is probably a good half hour work out. As you are mastering it, try to read your books and add some other exercises that you like or that fit whatever equipment you have.


Inner Tube - help me get rid of it: I've been struggling with stomach fat for a long time. I also am 28 with heart disease (thanks mom and dad). I'm trying to be healthy with what I eat and workout. I'd look SO much better if I could rid of the inner tube/spare tire. What workouts will be best for this? I've been in the gym about 4 times a week for almost a whole year and that area just doesn't go down. The rest of me looks good but how do I get rid of the problem spot?

Vicky Hallett: We've said it before and we'll say it again: Spot reduction is a myth. You can't do something to zap away the fat in just one area of your body (except with plastic surgery). But what you can do is keep up what you've been doing -- four days a week at the gym for a year is great -- and add more to your program. Maybe you can up the intensity of your workouts and do intervals? If you tend to do the same thing all the time, switch it up. When your body gets into a rut it actually burns fewer calories. On the days you're not at the gym, I'd still try to stay as active as possible -- take the stairs, go for walks, etc. And, of course, there's always watching what you eat.


Alexandria, Va.: So, I have been working out my abs, doing cardio and everything to get my stomach toned. It has been working and I see a difference. However, there are those love handles that are not exactly on my sides, but more towards my back. I have no idea how they get there or how to get rid of them. Any suggestions will be appreciated!

Howard Schneider: Best suggestion is to bring the body image down to earth. Unless you have the metabolism or will power to drive your body fat percentage way down below the average, some of those little pockets are going to hang around...You can't program your body to dump fat from any particular place, and if that is where your DNA wants to keep its emergency fund, that's where it is going to be....


frustration overweight!: I'm 5-4 and about 130 pounds. I follow a very healthy diet -- lots o' veggies, fruits, healthy fats, lean meats, legume and when I eat grains, ONLY whole. I exercise 5/6 days a week, running, elliptical, strength training, yoga, abs, etc.

My problem? I cannot seem to lose pounds! I used to be 120. I eat about 1700 cals a day. When I eat less I am starving, so I'm frustrated by low-cal diets.

Vicky Hallett: Your body wants to be a certain weight. And it's not a particularly high one. It sounds like you're healthy, strong, look good and are just frustrated because of a number on the scale. It's definitely not worth starving yourself for that...


Rockville, Md.: Hi! I'm very dedicated to cardio and strength exercises and am in great shape, but I've never been big into flexibility. I just can't get into yoga/pilates, but I admit it's embarassing how I can't reach my toes without bending. I know that cardio, strength, and flexibility are the 3 components of a well-balanced workout, but can you explain why exactly flexibility is important to me?

Vicky Hallett: Injury prevention is the biggie. But it's also important for performance -- think longer strides...

Plenty of people are just fine not being able to touch their toes or doing yoga, but at least do some stretching. It should feel good! (And that's a solid third reason, right?)

Howard Schneider: And it is not just flexibility we are talkking about, but lack of inflexibility. Many things that we do -- sitting at a desk with hunched shoulders, running, etc. -- have the effect of shortening some muscles and lengthening others so that the biomechanics get all screwed up. Eventually somethings has to give -- muscles tear or ligaments pop, etc. Maintaining flexiblity counters the fact that we dont use much of our range of motion, and then when we do it tends to be in repetitive activities like running that are beneficial in some ways but can be detrimental in others...


Fairfax, Va.: Hello. After gaining a bit here and there over the years, and then some additional pregnancy weight gain last year, I need to lose some weight. Since the baby was born I've lost 15 pounds, and have another 30 to go. Losing the pounds has been wonderful, but I'm looking a lot saggier than I used to. I'm realizing that it's not going to look good, no matter how much I lose, unless I lift weights. But I'm exhausted and barely have time, with a baby at home, working full-time, and studying for a master's degree.

What do you think is the minimum I could do right now that would be worth doing? If I can only spend 20 minutes every other day, or 10 minutes each day, is that going to be enough to make any difference? I have so little extra time, that I want to spend it wisely. Thanks.

Howard Schneider: The tradeoff for time is intensity. If you only have a few minutes then you'll want to focus on compound exercises that use a lot of muscles at once -- no "isolation" exercise, in other words, like bicep curls or tricep pushdowns that only work a bit at a time. You want to learn dynamic moves that will add weight to motion so you can do as much as possible in the time you have...These exercises would include things like a lunge with a bicep curl at the end (use dumbbells or something else for resistance)...Or a squat coupled with a shoulder press...You can even work this into otherwise static exercises: from a plank position (great for the core), place a dumbbell at arm's length, then reach out with one hand and pull it into the body, grab it with the other hand and move it out to the other side, then repeat...Do 20 minutes of these sorts of exercises and you will do yourself some good.


Vicky Hallett: That does it for us today. Have fun with Bob Harper!


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