Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Maginot line

In my weight loss journey, I haven’t much counted things. Even given my history as a financial journalist and my role as the family banker, tax preparer and investment manager, my interest in numbers as applied to weight loss has been approximately nil.

I balance my meals between proteins, carbs and fats. I estimate the caloric content of my snacks. I eyeball portion sizes. Despite an upbringing that forbade card games, I can tell you when a piece of chicken is the size of a pack of cards. I watch the clock when I exercise, but I don’t own a heart rate monitor. My blood pressure is trending downward, but I don’t know from day to day how it’s doing. Nothing about the numbers has been exact.

But this might all change. Just recently, I discovered how motivating numbers can be.

A few days ago, I stepped on the scale, something I do only sparingly. I don’t own a scale, but once in a while, when I’m feeling brave, or think I might need to bring myself into line, I step on the digital scale at the gym.

I dread scales, having long suffered their unforgiving stubbornness. For years, I’ve battled my own personal Maginot Line—the nearly unbreachable line of defense that bars me from the 120s. I did breach the line last year, getting down to 128, but a hamstring injury over the winter put me back into the 130s.

When I stepped on the scale this time, the digital readout wavered, the number beyond the decimal point blinked back and forth. And finally—it settled. At 129.8. I had broken through again!

Granted, 0.2 is not a significant number. You can gain or drop that amount just reading the paper. But instantly, I became motivated to claim that weight. To make it solidly mine, to bully my weight down one tenth of a point at a time. I vowed to do whatever it takes—count calories, fat grams, vegetable and fruit servings, the minutes I can stand to be hungry and not reach for food, one extra lap in the pool, one more minute on the clock.

I regret now that I didn’t put the numbers to work for me from the start. It might not have taken me four long years, and thousands of laps, to drop three dress sizes. Many people already know this. I'm betting you do.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

How do I get me one of those?

Like Todd P., you might feel at a loss when it comes to finding a personal trainer. Yellow Page listings are daunting and if you belong to a gym, playing eenie, meenie, miney, moe with the photos on the staff board is a chancey game.

Oh, and looks can be deceiving.

The biggest mistake people make when choosing a personal trainer is to go by looks, says Laura Kruskall, a registered dietitian who chairs the Department of Nutrition Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is an American College of Sports Medicine certified health and fitness instructor and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.

“People pick someone who looks the way they want to look,” says Dr. Kruskall. “That’s not a good way to choose.”

Instead, says Dr. Kruskall, check for a degree in exercise science or a similar emphasis. Then, check the trainer’s certification. Don’t be taken in by vague credentials touting a person as a “certified personal trainer,” she warns. “Anyone can say they’re a personal trainer. It doesn’t mean anything. Some gyms have their own certifying programs, and you can even buy your certification online,” she says.

A number of organizations offer certifying exams. You’ll need to wade through an alphabet soup. Your best bet, Dr. Kruskall believes, is to look for credentials from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) or the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

Ask friends and family for referrals, or use the phone book if you need to. Call a number of trainers and either chat on the phone or make an appointment to visit. Most trainers offer a free consultation at which you can determine whether he or she is a good fit given your goals and personality.

“Remember, you’ll be sweating in front of this person, bending over, maybe wearing a low-cut top,” says Dr. Kruskall. “Personality and comfort level are big factors.”

Thinking about why you want a personal trainer might also lead you to the right person. Many people need the help of a professional to remain faithful to an exercise program, so look for someone you find motivating. You might also want the guidance of a trainer if you have not exercised or been active before; along with the help of your doctor, the trainer can provide an initial fitness assessment and lay out a safe and effective exercise plan. If you’ve been exercising, but seeing little or no results, a trainer can lead you in a more effective workout. Or, if you have been injured, a personal trainer can work in conjunction with your physical therapist to suggest modified exercises that suit your limitations.

Many personal trainers offer meal plans as part of their package. Before you follow any dietetic advice, however, you’ll want to talk with your doctor. Personal trainers are qualified to give general non-medical nutritional information, Dr. Kruskall says, but if you have a medical condition, either diagnosed or undectected, it can be worsened by the wrong nutritional advice. For the specifics of a diet, you might want to seek the help of a dietitian, she suggests.