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Learn about the triple threat that could be impacting your appetite, weight, mood and more.
Unless you’re a medical professional, when hormones are brought up in conversation, most people initially think of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and occasionally thyroid — those typically associated with puberty, common medical conditions, menopause and hypothyroidism. However, there are many other hormones that play a key role in the day-to-day metabolic functions of the body.
While the players listed above are clearly crucial to your health, there are many other hormones that, when out of balance, can make it far more difficult to achieve your physical goals — whether you want to lose weight, improve your muscle quality or increase your stamina and endurance.
Obviously, if I were to mention every single hormone, this article would quickly turn into a novel, so I am going to focus on three hormones that can easily interfere with your progress.
Know Your Enemies
Yes, insulin is a hormone, a very potent and important hormone. If not well-regulated, it can have devastating effects on your system. Insulin secretion is regulated by food. Foods with higher amounts of simple sugars have a greater stimulating effect on insulin secretion, while foods that contain more complex carbohydrates and are richer in protein have lower levels of insulin secretion.
Why is this important? Insulin promotes the storage of glucose as glycogen, increasing the synthesis or production of triglycerides while at the same time inhibiting the conversion of fatty acids into keto acids and preventing the formation of glucose from amino acids. In other words, insulin’s role is to store fuel — whether it’s sugars into glycogen or fats into adipose tissue.
Unless you have discovered the key to inner peace and tranquility, at some point in your life, you have dealt with elevated cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone secreted during times of stress or duress as part of your fight-or-flight response. Cortisol spikes can be triggered by a job, relationship, stressful situation or simply from lack of sleep. Not only is it a highly inflammatory hormone, but cortisol also aims at increasing blood glucose levels during fasting states by using muscle-derived amino acids to create glucose. In other words, it consumes muscle for fuel. This can significantly affect your metabolic activity since your metabolic rate is dependent on lean muscle mass.
Know Your Allies
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Glucagon is the antagonist to insulin. If insulin’s role is to store energy, glucagon’s role is to use our own energy stores as a primary source of fuel. This means that when you eat meals that are higher in protein and have lower amounts of sugar, which promote the release of glucagon, you are more likely to use fat as well as stored glycogen as a primary source of energy, thus promoting a healthy weight and preserving amino acids and protein, which will allow you to maintain your metabolism and energy.
10 Ways to Achieve Hormonal Balance and Promote Good Health
- Minimize all insulin-stimulating foods, including white sugar, processed flour and excess alcohol.
- Increase consumption of glucagon-stimulating foods, including proteins such as chicken, fish, turkey, cottage cheese, yogurt, lean red beef, eggs, hemp and protein powder (pea, rice or whey).
- Support your hormonal health with essential fatty acids. In addition to cold-water fish, nuts and seeds, it’s advisable to supplement with a distilled fish-oil supplement daily. You will love what it does for your hair, too!
- Stay hydrated. Drinking 2 liters of water per day is critical for energy, vitality and overall health. No excuses on this one. Just make it a habit.
- Drink green tea. In addition to boosting metabolism, green tea secretes an amino acid called L-theanine, which tends to have a calming effect.
- Exercise, there is no way around it. Exercise is by far one of the most effective ways to lower your cortisol response.
- Sleep well. A good night’s sleep can do wonders for proper cortisol secretion and weight loss. In fact, research has shown poor sleep quality to be associated with an increase in cravings and hunger, thereby leading to weight gain.
- Hug someone you love — whether it’s your child, hubby, friend or parent. Hugging naturally lowers your cortisol response.
- Meditate, pray or journal. While this may sound “out there” for some of you, I assure you, it works.
- Take time for you. Whatever it is that you love to do — walk, paint, spend time with friends — try to take at least 15 to 30 minutes per day for yourself.
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Stress is a fact of life — but it’s also controllable if you attack it with exercise and diet. Follow these simple guidelines to help keep anxiety in check.
Stress is everywhere in our lives, hitting us from all directions on a regular basis. Its sources are endless: a demanding job, a troubled relationship, lingering financial concerns … fill in the blank. These are the everyday stresses that, if persistent over time, can cause irreparable bodily harm. Acute, traumatic bouts of stress — witnessing a horrific event or being in a life-threatening situation, for example — can be equally as damaging albeit over a much shorter time frame.
Such psychological stresses are unavoidable. In most cases, you have little control over their occurrence or timing, which makes it all the more important to fight these stresses with, well, more stress, the kind you intentionally bring on yourself: physical stress in the form of exercise.
It used to be purely anecdotal, this notion of fighting fire with fire. “Going to the gym helps me take out my anger on the weights or the punching bag to relieve stress,” says the high-strung, workaholic CEO. But science has weighed in, supporting the claim that regular exercise can help the body counteract the underlying chemical causes of harmful stress. In fact, not only can working out help relieve immediate anxiety, but research suggests it also may help you deal better with psychological stress you have yet to encounter. Think of it as training yourself for the highly unpredictable stressors — a job loss, a death in the family or even more mild stress like sitting in traffic — you’re likely to experience in the future.
It’s really no different from a boxer training for an upcoming fight or a football player preparing for the season by lifting weights and running. In this case, you’re training for the rigors of life, for one of the most formidable opponents known to man: stress.
As if you needed another reason to frequent the gym.
A somewhat outdated definition of stress breaks it down into two different types: eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress), based off the work of the late endocrinologist Hans Selye several decades ago. A term used more often today to describe stress is allostatic load, which basically refers to how the body responds physiologically to repeated bouts of stress. When the body adapts to stress favorably, you’re said to be in a state of “allostasis,” which is a good place to be. When stress overwhelms the body, you have “allostatic overload,” a circumstance that can lead to numerous negative health effects, from high blood pressure to unwanted weight gain.
Call it what you want. The point is, stress can be good or it can be bad. Like death and taxes, stress is inevitable, so you can either let it break you down or make it work for you to become stronger and more resilient.
“When you talk about good stress and bad stress, there would be situations where stress is good, such as moderate to strenuous exercise,” says J. Carson Smith, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Maryland. “But even other types of stressors — psychological stressors — can actually be good for you, acting as challenging circumstances that help you grow in some way as a person. You have adaptations to those stresses that are good. The problem occurs when you have allostatic overload — that is, when you have a stress that doesn’t end or that you don’t recover from or that is excessive and beyond the capacity of your body to deal with.”
The linchpin in all this is the hormone cortisol. In fact, cortisol is so crucial to stress management that it’s been unofficially crowned the body’s “major stress hormone.” Every time stress occurs, whether it be psychological or physical stress, cortisol is released. It’s just that simple: Stress equals cortisol. Problem is, chronically high levels of cortisol in the body lead to some of the most devastating human conditions: hypertension, atherosclerosis, impaired immune system function and impaired metabolism, just to name a few. This is precisely why you hear about people with high-stress jobs having high blood pressure and keeling over with heart attacks. Stress leads directly to high cortisol levels, and chronically high cortisol levels lead directly to multiple risk factors for heart disease.
That said, increasing cortisol in the body is extremely beneficial, provided it doesn’t remain elevated for extended periods. The positive effects of cortisol are essentially the opposite of the maladies just listed: enhanced cardiovascular function, a stronger immune system and improved metabolism that can lead to increased fat burning.
This is where exercise comes into play. It’s a physical stress to the body, so as a result, it raises cortisol levels. But because exercise is much more controllable and predictable than most types of psychological stress — you can plan when and for how long you’re going to work out, but you can’t schedule emotional stress in the same manner — cortisol is easier to keep in check when it’s secreted via physical activity.
“Cortisol is a big key in regulating glucose and lipid metabolism,” Smith says. “It helps release glucose into the blood so that it can be used for fuel. The problem with psychological stress is that all these energy substrates are released into the blood, but there’s no metabolism to use those resources. So you have all this stuff released into the blood that’s ready to be used for fuel so that you can handle some stressful event, but you’re just sitting there doing nothing. Exercise actually involves those same products, but you’re using those products during your activity. They get metabolized, so they function better. That’s the issue with cortisol when you talk about stress management and psychological stress — it’s a bad thing over time because you have too much of it and you’re not using it appropriately.”
“Cortisol is not a universally bad thing,” agrees Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., RD, owner of High Performance Nutrition in Mercer Island, Wash., and author of the books The Good Mood Diet and Power Eating. “Cortisol is what gets you out of the blocks when you’re running a race. It’s an exciting, wonderful hormone that we have. The problem occurs when cortisol hangs around. It’s supposed to do its job and go away.”
When we talk about different types of stress, we’re not comparing apples to oranges. Psychological and physical stress are essentially the same at the hormonal level (as are “good stress” and “bad stress,” if you prefer to think of it in those terms). In both cases, cortisol is released.
“The body doesn’t have a stress hormone specific to running versus when you’re afraid,” Smith says. “It releases the same thing to deal with either response. But the effect it has on the body depends on the context and perception of the person during that threat or stressor. If you’re under the perception that this is uncontrollable and that there’s no escaping it, then that type of stressor can have very damaging effects on the brain and body systems over time, especially if it happens over and over for weeks or months.”
This similarity between different types of stressors is a good thing for one simple reason: It allows us to use physical stress to enhance our ability to deal with psychological stress. Smith researched this very topic in a study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. In the study, 37 subjects completed 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cycling on one day and 30 minutes of seated rest (i.e., doing nothing) another day. After each 30-minute session, they were shown a variety of photos designed to elicit emotional responses similar to stressful events that occur day to day in the real world. The study results showed that the subjects’ anxiety levels remained reduced while viewing the disturbing photos when they had just exercised but not when they had only rested.
“What we implied,“ Smith says, “is that when you exercise, you probably have a better mood right afterward. But also, when you encounter something stressful or emotional, you’re probably more likely to maintain that enhanced mood in the face of that emotional challenge. But we only looked at this for an hour after exercise, so we don’t really know how long it’s going to last.”
As Smith’s statement suggests, conclusive scientific data linking exercise and stress management is lacking. Strong evidence shows that regular exercise does in fact help counteract the negative effects of psychological stress, but no specific guidelines have come from the research. Is aerobic exercise better for keeping stress and cortisol in check than anaerobic resistance training, or vice versa? This is still not clear, though it’s worth noting that aerobic training has been studied more than lifting weights. How many days per week is best for managing stress, and how long should workouts last? No one knows. We do know that too much exercise (overtraining) can have negative effects on mood, which would seemingly exacerbate high stress levels.
One other thing is certain: When cortisol levels in the body remain elevated for extended periods as a response to stress, bad things happen to the body. Raising cortisol voluntarily through regular exercise, then allowing it to come back down with some help from proper nutrition, is your best defense against the stress that promises to keep coming at you. Question is, Will you fight back?
Exercise is known to help manage stress, but specific training recommendations are still fuzzy. Nutrition, on the other hand, is a bit clearer. Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., RD, offers the following nutritional recommendations for minimizing the harmful effects of stress.
Look at the Big Picture
“One way to avoid stress is to keep your body well-fed,” Kleiner says. “The body needs a wide variety of foods so that all the hundreds of thousands of biochemical reactions that occur moment to moment every day can move along unimpeded. So that’s the foundation of it all. Before you even talk about details and specifics, here’s a question: Do you keep your body anxious and looking for food all the time, or do you put it in a mode where it’s building? I talk about the sports world versus the diet world. The diet world tears your body down, and in the sports world, we build your body up, even though I don’t know an athlete who doesn’t manage his or her weight. You want to build your body up so that it’s functioning at maximum capacity rather than tearing your body down so that it’s barely working at all. We put our bodies through tremendous negative stress when we don’t feed ourselves adequately.”
Healthy Fats Are Nonnegotiable
“Omega-3 fats, particularly docosahexaenoic and eicosapentaenoic acids, are a significant part of what makes up the building blocks of the brain cells’ membranes and our entire nervous system. Sixty percent of the mass of the brain is fat. When we don’t eat the right fats — and these are fish oil and the healthy fats that come from avocados, olives, extra-virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds — the body will substitute omega-6 fats instead. Omega-6 fats easily become oxidized, while omega-3 fats fight oxidation. And stress is all about oxidation. Whether you’re stressing your muscles or stressing your brain, those healthy fats will make a huge difference in how your body responds.
“DHA is critically important for every nervous cell and brain cell we have, repairing the oxidative damage that occurs as a side effect of being alive,” Kleiner says. “Most people aren’t getting enough DHA, so you better supplement it. Get 1,000 milligrams of EPA plus DHA every day, unless you’re eating five big fish meals a week, which almost nobody does.”
Whey Protein Is the Way to Go
“Research on people who are stress and anxiety prone has shown that when they supplemented with whey protein, they didn’t have as high of a stress response,” Kleiner says. “Why? Because whey is high in tryptophan, which has been shown to help reduce stress.
“It’s no wonder that whey is recommended after working out. Having whey protein cedes the physical stress response and begins the repair process by stimulating an anabolic hormonal environment that helps the body maximize the physical stress response that we have from exercise. And it probably helps the brain settle down, too. The best dosage is somewhere between 22 to 25 grams of whey after exercise.”
Save Your Yolks
“Choline is very important,” Kleiner explains. “It’s half of our most abundant neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. And the most abundant source of choline in the American diet is egg yolks. Ever since we’ve been dumping egg yolks down the drain in fear of high cholesterol levels, we’re taking in as a nation less than half the recommended amount of choline.
“In an egg yolk, choline is carried as a phospholipid that’s required by the brain-cell membranes that allow toxins out of the cells and nutrients and other factors into the cells. Without adequate amounts of choline, you can’t have a well-fed brain. When your brain isn’t functioning well and you don’t have the neurotransmitter that’s required for thinking and moving optimally available, I’d say that would stimulate some kind of stress in the body. This is one reason why I recommend eating a whole egg a day. For healthy people, there probably isn’t any harm [with regard to cholesterol levels] in eating two egg yolks a day.”
“B vitamins need to be brought up because of the gluten-free/Paleo diet craze. We know that as stress goes up, your B-vitamin requirement goes up,” she says. “B vitamins play an incredibly important role in nervous system and mental function, and the primary source of B vitamins are grains. There are other sources, like dairy products [another anti-Paleo food group], but predominantly we get them from grains. I’m not saying you need to have a grain-based diet; what I’m saying is that we need to be particularly careful about cutting out whole groups of food.”
“Water is probably the most important thing.” Kleiner says. “Dehydration will affect physical and mental performance faster than anything else. Cell function diminishes appreciably when we’re dehydrated, metabolism within the cell slows down, and that leaves us at the risk of not turning over all these stress chemicals quickly; they’ll hang around longer, not to mention they’ll become more concentrated in our bloodstream. Of your nine to 11 cups of fluid minimum a day, make five to six of them water.”
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Fearful of the unknown? Use our simple steps to boost your boldness and confidence.
Do you wish you were a little more willing to take risks, whether that means skiing tougher runs, signing up for your first fitness competition or entering an obstacle race? Good news! You can get gutsier just by building your mental toughness, essentially boosting your confidence to conquer your biggest fitness fears.
While it might seem like guts are something you’re born with, that’s not entirely the case. In many ways, mental toughness is like physical strength. “Nobody’s born physically strong, but with a plan in place, you can build that strength,” says Jason Selk, LPC, NCC, director of sports psychology with Enhanced Performance in St. Louis and author of Executive Toughness (McGraw-Hill, 2011) and 10-Minute Toughness (McGraw-Hill, 2008). The same applies to your mind.
That’s the thinking that helped catapult Kim Dolan Leto, Arizona-based director of family health and wellness for the International Sports Sciences Association, to the Ms. Fitness World stage. “Becoming an athlete starts in your mind,” she says. “You trade excuses for solutions and fight your way daily to eat clean, train mean and balance life.”
Nature vs. Nurture
Of course, nature does play a role. “Some people are born with personality traits that make them natural risk-takers,” says Richard B. Dauber, Ph.D., clinical and sports psychologist and director of the Morris Psychological Group in Parsippany, New Jersey. Yet those individuals share certain characteristics, and understanding what they are can help you develop your own toughness. The most important one? An unshakable belief in their abilities to achieve goals.
“You have to believe in yourself. Paraphrasing Henry Ford, if you think you’re going to succeed or fail, you will,” Dauber says. And though the mentally tough will fail occasionally, they look at every failure as an opportunity to learn and push on.
So how exactly do you strengthen your mind so that you can be less afraid to go after bigger fitness feats? Follow these three steps:
- Find focus. Define your end goal, what Selk calls a product goal. What is it you ultimately want to accomplish, and why do you want to do it? Selk recommends having no more than two product goals — one personal and one professional — at a time. Make sure, too, that the end goal is focused on performance versus outcome. “If you’re too focused on the outcome, especially if it’s winning, fear of failure could hold you back,” Dauber says.
- Take baby steps. Create process goals that will move you closer to your end goal. These effort-based goals are designed to build your confidence, which is why they need to be small and achievable, Selk says. For instance, if you want to make it to the national stage as a fitness competitor, make competing in a small, local contest your first step, and consider yourself successful no matter what your placing.
- See your success. Visualize what you want along the way. “People often focus on what they don’t want,” Dauber says. For instance, you don’t want to earn any placing other than first at the fitness contest. You then get stuck with those fears, which will paralyze your efforts to get up the nerve to progress to the next level. Instead, think about what you do want and picture yourself attaining it.
In the end, building guts relies almost entirely on your mind, perhaps the strongest muscle in your body. As Selk says, “If the desire is there and you put the time into it, your mind can get you anywhere.”
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Protect your mind and body from wear and tear and reduce your stress with these strategies.
Life can be intense, and the past six or so months have been exceptionally disquieting on many levels. Whether it’s been the pandemic itself or the taxing fallout of illness, quarantine, financial uncertainty or isolation, it’s fair to say that people are hella exhausted. But take heart: You can learn to manage your stress levels with a few practical behavioral shifts and some sagacious coping strategies.
8-Step Stress Prevention Plan
Human beings are innately wired to deal with on-the-spot stress, such as the heart-pounding fight-or-flight instinct you feel when faced with danger. But our biology is not equipped to handle repeated exposure to acute stressors, and recurring surges of hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine can ultimately corrode and deregulate cell balance. In a domino effect, other systems break down, causing things like weight gain, insomnia, depression, anxiety and fatigue.
Your best bet is to prevent stress from happening in the first place, and this checklist from Michael Mantell, Ph.D., behavior science consultant and transformational coach, can set you on the preventative path.
- Exercise and be active every day — but don’t overdo it. Too much activity and too little recovery can cause inflammation, which could lead to a host of serious health issues.
- Cut back on coffee. Caffeine can amplify anxiety, interrupt sleep and disrupt digestion, none of which are helpful to achieving calm and balance.
- Like Michael Pollan says: Eat food (not too much), mostly plants. The phytochemicals found in plants help balance your mood by aiding in the synthesis of neurotransmitters.
- Tame your thoughts. Events don’t stress you out; your thoughts about those events stress you out. Use meditation to become accepting of the present and observe your thoughts without judgment.
- Really breathe. Deep abdominal breathing connects your body and mind, slows heart rate, relaxes muscles and reduces blood pressure.
- Implement stress-free thinking. Catch yourself mulling over your doom and gloom scenarios, then challenge them. Do you have any evidence that these will occur? Then turn your thinking from dread to possibility, because even if the worst does happen, you may not like it but you will be able to bear it.
- Practice compassion. Compassionate people recognize that imperfection and suffering are common, shared human conditions. Give yourself grace and stop worrying about that which you cannot control.
- Don’t just survive — thrive. Look at every setback as a setup for a stronger comeback. This helps you develop resilience, the psychological mechanism that keeps people going.
Now that you’ve pre-emptively quelled your stress, it’s time to nurture happiness with Mantell’s strategy to make you smile.
- Savor: All of us could stand to slow down a little and proverbially smell the roses. Linger where you are and mindfully focus on the details of whatever you’re doing.
- Me: Time to yourself allows you to unwind, reboot your brain, improve your focus and promote your relationships. Even the little things you do during the day add up: Close your office door to shut out distractions, wake up a little earlier to work out or leave your phone in the car when with friends.
- Interact: Personal relationships are integral to human happiness, and spending time with others, expressing kindness and doing good deeds reduces stress and promotes connections. However, not all interactions are positive, so avoid those who weigh you down.
- Listen: Using your ears can boost your happiness quotient. Listen to the birds chirping or your grandkids playing or the music playing to promote well-being and lift your spirits.
- Empathize: Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can actually give you a leg up. Build empathy for others by permitting your own vulnerability and finding commonality with others around you.
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Recovery days should be as mental as they are physical. Here are five ways to recharge your brain — as well as your body — and redirect your fitness compass toward success.
For athletes, days off are important for physical recovery and muscle repair, but they are also imperative for mental wellness. If your motivation is flagging, you’re disappointed in your progress or you’re simply in a funk because #life, resetting your mental rheostat could be just what you need to get back on track, both in and out of the gym. Here are five ways to give your brain the R&R it needs, replenishing your mental coffers and ultimately buoying your physical progress.
Sounds crunchy and granola, but being mindful and in the moment means that you can’t focus on anything other than the present — not the past or the future, both of which can make you anxious and stressed. No matter what you’re doing — sitting, working, walking or cooking — take five minutes to focus on the here and now, and use all five of your senses to bring awareness to the present: Smell the air, feel the grass, hear the laughter, taste the food or watch the rain falling. Feel yourself sinking back into negative thought patterns? Choose a word to repeat to yourself like “calm,” or use a physical cue such as snapping a rubber band worn around your wrist to help bring you back to the present.
“Me” time really is a thing, especially if you’re a people pleaser who constantly puts the needs of others before your own. Prioritizing self-care is important for proper mental recharge, so allow yourself an hour or two each day to do something just for you — get a massage, do a craft, take a walk, work out or read a book. Once you give yourself that needed attention, you’ll be that much better at working with and helping others.
In this day and age of social media, interpersonal contact has been severely minimized, but research indicates that meeting up with friends stimulates the release of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone that promotes good health and a positive mood. Sideline your smartphone for a few hours and pair up with a pal to take a walk, go on a hike or have a healthy meal.
As an athlete, believing in yourself and in your potential to succeed is as important as putting in the physical work to make it happen, and keeping a confidence journal can help: Instead of dwelling on the negative things about your life, your performance or your physique, log the things that go well, such as an increased one-rep max, a faster 1-mile run, a great first date or a promotion at work. Review these entries when you’re feeling low or need a boost of confidence to get back on track.
Nothing is more important for a proper mental and physical reboot than sleep, but often it is difficult to relax after a busy day. Before bed, try this progressive muscle relaxation technique to unwind: Choose a muscle or a muscle group — for example, your quads — and contract it for 10 seconds. Then release it slowly as you exhale and imagine ridding your body of stress, negativity and fatigue. Repeat this process from head to toe.
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Learn the causes and symptoms of five vaginal infections, as well as measures to prevent them.
The vagina — a wonderland and a mystery all at once. But metaphors aside, you probably don’t give your vagina much thought when you’re about to get your workout on. But vaginal care is more than just a few Kegels now and again and a little tidying up with a monthly wax, and all the extra sweat, friction and heat happening down under can funkify your va-jay-jay. Make your downtown less susceptible to infection, viruses and other such nasties with these expert tips for active women worldwide — and keep your nether parts in the pink.
Consistent and prolonged exposure to moisture can make your vaginal flora swerve into yeast infection territory, which is basically an overgrowth of the fungus Candida. “Your vagina is temperamental and very sensitive to anything extra going on down there,” says Sherry A. Ross, Ph.D., and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period. (Savio Republic, 2017). Your vagina has its own little ecosystem with both good and bad microorganisms, and when the scale is tipped too much in one direction, your vagina is unhappy.
When you work out, you sweat — even down there — and that extra moisture will irritate your sweat glands and hair follicles, disrupting the pH balance of your vagina. “The vagina is already a warm, damp place — the perfect breeding ground for bacterial buildup,” Ross says. Couple that with sweaty workout clothing that traps moisture and heat next to your body and the effects can be amplified, found a Rutgers University study.
- Go Commando. While you may think that wearing panties sub spandex will help keep things dry, Ross says this is a no-no. “Athletic brands pay attention to the kinds of fibers they use, and these fabrics — especially in the added panty liner in the crotch — will absorb sweat and secretions better than your standard [underpants],” Ross says.
- Wash Up and Change Out. Showering postworkout is the No. 1 way to stay infectionfree, but sometimes driving, walking home or even stopping for brunch is on your immediate agenda. “It’s that excess sweat which, if not washed away immediately after a workout, feeds the yeast in your vagina,” Ross says. Change out of your sweaty gear right after exercising and into clean, dry underwear and clothes to avoid the yeasty beasties.
Yeast Infection Symptoms
- Itching, burning, redness and swelling of both the vagina and vulva
- Thick, odorless, white discharge similar to cottage cheese
- Sometimes accompanied by pain during intercourse and/or urination
When there is too much of a certain kind of bacteria in the vagina, it can disrupt the delicate balance of “good” versus “harmful” flora. “Bacterial vaginosis is not a true bacterial infection but rather a bacterial imbalance that disrupts the pH of your vagina,” Ross says. The vagina is normally acidic with a pH between 3.8 and 4.5 — about the same as a tomato, in case you were curious. “Anything that messes with this pH could lead to vaginal misery such as infection, dryness, itching or burning,” Ross explains.
While experts aren’t in total agreement as to its cause (some claim the condition is because of multiple sexual partners), Ross believes you develop bacterial vaginosis similarly to how you’d get a yeast infection — by wearing sweaty clothing for too long.
- Ibid. Similar to a yeast infection: Shower directly after a workout, and change out of wet, tightfitting pants as soon as possible.
- Spin Cycle. Exercisers who cycle or Spin should wipe down the seat thoroughly before a workout and immediately remove your workout pants/shorts after a class or ride. “With these activities especially, your vagina and vulvar area may be more exposed to [foreign] bacteria, since you’re pressing down against a seat and inviting germs to make their way into your body,” she says.
Vaginal Body Odor
Just like your armpits, your vagina may smell after working out, which may or may not be normal. “If the smell lingers even after you’ve showered, see your doctor,” says Shery A. Ross, since persistent odor could be the sign of an infection. Wondering if the yogi on the next mat over can catch a whiff when you’re in Down Dog? “If it’s an infection, then yes, most likely, but if it’s just a little vaginal BO, you probably have nothing to worry about,” Ross says.
Bacterial Vaginosis Symptoms
- An abnormal amount of thin, grayish-white discharge
- A foul-smelling fishy odor
- In some cases pain with intercourse
Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)
A UTI happens when bacteria sneak into your bladder through your urethra — the tube that leads from your bladder to the outside world. These bacteria quickly multiply, causing the lining of your urinary tract to swell and in turn causing many uncomfortable, painful symptoms.
Empty your bladder before a workout as well as directly afterward. “People who exercise tend to drink a lot of water, but they are also likely to delay urination in order to keep their workout moving along,” Ross says. But when you hold it, you’re also holding in all those germs.
Sexual activity also can introduce bacteria into your urethra, leading to a UTI. Urinate as soon after intercourse as possible to reduce your likelihood of contraction.
- Pee on the Reg. Take regular bathroom breaks, even if you only have to go a little, and although the bathroom visits might be dreadful, emptying your bladder helps flush out any hunkering bacteria.
- See Your Doc — Like Now. Over-the-counter meds might mask the pain, but they won’t oust the bacteria, which will likely need a course of antibiotics to be evicted. “Waiting too long to start antibiotics could allow the infection to progress from a simple bladder infection to a complex kidney infection,” Ross warns.
- A frequent urge to urinate
- A burning sensation when you do urinate
- Pelvic pain
- An inability to urinate or passing frequent, small amounts of urine
- Urine that appears cloudy or reddish-pink (a sign of blood in the urine)
- Strong-smelling urine
Sports Vagina — aka Sports V
Though not an official medical condition, experts agree that sports V is a real thing. “The outer tissues of the vagina can create a lot of friction over the inner vaginal areas,” says Michele Olson, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and adjunct professor of sports science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. Just like your feet can slide around in your shoes without protection from socks, your vagina can be similarly chafed and rubbed raw without cushioning, she adds.
If you don’t have enough layers on when performing high-friction movements such as Spinning, cycling, walking or running, you are at risk for sports V: In one study, 60 percent of cyclists reported some degree of genital discomfort from riding. “The way the vagina is positioned on a bicycle seat [creates] pressure on the delicate, soft tissues of the labia majora and minora,” Ross explains. On a prolonged bike ride, pressure on the tailbone, lower back and groin also restricts blood flow and increases skin irritation, resulting in genital pain and/or vaginal numbness — especially in the area of the clitoris.
- Be Crotch-Conscious. Ross recommends wearing cycling tights or shorts with a chamois — a padded crotch lining — to reduce the risk of sports V. Also, applying a thin layer of emollient such as Vaseline or A&D ointment to your lady parts before exercise serves as a protectant from friction and chaffing.
- Leave a Landing Strip. In other words, don’t over she-scape. “A nice trim of the pubic hair is fine, but don’t shave it completely,” Ross recommends. “The remaining hair serves as a cushion.”
Sports Vagina Symptoms
- Burning, redness and itching
- Skin infections
An Ounce of Prevention
Avoid having to procure a pound of cure with these three tips that can reduce your chances of developing an issue down below.
Skip the Thong
Don’t wear thongs that slide around a lot when you’re exercising. “Bacteria from the anus and colon are introduced to the bladder through the urethra when you wear a thong,” Sherry A. Ross adds. And because the urethra is a lot shorter in women than in men, women tend to get more bladder infections and UTIs. If you must wear panties, make sure they are made from a breathable, natural fiber such as cotton or bamboo that wicks moisture away from your vagina.
Don’t Be a Douche
Your vagina is a perfectly balanced ecosystem and does not need anything such as a douche to help it “smell better.” In fact, douching changes the equilibrium of your vaginal pH, increasing your likelihood of infection, according to Ross. She does, however, recommend feminine wipes for a little postworkout pat-down to clean away excess sweat and moisture and maintain a healthy pH. Alternately, add some coconut oil to a hot bath to moisturize the skin of the vulva and prevent dryness and itching. Bonus: Coconut oil also can resolve ingrown hairs and bumps.
Push Through Your Period
Though it might be the last thing you want to do when Aunt Flow comes calling, working out can actually relieve menstrual symptoms like uterine cramping, vomiting, nausea and back pain. “When you exercise, your body increases blood flow to the uterus and boosts its production of endorphins,” Michele Olson says. Those feel-good hormones can counter any cramping and combat your postworkout cravings. What’s more, the effectiveness of your workouts — period or not — remains the same, according to a study in the International Journal of Neuroscience done on female athletes. Yes, it may be harder to motivate and to work at your usual intensity, but your body is still capable of hard work no matter what the date on the calendar, so don’t let your uterus talk you out of a sweat sesh.
The Skinny on “Sports” Tampons
Though it seems like a marketing gimmick, tampons designed for sports use are actually useful for female athletes because they flare out after absorbing liquid rather than remaining in a tubular shape. Sports variety or not, experts recommend wearing a tampon that errs on the smaller side. “When a tampon gets too engorged in blood, it can start to swell out of the vagina, and the edges can rub you raw and create a great deal of inflammation,” Michele Olson recommends.
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Sideline that slouch with these five moves that target your upper posterior chain to help you stand taller and lift heavier.
Since the average American spends around 13 hours a day sitting, having a spine like a question mark punctuated by a concave chest and rounded shoulders is typical for the 9-to-5 desk jockey. Such habitually poor posture can actually alter the length of your muscles.
“The muscles in the front side of your body tend to get shortened and the muscles and tissues in the back side tend to get lengthened,” says C. Shante Cofield, DPT, and founder of TheMovementMaestro.com. This is especially true of the upper body, which is the primary culprit in the daily slouch-a-thon. Strengthening the upper part of your posterior chain — the erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, deltoids, trapezius, rhomboids and levator scapulae — can help straighten you out, correcting imbalances and improving performance.
“Better alignment means a better length/tension relationship of the muscles on either side of the joint, which means you can produce more force,” says Cofield. More force means heavier weights lifted, faster development and increased overall calorie burn. It also does wonders for your posture, making it easier to hold what Cofield calls a “confident position”: shoulders back, chest up and ears in line with the shoulders.
Adopting proper posture elongates you, making your belly look flatter and your waistline appear trimmer. Ready to stand tall? Use these moves for perfect posture in the gym and out of it.
Why: Strengthens all the back muscles and rear delts, helping straighten you up from head to hips.
Performance Benefit: Helps train you to get the bar off the ground faster and more efficiently during moves such as snatches and cleans.
How: Take an overhand grip on the pull-up bar with your hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Draw your shoulder blades together, then drive your elbows down and back to pull your chin up toward the bar. Pause briefly then lower slowly to the start.
Seated Cable Row
Why: Isolates the upper back and counteracts a rounded thoracic spine.
Performance Benefit: Strengthens the muscles that power a barbell clean from the floor to your shoulders, which means you’ll be able to get under the bar that much faster.
How: Sit in the machine with your knees slightly bent and hold a V-handle with your arms extended. Keeping your torso upright (don’t lean back), drive your elbows back and squeeze your shoulder blades together to bring the handle in toward your abdomen. Slowly return to the start.
Why: Trains scapular retraction, opening and lifting the chest.
Performance Benefit: Promotes a straight-back posture, which is essential for proper deadlift form.
How: With palms facing down, grip a lightweight resistance band and hold it at chest height with your hands shoulder-width apart. Keeping your arms straight, retract your shoulder blades and open your arms to the sides, pulling the band apart as far as you can. Pause briefly then return slowly to the start.
Why: Strengthens the erector spinae, putting a jutting chin (caused by overstretched muscles in the back of the neck) back in place.
Performance Benefits: Strengthens the muscles that help you hold and stabilize a front rack position for squats and thrusters.
How: Lie facedown with your arms behind your back, resting the backs of your hands on your glutes. Lift your head and shoulders off the ground and keep them raised as you bring your arms forward, parallel with the ground. As they come overhead, turn your palms to face downward and touch your thumbs together. Return to the start to complete one rep.
Foam Roller Angel
Why: Stretches tight pectorals and encourages a neutral spine, counteracting question-mark posture.
Performance Benefits: Positions shoulders properly for correct set-up position of big barbell lifts and presses.
How: Lie faceup with a foam roller positioned lengthwise under your spine, neck and head. Extend your arms to the sides, palms facing upward, and allow your shoulders and chest to open. Slowly move your arms in a “snow angel” movement from your hips to overhead, then back to the starting position.
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There’s more to living a longer life than working out and eating clean!
You already know that wearing out your dumbbells and stocking your fridge with clean foods equals a longer, healthier life. Chances are you’re already hitting the gym, piling on the veggies and spending all your time outside the office wearing leggings. You’ve got your healthy habits down. Now, go the extra step to tack more years onto your life with these surprising strategies, all based on research.
Spend More Time on Top
Researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, in partnership with the Harvard School of Global Health, found that people who live at higher altitudes tend to live longer than others and are less likely to die from ischemic heart disease. There are a few hypotheses: some suggest that lower oxygen levels could activate certain genes that change the way the heart functions. Another possible reason? Since higher altitudes mean stronger sunshine, this could mean that the increased solar radiation may help the body to better synthesize vitamin D, which has been linked to reduced risk of disease.
Even if you don’t live in the mountains, give a nod to this research by taking part in activities that involve higher altitudes, such as hiking and skiing.
Don’t Skip Leg Day
When you strength train your lower body, you gain balance and stability, which can help to reduce your risk of dangerous falls and injuries, such as hip fractures, when you get older (individuals who suffer hip fractures have been shown to live shorter lives).
Train your lower half with exercises such as squats, hip thrusts, seated leg extensions, lunges and step-ups.
When researchers from Taiwan compared the longevity of shoppers and non-shoppers, they found that women who took regular trips to the store were 23 percent less likely to die during the course of the study. One possible explanation is that shoppers are more physically active and have better mental health than non-shoppers, because shopping provides a distraction from problems.
Instead of doing one weekly grocery run, shop for your clean staples three to four times per week. This way, you’re not only getting the freshest ingredients, but you’re also spending more time walking around.
In a review of studies published in the journal Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, researchers found a consistent link between feeling positive and stress-free living and living a longer life.
Add more activities into your day that boost your cheer: spend time with friends and family, get active outdoors or pick up a hobby that brings you joy.
Get a Pet
Studies show that pet owners have lower cholesterol and an increased heart attack survival rate than people without furry friends.
Consider adding a pet, such as a dog, to your household. Incorporate your pet into your active lifestyle by taking it for runs, visiting parks and exploring new areas together. Taking a walk with your dog is also a great way to warm up your muscles before you strength train.
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Try this routine to kick butt during that time of the month.
Shark week. Surfing the crimson wave. A visit from Aunt Flo. Riding the cotton pony.
No matter how many cute euphemisms we assign to our menstrual cycle, it doesn’t take away the bloating, cramps, fatigue or heightened emotions.
Some use these discomforts as a reason to binge on unhealthy comfort foods or hit the snooze button and skip morning workouts. But why raise a white flag when you have a sack full of unused weapons to combat these symptoms
Consider taking advantage of the arsenal below, so that next month, you can go into battle fully prepared!
No matter how much I sleep, day two of my cycle always leaves me more fatigued than usual, and all I want is to binge an entire season of Lucifer. Exercising used to seem so counterintuitive when in this state of mind. Why would I want to expend precious energy when I had a job to do and a family to tend to? Well, because even low-intensity exercise reduces fatigue symptoms by 65 percent!
While it’s tempting to be more lax during this time, it’s actually crucial to keep a fitness routine, even if you do fewer reps, opt for modifications, or choose a different physical activity entirely like yoga or bike riding.
Those ice cream binges don’t help, either. Sugar spikes our blood glucose level, causing our pancreas to create more insulin, which causes our blood sugar to drop, making us feel tired and foggy.
Don’t think I’m going to ask you to ditch the sweets, though. Instead of reaching for the processed stuff, turn to fruit. Fruit sugar processes much slower in the body because the fiber is kept intact, which allows time for proper digestion.
Regulate Your Emotions
If Elle Woods taught us anything (aside from how to be a kick-butt lady boss), it’s that the endorphins from exercise make us happy. As someone who used fitness as one of my core tools for overcoming clinical depression, I can attest, but you don’t have to trust us dynamic blond babes. Studies consistently show that moderate exercise reduces anxiety, depression and negative mood and improves our self-esteem and cognitive function.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll do just about anything that time of the month to feel less like a crazy, water-retaining sea cow and more like myself.
You might be laughing, but I had a breakdown once in my mid-20s on the second day of my period about a chicken from my childhood. The emotional struggle is real, and I’m pretty sure that anyone within a 20-foot radius of me during “lady time” is grateful that I take the time to manage the barrage of complicated emotions. This makes me a lot less likely to yell at them for not understanding why I’m bawling over a Subaru commercial.
Emotions are also exacerbated by processed foods thanks to the gut-brain connection of our vagus nerve. These foods cause inflammation along our vagal pathways, which sends electric impulses to the brain, alerting it that something is wrong. This can heighten feelings of anxiety, stress and depression.
One of the best things you can reach for is kale, which is packed with phytonutrients (which help our brains), folate and omega-3 fatty acids (which can help manage depression) and a variety of B vitamins (which promote optimal cognitive function). Plus, kale is 89 percent water, so it helps keep potassium levels balanced and reduces water retention (aka, bloating.)
BBC (Back Pain, Bloating and Cramps)
As if the wonky emotions and exhaustion aren’t enough, nature has also thrown in a whole host of other lovely nuisances to keep us squirming and reaching for medicine bottles. Fortunately, exercise also can alleviate these.
Think about it: When you get a leg cramp, what is the first thing you do? You stretch or massage it. Yet with abdominal cramps, we immediately recluse to the nearest heating pad and cling to our ibuprofen. A muscle cramp is an involuntary contraction of a muscle. Stretching lengthens the muscle and stops the contraction.
Back pain is typically connected to these cramps. An excess of prostaglandins, hormones released during our cycle, can cause heavy uterine contractions. High levels of prostaglandins can cause more intense cramps, which can radiate to the lower back.
To tackle these common PMS ailments, stay hydrated and follow a nutrition regime low in sugar and sodium and eat foods rich in B vitamins, potassium and plant protein.
Crimson Wave Circuit
Though any low- to moderate-impactexercise will be beneficial during this time, I created a signature circuit that specifically targets the discomforts we just discussed. Do it twice through not only to alleviate period pains but also to give your core and glutes a workout!
Bridge Pulse (lower-back pain)
Lie on your back. Bend your knees and plant your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Rest your arms alongside you, palms down. Your fingertips should brush against your heels. Press your hips up, squeezing your glutes, engaging your core and drawing your bellybutton toward your spine. Drop your hips a few inches, then press them back up, really squeezing at the top. Repeat for 30 seconds. To come down, lower one vertebra at a time until your back is flat on the ground.
Reverse Crunch (bloating)
Lie on your back with your arms by your sides and palms facing down. Bend your knees 90 degrees and lift your feet so your thighs are perpendicular to the floor. Pressing into your palms and engaging your core, lift your hips as you bring your knees toward your chest. Hold for a breath, then lower your hips with control, keeping your back pressed into the floor. Repeat as many times as you can in 30 seconds without compromising your form.
Modified Toe Tap (cramps)
From a seated position, recline back onto your forearms. Your palms should be by your hips. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Lift one leg at a time so that your thighs are perpendicular to the floor. Make sure that your spine remains straight. Begin by lowering your right foot and tapping just your toes on the floor while your left leg remains in the tabletop position. Return your right leg to tabletop and repeat with your left leg. Continue alternatingfor 30 seconds.
Bicycle Legs (fatigue)
From the same seated position on your forearms, ensure that your spine is straight. Bring your knees toward your chest. Straighten your right leg out to about a 45-degree angle from the ground. Only go as low as you can without rounding your spine. Inhale, returning that leg to center and switching sides. Go as fast as you can while maintaining the integrity of the position, boosting your heart rate and breaking a sweat. Continue for one minute.
Shark Week Smoothie
This is my favorite treat when I have my period. It’s packed with potassium, omega-3, protein, B vitamins, iron and a small dose of caffeine, which will have you feeling like a boss babe again in no time.
- 2 cups fresh kale
- ¾ cup vegan milk (I prefer flax for the omega 3’s.)
- ½ banana
- ½ oz dark chocolate bar
- 1 tablespoon peanut butter
- Blend kale and vegan milk in a blender or bullet until well-mixed.
- Add other ingredients and blend until smooth.
- Add water by the tablespoon if too thick until you reach desired consistency.
As women, we expect ourselves to run at full capacity every single day. If we aren’t endlessly productive and brimming with energy, we burn out, feel overwhelmed and wind up spiraling into a state of self-judgment and self-sabotage.
You deserve this time every month to self-reflect, take it down a notch and indulge in that Netflix show, but it doesn’t have to involve throwing your goals and health to the wind and wallowing in self-pity while eating a week’s worth of calories.
Combat the symptoms so you can enjoy slowing down a bit. Stick with your goals so you can dismount the cotton pony each month still feeling powerful and confident like the warrior you are.
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