For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering three questions. First up, what can a person do to help their gut recover its barrier function after too many antibiotics? Are there any foods, supplements, or dietary strategies? Second, what can explain rapid fatigue during sprint sessions on a keto diet? Is this simply part of the deal, or are there modifications you can make? And finally, what do I do when I know I’m going to get a bad night’s sleep?
Mark – any idea how to cure leaky gut caused by overuse of antibiotics. Tried raw dairy for a month to no avail.
First of all, check out my post on leaky gut. Read through it and follow my suggestions for preventing and treating intestinal permeability. It’s a great place to start.
Then, let’s look at some other interventions that have been shown to improve recovery from antibiotic therapy. While most of the studies referenced don’t explicitly describe antibiotic-induced leaky gut, anything that improves gut function and restores healthy gut bacteria will also normalize leaky gut—since it’s the eradication of native gut bacteria that causes antibiotic-induced leaky gut.
Fermented dairy. You tried raw dairy. What about fermented dairy? While raw dairy has its merits, it’s fermented dairy that just works for recovery from antibiotics. Yogurt is a good option to try, although the evidence is a bit inconsistent. Kefir is probably better; it’s been shown to improve patients’ tolerance to triple antibiotic therapy during treatment for H. pylori infection. This is even worth consuming during antibiotic therapy, as many of the probiotic bacteria found in fermented dairy show resistance to common antibiotics.
Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut are also must-eats. The fermented cabbage contains ample amounts of L. plantarum, a bacteria strain that’s been shown to prevent antibiotic-related diarrhea in piglets (another omnivorous mammal). Good options exist in stores (check the refrigerated section; shelf-stable pickles and kraut aren’t lactofermented), and even more are available in farmer’s markets, but the best way to get the most bacteria-rich vegetable ferments is to make your own.
Supplemental probiotics are fantastic here, too: large doses of the desired microorganisms delivered directly to your gut. Some of the strains used in Primal Probiotics, like B. clausii and S. boulardii, have been shown to be effective against antibiotic-related diarrhea, so that could be a good choice.
Don’t forget the food for your gut bugs: prebiotics. You need to eat fermentable fibers and other prebiotics like resistant starch to support the growth and maintenance of the helpful bacteria that improve gut barrier function. Consider eating cooked and cooled potatoes, unheated potato starch, leeks, garlic, onions, green bananas, apples, pears, berries, and pretty much any fruit or vegetable you can get your hands on. Plenty of them are low-carb enough to work on a keto diet, if that’s your desire. Oh, and dark chocolate is a great source of fiber and polyphenols, which have prebiotic effects in the gut.
Incorporate intermittent fasting. Going without food for a spell gives your gut a break and induces autophagy, which can help with tissue healing.
Get dirty, too, to introduce potentially helpful bacteria. Go out and garden. Go barefoot at the park (do your due/doo diligence, of course) and practice tumbling, or roughhouse with your kids (or friends). Don’t immediately rush to wash your hands all the time (unless you’ve been handling raw meat and/or dog poop).
Whatever you do, don’t stress too much about the antibiotics you had to take. Stress is awful for gut health and you’ve already taken the antibiotics—which were probably necessary—so that ship has sailed.
If probiotics with prebiotics aren’t helping (or making things worse), you might want to try going the opposite direction—removing all plant foods and doing a carnivore diet for a few weeks. While I have doubts about the long term viability and safety of eschewing all plant foods, enough people have written to me about their great experiences resolving gut issues with a bout of carnivory that it’s worth trying.
When on a strict keto plan, why do I become so quickly fatigued while attempting a HIT sprint workout?
The first five seconds of a sprint are primarily powered by phosphocreatine (or creatine phosphate), a “quick burst” energy source that burns hot but disappears quickly. This is the stuff used to perform max effort Olympic lifts, short sprints, and other rapid expressions of maximum power. It doesn’t last very long and takes a couple minutes to replenish itself. A keto diet doesn’t affect our creatine phosphate levels. If anything, it should improve them if we’re eating meat.
After five seconds, anaerobic metabolism of muscle glycogen provides the lion’s share of your energy needs. The longer your sprint, the more glycogen you’ll burn. The less glycogen you carry in your muscles, the shorter your sprint. Because once you run out of creatine phosphate and glycogen, you’re left with aerobic metabolism—great for longer distances, not so great for max effort sprints.
Keto dieters tend to walk around with less glycogen in their muscles. If that’s the case, longer sprints will be harder.
If you want to keep sprinting:
Do shorter sprints. Try a 10-second hill sprint rather than a 20-second one. Really go hard. Heck, you can even do 5-second sprints and derive major benefits; just do more of them and make sure to recover in between. There’s no rule saying you have to sprint for 20-30 seconds.
Take longer rest periods. Give your muscles a chance to replenish more creatine phosphate (and take creatine or eat red meat and fish, which are the best sources of dietary creatine).
Eat 20-30 grams of carbs 30 minutes before a sprint session. See if it helps. Alternatively, you can eat the 20-30 grams of carbs after the sprint session to replenish lost glycogen stores (without really impacting your ketone adaptation, by the way).
Most people figure out their sprinting sweet spot while doing keto. They may have to play around with the dosages, durations, and rest periods, but you can usually make it work. Be open to trying new permutations.
If you knew you were going to have a poor nights sleep, what measures would you take to reduce some of the damage?
I would exercise hard that night. Normally, a bad night’s sleep tanks your insulin sensitivity the next day, giving you the insulin resistance and glucose tolerance of a diabetic. A good hard interval session the night before a bad night’s sleep, however, counters the next-day insulin resistance.
I would make the most of it. Don’t dawdle. Don’t beat yourself up because of the impending sleep deprivation. It’s going to happen. You have to accept it, not let it destroy you.
Enjoy it. A little-known acute treatment for depression is sleep deprivation. That’s right: a single night of sleep deprivation has been shown to ameliorate depression in patients with clinical depression. Sometimes the effect lasts up to several weeks. It’s not a long term or sustainable fix for clinical depression, obviously, and you can’t do it every single night—chronic sleep deprivation is a major risk factor for developing depression—but it can improve your mood if you give in to it.
I would set out a jar of cassia cinnamon. I always add cassia cinnamon to my coffee in the morning after bad sleep; cassia cinnamon the day after a bad night’s sleep attenuates the loss of insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance.
That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for writing in and reading! If you have any input on today’s round of questions, let me know down below.
De vrese M, Kristen H, Rautenberg P, Laue C, Schrezenmeir J. Probiotic lactobacilli and bifidobacteria in a fermented milk product with added fruit preparation reduce antibiotic associated diarrhea and Helicobacter pylori activity. J Dairy Res. 2011;78(4):396-403.
Bekar O, Yilmaz Y, Gulten M. Kefir improves the efficacy and tolerability of triple therapy in eradicating Helicobacter pylori. J Med Food. 2011;14(4):344-7.
Erginkaya Z, Turhan EU, Tatl? D. Determination of antibiotic resistance of lactic acid bacteria isolated from traditional Turkish fermented dairy products. Iran J Vet Res. 2018;19(1):53-56.
Yang KM, Jiang ZY, Zheng CT, Wang L, Yang XF. Effect of Lactobacillus plantarum on diarrhea and intestinal barrier function of young piglets challenged with enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli K88. J Anim Sci. 2014;92(4):1496-503.
Jitomir J, Willoughby DS. Cassia cinnamon for the attenuation of glucose intolerance and insulin resistance resulting from sleep loss. J Med Food. 2009;12(3):467-72.
The post Dear Mark: Antibiotic Recovery, Sprinting on Keto, Preparing for Bad Sleep appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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I’m a believer in working hard AND playing hard. When we get stuck in patterns of overwork and overstress, we lose the important connection with our creative, intuitive, playful selves. Our work suffers and so does our happiness (which means everything else, like our relationships, will, too). Stuart Brown, one of the world’s leading experts on play, calls play a “profound biologic process.” What we all know (or used to know until modern living helped us forget) is that play is an essential component of our physical development and general well-being. From a personal standpoint, the older I get the more I recognize play as the linchpin for my own sense of vitality. As a result, I prioritize play—even above exercise. Fortunately, however, I’ve grown into a new relationship with fitness as a result of play. I gave up the slog of grueling training regimens decades ago now, but to this day I’m still living more deeply into a play-based fitness vision. Let me show you a bit of what that looks like for me….
You all have heard me talk about Ultimate—probably as long as Mark’s Daily Apple has been around. The fact is, it’s as thrilling for me today as it was twelve years ago. Nothing else quite combines the diversity of essential movement and the heart of play like Ultimate does. In a single hour, I’m getting regular sprinting, lateral movement, agility training, recovery phases, and mind-body coordination to skillfully throw, catch and move on the field. I love the intense challenge and fast pace of the game.
Ultimate plays very similarly to rugby or football. The field has two end zones, and a team scores by catching a pass in the defensive team’s end zone. The defending team performs a “pull” (think “kickoff” in football) to start the match (and after every subsequent point scored). The offense moves the disc by passing to teammates in any direction. Once a player catches the disc, he must come to a stop as quickly as possible. From this position, he can only move his non-pivot foot. A player has ten seconds to throw the disc after catching it.
The disc changes hands either by turnover or after a score. A turnover occurs when a pass is not completed, intercepted, dropped, blocked, held for longer than the allotted ten seconds, or thrown out of bounds. The defending team assumes control of the disc immediately following a turnover, from wherever the disc lands on the field. There is no stoppage of play (unless a foul, injury or bad weather occurs).
From a physical standpoint, you’re out there running, leaping, twisting, grabbing, throwing, and bumping into other players. You use practically every muscle in the body (if you’re not, you’re doing it wrong) and, rather than long protracted runs, you engage in short bursts of speed and activity punctuated by walking and brief jogging (almost like you’re on the hunt). Not only does it take keen, quick thinking, remarkable agility and throwing accuracy, and raw athleticism, but it also promotes good teamwork and sportsmanship. In fact, Ultimate has an official “Spirit of the Game” (SOTG), a sort of mission statement that stresses sportsmanship and honor. Highly competitive play is condoned, but not at the cost of general camaraderie. Everyone is out there to have a good time and get some great exercise.
Check it out.
Want more ideas for active play? Here you go.
- 15 Concrete Ways To Play
- Crawling, Balancing, Rolling: The Importance of Practicing Natural Movements
- 10 Ideas To Make Workouts More Fun
- The 10 Rules of Successful Exercise
- Workout Suggestion: Planned Spontaneity
And for more on the importance of play for a Primal Blueprint lifestyle, check out these resources.
- The Definitive Guide To Play
- The Lost Art of Play: Reclaiming a Primal Tradition
- The Importance of Play, Long Walks and Outdoor Workouts—Or Why the Optional Stuff Isn’t Actually Optional
Now you tell me: what’s your favorite way to play? How do you merge the Primal goals of mobility and fitness with everyday enjoyment? Thanks for stopping in today.
The post My Favorite Way To Play: Ultimate Frisbee Workout (with Video) appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering six questions from readers. First, is funding from a biased source sufficient to negate a study’s results? Second, what are some good high intensity interval training workouts that people might not have considered? Third, what can someone recovering from an ACL tear do for HIIT without triggering knee pain flareups? Fourth, how do I like to eat spinach? And finally, how and when do I like to take collagen?
On the nuts vs. carbs study, I want to say ‘follow the money’ since it was funded by the International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research and Education Foundation. Then again, it was also funded by the Peanut Institute, so I don’t know what to think…
“Following the money” isn’t enough to come to any conclusions about the worth of a study. We can’t declare a study tainted based on bias alone, especially because we can’t avoid bias. Every person reading studies and deciding which one to write about is biased. Every organization meting out funding has biases. Every entity in the known universe has an agenda. It’s not “bad” (or good). It simply is.
If the cow consortium funds the “red meat is actually good for you” study, red meat is still good for you. The bias doesn’t negate the facts. Big Soy funds the “don’t worry about the quarter cup of soybean oil in your restaurant food” study, but it’s only a mark against the paper if the science was shoddy and the conflict of interest exerted influence (which it probably was and did).
But I totally understand where you’re coming from. There’s an entrenched bias against most of the health advice we support. The powers that be have spent decades telling us to avoid the sun, restrict meat (especially red meat), go vegetarian, eat low-fat, get “more complex carbohydrates,” use seed oils, do cardio over weights, eat less salt, and blindly drink more water. They’re not just going to go away—and they aren’t.
So whenever I see a study’s been funded by an obviously biased source, I can’t help but wonder and look more deeply at the paper with a skeptical eye. It sounds like you do the same. That’s great. It’s the kind of healthy skepticism we should all have and employ in our search for good information.
We just can’t stop there.
If the results of a study are unfavorable to the funders, it’s a strong indication that the funding didn’t interfere with the science.
If the results are favorable to the funders, our hackles rise. We examine the study methods, design, and results to see if bias affected the results. Many times it doesn’t. Sometimes it does.
Can you point us in the direction of a good HIIT workout and what it should look like?
Here are a couple ideas:
Hill sprints. Find a hill and run up, then walk down. Walking down serves as active recovery. Steeper hills, shorter sprints with more rest. Hills with a gradual incline, longer sprints. All permutations work. Though extremely difficult, hill sprints are good options for many people with lower body injuries that flare up on flat ground sprints; running up a hill is gentler on your joints.
Barbell complexes. Pick 3-4 barbell movements. Clean and press for 5 reps. Romanian deadlift for 5 reps. Clean to shoulders, then front squat for 5 reps. Finish with 5 bent over rows. Do that without stopping or dropping the weight. That’s a complex. Drop the bar and rest a minute or two, then do another complex. Repeat. This works with any barbell movement, and you can even do kettlebell or bodyweight complexes. Adjust weight and reps accordingly. These complexes should be hard (but over quickly).
I tore my ACL 6 months ago. Although I am walking 5-7 miles a day and doing heavy lifting for my upper body. I am only able to do ball squats carefully at this point. Any HIIT ideas for me at this point? The bike causes pain on the front of my knee still.
Check with your doctor, but deadlifts are probably safe during knee rehab. Do them right and there’s very little knee flexion (it sounds like flexion hurts the knee); it’s all hip extension.
Deadlifts can become “cardio” if you drop the weight and increase the reps. Just maintain impeccable form. Don’t sacrifice technique (and back health) for a couple extra reps.
If you can deadlift safely for high reps without pain, the next thing to try is the kettlebell swing. Swinging a kettlebell is very similar to deadlifting a barbell—it’s all hip extension—and lends itself well to high-rep, HIIT-style workouts.
I’m one of few people I know who enjoys eating basically any type of offal (no problems with raw), but can’t handle spinach by itself. Any advice? Also, ever tried meditatin’?
And here’s where I’ll get thrown out of my own movement because of one of the ingredients.
Sauté spinach (frozen or fresh) in butter for a minute, add a handful of corn kernels (fresh or frozen, but organic or at least non-GMO), add salt, pepper, and dried chipotle pepper powder (as much as you can tolerate), cover, and turn heat to low. After about ten minutes, it’s ready. Finish with grated sharp cheddar or pecorino romano.
I don’t eat this often (never while keto), and it’s certainly not the only way I enjoy spinach. A good raw spinach salad is fantastic, as is basic sautéd spinach without the corn. But I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like the spinach-corn-chipotle recipe, even avowed spinach haters like yourself.
I’m curious about when Mark was supplementing heavily with collagen. Did he do that at breakfast as his only food, lunch in lieu of some other protein, a shake between lunch and dinner? What have other folks done?
I’m wary of too much protein in one sitting.
I would have 2-3 tablespoons of collagen with a little vitamin C half an hour before a workout. That’s been shown to increase collagen synthesis, a necessary step for healing tendons and other tissues.
That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for reading and take care!
Be sure to add your own comments, questions, and input down below.
The post Dear Mark: Following the Money, HIIT Workouts, HIIT and ACL Recovery, Spinach, Collagen Timing appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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People go keto for many different reasons. Some want to get better at burning fat so they have a clean, reliable source of steady energy at all times. Some people are treating a neurodegenerative disease, or trying to prevent one from occurring in the first place. Others just want to lose body fat, take advantage of the cognitive effects of ketosis, or stop seizures. Those are all common reasons to go keto. Another reason people go keto is for the benefits to physical performance.
Keto increases energy efficiency. You can do more in the aerobic (fat-burning) zone than a sugar-burner.
Keto spares glycogen. The more fat you’re able to utilize, the more glycogen you preserve for truly intense efforts.
Keto builds new mitochondria. Mitochondria are the power plants of our cells. More mitochondria means a larger engine.
That said, the performance benefits take a few weeks to manifest. During this time, a common side effect of the keto transition is reduced performance in the gym. People report feeling sluggish, slow, weak, and flabby in the days and weeks leading up to their adaptation. It’s understandable (and somewhat expected) why this can happen:
Fat provides tons of energy at a slow rate—but you’re not great at accessing it yet.
Glucose is more scarce but provides energy rapidly—and you just took it out of your diet.
Is there anything you can do to improve your performance in the gym during the transition?
Preserving Performance During the Keto Transition
Increase Fat Content
This goes without saying. Of course you’ll be eating more fat on a ketogenic diet. Right? What I mean is you should increase fat even more than you think for the first week. This has the effect of increasing AMPK activity, which hastens the creation of fat-burning mitochondria, upregulates fat metabolism, and speeds up your ability to utilize ketone bodies.
Increase Intake of Specific Fats
Certain fatty acids seem to increase AMPK more than others. The most potent ones I’ve found are:
- Long-chain omega 3 fatty acids, found in fish oil, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), and shellfish.
- Extra virgin olive oil rich in polyphenols. The more peppery the oil, the more polyphenols.
- Palmitoleic acid, an omega-7 monounsaturated fat. The best source is mac nuts, unless you’re the type to eat whale blubber.
Include some mac nuts, EVOO, and wild fatty fish (or quality fish oil) on a regular basis.
Take Your Electrolytes
Electrolytes are already essential when transitioning toward a ketogenic diet. Since they regulate muscle contractions, heart function, intracellular fluid balance, and nerve impulses, they’re even more important when you’re exercising, Try 4.5 grams sodium (about 2 teaspoons of fine salt or a little under 3 teaspoons of kosher salt), 300-400 mg magnesium, and 1-2 grams of potassium each day on top of your normal food. Going keto really flushes out water weight, and tons of electrolytes leave with it.
Stick To Weights and Walking
The big problem with physical performance during the keto transition is that you’re not great at burning fat, you’re still reliant on glucose to fuel your training, and you don’t have much glucose coming in. For the transition window, this makes high intensity, high volume training a bad idea.
Running a race-pace 10k is going to be hard. Participating in the CrossFit Games is a bad idea. You haven’t yet built the machinery necessary to make those work, nor do you have the glucose necessary to tide you over. You know what will work? Weights and walking.
Walking is totally aerobic, using almost no glycogen of note. Weight training can be glycogen-dependent, but doesn’t have to be if you keep weights high and volume low. Think low (2-6 reps) volume weight training. Whatever you do, the key is to make sure your training is low-stress.
Stick to weights and walking and you’ll hasten keto-adaptation, not harm it. Then you can resume some of your normal activities.
Creatine boosts muscle content of phosphocreatine, which we can use to generate large amounts of ATP in a short period of time for quick bursts of speed or strength. This doesn’t dip into glycogen or fat. It’s ATP-PC, or ATP-phosphocreatine. If you’re going to sprint or lift heavy stuff, you’ll definitely want extra creatine in your muscles.
No need to “pre-load” creatine. Just take 5 grams a day and be sure to drink plenty of water and get plenty of electrolytes (which you’ll already be doing on keto).
If you’re going to sprint on keto, keep a few tips in mind.
Short sprints—3-5 seconds.
Plenty of rest—as much as you need to go as hard and fast as the last one. This gives you the chance to replenish some of your phosphocreatine.
This won’t fully replenish your ATP-PC stores. You won’t be able to go as hard, or do as many reps as you’d like in subsequent sprints. But if you absolutely must sprint, this the way to do it without relying on glucose. Look for the sensation of diminished power. That’s when you’re hitting the PC wall and will start dipping into glucose. Avoid that sensation. Stop short of it.
Don’t freak out if you “dip into glucose,” though. Yeah, dipping into glucose constantly will inhibit keto-adaptation in the early stages, but once or twice won’t make a big difference. Just don’t make glucose-intensive work a habit.
Get Primal Endurance
Brad Kearns and I wrote Primal Endurance because endurance athletes needed a better, safer, healthier way to do the thing they love-hated. I know, because that was us. We both got out of serious endurance athletics because it was harming more than helping us. But that doesn’t mean we stopped missing it. Once an endurance athlete, always an endurance athlete. You can’t shake the bug.
Primal Endurance shows you how to build a powerful, long-lasting aerobic base using primarily stored body fat. It’s the perfect complement to a keto lifestyle, especially if you want to optimize your athletic performance and make your physical activity support rather than inhibit keto-adaptation.
Understand the Purpose of Training
Lifting in the gym isn’t a competition. You’re not being paid. The whole point of lifting weights, running sprints, and doing low level aerobic activity is to get better at doing those things. It’s not about “winning” every workout. That’s what training is—accepting paltry results with the assurance that you’re getting better. Think about it.
When you add 50 pounds to the bar, it’s harder. The bar moves more slowly. You can’t do as many reps. From your brain’s perspective, you’re suddenly “weaker.” Yet, it’s the best way to get stronger in the long run.
When you try a new sport or physical activity, you’re no good. You’re a beginner. People you’re sure you could trounce in your preferred activities are destroying you. This doesn’t mean you should give up. It means you have to get better. And if you stick with it, you will get better.
When you train on your newly keto diet, think of it like you’re increasing weight, upping the intensity, or learning a new sport. You’re not weaker. You’re not getting worse. The training is getting harder. The pain is increasing. And, although it might not feel like it right now, you’re going to be better off in the long run.
Once you’re fully fat-adapted and able to utilize fats, ketones, and glycogen, you’re going to be an unstoppable force.
Okay, that’s short term. What about long term?
How To Enhance Performance Long-Term With Keto
Carb Cycle When Necessary
Once you’ve been keto for at least a month, don’t be afraid to cycle in carbs to support your intense training. If you’ve depleted muscle glycogen with an intense training session, you’ve created a glycogen debt and any carbs you eat in the hours following that workout will go to repleting that glycogen. Best of all, intense training upregulates insulin-independent glycogen uptake immediately post-workout. That means if you do it right, you don’t even need to increase insulin to shove those glucose molecules into your muscles.
Carb Cycle the Right Way
Many people do carb cycling on keto completely wrong. They spend two days binging on bear claws and gummy bears then wonder why they’ve gained weight and lost progress. A few tips:
You probably need fewer carbs than you think. A little snack of 20-40 grams of carbs right after a really intense workout can make all the difference in the world without knocking you out of ketosis, provided you’ve accumulated enough of a glycogen debt.
Choose the right carbs. A sweet potato the night before to top off glycogen stores, a cooked-and-cooled white potato (diced and quickly seared until crispy in a pan is my favorite way to eat these), or UCAN Superstarch (whose slow absorption has minimal impact on insulin and thus ketones) are all good choices.
Do it for the right reasons. Don’t carb cycle because you miss French fries. Carb cycle because you’ve depleted glycogen.
And hell, briefly exiting ketosis isn’t the end of the world. Most people doing keto aren’t doing it as a life or death intervention. They just want to look, feel, and perform better. Don’t let keto become an ideology. It is a tool for your pleasure.
Chase Results, Not Ketones
In my experience, the people who focus on results rather than ketone readings do best.
Heck, if you spend half your time stressing about your ketone levels, the resultant cortisol will probably trigger gluconeogenesis and inhibit keto-adaptation by introducing a flood of new glucose into your body.
Are you leaning out? Thinking more clearly? Skipping the afternoon nap and breakroom donuts without even thinking about it? Lifting more? Running easier? Lab tests improving?
Then you’re good. That’s what matters.
Besides, the point of keto-adaptation is fat-adaptation—the ability of your muscles to utilize free fatty acids. That’s the real power of going keto, because once the fat-burning machinery is established and your muscles can use fats directly, you have more leeway to eat protein and cycle carbs.
Those are the tips I’ve found to be most useful for people acclimating to exercise on a keto diet. What’s worked for you?
The post Exercising While Keto: 11 Tips for the Transition (and Long-Term) appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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HIIT (high-intensity interval training) was recently ranked the number one fitness trend in the American College of Sports Medicine’s 2018 worldwide survey. Little surprise to any of us who have been here a while.
People love high-intensity interval training because it’s a quick, efficient way to reap the same (or even greater) fitness benefits as a long, traditional cardio session—with generally less wear and tear, less physical stress, and (much) less time investment. It’s a core part of the Primal Blueprint approach to fitness and a consistent part of my own routine.
But I find it still intimidates beginners…particularly older men and women, those who have been inactive for years and those who are overweight.
Just a little refresher on the comparative benefits. The often quoted landmark 1996 study comparing the effects of HIIT and moderate-intensity cardio found that performing HIIT five days per week was more effective for improving both aerobic and anaerobic fitness than performing traditional cardio five days per week. The HIIT workout from this study was eventually dubbed the Tabata protocol and consisted of alternating seven to eight 20-second sprints with 10 seconds of rest.
Since then, we know interval training is effective in less frequent schedules. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity reveals three weekly HIIT sessions helped female participants lose as much as 7.3 pounds after 15 weeks. Meanwhile, moderate-intensity cardio led women to gain nearly three pounds over the same time period.
As for fitness gains, in one study, two weeks of sprint interval training, for a total of six sessions, were enough to increase muscle oxidative potential (resting muscle glycogen content) and aerobic endurance capacity in trainees. In a 2007 study, researchers discovered that the metabolic adaptations produced by low-volume sprint training are remarkably similar to those produced by traditional endurance training. Although long distance Chronic Cardio has always been touted as the best way to improve heart health, another HIIT study showed that sprint interval training is just as effective at improving arterial stiffness and flow-mediated dilation, two markers of endothelial function and helpful ways to predict heart health. And how about actual performance outcomes? Another study found that low volume sprint interval training conferred rapid adaptations in skeletal muscle and exercise capacity – similar to those obtained via high volume endurance training.
If this is you, it might surprise you to know that HIIT is way more doable than you think it is. Doable doesn’t mean easy (interval training inherently needs to feel hard), but it does mean entirely attainable. Virtually anyone can make it work with appropriate transitioning.
Yes, those with heart conditions may be concerned that intense exercise will trigger a heart attack. Indeed, if you have a history of heart disease, heart attack or stroke, you’ll want consult with your primary care provider before starting HIIT or any exercise program. (You’ll also want to check with your doc if you have an underlying health issue such as diabetes, arthritis, hypertension or osteoporosis.) However, it’s worth noting that HIIT is considered a viable alternative to moderate-intensity cardio in cardiac rehabilitation programs.
Perhaps you’re worried you simply won’t enjoy the intensity of HIIT? Consider this: When researchers from the University of British Columbia tested the overall enjoyment level of moderate-intensity cardio, HIIT and sprint interval training (SIT) with 30 inactive adults, they found that the men and women ranked HIIT and moderate-intensity cardio as equally enjoyable. What’s more, 79 percent of the men and women went on to do HIIT on their own once the study was over.
The options for HIIT are practically endless. In fact, you can do an effective HIIT workout with low-impact activities. Remember, it’s the intensity of your efforts that separates your inclined walk or bodyweight exercises from a traditional workout. With HIIT, you’re working anywhere between 85 to 100 percent of your maximum heart rate, alternating short bursts of activity with brief recovery periods.
Ready to give HIIT a try? Assuming your doc gave you the go-ahead, here are a few ways to ease into HIIT.
Start With Equipment (If It Makes You Feel More Comfortable)
I’m not talking box jumps here. I mean the basic machines a lot of people identify with regular gym workouts. (While I think most are unnecessary in the long-term, they have a role to play for many folks.) Most HIIT studies use stationary bikes—for good reason. They’re a bit safer for the average person who’s working on mobility as well as fitness capacity to start out on a bike or elliptical or inclined treadmill or rowing machine than to suddenly max out on running. Look at the many alternative options. Purists don’t get extra points here.
Go For Multi-Joint Exercises/Activities
Moves that recruit a lot of different muscle groups will distribute the work more evenly across multiple joints than isolation exercises like biceps curls. Great options include squats, walking or jogging at an incline, push-ups (elevate your hands as needed), elliptical sprints, swimming, crawling, jumping jacks and walking lunges. Begin by using your bodyweight only and add light resistance when you’re ready.
Scale Back (and Up) When Needed
Burpees may be great for people who are already working from good form and solid fitness, but for others they can be a poor choice and ruin the whole endeavor just as these folks are getting out of the gate. Don’t be afraid to modify exercises as needed. If a workout calls for burpees, try omitting the push-up and the jump at the top. If you find jumping exercises (ex. squat jumps, jumping lunges, jumping jacks) hard on your joints, shorten the jump height so end up doing little hops instead. If you have a hard time lowering into a full bodyweight squat, only go as low as you can. As you gain strength and fitness, scale up the exercises.
Take things slow and easy—especially in the beginning. Start with one HIIT workout per week and build up to no more than two or three. It may take you a few workouts to get the hang of things, so don’t be afraid to slow your tempo and experiment with different exercises to find the most appropriate ones for your fitness level. How quickly you progress will depend on your current fitness level, the time you have available to train, and whether you have any underlying health issues. And remember, what works for someone else may not work for you. Listen to your body and progress according to your own timeline.
Thanks for stopping by, everybody. Who’s been putting off including an interval component in their workouts? I’d love to hear more about your concerns. And those who were hesitant but took on the challenge, how did you manage the transition? Have a great week.
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Generally speaking, the basic Primal Blueprint for fitness and physical activity applies equally to men and women of all ages. Lifting heavy things works in everyone. Sprinting is a fantastic way—for anyone who’s able—to compress workouts and improve training efficiency. Improving one’s aerobic capacity through easy cardio doesn’t discriminate between the sexes. And everyone should walk, hike, garden, and perform as much low level physical activity as possible. These basic foundations—the 30,000 foot view of fitness—don’t really change across age or sex.
But the details do, especially for women.
You see, women are in a unique position. As men age, the hormonal environment degenerates. They still make the same basic hormones in the same proportions, only the absolute numbers decline. As women age, the hormonal environment shifts dramatically. The menopausal ovaries no longer produce enough follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) to regulate estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone, causing the latter hormones to fluctuate in novel ways.
What kind of hormonal changes and physiological developments occur in the aging woman that might affect how best to train?
- Atrophied muscle and reduced strength. As estrogen drops, so does muscle function.
- More of a “male” body fat distribution. Postmenopausal women tend to gain more belly fat.
- Reduced bone mass. The menopausal hormonal environment leads to a reduction in vitamin D synthesis and absorption, lower calcium levels, and reduced bone mass.
- Vascular changes. After menopause, arteries become stiffer. Hypertension becomes more likely.
- Exercise intolerance. This one’s a real bummer. You know you need to exercise more than ever to stave off some of the side effects of aging, but your aging hormonal environment is making exercise harder to tolerate.
What takeaways are there? How can you counter or mitigate some of these effects?
Exercise Can Improve Body Comp
Exercise becomes more effective at improving body composition after menopause than before. This may be a “benefit” of the more male body fat distribution patterns. After all, men’s body comp tends to respond more quickly to training than women’s.
Get Started Right Away
If you don’t have much experience with exercise, do it immediately. Don’t wait for the negative effects to accrue. Even if you’ve lived a charmed life where not exercising didn’t really impact your ability to function, that could very well change. The earlier into menopause you start training, the better. The negative changes to exercise tolerance, bone density, and muscle function take awhile to develop, and during the early post-menopause period, your ability to train and reap the benefits of that training is pretty similar to your pre-menopause ability.
Just Do Something
The perimenopausal and early menopausal years can be rough going for many women. You just feel off. You’re not sleeping well. Things are, well, different, and you don’t necessarily have a lot of support to make sense of it or adjust to it. Even though research shows that a minimal amount of exercise can have a big effect on weight gain and disease risk after menopause, sleeplessness or fatigue might be telling you not to do it. Well, that’s not going to cut it. Overcome that. There’s no easy way to say this. No tricks. Just make the decision to exercise, do so regularly for at least a couple weeks, and your exercise tolerance will go up, physical activity will be intrinsically rewarding, and everything will start to improve.
Make Sure You Eat Enough Meat, Dairy, and Other Animal Foods
Protein utilization efficiency drops the older you get, so the older you are the more protein you need to get the job done. Even studies that purport to show negative effects from meat consumption find that older adults benefit from increasing meat. Total protein and dairy protein intake also predict muscle mass and bone mass in postmenopausal women. And meat isn’t just about the protein. It’s also about the micronutrients, like iron, copper (found in organ meats), zinc (high in red meat), carnitine (high in red meat), and phosphatidylserine (high in egg yolks, present in Primal Calm)—all of which have been found to improve women’s physical performance when packaged in a convenient supplement.
Go Into Middle Age As Fit As Possible
Good fitness—aerobic capacity, muscle mass, physical strength, mobility—is a reserve against aging-related degeneration. The fitter you are when menopause hits, the more manageable the transition and the slower that degeneration will be over the subsequent decades.
Intensity Is Important
If anything, it’s more critical for the older woman to push the intensity than anyone else. She often has the most to lose in muscle mass and bone strength. Again and again, across study after study in menopausal women, “low-intensity” doesn’t work as well as higher-intensity training. It still works, mind you. But the greater intensity stuff gives extra benefits.
For instance, in a study comparing a low-intensity aerobic/resistance program to a higher-intensity aerobic/resistance program, both improved muscle strength and walking ability, but only the higher-intensity program improved dynamic balance—a major risk factor for falls.
Intensity Is Relative
By “high-intensity,” I’m not suggesting that a 62 year-old woman do high-rep bodyweight front squats or try to do a double bodyweight deadlift (unless she knows what she’s doing), just that she push the envelope ever so slightly. If your inclination is to do rows with 20 pound dumbbells, consider 25 pounders. If air squats are easy, try them with a weight vest. Sprinting doesn’t have to take place on a track; it can happen in a pool, on a tough hike, or on the bike. Things should be tough but doable.
Volume Should Be Moderate
Exercise has a way of brute forcing glucose tolerance by increasing insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake by muscles, so you’ll be better off than the women who don’t exercise at all, but there’s still a limit because menopause tends to inhibit carbohydrate metabolism and glucose tolerance. High volumes of training, especially if you’re heeding the previous advice to increase the intensity, demand a level of carbohydrate intake that your body probably isn’t prepared to handle.
Lift Heavy Things Twice a Week
You could do more, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Lifting (relatively) heavy weights provides the necessary stimulus to maintain bone density and muscle strength. Movements that engage the whole body, like deadlifts and farmer carries, will be most effective and efficient. These exercises replicate real world movements, like picking up grandkids or carrying grocery bags, that you need to perform. If you’re uncomfortable with these movements, find a good trainer.
Walk a Ton
Walking is magic for everyone, but especially post-menopausal women, for whom a three-day-a-week walking habit improves resistance to heart failure. Join a walking group. Better yet, start one in your circle of friends. Be the example, the leader. No one else will. And set a brisk pace when you do walk. The brisker, the better.
Always Choose the Stairs
Stair climbing itself is a great form of exercise for post-menopausal women, improving leg strength and endothelial function. As a mindset, “taking the stairs” is even more valuable. It’s doing the hard thing. It’s parking in the far lot and walking a quarter mile. It’s carrying your own bags. It’s a mindset to embody: “I’m strong enough, capable enough, and tough enough to take the stairs while people half my age use the elevator to go one floor.”
Compare Yourself To Who You Were Two Weeks Ago, Not the 20-Year-Olds At the Gym
The trend is everything. If you’re getting better, that’s what matters. You are not other people. We all have different situations, capacities, genetic histories, and hormonal profiles. Focus on beating your former self, even if only by a couple pounds lifted or seconds shaved from a sprint time—and nothing else.
Look Into Hormone Replacement Therapy
Since estrogen plays such a key role in women’s physiological function, many studies find exercise to be more beneficial in postmenopausal women who take HRT than in postmenopausal women who do not. It’s a highly personal choice, but I’ll have more on this topic in the future.
Aging women aren’t a different species. Menopause doesn’t really change how you should train in a fundamental way. There aren’t any magical menopause-specific exercises. It just makes certain types of training—and exercise in general—that much more important for health and overall function. You could “get away” with not training much before (not really, but you can fool yourself). Now you can’t. Now you have to exercise and move on a regular basis if you want to maintain functional capacity, take care of yourself, and stick around to enjoy your loved ones.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care, and I’d love to hear from any people out there with direct or indirect experience with menopause. How did your training change? How did you change?
As always, direct any questions down below.
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