Experts are now saying that most important factors in preventative medicine are nutrition, quality relationships, and exercise. However, the majority of Americans don’t eat healthily nor do they exercise. The fact that most of us are following the Standard American Diet (SAD) and not exercising goes a long way towards explaining why our healthcare system is broken and why we spend billions of dollars on pharmaceutical drugs every year.
Despite their habits, I believe that most people want to be healthy but just don’t know how. We’ve been sold a false mythology that being healthy means deprivation and hardship, that the only way to lose weight is to try extreme (and boring) diets that eliminate entire food groups, and slave away at sterile gyms – only to have our weight return the moment we ease up.
For many years, I wanted to like restricting my diet and going to the gym, but the truth was I hated it. What I really desired was the freedom to eat as much food as I wanted and to never have to go to the gym. As a result my mind was in a constant state of tug of war between desiring to be thin and the freedom to eat and do what I truly wanted.
What I didn’t realize was that it was possible for me to be at my ideal weight while also eating whatever I wanted and not going to the gym. But first, I had to redefine my ideas around tasty food and exercise. After becoming vegan and finding exercise I enjoy, I was able to rewire my brain to enjoy eating healthily and exercising.
Choose exercise that you love
When I was younger, my exercise routine used to be going to the gym where I’d run on a treadmill and lift weights. I hated how sterile the gym was, and how boring and monotonous the activities were. I dreaded going and on the days I actually went, it felt like the worst part of my day. Finally, I decided that I had had enough and I was only going to do exercises that I actually enjoyed doing. At the time, those were walking and yoga. Later that year, I discovered hot yoga and a few years later I started spinning. I haven’t ever since stepped foot in the gym, and to this day I refuse to do exercise that I don’t enjoy.
Exercise should make you feel grateful for being alive, not like you’re being slowly tortured. You can experiment with yoga, spinning, zumba, kickboxing, swimming, power walking, trail walking, etc. to find what resonates with you.
In addition to walking, one of the best and most overlooked workouts, I’d recommend trying classes because the group energy is motivating and the instructors inspire you to work harder. That said, not all instructors are for everyone, so you may need to try several out to find the ones that are the best fit for you.
When you choose to do exercise you love, it becomes the highlight of your day and you look forward to it, rather than dreading and avoiding it. Still, sometimes resistance might kick in and you might not feel like exercise even though you know it would be good for you, bringing me to my next point –
Just focus on getting there
If you found an exercise you love, but still aren’t feeling pumped before class, I’d recommend avoiding thinking about how hard it’s going to be or how little energy you have, just focus on getting there. In my early days of going to yoga classes, my mantra was “just get to the mat.” I promised myself if I was genuinely tired I’d take it easy and that I didn’t have to push myself too hard… until I got there. After a while, I stopped thinking about whether or not I “felt” like going prior to the class. I would just decide what class I was going to and show up.
When you get there, bring it
When you go to yoga class regularly enough, you’ll sometimes see people lying in savasana or “corpse pose” for most of the class. When this happens, the instructors will sometimes launch into a spiel about the importance of what energy we’re bringing and how it affects the people around us. I don’t personally mind that much because I’m more focused on my own practice, but I have to wonder if they’re really that exhausted shouldn’t they be in bed?
A workout session is an opportunity for us to get stronger mentally and physically. I’ve found that continually asking myself “Am I pushing myself? Am I doing my best?” helps to keep me on the ball. If I really am exhausted, I either don’t go to class or go through the postures without overexerting myself.
Why should we “bring it” to an exercise class? There are many reasons, here are just a few:
- When we go to an exercise class, we’re investing your money, and more importantly we’re investing time that we’ll never be able to get back. So we may as well make it a worthwhile investment
- Our body will release more endorphins, nature’s greatest antidepressant, making us feel better
- When we push ourselves more, we have more breakthroughs, which boosts our self esteem
- We get stronger muscles, which makes us feel stronger mentally and emotionally
- Doing our best is good for out character
A common saying in yoga and spinning class is “who you are in here is who are out there.” What this implies is how we do things in exercise class corresponds directly to how we operate in other areas of our lives. When we know that we “brought it” to a class and gave it our all, we leave with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment regardless of how well we performed technically. And as cheesy as it may sound, the same applies to life in general.
Never think to yourself “I can’t.” This will only create false but seemingly true perceived boundaries. In reality, we’re much more capable than our minds would have us believe. So instead continually say to yourself “I can,” and you’re likely to surprise yourself with how much you’re able to accomplish. Watch this great video by Mateusz M for more inspiration along these lines.
But don’t overdo it
There’s a fine line between pushing ourselves and overdoing it. Although our bodies need exercise they also need rest and recuperation. The burning sensation we feel in the muscles when we physically exert ourselves is a sign that we’re causing small tears in our muscles. It takes 48 hours for a tear to heal and for new muscle mass to form in its place. If we’re continuously tearing your muscles, we don’t allow them adequate time to heal, and we won’t make as much progress in the long run. Additionally, rigorous workouts over consecutive days can use up our energy stores and we may develop fatigue as a result.
The key is to know when we need to take it easy, and when we have extra energy to burn. I love hot yoga so much that I wish I could do it every day, but I know that my body needs time to recuperate. Therefore, I only do rigorous exercise 2 days out of the week, and walk and / or do some gentle stretching the rest of the days.
Think of exercise as part of your job
Some of my friends say that they can’t exercise because of their jobs. While I feel like they could make the time if they were really committed, I get where they’re coming from because most jobs don’t encourage working out. Unless you live in San Francisco or Colorado, it simply isn’t a part of the office culture, whereas unhealthy habits like eating unhealthy food and smoking are.
What companies should realize is that by not encouraging their employees to exercise, they’re actually undermining their work. Why? Because exercise has a direct correlation with success. It helps us to focus, release stress, and to be smarter and more creative. Much research has been done on how exercise increases dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, helping us to focus, and now new research is coming out that shows us that exercise induces neurogenesis which creates new brain cells. So not only does exercise make us happier and more focused, but it makes us smarter.
I once interned at a website that provided career advice to women where I interviewed high profile female executives. Almost every single one of them said that exercise was huge to them. As for myself, the times when I got the best grades in school and did the best professionally were periods when I was working out regularly.
Track your emotional state of well being
One of my mother’s friends once told her, “You can go into a workout feeling suicidal and leave feeling on top of the world.” I found this statement to be particularly apt, because there are times when I’ve gone to a Bikram yoga class or spinning class feeling super depressed and left feeling amazing.
Brian Johnson of PhilosphersNotes says that exercising is like taking a little bit of prozac and a little bit of ritalin, because it makes us feel good and it helps us to focus. Not exercising, on the other hand, is like taking a depressant. John Ratey, MD wrote an entire book called Spark on the power of exercise to treat an array of mood disorders including anxiety, depression and ADHD. As someone who has grappled with some of these issues, I can personally attest to the power of exercise to buffer them. But although it may seem obvious that exercise would help with such psychiatric problems, exercise hasn’t been considered to be part of a legitimate protocol for them until recently.
About a year ago, I was having a bad day and decided to track my feelings at the beginning of a Bikram yoga class, at the middle and at the end. At the beginning, on a scale of 0 to 10 – 0 being totally depressed and 10 being totally happy, I was at about a 3. Towards the middle of the class I was at about a 6, and by the end I was at a 9.
I’ve found that tracking my feelings before and after a workout reminds me that no matter how bad things may seem, I’m usually no more than one workout away from feeling better.
The exercises I most recommend
If I had to say what the most important activities in my exercise regime are, I’d say walking and yoga. While I love high intensity cardio activities like spinning and running, I think of them as more like the icing on the cake, whereas walking and yoga are the foundation. Here are some of my thoughts around walking and yoga.
Walking is a very natural activity, which prior to the age of cars and public transportation, humans used to do all the time. There are many patches throughout the US where obesity is a big problem. Incidentally, these are all areas where people drive everywhere and it’s almost an anomaly to see someone walking. It’s much less likely to see obese people in New York City, on the other hand, because walking is more common than driving.
One of the things I love about walking is that you don’t need to get into any workout gear, all you have to do is step out the door. And because it provides a lot more visual stimulation, walking is so much more interesting than going to the gym. It’s also a great way to clear one’s head and create an opening for creative ideas to come through, which is why many artists and writers throughout time viewed it as an important ritual that heightened their creativity.
I usually walk at least 30 minutes every day. When I’m feeling bogged down and overwhelmed with problems, I walk even more. Getting outside into the fresh air among nature or people provides a more open perspective, the endorphins help us to feel better, and the meditative quality of walking puts us in a headspace that helps us to make new creative connections.
If you’re interested in making walking part of your exercise regim, I recommend the 10,000 Steps Blueprint. I got this e-book for my dad a few years ago and it changed his life. At the time, he was doing some exercise in the form of the elliptical and weights at the gym, but it wasn’t until he started walking seriously that he started to really get in shape. He now uses a FitBit to make sure he logs in his 10,000 steps every day and he gets to listen to podcasts and audiobooks while he walks.
Like swimming, yoga uses all parts of our body. What makes it even better than swimming is that yoga incorporates stretching, which increases flexibility, circulation, and range of motion.
And because yoga increases lean muscle mass all throughout our bodies, we burn many more calories throughout the day. I don’t believe in counting calories, but I did notice that my metabolism majorly sped up when I started practicing yoga regularly, and that I could eat a lot more without gaining weight.
To get started with yoga, you can check out your nearest yoga studio for beginner classes or purchase a yoga mat and start following yoga videos on Gaia or Glo. When I first started doing yoga, I didn’t like how some yoga instructors would constantly critique my poses and give me adjustments, so I started doing some Gaia yoga videos at home. After a while, I had memorized the flow sequences, and I started doing them every day for a few months. I then felt confident enough to join a hot yoga studio, and now go to a few classes per week.
Refueling after a workout
A lot of my friends and family members are into protein shakes and believe that they’re the best way to refuel after a workout. But protein powders are not substitutes for “real food.” If you read the ingredient list, you’ll find that they usually have a long list of processed ingredients and shady additives.
While I do think it’s important to refuel within an hour and a half of an intense workout, I don’t believe that we should only eat exclusively what we think of as high protein food. I say “think” because we normally associate protein with meat, poultry, eggs, beans, nuts, and seeds, but in reality even vegetables and whole grains can have a decent amount of protein, with broccoli containing more protein per calorie than beef.
Most vegan nutrition experts would advise that our meals should be approximately 1/2 vegetables, 1/4 whole grains, and 1/4 nuts or legumes. After I work out, I usually crave a well-rounded meal with all three of the above food groups. Still, I always check in with my body and see what it feels like eating, as I talk about in My Top Healthy Eating Tips.
Replenish with electolytes
If we do high intensity workouts and wind up sweating profusely, it’s important to replenish our electrolytes – fluids containing ions that conduct electricity in our bodies. After working out, I like to drink a bottle of coconut water from Harmless Harvest. Coconut water is nature’s gatorade. It’s hydrating and rich in B vitamins, amino, acids, and electrolytes, all of which get depleted when we sweat. Unfortunately, most commercial brands of coconut water undergo chemical processing and heating, killing its beneficial properties, and making it taste strange. Raw coconut water like Harmless Harvest can be found at Whole Foods and most health food stores.
Other good sources of electrolytes are sea salt, avocados, dark leafy greens, and nuts and legumes.
Supplements for athletic performance
As I said in Vegan Supplements: The Basics, I use Dr. Furhman’s Multivitamin which aims to fill nutritional gaps in healthful diets and is based on cutting-edge research (I use Women’s Daily Formula + D3). If you’re taking a supplement such as this, but are still lethargic, here are some extra supplements worth checking out. Disclaimer: check with your doctor before introducing a new supplement to your regime.
B Vitamins – B vitamins are responsible for cellular energy production in the body, and are easily depleted, especially in a vegan diet. Although my multivitamin has me covered, I take Suzy Cohen’s Mito B Complex for extra energy.
Vitamin C – Not only is vitamin C great for toning and strengthening our immune system, but it turns out that vitamin C is also important for maintaining healthy levels of energy. Not consuming enough vitamin C can lead to many health issues, including chronic fatigue. I’ve been using Naturelo Vitamin C, derived from Acerola cherry, which also has citrus bioflavinoids.
Taurine – Taurine is an important amino acid that is used by the body during exercise, which is why it’s sometimes added to energy drinks. Although my multivitamin already has taurine in it, I usually add 1/4 tsp of taurine powder to my tea anyways.
Ashwagandha – Ashwagandha is an Ayurvedic herb and adaptogen (herb that helps the body adapt to stress). Too much stress and inadequate rest can lead to adrenal fatigue, which ashwagandha helps to alleviate by restoring strength, energy, and mental clarity. I don’t always take Ashwagandha, but when I’m going through a stressful time, I’ll take Gaia herbs’ Adrenal Formula which also has the adaptogens Holy Basil and Rhodiola Rosea.
Maca – Maca root is a Peruvian superfood that helps to increase energy and endurance and balance hormones. If I’m working out a lot or feeling tired, I’ll add a teaspoon of maca powder to my tea a few times throughout the week.
D-Ribose – D-ribose is an important component of adenisosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy currency of the body. Supplementing with D-ribose can increase muscle energy and hasten post-exercise recovery. When I’m feeling run-down or am about to do an intense work out, I’ll usually add a scoop of D-ribose powder to some unsweetened tea (it has a sugary taste).
Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain by John Ratey, MD
10,000 Steps Blueprint by S.J. Scott